As I sit here alternating between a giant grin and a few tears, celebrating the Cubs pennant win EDIT WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONSHIP, I find myself questioning “Why?” Why do I base my emotions – sad or happy - on a team of men I’ve never met playing a made up game which arguably offers the world little to no tangible progress or “good.” I mean I love sports, playing them, the lessons they taught me, the health they give me. But I’m not playing the game anymore, I’m just watching it. Could this time and energy be better spent somewhere else? Is it wrong to buy into the hype? Should I really be this invested?
I grew up a Cubs and Bears fan, not by choice, simply because my father ran the TV, we only got 4 or 5 channels and sports was always one of them. I rooted for the Cubbies and the Bears but couldn’t tell you players or stats or even the little known rules of the game.
Then I left home. I went to Chicago and watched the White Sox win the World Series in 2005. I saw the joy and energy that came with it. I saw a city celebrate. I saw, in the middle of a country in two wars and an economic slump, people believe in something, in magic almost.
Then I went further away, to Rome, and watched the Bears crush the 2006 season. There was this crappy little bar that catered to American students abroad, Scholar’s Lounge. Irish Car Bombs were $5 and they served Budweiser. Because of the time difference, the owners agreed to keep the bar open late for Sunday games, if we could get enough people in there buying drinks. So the diehard Bears fan on the first floor used to convince all of us to hop on the last bus of the night, sometimes in pajamas and watch the Bears dominate. I loved Rome. I loved traveling and adventure, but I was (and still am) chronically homesick. For those three or four hours, in the middle of the night, I felt like I was home.
From there I joined the Marine Corps and realized I’d probably always be away from home. Through deployments and various duty assignments, I made second homes, and third and fourth and fifth. But I always had sports. Sports were both a constant and a marker of time. Baseball season gave way to Football in the fall, then back to spring training. Players and coaches rotated out, but I still had sports. Sometimes that meant watching football at 2am in Afghanistan, or finding the one bar to play the Cubs games in Virginia. It was a way to show where I was from, a conversation starter with other Chicago fans. And believe me, we’re everywhere. I also found that just because I wasn’t playing the game, didn’t mean I couldn’t learn something.
Through baseball I began to see the technical side of life. I read somewhere that baseball is a game of failure and perseverance. Take batting averages for example. Ty Cobb still holds the record at .366. Which means for 65% of his time at bat, he failed to connect the bat to the ball – a basic premise of the game. And he was the best. It’s this high failure rate that requires the greats to maintain both skill and patience. Equal parts dealing with the pitch you’re thrown and preparing for the pitch you want. It’s placing the ball in the tiny corner or pocket of the field. It’s exploiting errors. It’s standing in the outfield for 9 innings just to catch one fly ball. It’s throwing 10000 pitches just to perfect one.
Through football I learned grit - the kind of grit embodied by greats like Walton Payton. When patience and technical skill took you so far and you still hit a wall, grit says you simply smash through it. Walter Payton used to train on this hill near his boyhood home of Alabama. Every day he’d go and run the hill until he just couldn’t do it anymore. He didn’t have a technical trainer. He didn’t measure his electrolytes or study his form. He just went until exhaustion. He trained his body in a different sort of perseverance. Sure work smarter, but then work harder.
Through both I learned the power of tradition and nostalgia – both good and bad. I read about the black stain the "Black Sox" cheating scandal left on baseball. I learned about the racism that kept Satchel Paige – possibly the greatest player to ever play the game – from ever reaching notoriety and probably kept him from reaching his full potential. Through both I learned about legends and communities. I learned of the mix between the business of the leagues and the romanticism of the game. I learned that sometimes our heroes disappoint us, they can still be our heroes. As adults we’re able to praise aspects of character without condoning the faults. Things in this world are complicated, sports are no different. Baseball is a game of duality, of storied histories and "wait til next year." A game of stats and folklore, where faith and reason merge into a compendium of math and magic. Life is like that too.
This baseball season taught me the importance of a team. There have been a number of stars in Cubs history – Mark Grace, Ryne Sandberg, Ernie Banks, Sammy Sosa, Billy Williams, Ron Santo – stars who never won a championship. But this team, this young scrappy Cubs team won it all. The entire infield was in the all-star game. The pitchers could rake. Outfielders caught, the catchers smashed it. Some guy most fans wouldn’t recognize hit a grand slam. Baez went from MVP to double E to redemption. You have to have all the pieces of the puzzle. It doesn’t hurt to have a few puzzle masters either.
This team had fun. From the suits to the smiles – never taking themselves too seriously. This is no small feat for any professional sports team, let alone one with a 108 year old weight around their very young shoulders. As David Ross says “it’s going to get worse, just breathe.” Or as Joe says “We’re fine.” They didn’t crack, they didn’t choke, they came back in the 8th, the 9th, and of course the 10th.
Fandom is commitment. Through the bad seasons and the championships. Through divorce, death, moves, people rarely change their team. I know I won’t. The Cubs play in the same stadium as they did 100 years ago. There’s a lesson here. While we celebrate this week, this year, or even this decade, eventually we’ll be the underdogs again. Then we won’t. Ride the highs, move through the lows, but stay committed.
Looking back, I started to follow teams during their good years, so I guess you can call me a bandwagoner. I’m ok with that. And I hope this year brings a few new bandwagoners turned diehard fans. We accept you. All we ask is that you stick with us. Suffer through the losses. Because that’s what communities do. We suffer together. We celebrate together. We find common ground. We exalt our heroes. And while the bond I feel seeing a stranger in a Cubs hat or a Bears jersey is not one of my strongest bonds, it reminds me that we could all find common ground, even if it’s just sports. They say never to talk about religion, politics or sports, but I’ve found that I’m probably going to agree with you on one of those topics, and that’s a good place to start.