Between Chapters

By JCB on Thursday, October 30, 2003
"To walk in to Wrigley is to walk in to a simpler way of life. It's beautiful, peaceful, and a perfect venue for miracles. That the miracle of a World Series hasnít happened in half a century is easily forgotten in that place where patience pervades oneís state of mind. Cubs baseball is just that: patient. We can trace ebbs and tides across decades as easily as seasons. There's a sense that it will be only that much sweeter when we finally win. Even more, there's a sense that all of that doesn't matter in those perfect Wrigley moments when baseball captures beauty, truth, and the meaning of life -- even if it can't be put into words. Understanding this is what it means to be a Cubs fan. This is what I learned this season: baseball allows us to understand what it means for a moment to be pure and good -- even if that moment is gone as soon as it comes. And it will be that much sweeter when we win next year."

* * *

So this was the year: the one that you hear people talk about how they'll never forget. This was mine.

I've never seen much point to quoting my own words, but this season strikingly tested the truth of the words above. I can still recall exactly when I wrote them on Tuesday, October 9, 2001 -- two days after the final game of the season. (The games were all postponed a week that year in September, you'll recall.) I still retain exactly the feeling -- like pride -- I felt in writing them. At the time, I believed them.

I still believe them. This year was just hard, that's all. This year won't be so easy to forget. We were in over our heads, and in the end we were busted for it -- revealed as imposters. Were we imposters? Or is it that the Cubs, until they win -- OK, IF they win -- will always be postseason imposters? After so long an absence, can they ever again belong in a World Series? Will it feel real, or surreal? I was there in Wrigley for the game when it slipped through their fingers. Game 6: enough said. For the rest of my life, 'enough said.' I sat 23 rows above the aisle, lower level, behind home plate. That's a scar I'll have to bear, witness to that autumn evening. I said that night, "If Cubs baseball is a religion, and Wrigley Field is our Cathedral, then tonight our faith was tested." I don't think I was over-dramatic.

In what's quickly becoming my favorite of all the things in my life that seem to be approaching tradition, I was at Wrigley on the last day of the regular season. Once again the game was meaningless, at least in narrow scope. The Cubs had already clinched the Central, and preferred to rest their stars for the playoffs against Atlanta. But this year things felt different for more than the obvious reasons. This Cubs season marked the beginning of a new chapter, and I'm starting to wonder whether my own life's pattern might be coincidence.

I discovered in July at my grandfather's funeral reception that he attended one of the Cubs' World Series games in 1938. The Yankees beat the Cubs that series, and he watched Lefty Gomez beat Dizzy Dean in game 2. (The Cubs blew a lead in the 8th inning at Wrigley that game, too.) I had a wonderful relationship with my grandfather, and I now see it as a great regret that I never learned this fact of his history while I still had the chance to hear him tell the story. Second hand, it turns out the Chicago Mill & Lumber Co. received two tickets for one game, and held an employee lottery for each. He happened to win. Not quite as improbable as getting through on the internet the morning tickets for Game 6 went on sale, but still improbable.

Now, I don't mean to make this piece sentimental about my grandfather and my grief. If anything, his life deserves a much richer story than one involving -- or maybe centering on -- baseball, and I'm not sure if I'll ever take on the task (in writing). Perhaps. But I'm left with the realization that my grandfather lived without witnessing the Cubs win the World Series. And that my father was barely alive to see the Cubs last play in the World Series. And that this year -- finally -- the Cubs gave us unbridled hope. Hope without doubt -- isn't that rare, and pure and wonderful? Isn't that worth the disappointment, if it has to be that way? I feel like I'm just tilling familiar ground here, so let's move on.

If you've never read Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, add it to the shortlist. One of the ideas for that book involves a man born at the precise moment that India became a free country. From there, his own story is sewn in the fabric with the story of India. As one goes, so the other. Now, I'm not about to posit such a grand template for my own life, but I'm startled by how the Cubs have been intertwined with my life for the last few years. It's as though I can situate events in my life against the Cubs seasons, rather than the other way around.

Growing up a Cubs fan, I didn't really begin to become a fan until I left for college. That was the season Kerry Wood broke out as a rookie, striking out 20 Houston Astros in the single most dominant pitching performance ever. (Really, I'm not just saying that -- smart people like Bill James have the "game score" statistic to gauge this.) That was the season Sammy Sosa chased Mark McGwire into the homerun record. Most simply, the season that returned disillusioned fans to baseball happened while I made the transition to being on my own. Part of becoming an adult, for me, was becoming a baseball fan. I drank beers with my RA in the freshman dorm, watching the Cubs claim the wild card. (Not that I like the wild card, but as long as ... why not the Cubs?) The funny thing about times like your freshman year of college is that you get to reinvent yourself -- but only partially. It's liberating -- but only partially. Old relationships, and all their impressions of you, are severed or suspended as you script a new part of your life. That fall, I decided to reclaim the Cubs.

