Watching this Cubs team win the National League Championship Series against the Dodgers Saturday night was absolutely perfect. The double-play to end the game harkened back to Tinker to Evers to Chance. It came on the same date as the death of Billy Sianis. It was thrilling, cathartic, and, while for some bookmakers it was completely predictable, for us lifelong fans it was completely unpredictable.
Most baseball fans know the Cubs’ stories: 1945 and the Billy goat curse; 1969 and the black cat; 1984 and the glove; and Bartman in 2003. Those stories are woven into the fabric of Cubs baseball and the history of Major League Baseball itself.
For Cubs’ lifers, those stories aren’t just stories; they’re the stuff of gut-wrenching disappointment. I’m one of those lifers. I was baptized into full Cub fandom by Leon Durham in the NLCS in 1984. I watched Ryne Sandberg go down with an ankle injury at Busch Stadium and Shawon Dunston head to the disabled list right after, effectively sinking the promising 1987 season in only mid-June.
I cheered the Boys of Zimmer in 1989 even though they folded like a cheap pop-up tent against the Giants. I struggled through the end of 1998, when the Braves mowed right over the Cubs. I went to Atlanta in 2003 to see the Cubs finally win a playoff series for the first time in ages and then felt equally miserable, if not more, during the eighth inning of game six versus the Marlins, knowing right then no matter how Kerry Wood pitched (and hit!) in game seven, it would not be enough.
I seethed at Sammy Sosa at the end of 2004. I watched the 2007 and 2008 playoffs with my head buried in my hands during those sweeps (this was pre-Surrender Cobra, but the same idea). At the end of each season, no matter the ending, I spent a day in a funk then moved on, counting the days until pitchers and catchers report, knowing that hope springs eternal in Arizona.
Scars and Memories
So yes, I have scars, and in some places I think I have scarred-over scar tissue. At the same time, I have some wonderful baseball memories: Sitting in my room at night with my radio trying to tune into WGN and sometimes actually finding it although I was several states away. Anxiously awaiting the next issue of VineLine in my mailbox. The Ryne Sandberg game in 1984 with an apolitical Bob Costas on the call. Greg Maddux’s early days with the Cubs. The Hawk’s 1987 season.
The Shawon-o-meter, along with his arm that pretty much defined the words “loose cannon.” Listening to President Reagan in the booth with Harry Caray in 1988. The First Night Game at Wrigley and the Second First Night Game at Wrigley (still have my “First Night Game at Wrigley” commemorative night shirt. Yes, I’m admitting that). Attending my first game at Wrigley Field having no idea that this team would actually be the Boys of Zimmer. Kerry Wood’s 20K game. Sosa’s home run competition with Mark McGwire (I know, I know. Asterisks for days). The feeling when Lou Pinella came to right the ship—and almost did.
The great photography of the Annual Chicago Air and Water Show in late summer when needed to draw our attention away from the good baseball not being played at Wrigley. Multiple trips to Cubs spring training, because the setting is beautiful and the games are easier on the psyche. These memories are all bathed in 1:20 p.m.-start sunlight, with a slight breeze blowing toward right field, and shared with 40,000 of your closest family members — because, let’s face it, you’ve been through a lot together.
Embrace the Target, Indeed
Then October 2011 happened. I saved the Chicago Tribune daily edition to prove it. Theo Epstein left the Red Sox and for Chicago. The farm system reappeared. Trades were made. Draft picks were taken. Suddenly, it’s October 2014, Joe Maddon becomes our skipper, and lifelong Cubs fans begin to wonder if the Ricketts actually love the Cubs more than the Tribune Company does.
Wait. Never mind. We already knew that answer. We actually wonder if we should get excited. Can we invest just a bit more emotional energy into this team? We decide “yes” and are rewarded with a rookie of the year in Kris Bryant, a no-hitter with eventual Cy Young winning Jake Arietta, the pitch-crushing machine that is Kyle Schwarber, and the contagious smile and enthusiasm of Dexter Fowler.
We don’t win the division, because that’s a huge ask of this young team, but we win the wild card game, followed by a beat-down of the Cardinals. I could’ve walked away happy right there, but no. I chose to continue watching the series with the Mets and endured that crushing, all-too-familiar heart-sick feeling.
As 2016 started with “Embrace the Target” as the mantra, the chemistry seemed to still be in place. The Cubs raced through spring, head and shoulders above the rest of the division. They were so much fun to watch until that nasty pre-All-Star-Game slump.
“This is not a slump!” said Joe Maddon in his best Jerry Seinfeld voice. Whatever. I’ve watched that movie so many seasons that I’m mentally prepped for the eventual slide, but I wasn’t adequately prepared for the Jon Lester game-winning bunt against the Mariners at the end of 12 innings in late July. Now I know this team has that spark again. Little did I know that this feeling would appear again times ten in game four of the NLDS and the bottom of the eighth in game one of the NLCS.
I have always believed there is nothing quite as melancholy as the late afternoon autumn sun casting shadows on an empty field with turning ivy. Finally, we will see the ivy turn while we are watching our Cubs play in the World Series. I can’t wait to hear and sing “Go Cubs, Go!” later this week. Meanwhile, I’ll head to the drugstore to stock up on heartburn and anti-anxiety medication.