Let it go, let it go

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Over the past couple of years, I’ve simplified my life in some ways. I gave up drinking in 2011, television in 2013, and McDonald’s in 2014. I’ve tried giving up coffee, too, but I’ve succeeded at keeping my consumption down. Baby steps, I suppose.

I’m not really on a self-deprivation kick, although it might seem that way. Giving up some of my favorite things–ones that had been a part of my life for decades–seems like a fool’s mission. But there’s not much I have that I can’t live without. People often say “I’d die without (insert item here)” but that’s really not so. The things that we need and the things that we think we need are two different groups.

I’m so much better off without the things I’ve given up. I now wonder how life would have been different without them. But that’s something I’ll never know for certain.

Last night I took this to drastic, and almost unthinkable degree: I renounced the Chicago Cubs. I’ve always been off the deep end, to varying degrees, when it comes to the Cubs. They were my window into Chicago, and thus the wider world, to me back in the 70s and 80s. They were my destination of choice in the dark days of the 1990s. They were a source of optimism and ultimate disappointment in the first decade of this century. But in this decade they’ve been…nothing. Nothing but frustration and anger and, ultimately, indifference. I wait around for months for the baseball season to return, and then I’m hopeful for a month to six weeks, and finally I’m wondering why I do this to myself, over and over again.

The Cubs have never won in my lifetime, but up until a couple of years ago, they were always worth a watch. But they aren’t anymore. I think of a campfire as an apt metaphor for this: The fire will burn hot and then die down, but it has to be tended occasionally or else it will go out. Throwing a small log or a few twigs onto the coals every so often is all that it takes. But if you don’t do it, the consequences speak for themselves.

The Cubs have not been tending the fire, at least at the major league level. They’ve started playing a game with trading older players for younger prospects, and demanding complete control over a player’s career. Signing free agents to big-dollar contracts has been anathema to this club, and the talent level (or lack thereof) is painfully obvious. They are, and are apparently aiming to be, the worst team in the major leagues.

Tanking the season has benefits when it comes to high draft positions, and some Cubs fans have embraced this as the path to getting better in the long run. It worked for the Chicago Blackhawks, at least. But it’s a bridge too far, for me.

Last night I did as Hemingway once instructed; I sat in front of a keyboard and bled. I opened up about what’s wrong with this team, and how I can’t abide their losing ways anymore. So I quit. I dclared my independence. I walked away from something that has mattered to me for almost 40 years. It was hard, but today I feel free.

How did the Cubs do today? For the first time I can remember, I don’t care. They win and they’re still bad, or they lose and it just reinforces what I’ve been saying. If ever they win, I’ll see what happens then. But I’m no longer vested in this team, emotionally. To paraphrase Axl Rose, nothing last forever, even my interest in the Cubs.

Doing my part for hockey

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Baseball is always going to come first for me, in terms of sports interest. Other sports may get a momentary interest as well–as the NBA did in the Bird/Magic/Jordan era, but they’ll never be the game of my youth, or the sport I can talk to my family about. But since the off season still has another month to go until Opening day, I may as well see what else is going on.

The Olympics caught my attention for a brief moment this winter, and not because of the skating or the half pipe or anything like that. I found myself drawn to hockey, especially when the United States team beat the Russians. I reminisced for a bit about Lake Placid and the 1980 games, and hoped that the American team could do equally as well this time around. I realized then that the big bad enemy was no longer the Soviets, but the Canadians. When the women’s hockey team lost the goal medal to Canada, I challenged the men’s team to do better by beating or Northern neighbors. But alas, this did not happen. I then pointed out that it was win the final game and take the bronze medal, or lose and go home empty handed. The Americans chose the latter course, unfortunately.

It’s now a week after the Sochi games have ended. There’s no March Madness to follow yet, and the NBA is long past its resonance with me, and I know that there are many other endeavors that do not involve sports at all. But as a sports-centered American, I need to fill my attention with some sort of game involving athletic competition. I may move beyond this one day, but it hasn’t happened yet.

The NHL–the professional league of a sport I’ve never really been too interested in–staged an outdoor game at Soldier Field last night. I didn’t watch that much of it, and I didn’t even care too much about who wan the game, but I know a good event when I see one. The outdoors, the snow, the skyline of Chicago, and all the rest of it was as good a way as any to celebrate this terrible winter we’ve been dealing with this year. So I wrote a few words remarking on what a good thing it was for hockey, and for the NHL, and for the exposure it brought to the amazing city that I call home.

That’s more hockey writing in the past few weeks than I’ve ever done before, and likely more than I ever will do again. But it was fun while it lasted, this dalliance with a sport that’s a bit too North-woodsy for me.  Hopefully the Blackhawks will give me a reason to get back into it come June, even if baseball will be in full swing by then. I’ll be sure to write about it if that happens, too.

