Friday, November 4, 2016

World Champions

Well, they did it.

Did I ever think it would happen?  That is hard to say.  Of course, when you think about it, the odds of the Cubs not winning a World Series over the course of a lifetime has to be pretty low, but it happened to my grandfather and my dad, so who am I to think that I am so special?

My relationship with the Cubs is special.  Not special in the way that would make a great story on the news, but special to me.  My dad was obsessed with the Cubs. From the day I was born, it was clear that I would never be able to avoid being a Cubs fan.  Born in suburban Chicago with a die-hard dad?  No chance.

Then we moved to Texas when I was starting first grade.  This would likely kill any chance of fandom for almost any kid.  Proximity builds fans more than anything.  Just ask the thousands of newish Texas Rangers fans after 2 World Series appearances.  A lot of these people didn't even know what baseball was a few years ago, now they are buying personalized license plates and wearing customized jerseys.

As much as I credit my dad for instilling a love of baseball and the Cubs in me, there is one other entity that receives equal, if not more, credit.  Those three little letters that every Cub fan knows: WGN.  The superstation from Chicago, for whatever reason, had the foresight to get themselves placed on the basic cable tier of all American cable companies, guaranteeing that the Cubs would be seen across the land.  Combine that with the propensity for the Cubs to have more day games than anyone else (they didn't even have lights at Wrigley until 1988) and you have a sure-fire formula for creating masses of rabid fans.

I remember coming home from school, day in and day out, and the Cubs were on TV.  My formative baseball years were around the success of the 1984 version of the Cubs, with Ryne Sandberg, Bobby Dernier, Ron Cey, Leon Durham, Sarge Matthews, Rick Sutcliffe, Larry Bowa, Keith Moreland and Jody Davis. Even now, I can recite those lineups by heart.  I would drop my backpack on the floor, fire up the TV, and watch.  Hell, I even pretended I was part of it.  I would throw a square pillow on the floor, and if any Cub were on first base, I would lead off with him, diving back to the bag if the pitcher threw over.

I don't recall the heartbreak of the '84 season, though. Either I was on another planet, or I blocked it out.  I don't recall dying at the Cubs losing to the Padres in the NLCS.  Nothing...blank space in my brain.  But I was only 8.  Every year, coming home from school and they were on: constant baseball for a burgeoning baseball fan.  I played baseball too, and I loved the game.  I had trouble concentrating at the end of a school day when I knew there was a baseball game to be played that evening.  I loved the ritual of getting ready for the game, hopping on my bike to ride down to Bartlett Park in Burleson, TX...dirt infields and all.  I loved getting a ticket at the end of the game which would get you a soda or candy bar, your choice (we always went for the "suicide", which was a combination of all of the soda flavors).

Remember now, this was in suburban Fort Worth, TX.  I didn't have any real friends at the time who were Cub fans...just me and my Dad.  Then, when I was 11, my parents got a divorce and my Dad and I were separated from day to day contact.  He started a life with a new family, and we just didn't have the level of contact that we had before....but there was always the Cubs.  Always.  I could pick up the phone, and that is all we would talk about.  Jerome Walton, Tuffy Rhodes...any big news was worthy of a phone call.

When I got to junior high school, I was extremely fortunate to gain a group of friends from church and the tennis team, and to my surprise, there were some Cubs fans amongst them!  I still remember meeting my friend Sean, and when he showed me that he had a pair of shorts with the Cubs logo on them, my head almost exploded.  There were people out there like me!  People who lived as far away from Chicago as you could imagine (at that age) who were also fans.  Friends like Ryan who lived and died with the Cubs' every game. Friends like Kevin who lived in Iowa before moving to Texas, so he rooted for the Iowa Cubs. As we grew up together, through high school, college, marriage and death, the Cubs were always there for us. Some of them married other Cubs fans, and now I had a real stable of friends who I could share in my joy and misery.

My dad and I grew further and further apart, talking less and less, but there was always the possibility of news right around the corner.  The Cubs signed Alfonso Soriano!  They hired Lou Piniella!  We wouldn't talk for weeks, then one day, the phone would ring and we would fall right back into discussing the latest news of the Cubs. He moved to Chicago for a while, and then back to Texas to be closer to his first family's kids, and we were able to get closer again. That went on for years and years.  Heck, I still remember him calling me, freaking out that Starlin Castro hit a 3 run homer in his first game. We knew we were on to something there.