For that reason, Kerry Wood will always be my pitcher. I take every one of his starts almost personally. Mark Prior or Carlos Zambrano might end up outpacing his Cubs career, but Wood was the guy I revered when I first maturely revered a ballplayer. I still believe that on any given start, he can be the most intimidating, dominating ballplayer in this era -- more than Prior, Martinez, Johnson, Maddux ... and now Beckett ... any of them. At least, on the merit of a single possible start, he's in their league.

Kerry Wood was hurt in 1999, and I didn't follow the Cubs that closely. I was too busy with what I thought was more important in college. (Girls & parties, and sometimes both.) As my attention laxed, so did the Cubs' fortunes. I dyed my hair black that year, because I wanted to attract this theater chick. It worked; or at least I thought it worked. But I was dumb, and it wasn't the hair. I blew her off, and later learned she was a Cubs fan, and liked me before I dyed my hair, and really liked me while we briefly dated, and well I blew it. One more life lesson, chalk it up. God, I was dumb sometimes. I wonder if I had known she was a Cubs fan, would I have pulled my head out of my ass?

Kerry Wood came back in 2000, and briefly rejuvenated us. That was the year ESPN introduced their live internet applet that let me follow the games play by play while I was supposed to be doing lecciones en espaÒol; no wonder I didn't learn a damn thing of Spanish that summer. That was before major league baseball stopped WGN from broadcasting their AM radio feed on the internet, so for day games researching in the bio-chem lab I'd turn off the Phish bootlegs my neo-hippie coworker collected, and turn up the game. I followed them closely those first months of summer. I was even late for consecutive dates with a girl I genuinely liked. Come to think of it, bad timing was how you could summarize my brief relationship with Andrea. Andie was Italian, but blonde-Italian, with feistiness and all the other admirable Italian traits in tow. She was so pissed that I was late because of a baseball game that the second time I told her I had to wait for my laundry. The lie didn't go over so well either. At that point I realized that my wife will have to conquer dismay at being late because of a ballgame. (What, like extra innings and pitching changes are my fault?)

At the start of August (when I stopped paying attention to get ready to leave for England) the Cubs were 49-55, with an outside chance of finishing .500. But then I went abroad, and the only baseball I saw after mid-August was the Yankees win the World Series. (Dammit. Why the hell did I stay up until 4:30am? And was I really cheering the Mets? I know the Yankees could have me cheering for hellspawn by process of elimination, but the Mets?) The Cubs finished the season 65-97. (While I was abroad, they went 11-29.)

Abroad was great, but it ended. I came back home, and spent the winter depressed and unmotivated. Really depressed; really unmotivated.

So what do you do? You drink, you sleep, you listen to music, and you watch TV. Too much TV. It's no wonder hypnosis went out of style now that there's a hypnotist in every living room. Not that I'm complaining. Sports might have helped, but by that winter the NBA had dwindled. MJ spoiled us in my youth, there's no doubt. So I drank some more, feeling like I was the first person to ever have an identity crisis at age 20 and mope about it for a few months. Still, with my head up my ass, concocting absurd schemes for my life and getting by on my talents.

Then began that fun season of 2001, the season that culminated in the moment I chronicled elsewhere: Sammy Sosa's homerun in his last at-bat of the season, when he held up a sign in the dugout dedicating the hit to Arne Harris. It was a measure of Sosa's -- and baseball's -- class. And I was there! 64 homeruns that year, and 160 RBI's -- man, that was a great season to watch. He hit three consecutive homeruns against the Rockies one game that August. The Cubs pitchers struck out a record 1,246 hitters that year, too. Kerry Wood & Jon Leiber convinced me of the curveball's value. There's nothing so pretty as a 12 - 6 curveball leaving a hitter looking stupid. I started going to bed before 2am so I would wake up in time to eat lunch before the day games. I spent the summer on campus, working a flexible job that let me negotiate my hours around Cubs games. I made the trek up to Wrigley almost a dozen times. I wasn't dating, I wasn't focusing on anything I should have been (like my senior honors thesis) but I was immersed in Cubs baseball. I'm quite confident that I'll never have such a grand summer again in my life.

In his recent on-air essay, simply titled "Cubs Lose," Scott Simon writes that "Following the Cubs for all of my life has given me some of the same immersion, diversion and the catharsis of sorrow and joy I've found in literature, drama and music. I'm sad and a little angry that the Cubs lost the championship in one long and inglorious inning, and I will miss them all winter long." Mr. Simon, host of NPR's Weekend Edition - Saturday, rightfully points out that he's covered events that truly matter -- wars, uprisings, elections -- but that some of us fans, we can't help feeling this way about our team. To us, it's as real as life. Hell, what's the difference anyway? Trust me: answering that question can only make you feel depressed.

