I am watching baseball again. The Chicago Cubs are on a roll and I have been sucked back into their orbit, where I have been, off and on, for the last forty years. My life as a sports fan has been as a casual one, at best. But I have somehow developed a relationship with baseball and the Cubs that I have not been able to duplicate elsewhere.
I became a fan quite by accident. I have always been something of an introvert, and have always found refreshment in solitary jobs, especially when they involve cars. In the mid 1970s, I was getting old enough to indulge my car-madness by cleaning my mother’s ’74 Pontiac Luxury LeMans. And of course, such a job required music.
Even at that age, I had developed a taste for jazz, and there was an AM station in Fort Wayne that was more-or-less of a jazz format. It was also, as I found to my chagrin one sunny summer afternoon, part of the broadcast network for the Chicago Cubs. My regularly scheduled programming would be interrupted by the song that began “Let’s go! . . . Batter up! . . . We’re tay-kin’-the-af-ter-noon off! . . .”, followed by the combination of Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau, who would commandeer WGL radio for the next three hours.
After a couple of times of getting irritated and turning off the little gray Zenith radio in our garage, I decided one day to leave it on. I had determined, you see, that I was going to try becoming a baseball fan. And the Cubs? Why not. I had no real allegiance to any team and they were convenient. I had no older brothers and my father was not a baseball guy. My Grandma was a Cincinnati Reds girl, and she got my sister to go her way. But that was, to me, jumping on the bandwagon, which was something I was just not going to do. This was the mid 1970s, and the Big Red Machine was really hot then. It just seemed wrong to leap in with everyone else as a brand new fair weather fan.
I quickly learned that the Cubs were average on a good day, so they fit in with my teenage decision to jump in on the ground floor and pay my dues as a fan. When the Cubs were ready to become contenders, I would be there as a seasoned veteran, one who could look askance at latecomers to my team’s good fortunes. I had no idea at the time how thorough of a project this would become.
Cub fandom aside, baseball appealed to me on a couple of other levels. As a game, it seemed to me that it was more about suspense than other big sports. When that pitcher and batter are staring each other down, anything can happen on the next pitch. But you had to wait for it. Sometimes that suspense would build and build as the count grew more lopsided, or as runners got on base. And then things could erupt in an explosive finish. Or, things could suddenly deflate with nothing accomplished at all. You just never knew.
Baseball also appealed to me as a game with some history. It was a game full of black and white pictures of men in suits and straw boaters filling a sunny ballpark, a game with popular songs from the 1890s written about it. It was an American game that went back to the days of Teddy Roosevelt and before. There was something about it that tied me to my country’s history – watching the same game that my ancestors had watched eighty or more years earlier. Neither football nor basketball could claim a heritage that stretched back to the administration of Ulysses S. Grant, so as popular as those more modern sports may have been, there seemed to be something missing from them. I would eventually pick up an interest in them, but not for quite a few more years.
My law school roommate was a guy named Dave. Dave grew up in “Da Region”, that place in the shadow of Chicago, where people with last names ending in vitch and ski worked in the steel mills and followed either the Cubs or the White Sox (while drinking Old Style beer). Dave was a Cubs guy, and a good one to have around when the Cubs finally got hot in 1984, making their first post-season appearance since 1945. It turned out to be a crushing defeat when they lost the National League Championship series three games to two, but that’s what I had learned must be expected if you are going to root for the Chicago Cubs..
When my oldest son started to become interested in sports, it seemed perfectly natural to share my Cubs-love with him. I did not push it, and would have been perfectly happy had he decided to root for almost anyone but the Yankees, but he became a Cubs guy too. I eventually came to feel a little bad about this, as the effect is not unlike passing an unwanted genetic defect to a loved one. Sure, I had been able to live with a team that had last won a World Series the year that Henry Ford introduced the Model T, but he shouldn’t have had to. My younger son was a bit more of a contrarian and started to talk up the Yankees. Happily, that would turn out to be just a fad.
In 2003, my then-eleven year old Cubs fan and I were in heaven as the Cubs went on another long-awaited hot streak. That was the year of Steve Bartman, the poor guy who did what everyone else would have done – tried to catch a foul ball that came up to the stands along the first base line. After what became known as the Steve Bartman Incident, the Cubs went on to lose a game that it had been winning, and the National League Championship series as well. Again. They were never really in contention again after that game. Until now.
I will also confess that I did not watch or listen to a single game during the regular season. The last few years, bad even by Cubs standards, had done serious damage to my relationship with the team, and with baseball itself. I did, however, scan the standings every morning in my newspaper, watching the Cubs try to catch up to St. Louis and Pittsburgh, the two best teams in all of baseball. My now-adult son had clued me in that the Cubs were coming on, but that we might not see everything they have in the tank until next year. But waiting until next year has long been a way of life for we Cubs people. Although solid, the Chicago northsiders never really threatened St. Louis or Pittsburgh, until the last few days in the playoff games. And now, the Cubbies have beaten those best two teams in baseball, and are poised to play for the National League pennant. The 1989 movie Back To The Future 2 predicted that the Cubs go all the way in 2015. The movie also, however, predicted that we would be generating electricity from household garbage with our own Mr. Fusion, so let’s not put too much credence in this prediction.
So here I am, having indisputably paid my dues as a fan, ready for the next series against either the Dodgers or the Mets, a game that is not yet over as I retired last evening. [Edit – I guess we will be meeting the Mets.] There are a lot of ways that this season can still go sideways – we are talking Cubs baseball here, after all. However, it has been a long time since 1975 and I am ready. As for the rest of you, I will harbor no grudge if you would like to hop aboard the Cubs bandwagon. In hindsight, I see no reason why anyone should have to spend forty years in the wilderness just to enjoy a baseball team’s success. We veteran Cubs fans are friendlier than that (so long as you don’t touch any foul balls still in play). So welcome in. Sit on down, have some peanuts and Cracker Jack, or maybe a cold Old Style. Let’s forget about those upstart fall sports for a little while and enjoy some baseball.