The year that still haunts me

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2003 should have positive associations for me. It was the year that my younger daughter was born, and if there’s one thing in life I enjoy more than anything else, it’s being a dad. She’s going to become a teenager this summer, and looking at her now is a daily reminder that 2003–in human terms–was a long time ago.

And yet I have to admit that 2003 has a hold over me. As I was out walking the dogs this morning, I spotted a penny on the sidewalk. Sometimes the year stamped on the penny reminds me of other stages in my life, and I’ll add a few words about that year here. But today’s penny was from 2003, and it reminds me of some things I’d rather not think about.

In the five years that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written about Mark Prior and Moises Alou, Dusty Baker and Pudge Rodriguez, Sammy Sosa and Brian Banks. And I’ve analyzed Luis Castillo’s foul ball down the left-field line over and over again.

After decades of waiting for the Cubs to win the World Series, I felt that 2003 was finally going to be the year I saw it. Every Cubs fan felt that way, too. Watching it all fall apart in a half-hour’s time on a Tuesday night was excruciating. And the only way to ever make it go away is to–as Eddie Vedder put it–actually Go all the way.

2016 is looking really good so far, much more so than 2003 was looking at this point.On this day in 2003 the Cubs were in first place, but a few days later they had fallen to third place, where they remained until early September of that season. So there’s still a long way to go.

The Cubs’ present four-game losing streak isn’t enjoyable, but there’s not much doubt in my mind that they’ll win their division by a comfortable margin. They’re too good a team to do otherwise, I hope. And then the business of finally vanquishing the ghosts of 2003, and 1984, and any other near-miss season in our collective lifetimes can begin in earnest.

An unexpected payoff

Wrigley

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.

Link to a post on ThroughTheFenceBaseball

Farina

Last night I sat down to reflect on the passing of Dennis Farina. I liked his work in the movies and on television, of course, but the fact that he was a life-long Cubs fan is what hit me the most. So I tied his passing to the recent sing-along with Eddie Vedder and Ernie Banks at Wrigley Field. I’m actually quite proud of how it turned out.

Someday we’ll go all the way is a pretty good earworm to have, too. There’s a lot of hope in that message. When that’s all you have, you’d better hold onto it as tight as you can.

The unique nature of Game 163

This is my 163rd post on this blog, and I wanted to spend a few moments ruminating on the most unusual game in all of baseball.

The baseball regular season is a very predictable thing, in the sense that a team travels around from city to city, plays 2 or 3 or sometimes 4 games in one place, and then moves on to the next city. Aside from three days off in July for the All-Star break, a few Mondays or Thursdays here and there, and the occasional rainout, there isn’t much to interrupt that over the course of six months during a year.

Sometimes, there’s a tie at the end of 162 games. And baseball can’t abide ties, so something has to be done to break the tie. That’s where Game 163–the odd duck of all baseball games–comes in.

The three major sports leagues in the U.S.A. all do things a little bit different. Football is a one-off every week, where one team travels to another city and plays a game. There is no follow-up, it’s just one and done. A visiting player may get a chance to play another game in that city, if they survive in the league long enough, but it’s very likely that the game is a one-time thing for them (“That time I played in Cleveland,” for example). The playoffs are the same way: One game and out. On to the next city, if you win, or done for the season, if you don’t.

Basketball does it a bit differently. They use a traveling around model, like the NFL does, but they return to the same city a couple of times during the regular season. An NBA player gets to play in Cleveland, or Atlanta, or San Antonio at least a couple different times in a season, for each season that they’re in the NBA. And the playoffs are a series of games, so that each individual game counts for something, and there isn’t a “win or go home” situation unless there’s a Game seven.

Baseball does it a different  way. Since the team plays games almost every day, they don’t travel to a city just to play one game and then move on. Rather, they play, as mentioned before, anywhere from 2 to 4 games games in the same place. There’s talk in baseball of a team “winning the series” during the regular season, but over the course of 162 games, no three- or four-game series can mean too much. And the playoffs are when “winning the series” matters, but baseball players are conditioned to play games in a series, anyway.

But a tie after 162 games means that all bets are off. It means that one team will travel to another city to play a single game, like the NFL and NBA regular seasons, and that the winner of that game gets to keep playing, while the loser is done for the year. There’s no other situation like that in baseball. That’s what makes it so special.

I was lucky enough to go to a Game 163 once. In 1998, the Cubs and the Giants finished the season tied for the Wild Card (which was still a relatively new thing back then), and so a one-game playoff was held at Wrigley Field. Sammy Sosa got another game to try to catch Mark McGwire in home runs. He needed four, but didn’t hit any. Scottie Pippen threw out the first pitch. The Bulls were still the kings of Chicago sports, even after the Jordan era had come to a premature end. Bill Murray sang “Take me out to the Ballgame” with a passion that probably hasn’t been seen  from any of the singers since then. And my wife and I had been to the doctor that day, where we heard our daughter’s heartbeat for the first time. It was a special day all the way around.

And the Cubs won the game, too. A jouneyman player named Gary Gaetti hit a flyball to the outfield that somehow made it into the bleachers, and the park exploded in a way I had never seen before, and doubt I’ll ever see again. The Giants had a rally going in the ninth inning, and I ran out of room on my scorecard for all the pitchers that were brought in to try to end it for the Cubs, but the late Rod Beck came in and got it done. Mayhem ensued, because the 1990s were a very bad decade for the Cubs, and making it to the playoffs, by the slimmest of margins, was cause for a wild celebration.

The team played the Atlanta Braves in the first round of the playoffs, and was swept in three games (it was a best-of-three back then, instead of best-of-five as it is now). So we all got worked into a frenzy, only to be let down at the end. It made Game 163 seem like a very hollow victory.

The next summer, after my daughter had been born and my wife and I drove east to introduce her to family in New York, we drove past Yankee Stadium. Even from the highway, I could see the ring around the top of the Stadium that read “26 World Championships,” which included the World Series win from the previous season. So the Cubs’ fans like myself, who got so worked up over winning a Wild Card spot in the playoffs, seemed kind of silly in the face of all the Yankees’ success.

The game itself was a great experience, the way any single, win-or-go-home playoff game is supposed to be. And I would have much rather won the game than lost it that night. But it left me–and I would imagine many others–feeling unfulfilled, especially in light of how the playoffs turned out. The team wasn’t able to build on that success in the next year, either. Sammy kept on hitting his home runs, but it would be several more disappointing seasons until the Cubs made the playoffs again.

Thinking back on that game, with the dozen or so years of life experience that have followed since then, I understand that a triumph one day doesn’t mean anything in the days that follow it. The Braves were a better team than the Cubs were (they won the World Series the year after that one, I believe) and they sure showed it.

The Tribune company owned the Cubs for two decades, but they never brought the team to the level that the Yankees were at. The Ricketts family hasn’t shown much so far, but they’re still cleaning up the mess of a franchise that the Cubs were back then. They’re going in a new direction now, and I’m hoping that the fleeting celebration of the 1998 Wild Card playoff game pales in comparison to what happens when the Cubs finally do, as Eddie Vedder once predicted, “go all the way.”