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to return to Scott Simon, since his radio bit recalls some things from his book, Home and Away. Early on he writes that "You can tell yourself: it's just sports, nothing real; it has nothing to do with your life, no resonance in the real world of living, dying, and struggling. And you'd be right. Then, something happens. MJ leaps! Mac swings! Flutie scores! And inside, where your body cannot kid you, something takes over and it feels real. It's not like tearing up at your wedding, sobbing at a funeral, or choking up at a child's first steps. It's closer to seeing Caesar stabbed; or watching Emily Webb in Our Town so wistfully, tearfully, exclaim in Act III, "Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anyone to realize you!" A play that rubs something real." Well put, Mr. Simon. (To be honest, I didn't mean to use that whole quote, but once I started typing it, I couldn't cut it off -- and not just because that's the first Our Town reference I can use since Kevin Arnold ran the lights for Winnie Cooper's star performance as Emily Webb.)

Later in his book Simon points out how difficult it is to finish a thought beginning 'Being a Cubs fan is like...' because there's nothing else like it. At their outer limits, hope and folly blend together, perhaps. I'd be remiss to wander through this whole writing without mentioning the Red Sox, but I can't relate to the fans' pain, exactly. For us, it's different. While a Red Sox fan might quickly recall 187 different reasons why his team has lost 55 games before the all star break, a Cubs fan will simply calculate that his team needs to win 15 in a row to get back to .500 by August, and start imagining how it might happen. Futile, each, but different.

2002 was a whirlwind summer. I graduated in May, and by that Sunday afternoon the Cubs were already looking at a record of 13-27. I still watched them all summer, when I could, but they seemed to have less of a clue than I did as to what the hell we really wanted to do with ourselves. Clement & Wood pitched well, at times, and there was this kid Prior coming up, but we never really seemed to put it together. I took a job, and I was lucky to find one, but that first summer out of school doesn't feel all that much different than summer jobs of your past. They're just diversions. It's in the fall when you realize that you're no longer following the educational calendar that an outlook adjustment starts to set in. But it takes a while. I don't know about any records, but it sure felt like the Cubs stranded more baserunners that 2002 season than any team could possibly strand. Every inning: runners on first and second, never brought around to the plate.

All of a sudden the season was over. The Angels beat the Giants, the weather turned cold, and the night sky turned orange as our winter cloud cover set in to trap the city lights all winter long. They're depressing, those orange skies. All winter long I felt like I ought to be developing a new script for my life, a new way that my own story might go. I felt like I ought to be writing, approaching the questions facing us. I knew that I ought to be coming to terms with the fact that this is how life is going to be for a while, and it's not so bad if you approach it well. But have you ever heard anyone follow through on something "they knew that they ought to?" It's always, "I knew that I ought to, but..." And I couldn't, or at least I wasn't approaching it all that well.

So I decided to take a chance. I decided to go all in with the Cubs this year. I bought a DVR to record all the games, so I could watch the day games when I got home from work. I watched about 1400 innings this year -- 140 games or so, a few with extra innings, and the playoffs. That's a lot of innings. The payoff? 162 games later, the Cubs clinched the division the final weekend, and defeated Atlanta to get to the National League Championship Series. They played this season better than I thought they possibly could.

When people talk about the chapters of their lives, what does one do with that time between chapters? College ended, but the next chapter of my life didn't really start until this spring. Is that real life somehow, is that what people mean by saying that? Everything that happens while the show would normally go to commercial? The days and weeks and months when we're adrift, hoping for something to happen to us?

Of course I realize that all the shit about my own destiny intertwined with a baseball team is just that. I'm projecting that onto the story, and anyone could pick and choose their story to match something greater, and I might as well have chosen to write about how my own life's pattern matches the career of the Simpsons. (So we had our bad seasons.) But at least the Cubs and I are starting a new chapter together. We haven't figured it out, but at least it's time to start writing the new script. We're on a new trajectory. And if it's not bullshit, even better, because I'd much prefer a life constantly humbled by its relationship to something greater.

And it was a fun year. Friends of mine were caught up, some for the first time, and it was great to welcome them into the fold. Others finally returned. Some were just passengers along for the ride, but that's fine too. I never really minded the fair weather fans, since for the bad years and early months it's their loss. Maybe, somewhere along the ride they'll decide to go all in as well. I think that for the rest of his life, one close friend of mine will always take Mark Prior's starts almost personally: this was the year they came around to baseball. And then an entire city fell silent in that one inglorious inning, as Prior faltered, and I felt our hopes waft away into the air as quickly as our breath, visible against the green Wrigley grass. But there's always next season.

I'm not sure that there's any way to prepare one for becoming independent, for becoming entirely responsible for oneself. They send you off to college, but they send you with a script, or at least an ending. Maybe some people start writing that next chapter immediately. Of them, I'm jealous. But as the Cubs season began, and my writing voice returned, I was grateful to have something in my life so inspiring.

Now the season is over, but the new chapter is started, and it's time to get ready for next year.

Posted Thursday, October 30, 2003 by JCB
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