In 1998 I was just a kid. But I was a kid selling real estate, and as a result I was in a strange place. My friends were all still off at college, learning, presumably, something. I was working, struggling I’m sure, but I was too young to see anything as much of a struggle. The Cubs were good that year, or good enough. I payed attention to the season with youthful optimism. When the Cubs won their play-in game against San Francisco, I watched each game of the following series with eager intent. The Cubs did what they do, and after being swept by the Braves I felt what they made me feel: despair.
I don’t remember how old I was when I went to my first Cub’s game. I do remember watching Andre Dawson throw out a runner at first on what appeared to be a clean single into right field. I remember a home run being hit while my grandpa was in the bathroom. I remember going to that game as if I were leaving one country and traveling to another. I remember thinking what a treat it was. Because I only went to two games as a child (that counts through age 18), I was of the impression that access to Wrigley Field was somehow difficult. That it was only available to the privileged few. That we could only go when my dad got tickets through a generous customer of his who lived up the road from him. Only later did I realize that tickets at the time were like $10 each and we didn’t go to games because of my father’s undying devotion to cheapness, a condition that plagues him, increasingly, to this very day.
The games in the 80s were on WGN, and I watched Sunday games as often as I could. The era of Ryne Sandberg, Mark Grace, Dawson, Jerome Walton, Shawon Dunston- those were my teams. I was too young in ’84 to remember the hurt. In ’89 I was still too young. By ’98 I was ready to cheer, and I was let down in remarkably efficient fashion. What followed from that ’98 season through the 2008 season was an incredible devotion to a team. There were games of epic importance, seasons of gratuitous winning. Steroids. Home runs. Balls in the stands that Moises Alou couldn’t catch.
Game 7 of 2003 found me in Canada. Canadians, perhaps outside of Toronto and Montreal (at the time), have no interest in baseball. That day, leading up to game time, I was a wreck. At game time, I scanned the television channels, finding nothing but Hockey and Du Mourier cigarette commercials. Frantic, I left the the house in search of the game. I traveled far and wide, finally finding a bar that allowed me to turn on the game. I sat alone and watched as Kerry Wood served up three Florida runs in the top of the first. I sat even more alone as Kerry Wood crushed a two run homer to center in the bottom of the second. I sat in quiet jubilation as the Cubs took the lead in the bottom of the third.
But Kerry Wood couldn’t quiet the Florida bats, and with a 9-5 Florida lead I quietly left the bar. I would catch the last inning back at a relative’s house, but by then I already knew that the outcome was sealed. The outcome was sealed, as would be admitted later by Cub’s players, in the latter innings of game 6. Game 7 didn’t matter, and everyone but me knew it.
I soldiered on, attending perhaps 8-10 games per year during the decade that started with being swept out of the NLDS by the Braves, and ended with being swept out of the NLDS by the Dodgers. I was at game two of that 2008 NLDS, sitting anxiously in the left field bleachers while the Dodgers torched a fidgety Zambrano for five runs in the top of the second. That game was over right then, as was the series. The remaining game didn’t matter, just as game 7 didn’t matter in 2003.
The next season, Tom Rickets bought the team. He promised a rebuilding process, a long and painful tenure of losing that might, someday, result in winning. I was still bleeding from the last decade of disappointment, and he poured salt on the wound. At least the prior years we had pretended to care about winning, and here comes Rickets to promise that winning will not be probable, let alone possible. I decided then and there to bail on this Cubs team, to bail on a lifetime of hurt. To bail on the wish for winning, an expectation of mediocrity, and a guaranteed outcome of failure. I was, as of 2009, a recovering Cubs fan.
I canceled my subscription to the Chicago Tribune. I only subscribed to read about the Cubs, anyway. I didn’t watch Sportscenter during baseball season. Within a year of my bail, Ron Santo died. I understand he was a jerk on the field, and I understand he might have been a jerk off of it. But his call, alongside Pat Hughes, was a magical ointment that soothed my disappointment by making his own frustration so apparent. A year or two later, Bob Brenly left the television booth. During those years, Cubs games left WGN. The radio call was different, the television broadcast was unavailable, and I was too angry to care.
It went this way for all of those years since I sat in the dark and watched the Dodgers win. I didn’t listen to a game. I didn’t watch a game. I didn’t read an article about the Cubs. I avoided them on purpose, aggressively. In January of 2015, a phone call. It was the Cubs. They told me that my name had come up on the season ticket waiting list and that it was my time to pick out my seats. They said it so happily, so unaware of my anger. I obliged the call and thought long and hard about rekindling my relationship. When the day came that I was to enter the virtual waiting room to pick out my seats, I didn’t care. I wasn’t interested.
Then, within a week, the Cubs sign Joe Madden. I hadn’t heard much of him, but I appreciated that he seemed to be a good choice. Shortly after, the first signing in what felt like a lifetime- Jon Lester. Spring training came. Kris Bryant was supposed to be good, but I had heard that many times before. Jerome Walton was supposed to be good, too, but a Rookie Of The Year Award is only awarded for one season. I wanted to cheer for this young team, for the team that looked nothing like the last team I remembered watching, but I wasn’t so sure.
Begrudgingly, I paid attention. For the first time in 7 years, I planned to watch a game. Game 1 of the Cubs/Cardinals 2015 series. It also happened to be the home opener. I watched the game, watched the new kids, watched the $155MM pitcher Jon Lester. I watched the Cubs lose, 3-0. Some things, it seems, never change.
In July, a client invited me to sit in his company box for the Sunday Phillies game. I have never been one to decline a suite invite, and so I took my wife and kids to what would be my first game since 2008. My kids, I decided, were being unfairly blocked from Wrigley Field because of my own complicated fandom. This first game back was fun, sort of. It was nice to see the stadium spiffied up. It was nice to see a replay on the scoreboard. It was nice to see the green grass and the sky line. It wasn’t nice to be greeted with the common refrain. Cubs lose.
That game marked a turning point for this team, and in the months that followed they won far more than they list. Two weeks ago, another generous client invite, to another suite. This game was the Sunday night game against the Pirates, with Jake on the mound. The Cubs won, and I drove home late into the night thinking that perhaps I could forgive a team that looks to unlike the bloated teams with bought talent that I rooted for with such fervor in the prior decade.
Tonight. Cubs and the Cardinals. I despise the Cardinals, because they’re the anti-Cubs, all they do is win. But tonight, like every other night, I’ll remember that I do love the Cubs, even if they’ve never loved me back. Does this make me a fair-weather fan? Does this mean I’m somehow not a die-hard? I would say no. It doesn’t mean I haven’t always been a fan. It just means I don’t enjoy a party as much as I enjoy an effort, and now that a team is finally providing an effort, I once again feel engaged in a common goal. Go Cubs.
PS. Kerry Wood, even though you own a home on Geneva, I do not forgive you for pitching like crap in game 7 of the NLCS.