Link to a post on ThroughTheFenceBaseball

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The Blackhawks’ win in Game one of the Stanley Cup finals has pointed out the futility of rooting for a losing team like the Cubs. I wrote this piece for ThroughTheFenceBaseball, explaining that watching a mediocre team during the regular season pales in comparison to a watching a championship-caliber team during the playoffs. And anyone who thinks otherwise is not being truthful about it.

There will be time for baseball later, I suppose, but for now I’m firmly on the Blackhawks bandwagon instead. It’s far more compelling, I’ll say that.

Have you heard about the Midnight Rambler

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Tonight’s hockey game went into three overtime periods, and the sudden death nature of the playoffs meant that any scoring opportunity could have ended the game. And in the end, a shot taken at midnight deflected off of not one, but two Blackhawk players, and set off a wild celebration scene at the United Center.

I’m calling the winning shot the Midnight Rambler, to honor a Stones tune of the same name. And now I’m off to get some sleep. Tonight was a classic game, with an epic result. Can’t ask for too much more than that.

When Chicago met Boston

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Like Chicago, Boston has a team in each of the four major sports leagues (MLB, the NFL, the NBA, and the NHL). Some other cities can also make that claim (including New York, Philadelphia, Washington, Dallas, Detroit, Denver, and Phoenix), but many more can’t (such as Los Angeles, St. Louis, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Seattle, Milwaukee, and San Antonio). Boston’s sports teams, like Chicago’s, are woven into the fabric of their community. Boston and Chicago are among the very best sporting towns in America.

So what’s the best way to determine which one is better? Counting championships is one way to do it, of course, but Chicago comes out on the wrong end of that equation. Besides, Andre Dawson played in both cities during his career, and never suited up for a World Series game—let alone won a championship—in either one, and yet he’s still in the Hall of Fame. Surely championships aren’t the only metrics that count.

Perhaps we can look at the times when a championship was decided between these two cities and their teams. The times when Boston and Chicago went mano a mano, with a championship on the line. That seems to be a fair way of stacking these cities up against each other. But, in looking at all the years these cities have been fielding professional teams, the sample size for making such a comparison is distressingly small.

Boston and Chicago are two of the Original Six hockey franchises, and the two teams have appeared in the Stanley Cup finals a combined 29 times over the years (with 18 appearances for the Bruins, and 11 appearances for the Blackhawks).  It’s astonishing that these two teams have never before played each other for the Stanley Cup. Over a five-year stretch in the early 1970s, the two teams traded off appearances in the finals, like ships passing in the night. But they never met each other in the finals, and so we have no history to serve as our guide.

How about basketball? The Bulls and the Celtics both play in the NBA’s Eastern Conference, meaning they couldn’t play against each other in the NBA Finals. The best they could hope for is to play in the Conference finals, but that hasn’t happened since the Bulls moved over from the Western Conference in 1980. From the Bulls’ founding in the late 1960s, and all through the 1970s, a Bulls-Celtics NBA final was a possibility, at least in theory, but it never came to pass. Again, basketball offers us no insight into past competition between the two cities.

The only time that Chicago and Boston have met to determine a baseball championship was all the way back in 1918. To give some idea of the time frame involved, consider that the first commercial radio station was still two years away. It was an important and unique Series in 1918, and one we still commemorate today, in a fairly significant way.

1918 was the first, and most likely the only, September Series that baseball has ever seen. As America was gearing up to become involved in the Great War in Europe (what we now call World War I), Secretary of War Newton D. Baker determined that all men had to “work or fight” by July 1. Baseball owners were permitted to end their season on Labor Day, with the World Series to be played the following week.

The Boston Red Sox won the American League pennant, led by their pitching star-turned-hitter Babe Ruth. The Cubs won the National League title, and returned to the series for the first time since 1910. It must have been awfully hard for Cubs fans to endure an eight-year gap between World Series appearances.

The Series opened in Comiskey Park—since the Cubs could draw larger crowds there than in their own Weeghman Park—on Thursday, September 5, 1918. A brass band played patriotic tunes throughout the game, but the seventh-inning stretch provided the most enduring moment. Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” could be heard by the crowd of just under 20,000, and the fans came to their feet and sang along. Players on the field also stood at attention while this display of patriotism unfolded. Boston went on to win the first game by a 1-0 score, but the impact of Key’s song had not gone unnoticed.

The playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the seventh-inning stretch was repeated for Games two and three—think of it as an early version of “Sweet Caroline”–and the teams split those games. The Series then moved east to Boston, with the Red Sox holding a two games-to-one advantage. But before the Series started up again in Boston for Game four, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee had an idea.

