The Cubs, And The End Of History

To grow up with the Chicago Cubs, even far from Wrigley, was to grow up believing in defiance and defeat. On Wednesday, things opened up.
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October 7, 1984

The only time I've ever seen my dad cry was at the conclusion of the 1984 NLCS, when Steve Garvey led the Padres to wins in three straight elimination games, sending San Diego to the World Series.

I was seven, and I didn't know baseball was powerful enough to force a silent tear down the cheek of my dad, a tough Vietnam vet who only exhibited charisma, never vulnerability. He was standing in front of the small television that I would later destroy with a plastic lightsaber and a poorly-placed cup of soda.

I didn't really understand, at age 7, that the Cubs hadn't been to the postseason since 1945, although I knew that WWII was a long time ago. I knew that we were Cubs fans, and that it was unusual to be a microscopic and isolated island of Cubbie blue in Alabama, a state that, when it considered baseball at all, mostly preferred to use the dismal Atlanta Braves as a kind of sports methadone until college football started.

Both my Cubs and the loathsome Braves were ubiquitous on lazy summer afternoons because of their "superstation" contracts with WGN and TBS, respectively. Televised baseball was bountiful, if poorly-played, and Cubs games were omnipresent enough that I knew from the haziest fragments of my earliest memories the names of guys like Bob Dernier, Gary "Sarge" Matthews, and Lee Smith. Ryne Sandberg was my favorite, and my inspiration to play second base in all of my youth baseball leagues. When the infamous ball scooted through Bill Buckner's legs in the 1986 World Series, my first reaction was "just like Leon Durham!" The Cubs were text and context; they were how I saw baseball.

It wasn’t just me, either. Because of their television contract, they became everyone’s problem — a goat-cursed superstition with a lovable drunk announcer; a “lovable losing” paradigmatic rejection of basic principles of competitiveness; a newspaper-owned paean to meaningless frugality and ceaselessly-yielding institutional ineptitude. WGN even exported the Cubs to Belize when the nation got cable television in the 1980s, creating a nation of Spanish-speaking Rick Sutcliffe enthusiasts. Over America’s postwar decades, the relentless failures of my favorite baseball team became Americana, but also something bigger: a global punchline, not just a national one.

I wanted no part of the image of affable losers. I knew that I would never be happy shrugging my sunburned shoulders in the bleachers after a defeat. Dad's sadness, his inability not to care too much about a team that didn’t do much to earn it, has always stayed with me. It reminded me of the potential stakes of this whole endeavor — powerlessness at the mercy of forces you can’t control, and more specifically the very real possibility of dying without seeing a Cubs World Series.

October 9, 1989

The season-ending commemorative VHS tape about the Cubs’ 1989 postseason run is called the "Boys of Zimmer,” and I don’t even know how many times I watched it the year I turned 14. I had joined the Official Chicago Cubs Fan Club and carried the membership card around in my wallet, and I subscribed to Vineline, a gigantic tabloid-sized glossy thing that came in the mail with posters and recaps of weeks-old games. Annual summer trips to Chicago were anticipated not for visiting the grandparents, but for the trips to Wrigley and a potential glimpse of Andre Dawson.

By this point, I was a card-collecting, statistics memorizing know-it-all. I didn't know anything about the previous year’s municipal warfare to put lights in Wrigley, but I knew that a rainout of the first night game (8/8/88) meant that God preferred day baseball. I knew, with all of the certainty that a newly-minted teenager can muster, that being a fan of a bad baseball team meant that you at least weren't one of the worst things in the world: a bandwagon fan. I embraced the oppositional identity of baseball fandom in hostile territory, explaining to my bewildered classmates how my Cubs had swindled their Braves in the Paul Assenmacher trade.

The ‘84 Cubs ran into a handsome, brown-uniformed first baseman by the name of Garvey, while the 1989 Cubs were sent home by a differently handsome first baseman by the name of Will Clark, in a uniform of a slightly different shade. Where dad shed tears with the end of the ’84 season, I forged my heartbreak and dismay into the sort of steely resolve that is a specialty for 14-year-olds: I would never abandon this team.

As my sense of history began to broaden, the public faces of the familiar Cubs heroes began to show more age. Would Billy Williams, Ernie Banks and Ron Santo ever see the Cubs achieve the success that eluded them as players? With each passing season, the weight of those bereft generations continued to accrue and calcify, like sediment becoming stone.

Eventually, under John Schuerholz, the neighboring Braves got good — with one of our pitchers, Greg Maddux, no less — and the Cubs just got worse and worse. Harry Caray died just before the 1998 season, when Sammy Sosa would club 66 home runs for a Cubs team that would subsequently be swept in the playoffs by the loathsome Braves. There were brief flickers of postseason hope in 2003, 2007 and 2008.

I went to law school and got married. Ron Santo died in 2010. My dad's father, a Cubs fan from the Chicago suburbs, died in the next year at the age of 101, without seeing his team win it all. He was born two years after 1908, the date of the last Cubs championship. Dad is 72.

November 2, 2016

The Cubs defeated Cleveland Indians in the 2016 World Series. They fulfilled the staggeringly-high expectations that surrounded the team all season. The franchise is now owned by the Ricketts family, and this championship team was built by Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer. There are huge video screens flanking Wrigley Field’s iconic manual scoreboard. The Cubs, that perpetual doormat for decades, now have their own crowded bandwagon, and its passengers are people looking for meaningful and tradition-laced triumph over generational adversity, distraction from a loud and broken world, or an excuse to be drunk, or all of the above.

I’m a public policy advocate on behalf of low-income people in Alabama; I will turn 40 next year. Dad lives on same street as my wife and I, and we often get our live baseball fix by going to see the Montgomery Biscuits, the utterly charming AA affiliate of the Tampa Bay Rays. Before they competed on the biggest stage for a World Series title, guys like Addison Russell and Carl Edwards Jr. came to Montgomery to face off against the Biscuits.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to see the Cubs defeat the San Francisco Giants in Game 2 of the NLDS at Wrigley, in the most electric live baseball game I have ever attended. The Cubs are winners now, a big-market team with top shelf branding, a young core of talent, and a hefty payroll. If they’re less lovably harmless for that, they’re also something more serious— some kind of quasi-spiritual totem, an entity that earns comparisons to the once-cursed Red Sox and the consumer juggernaut they have become. Casual baseball fans, people who have visited Chicago or lived there, enthusiasts of watching the elderly weep with joy—these believers have proliferated and are all over the place, now.

We are always our re-writing understandings of fanaticism, futility and sacrifice. The list of improbable scenarios in The Mountain Goats’ beautifully wrenching “Cubs in Five” are becoming unrecognizable as we get further and further from 1995’s Nine Black Poppies album. Things change, we get older, and somehow things just get more and more possible.

I’ll always be more Kosuke Fukudome than Francis Fukuyama, but there’s something to be said about a meditation on the end of history. But there’s also something to be said for raising a glass with family and friends, and for family and friends. The core of this team is young. Anything is possible.

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