An unexpected payoff


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.

A jewel of a sculpture

Chicago never ceases to amaze me. I’ve lived here for more than twenty years, and I’m always finding unexpected things. Today was just the latest example, and I wanted to take a few minutes to tell the story here.

In June of 1865, just a month after Abraham Lincoln’s casket had come through town, Chicago renamed a street called Little Fort Road as Lincoln Avenue. Lincoln is now a major street on the  North side of Chicago, eventually meeting up with US Route 41. And along Lincoln Street, there was a building with a terra cotta facade and a bas relief portrait of Abraham Lincoln. I never saw the building myself, as it was built in 1922 and torn down in 1974. But before it was torn down, arrangements were apparently made to preserve the Lincoln sculpture, as it was presented to the  Chicago Public Library.

I first came upon the sculpture this afternoon inside a large library on–what else–Lincoln Avenue. It had a plaque alongside it, but the life-size bust of Lincoln was striking all by itself. I stood in front of this likeness for a few minutes, grateful that people had honored Lincoln: first by creating this work,  and then by preserving it long enough that I could see it. After all, I was six years old and a long way from Chicago when the building that originally housed this artwork came down.

Lincoln’s greatness is something that can never be forgotten. He almost single-handedly succeeded in preserving the Union, while also ending the most monstrous injustice that America has ever committed. The continuing fascination with him, in a culture that otherwise doesn’t seem to value its past very much, is an inspiration to me.

Making the old man proud

There is a promotional campaign for the Chicago Public Library that offers tips on how to be a “true” Chicagoan. The first of these steps is to pick a side between the Cubs and the White Sox. Other steps include forswearing ketchup on hot dogs, embracing deep dish pizza, and so forth. But step #1, to live in this city, is to get your baseball preferences in order.

I grew up a Cubs fan, but not in Chicago or its surrounding suburbs. My choice had to do with Cubs games being shown on TV every day, my preference for National League ball over the American League variety, and as a rebellion against all of the Cardinals fans in Central Illinois. I had my reasons, but the other team in Chicago really didn’t enter into the equation at all.

Now flash forward a few decades in time. I have lived in Chicago for twenty-plus years, and am well-acquainted with the lay of the land, sporting and otherwise. And my children are being raised with a Chicago worldview that I did not have at their age. Which is a key component of the events of a couple days ago.

We were driving south on the Dan Ryan Expressway, which is also known as Interstate 94. I have no idea who Dan Ryan was, but he apparently will live on as long as there is a highway named for him. As we came upon U.S. Cellular Field, on our right as we headed southbound, my children began booing. And I have to admit that it brought a smile to my face.

While I’ve never actively told my children to display hostility toward the other team in town, I was happy at this display of emotion. It was clear that they had picked their side, just as Chicagoans always have, and that their side and mine were in accordance with each other. For lack of a better word, it was a proud moment for me as a parent.

I know many White Sox fans personally, so I have to point out that I have nothing against them at all. I envy the World Series title that they experienced in 2005, and hope to know what that feels like before I die. But just like you can only marry one person, you can only give yourself over to one baseball team. Part of that process, at least in Chicago, is expressing hostility toward the other team in a general, abstract sense.

Booing the physical symbol of the other team in town is about as far as I would want them to take their antipathy for the White Sox. The stadium can’t take it personally, and as the big banner facing the highway reminds them and any others who pass by, they have a recent World Series win and we Cubs fans don’t.

The incident reminded me that during the offseason–when football talk fills the air and basketball and hockey are also doing their thing– baseball never really disappears from our consciousness. And as long as that happens, the game will continue to survive and flourish.

In the Lap of Lincoln

The statue above is Young Lincoln by Charles Keck, located in Senn Park, Chicago.

Thinking about statues generally, there are a couple of assumptions that people might make. The first is that a statue is unveiled in a certain spot, and there it remains for time immemorial. Why immortalize someone if they’re going to be moved around afterwards? We’re a very mobile society, in general, but statues–like cemeteries–don’t fit this description.

And yet, that’s what happened to this statue. It was completed in 1945 by sculptor Charles Keck, and it was unveiled in the Chicago Public Library during 1945.  The war in Europe had dragged on for years, and the end was near at hand. Honoring the leader from a previous great war seemed appropriate.

After its public unveiling, Young Lincoln greeted library visitors for more than 50 years. And then, in the late 1990s, all that changed. The statue was essentially discarded as the Library underwent a transition into the Chicago Cultural Center.  For whatever reason, the statue was evicted from the new Cultural Center, and plunked down in its current outdoor location in a park near a high school in a residential area of Chicago. Keck did not live to see this indignity forced upon his work, as he died in 1951.

Its most striking visual aspect, other than its size, is the fact that Lincoln is depicted with bare feet. It makes sense that, as a poor man on the frontier, Lincoln did not wear any shoes. However, you could probably count the number of barefoot statues there are in the world on both hands (or feet). Lincoln’s bare feet reminded me of his humble beginnings, and the way he rose above his initial station in life. Who knows where we would be otherwise.

The statue’s location on a heavily trafficked street not far from Lake Shore Drive means that thousands of cars pass by it everyday. And if ever you’re in the neighborhood and want to have a look, it’s well worth the effort to seek it out.