A lifetime of following the Cubs

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I recently had an opportunity to take in a beautiful view of the Chicago skyline, Lake Michigan, and Wrigley Field at the same time. I enjoyed them all, but the one shot that I wanted to have with me in it was the Wrigley Field vista. That speaks volumes as to who I am, really.

I started following the Cubs by watching their games on WGN, Channel 9 in Chicago. The first time I tuned in was late in the 1975 season, when I was seven years old. And now, almost forty years later, I realize that it has been a large part of my identity over the years and decades. There aren’t too many things in life that are more deeply-seated than my attachment to the Cubs.

And they’ve disappointed me in so many ways over the years. Losing is the most obvious way, which forces me to watch while baseball’s other teams taste success instead. And even when they win, it’s just a prelude to more losing in the end.

After so many years and so many disappointments, I am, quite frankly, embittered. I have no faith in the rebuilding process that has been going on since 2012. I don’t think it will pay off with the championship that I and other Cubs fans are craving, at least not in my lifetime. And if it happens after I’m gone, what’s the point?

I don’t have any terminal diseases that I know off, and it’s not like I’m expecting to die anytime soon. That’s not the motivation for writing this. It’s just that every season should be treated as though it will be the last because for many fans, that’s exactly what it is.

A Cubs fan just like me will probably die over the next week. I won’t know who it is, but they’ll be a victim of this process of a still unknown duration. The younger men than I am who run this team can afford to take the long view of the process. The rest of us–who just want to see it once before we pass from this earth–don’t have that luxury.

An unexpected payoff

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Being a Cubs fan is never an easy thing. After spending almost forty years in that fold, I can make such a statement with complete confidence. The good years–as measured by when the team makes it to the playoffs– can be counted on one hand, or two hands at the very most. And every one of them has also supplied a moment of defeat and disappointment, whether it’s Leon Durham letting a ground ball go through his legs in 1984, or Greg Maddux serving up a grand slam to Will Clark in 1989, or Moises Alou throwing a fit when he didn’t catch a foul ball in 2003. Even the best years haven’t ended well for Cubs fans like me.

But every once in a while, there’s a moment of validation. The Rolling Stones got it right: you do, once in awhile, get what you need. And what I needed is a sense that decades of following a baseball team has put me in league with some good people who share my interest. Our team never has won the big prize in any of our lifetimes, but so what? That doesn’t mean we can’t follow them, all the same.

I very publicly threw up my hands on the present version of the Cubs, as constructed under the front office of Theo Epstein and others. I’m convinced that they aren’t worth following at this point, because they aren’t doing anything to make the team on the field any better this year. But even if that’s the case, decades of following the Cubs are still with me, and purging all of that from my memory just isn’t possible. I’d sooner cut off one of my hands than deny all of the memories I have acquired through the years, and have put so much time and effort into trying to describe them in this space.

And so tonight, I had an opportunity to put all of these memories to use. The Chicago Public Library sponsored a Wrigley Field centennial celebration, centered around Wrigley Field: The Long Life and Contentious Times of the Friendly Confines by Stuart Shea. The format of the evening was a trivia game, where members of the audience were randomly chosen to compete for prizes. I would have had fun watching others compete, but fate was smiling on me as I had a chance to put my Cubs experiences to work.

I answered some of the questions correctly, and missed some other questions, and had a great time in the company of others who cared about the Cubs as passionately as I do. I even walked away with a copy of the book, which is great because books are the best thing that anyone can give me. Abraham Lincoln once said that his best friend was the man who could get him a book he hasn’t read, and I agree wholeheartedly, particularly when that book is about the Cubs and Wrigley Field.

Knowing that there are others like me who enjoy the Cubs, despite all of the disappointment that they will inevitably bring in October (if not earlier), is something like finding old treasures in an attic, or finding money in the pocket of your jeans. It makes this year’s team (which was shut out for the second game in a row today, and will have the worst record in the majors until further notice) tolerable, not for the feelings of victory which EVERY OTHER TEAM in this city has experienced in my lifetime. No, it makes it tolerable because even though the team on the field has been defeated time and time again, the part of this city who loves the team has not allowed themselves to be defeated.

On the day that Maya Angelou passed away, many of her inspirational writings have been making the rounds on the internet. One of my favorites is “You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated.” And tonight, I put those words into action at the public library in Chicago. Ms. Angelou’s words were undoubtedly meant in a larger context than following a particular baseball team, but the spirit of her remarks can be applied to any circumstance at all.

