Letters From The Brink, Or A Cubs Fan Considers The Impossible, In June

The Chicago Cubs sure seem like a team that could, maybe even should, win the World Series. They're also the Cubs. It's complicated.
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I have learned, over the years, that it works like this: at some point in your life, usually tragically early, the fear of not seeing the Chicago Cubs win the World Series during your lifetime becomes an inescapable existential hum, low-flying but ever-present, a cosmic microwave background of death anxiety. Then your loved ones mourn, with grim jokes, the actual realization of that fear at your funeral. And, over and over again, that seems to be pretty much it. It’s staggering, really, to think about the number of dead Cub fans who never saw the team win it all. More keep dying empty-handed every day. Since you started reading this, there’s another one, gone. But will she share the same fate as those of us who are lucky enough to hang on until November?

That is, to put it perhaps a bit too darkly for the sports section, the question. Will the Cubbies win it all this year, Anno Catuli 0871108, after a championship drought of 108 years? Surely, they can. By all metrics, both objective and predictive, the Cubs are among the very best teams in the major leagues. For most of the first third of the season, they have even looked like an all-time great team. Take it from Bill Murray: next year might really—finally—be here.

Of course, none of us are getting ahead of ourselves. We all know, all too well (and some of us even better), how this certainly can and likely will end, and we have the trigger words to prove it. But any honest Cub fan will tell you that something about this year, this time around, feels, well, different.

For as long as anyone can remember, a Chicago Cubs season has been just about the most pathetic and wonderful thing in all of sports. All the losing, over all those years, has meant that a baseball season’s rewards, for those of us who cared, could not be found in glory, or even in the anticipation of it. Those were not coming. What transcendence there was could only be found in the thing itself, and in its things, themselves. This was not by design, of course, and no sane person would choose it, but one must recognize that it’s had its benefits.

Cub fans know, through the prism of the last 108 years, that there’s not just something, but everything, to be said for simply being in that knockout of a ballpark, on that real city streetcorner, inconspicuous and friendly. For an announcer four beers deep in the seventh. For organ music, and call and response. For plants growing on brick walls. For playing hooky to see daytime baseball, and for charmingly bad beer. When things did, inexplicably, go well, it was wondrous, impossible stuff—real-life magic that, by the age we started hearing that hum, we understood the world doles out only in rare, tiny doses. In this way, being a Cub fan has always been utterly, unavoidably ridiculous, a larky ruse we play on ourselves. It is, appallingly and brilliantly and not unlike life itself, much more grand a thing for all that.

Yes, fans of other teams love their equivalent things, too, and Cub fans have no monopoly on a pure enjoyment of the game, nor on an intimate understanding of sports-related heartbreak. But for more than a century now, winning the World Series has not been—literally, could not be—what made the Cubs matter. Winning it all was a myth, a campfire song, an incantation. It was an Iowa-cornfield bedtime story. It could never happen this year, because it would always happen next year. (And also because of the pitching.) We never dared to imagine how it would happen, since we knew it was something that simply couldn’t happen—which is what, in no small part, was going to make it so great when it did. It would be manic, not least because a lifetime of conditioning meant it would take us entirely by surprise. Late one summer, we’d wake up and rub our eyes and it would just somehow be happening, and somehow keep happening, until somehow, this time, it really happened. Which, of course, it never would.

Charlie Pierce recently wrote that “a Chicago Cubs World Series championship is the Last Great American Sports Story,” but—all due respect to a Hall of Famer—that doesn’t seem quite right. A Chicago Cubs World Series championship is the Last Chapter of the Great American Sports Story. For to believe in the Cubs is to believe in the American Dream. We all know it’s not going to happen, but isn’t it beautiful to think about what it would be like if it did?

I am biased, and my investment position is perilously long on this, but I’d say that it is—I’d say, in fact, that it is so beautiful simply to think it that simply thinking it has always been enough. That this sufficiency was born of necessity does not make it any less vital. A Cub fan would never trade his life in fandom for any other’s, even—or especially—as he nears the grave. That is not a self-delusion, but a genuine claim on an unmistakably important and life-bettering thing.

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Now, though, an abstract purchase on the faraway dream is no longer enough; the Cubs are—amazingly, if also a bit uncomfortably—for real. We have arrived at the end of a “process.” After a century in the baseball wilderness, now, there is a “Way.” The owners are actual human beings, not a newspaper or a vampire squid; the Rickettses might be fracking Wrigleyville (and shamelessly moving the bullpens), but they have faces and they want the same thing for the Cubs that the fans always have. The front office is thoughtful and patient and prepared. The manager is totally nuts, and totally smart. The team is bursting with extraordinarily talented young players, led by a cyborg with a glorious beard. For the first time in a long, long time, in these earliest days of June, you can actually, truly, see it happening from here.

This—this air of concrete possibility—is new, and accordingly the young Cubs season has required Cub fans to make an emotional adjustment. We’re having more fun than ever, stumbling around dazed and delirious, smiling at strangers, shaking our heads. But the stakes are no longer merely philosophical. Growing up, I did not see any “meaningful games” this early in the year; I just saw games. Generations of us have watched in dejected disbelief as the Cubs blew one (and then another, and another) in May, but we always did so with a knowing wink at a universe we knew drove an impossible bargain. Occasionally, the games became important later on, with the weighty, improbable momentum of an entire summer behind them, and those particular failures left their marks. But Cub fans’ overall exposure—game to game, season to season, generation to generation—has always been relatively limited.

The brightness of the organization’s future, and especially the legitimacy of its present, have changed all of that. This change is unambiguously for the better; contrary to popular belief, no Cub fan has ever fetishized being a loser, loveable or otherwise. But this sniff of the promised land, it is clear to me already, brings with it some share of sin. We don’t despise Yankees fans because their team has won so often; we despise them because they think it matters. And it is when the games start to matter that it becomes so irreversibly hard to remember that they don’t—that’s what made us fall so recklessly, hopelessly, stupidly in love with them in the first place.


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