Harry Frazee had purchased the Red Sox at the age of 36. He was a producer of musical shows, and is said to have eventually traded Babe Ruth away to help finance his productions. But all of that was still off in the future back in 1918. Frazee’s success means that he knew how to please an audience, and he decided to move the Francis Scott Key ritual from the seventh-inning stretch to before the game started. This was done for Games four, five, and six, and thus an American tradition was born.

The Red Sox won the Series in six games that year, with Carl Mays and Babe Ruth each winning two games for the Red Sox and posting ERAs of 1.00 and 1.06, respectively. With its victory over Chicago, Boston established inter-city bragging rights that would last—incredibly—for another 67 years. That’s because the two cities would not meet again, with a championship on the line, until Super Bowl XX in the New Orleans Superdome on January 26, 1986. That’s when Chicago emphatically evened the score against Boston.

Any Chicagoan over the age of 30 could probably tell you about that game. It started out with a scare, when Walter Payton fumbled the ball on the second play from scrimmage. New England kicked a field goal just over a minute into the game, and it looked like the AFC’s wild card team had a chance against the mighty Bears. But by halftime, the Bears had built a commanding 23-3 lead, and the rout was on. The lead ballooned to 44-3 by the end of the third quarter, and the final score was 46-10. To give an example of the Bears’ domination, consider that New England’s leading rusher was Tony Collins, who gained four yards on three carries. A more dominating Super Bowl performance has not been seen since.

After several decades of waiting, Chicago had finally evened up with Boston at one title apiece. And since then, there has been nothing new to report. Over the past quarter of a century, Boston and Chicago have not had an opportunity to break their championship deadlock on the field. Fans in each city probably thought 2003 would be the year that the Red Sox and the Cubs would meet again in the World Series. It turned out that Dusty Baker, Grady Little, Mark Prior, and Pedro Martinez had other ideas. And another opportunity had not presented itself, until now.

Chicago fans think our teams are the best, and Boston fans think likewise about their teams. After the dust of this year’s Stanley Cup finals has settled, we’ll know which city can claim bragging rights over the other. Because those rights are likely to last for a very long time, I’m going with the Blackhawks in six games. Go Blackhawks! And Go Chicago!

2011 in review

The year is coming to a close, and everyplace you can think of seems to take this opportunity to do a retrospective on the year gone by. I’ll join the crowd for this one time, and look at what happened in 2011 for the subject that I write about the most: Cubs baseball.

The biggest developments of 2011–as far as I’m concerned– were the birth of this blog (back on June 11) and the dismissal of Jim Hendry in July (although we weren’t informed of it until August). Trailing behind that was the hire of Theo Epstein, which indicated to me (and others, I’m sure) that the Ricketts family was serious about winning the World Series. That has become the white whale of Cub fandom, especially over the last decade. The teams that we either empathized with for losing (Boston, San Francisco) or just plain don’t like (St. Louis, that other team across town) has won their championship, and here we are, forced to watch Catching Buckner on ESPN, and blowing a late September game in St. Louis so the Cardinals can make the playoffs and go all the way to the title. Theo and his team have just one goal (sorry, Chicago Blackhawks, but it fits for us, too). And we all know what that is.

As far as the team itself, I did a year end report card piece for Baseball Digest, and I wasn’t very kind at all. Other than Starlin Castro, what did we really have last year? Sean Marshall pitched well, but he’s gone now. There was Carlos Zambrano’s meltdown, Matt Garza unable to break .500, Carlos Pena’s underperformance, a starting rotation in shambles, and Marlon Byrd writhing in pain at home plate in Fenway Park. The Fenway experience was neat, but the only victory in that series was the throwback game on Saturday, and it only happened because the Red Sox gave the game away. If I missed anything positive, please let me know. And yes, Ron Santo did finally make it into the Hall of Fame. But it’s sad when the most notable player on your team hasn’t set foot on the field in over 30 years.

The bottom line for 2011, like every year in my lifetime, and my father’s lifetime as well, was that the season ended without the Cubs being victorious. My maternal grandfather was born in 1909, and he lived his whole life without seeing it, too. I don’t think that he was actually a Cubs fan, though. My paternal grandfather was born in Chicago in 1894, so he would have been a teenager when the Cubs were in their heyday. There were no tales from the west side to tell me about (the team didn’t move to the Northside until 1916), because he died several years before I was born. So I, like most other Cubs fans, have nothing to go on. And that really sucks.

I have dreamed of the day when the white W flag is raised at Wrigley Field after a World Series game. No one has ever seen that, as far as I know, and it will be great once it happens. But until then, everything else is just noise.

Happy Next Year, Cubs fans!