We all fail in life, and it’s not fun when it happens. We suffer defeats, and our expectations do not always meet the realities that we encounter. Certainly that’s been the case for the Cubs this year, and last year, and every year before that, as well. But those setbacks must never serve to crush our spirit. And following a team like the Cubs reinforces this lesson on a regular basis.

Eddie Vedder sang that someday we’ll go all the way, and there are untold numbers of people waiting for that day to arrive. In the meantime, at least there’s a new book about it to read. I think I’ll get started right now.

Blowin’ your mind like we knew we would

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Super Bowl Sunday, 1986 was certainly the high point of my senior year in high school. I knew that graduation was four months away, and going off to college would happen a few months after that, and then life would all be different. And that’s exactly what I wanted, to be honest about it. But the Bears made sure that the Springfield chapter of my life finished on a high note.

My family always went somewhere to watch the Super Bowl, and in 1986 we went, for the only time I can remember, to my Aunt Francie’s house. The Bears were the team that I had followed since Walter Payton first came to the NFL in the mid-1970s. He was known as “Sweetness” but he never had a team around him in those days. But in the early 1980s, the team started to rise under Mike Ditka. I was too young to know him as a player, but he looked the part of a football coach to me.

The 1985 Bears will always be the standard by which football teams will be measured. They made football fun, in a way that it had not been before and has not been since. Alongside Walter Payton, there was Jim McMahon, Willie Gault, Dan Hampton, Richard Dent, Mike Singletary, Gary Fencik and, the biggest attraction of all, the Fridge, William Perry. Someone had put a refrigerator outside of their house in my Aunt’s neighborhood, and painted the number 72–the Fridge’s number–on the front. All these years later, and I can still remember it like it happened earlier today.

The Super Bowl Shuffle video made them all household names. They lost one game down in Miami on Monday night, but then they never lost again. And maybe the best part of the game was that the Bears overcame an early 3-0 deficit with a stellar performance the rest of the way. Sometimes things go badly at first, and it puts you in a hole that you can’t get out of. But this team shook off the slow start and proceeded to put on a football clinic. It proved that how you start off is much less important than how you finish up.

The Bears probably should have won more than just that one Super Bowl, but it didn’t work out that way. It’s now more than a quarter of a century later, and the Bears are still looking for a companion piece to that year’s title. Who knows when we’ll see another one, but for now we can look back at what a special time–and team–that actually was.

I now live in Chicago, and I’d love to see what it would be like in this city if the Bears ever rise to that level again. Life has changed since then, as I knew it would, but that special few months in late 1985 and early 1986 are something that will always remain in my memory.

Curious George and the World Series champs

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Back in the spring of this year, I had a mission. There was an event being held in Downtown Chicago called March to College, which was designed to get Chicago schoolchildren thinking about the higher education options available to them.

I had agreed to help man a booth at the event, and was looking for a physical manifestation of HMH, my Boston-based employer,  to have with me at the table that day. Thus, I ventured into a dark corner of my basement, went through all of the long-forgotten stuffed toys, and found the Curious George that I was looking for. George came to the event with me, and it was a big success.

After the event was over, George found a home on my desk at work. He mostly sits on a shelf with his friends, the Cat in the Hat and an ALF hand puppet. But last week, George also followed me to an event for the corporate Volunteer Week. And it was a good thing that he did.

I had donated a large box of baseball cards, for the purposes of filtering out the most recent ones to give to a charity called Cards2Kids. In setting up for the event, I rounded up a number of baseball books and other artifacts, which I have collected over my years as a baseball fan. I wanted to have a baseball atmosphere in the room, since October baseball is an all-too-rare occurrence in Chicago.

I loaded up a box with baseball books, and placed a Red Sox pennant on top. The pennant had a green shamrock on it, with a Red Sox logo inside. I had picked it up at Fenway Park a few years ago. But the box was still missing something, so I put Curious George on top. And something just looked right, so I grabbed my smartphone and snapped a picture of it. But there wasn’t any time for sorting through all of the pictures that I took on the day of the event. “I’ll get to it when I can,” I told myself.

I finally got around to it a couple of days later, as I had the radio on and was listening to Game two of the ALCS on the radio while doing some things around the house. Boston had already lost the first game of their playoff series with Detroit, and they also found themselves in a 5-0 hole in Game two. It didn’t look good for the Red Sox at that point.