During this time, I got married, had a couple of kids, and just lived life. I was lucky to find a woman who, even though she had ZERO prior interest in baseball, was willing to wear hats, shirts, towels, bikinis, sunglasses...anything she could find with a Cubs logo, she bought.  Not because she loved the team, but because she loved me.  All the while suffering right along side of me.  Now, as a bit of an aside, I can be a terrible person to be around when the Cubs are playing.  I am not abusive or anything, but I do get into the games quite a bit.  Worse than that, I am a HUGE believer in the superstitions and karmic circle of the game.  Never tell me the Cubs are winning....never say, "Boy, it would be great if he hits a home run here!"...It makes me crazy.  I have lived too long with the Cubs to put up with that.  My friend Sean and I used to joke that his wooden coffee table would explode from all of the built up bad karma that had been purged by "knocking on wood".

She always stuck with me.  Road trips to see the Cubs AAA team in Austin, TX.  Buying me playoff tickets in 2005, only to have the game not happen because the Cubs were swept by Arizona.  Hats, shirts, sunglasses...anything with a Cubs logo, she couldn't help herself, and that is everything I could have asked for.  Someone to share in the ups and downs of fandom, but would never judge me for my lifelong passion.

After a few years of marriage, I tried to explain to her what the Cubs meant to me.  It was hard to put into words...I asked her to name one thing that she had been passionate about since she was 8 years old.  Naturally, she couldn't do it, but that is OK.  That is why it is so hard to quantify what sports means to us.  The roots of passion go very, very deep and quite a few people can't understand it.  It isn't the same as having a child, or growing old with a loved one.  But those scars run DEEP, and they never quite go away.  I look forward to growing older with her, because she completes the circle of my life that I never even knew existed when my fandom was getting started.

Then, the inevitable happened, and my dad passed away in 2013, just a few days before the season started.  There was a huge hole in my heart, as I had lost the one person in my life who truly got me.  Even three years later, my first instinct when I hear exciting news about the Cubs is to pick up the phone and call him.  My dad joined that very popular club of Cubs fans who never got to see their team make it to the promised land....and I won't lie that I was terrified I would join him at some point.

Last year, when the Cubs made it to the NLCS, I burst into tears.  All of those years of pent up frustration, anger, joy, madness, etc. all came out of me all at once.  It killed me that my dad wasn't there with me. My daughter, 13 at the time, looked at me..."Are you crying?!".  Again, there is no way that she could understand that in one moment, all of the phone calls, late night discussions, all came back to me in an instant. The Cubs were swept in the NLCS by the Mets, and I was stuck with another "Wait 'til next year" October.

With the Cubs being the prohibitive favorite going into 2016, the weight of expectations were suddenly on me.  See, being the "Cubs Fan" in your social groups gets you immediately associated with them no matter what happens.  Friends, neighbors, co-workers all start jumping on the proverbial bandwagon as the season progresses and it starts to look like the Cubs will, in fact, be pretty good.  People who knew me years ago start tagging me on Facebook.. "Cubbies look pretty good this year!".  All season long, I enjoyed the constant discussion...but in the back of my mind, the threat always loomed.  This is probably going to be just another year of disappointment.

This is how Cubs' fans identify with one another.  The Loveable Losers.  Always heartbreak.  Hell, even making the playoffs was something to cheer about.  Constant reminders of 1945, 1908, black cats, billy goats, Steve Bartman...never stops.

Then this happened.  Kris Bryant, smiling all the while, throws a bullet to Anthony Rizzo in the bottom of the 10th in game 7 of the World Series, and in one instant, the entire lifetimes of Cubs fans were legitimized.   Harry Caray, Ron Santo, Billy Williams, Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux...all of it, gone.  Poof.  Just like that.  Watching MY TEAM jump around the mound at Progressive Field was something out of a dream. I kept looking at my son, 20 years old, and saying "I don't know what to do".  Because I didn't know what to do.  How do you react when something that you have hoped for, prayed for, lusted after for almost 40 years actually happens? I suppose that there is no playbook for that, but I just sat, stunned.  I knew it wasn't a dream, but it also wasn't quite reality yet.  MY CUBS just won the World Series. I doubt there has ever been an easy World Series win, but this must have ranked in the top 3 in difficulty. The Indians were sooooo good.  Every turn, they got the hit, the pitch, the catch that they needed to turn the tides.  They were up 3-1 (by the way, thanks Lebron for the good karma in posting about your team coming back from 3-1)! That doesn't happen, but it did!

For those of you still with me, thank you for letting me get this off my chest.  It has been a long, long time in the making.  I know that sports is not the end-all be-all that a lot of people make it out to be, but it does mean a lot to some people.  Just know that for most of those people, it isn't about the ball and bat, or about the millionaire athletes playing a game, or the is about those life-long relationships that mean SO much to them all coming to a culmination of ecstasy in one brief, shining moment...that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

"Nothing has changed, but everything has changed"