I’m having a little trouble wrapping my head around the idea that I live in a world where the Chicago Cubs are champions.
I’m from Chicago, born a Cubs fan, the son of a Cubs fan who was himself the son of a Cubs fan. And until last night, the only one of us who had ever seen the Cubs take it all was my grandfather, and he would have been six or seven when they last did it, in 1908. Dad never saw it happen. Until last night I never did.
I came of age in the ’60s and the Cubs were the first team I rooted for, in any sport. The first time I really started following baseball was the cursed 1969 season. There was a chant in Chicago that year – “Beer is great. Whiskey’s fine. The Cubs will shine in ’69.” They were the Cubs of Ernie Banks (my favorite player of all time,) Billy Williams (I still have my Billie Williams model fielder’s mitt,) Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, Don Kessinger, Glenn Beckert, Randy Hundley, Ken Holtzman. By late August they had an 8 1/2 game lead over the New York Mets. At that time the Mets, who had been started in the early ’60s, were a joke, a horrible mess. 1969 was the first year they were even respectable.
And then, the unthinkable happened. The Cubs went on a losing streak, the Mets with their great pitching staff started a win streak, the Cubs went into Shea Stadium clinging to the lead and two days later left town in second place. New York never looked back. They went on to win the most improbable World Series ever, routing the mighty Baltimore Orioles in five memorable games. In the space of about three months they had gone from being a joke to the Miracle Mets, the Amazin’ Mets. And the Cubs were an afterthought, just a pathetic punchline in someone else’s story.
I never quite got over that.
My family moved out west and I became a Dodger fan, and eventually was able to enjoy a couple of World Series victories with the teams of Steve Garvey, Ron Cey, Davey Lopes, Dusty Baker. And don’t forget Fernando Valenzuela! Fernandomania swept Los Angeles and took me right along with it. Dodger Stadium was more than a sports complex. It was a holy place, the way Chicago’s Wrigley Field had been. Coming down the tunnel to the stands and seeing that impossibly green field glowing under the lights, it was special.
But my interest in baseball was starting to fade. A player strike didn’t help, but more than that it was the sense that baseball didn’t care about its history, about its traditions. The designated hitter, steroids, interleague play. Free agency in which players that were part of “your” team could switch cities like so many hired guns. (Don’t get me wrong, I support the idea of free agency, I’m all for players’ rights. But it stings when a beloved star flees your town for greener pastures.) When some young player was told he was approaching a record held by some legendary figure from the past, he’d as often as not say, “Who’s that?” I interviewed Dodger pitcher Don Sutton once, which should have been a highlight, and the way he treated the questions I asked made it clear baseball was a silly passion to me, while to him it was a job, nothing more or less.
And if the owners and the players didn’t care about “the game,” why should I? Why should I care and pay for the privilege of caring?
Then, in 1998, the O’Malley family sold the Dodgers. And they didn’t just sell them, they put them in the hands of Rupert Murdoch and the Fox Entertainment Group, where the corporation viewed it not as a sacred trust but as an asset they could use to attract viewers, especially in Asian markets and Mexico.
That was it. I literally have not watched a baseball game from that day until this month. I couldn’t tell you who won last year’s Series or even who played in it, don’t know the names of any players. Anything. I was done.
Until I started hearing this spring that the Cubs were pretty good, in fact the favorites to win it all this year. “Yeah, right,” I thought. “Been there before. Won’t get fooled again.” And if they somehow did make it to the Series, god wouldn’t let them win. It would be the ultimate divine “fuck you” to the city of Chicago. In fact, if they won it might usher in the Apocalypse.
So I really don’t know how the season played out. Was it an exciting pennant race, or an inexorable march to the pennant by a team that wouldn’t be denied? I have no idea. All I know is I woke up one day and heard on the news that the Cubs had beaten the Dodgers (a little irony there for me) and would be in the Series against the Indians, another cursed franchise. Not as cursed as the Cubs. The Indians last won the Series in 1949. The Cubs in 1908. Cleveland fans are neophytes, rank amateurs in the art of suffering for your team. Plus the Cavs had just won the NBA title, so it just didn’t seem fair.
But I actually watched a good portion of the series. Not all of it, but I did find myself falling back into the rhythms of the game. I actually enjoyed it. It didn’t seem possible that the Cubs would win, down three games to one. But they scrapped their way back into it and forced a seventh game.
Still, I wasn’t fooled, even when they were up 5-1. When the Indians tied it in the eighth, I thought, “Ah! Here we go again. I know how this story ends.” Then it went to extra innings and there was a rain delay and I laughed. It looked as if the baseball gods weren’t going to let either team win.
But the Cubs used the delay to pull themselves together. And with me watching, and feeling my dad’s presence, I watched as they pushed a couple of runs across the plate, then withstood a final Cleveland rally and won.
So it seems as if I now live in a world where the Cubs are champions. And that means almost anything is possible.