I was sorting through the pictures on my phone when I came upon Curious George and the Red Sox pennant. Even though it looked bleak for the Sox at that point, I shared the picture on my Twitter account, in the hope that somebody might find it interesting.

Over the next half hour or so, the Red Sox staged a dramatic comeback by tying the game on a grand slam by David “Big Papi” Ortiz in the eighth inning, and then winning on a hit by Jarrold Saltalamacchia in the bottom of the ninth. I was happy with that turn of events, and I’m sure that all of Boston was, too.

What I didn’t realize until the next morning was that because I was indoors when sending out the Curious George tweet–and I have service issues anytime I’m indoors–the tweet was sitting in my Drafts folder as the comeback was taking place. When I discovered this, the morning after the game had ended, I sent it out again, this time successfully. I thought it was a fun image to share, just as I had when it appeared that the Red Sox were on the ropes.

I received a tweet back a few hours later, commenting on the good luck charm and how it had seemed to work for the Red Sox. I will freely admit that a Red Sox victory in Game two was the furthest thing from my mind, when I sent out the picture for the first time.

Now that the Red Sox have come all the way back to take the World Series title, it really is remarkable how completely things turned around. Perhaps Curious George and the shamrock are a good pairing, after all.

Hoping for a rematch

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Having been at last night’s game between the Northwestern Wildcats and the Ohio State Buckeyes, it was a great game but a difficult loss to swallow. And now I have to change my Rocky metaphors when thinking about the rest of Northwestern’s season.

I wrote something to the effect of Northwestern’s two-week period leading up to last night’s game as a training period comparable to Rocky Balboa getting ready to fight Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Rocky sawed logs and felled trees, and pulled the cart in the snow, and climbed to a mountaintop to show that he was finally ready to face Drago. It was Hollywood cheese, to be sure, but mighty good cheese, just the same.

But this time it’s more like the end of the first Rocky film. The two teams went toe-to-toe last night, and in the end the underdog barely lost. Apollo Creed’s declaration that “There ain’t gonna be no rematch!” seems fitting this morning, as Ohio State may not want to see Northwestern again on a football field this season.

Rocky II was all about setting up the inevitable rematch between Balboa and Creed. If Rocky had tanked at the box office, there never would have been a Rocky II. And without Rocky II, the rest of the series doesn’t get made, either. Which would have been a shame, in my view.

So the Wildcats, who are understandably stung by such a close loss, must fight their way through the rest of the Big Ten schedule this season. If they win the rest of their games–with the home game against Michigan seeming to be the biggest hurdle–they can earn a rematch against Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis. I think anyone who watched last night’s game would be happy with that outcome.

So no longer is Ohio State Ivan Drago, in my mind. Now they are Apollo Creed, and that’s fine with me. Rocky needed to have Apollo, and the death of Apollo in Rocky IV was a mortal blow to the entire Rocky franchise, in some ways.

So let’s get to the rematch, and then win it, to ensure the lasting success of what Pat Fitzgerald is building at Northwestern.

Helping the cause?

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Today I broke out an old coffee mug that commemorated the 1995 season for the Northwestern football team. Ironically enough, it’s probably very close to the year that most of this year’s freshman class was born. Time goes by in a hurry, that’s for certain.

To this point, 1995 is the standard bearer for Northwestern’s football program. And this year could very well end up even better. Should they get past Ohio State this Saturday night, the buzz will grow louder. It’s sure going to be exciting this weekend.

Go Cats!

The Dodgers take the plunge

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The pool in the Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix has always intrigued me on some level. There’s going to a game, and going to the pool, but the lines between them seem pretty clear to me. But when you live in the desert, I guess a pool is a nice thing to have.

But the downside to having a pool is that people want to use it. And when a group of professional athletes decide they want to take a celebrational plunge in your pool, well, there’s not much you can do to stop them.

But John McCain–the man who thought Sarah Palin was qualified to be president–took umbrage at this. He unleashed a bunch of names at the Dodgers, because an invasion of a ballpark pool is worthy of his time and attention as a senator. America has no other pressing problems for him to address, apparently.

I wouldn’t have written about this incident without John McCain’s involvement. But when he went on the attack, I had to throw my two cents into this. And my two cents is this: Go Dodgers! And John McCain is all wet on this one, just as he usually is.