Note: I wrote this op-ed while working for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1984. It ran on September 29, adopting a "Saturday Diary" format the paper used for these kinds of personal essays.
I don’t play the state lottery and I don’t buy whole life insurance because I know I can’t win. The odds are against them.
But I started rooting for the Chicago Cubs in 1961 because they seemed like the most exciting team in baseball and because Ernie Banks seemed the most natural kind of hero.
Of course, the Cubs have not won a pennant in my lifetime. But Ernie had a Hall of Fame career and gave me his love for the game free of charge. “It’s a beautiful day for baseball!” he sang out every day he came to the park. “Let’s play two.”
I believed he meant it.
* * *
Professional sports exist, I believe, because kids who play games need to imagine themselves as adults who play games. You never want it to end.
I began following the Cubs, at the age of 10, through a neighbor-friend of my parents in Madison, Wis. I remember his name — Jerry Snyder — and I remember the day of my epiphany.
“This is the year the Cubs are going to win it all,” he said, and I believed he meant it.
In Madison I could only tune in Cubs’ games on my father’s car radio. Vince Lloyd and Lew Boudreau called the play-by-play. I sat behind the driver’s seat, wearing my cap, punching my mitt, my trance lengthening with each pitch.
It didn’t matter who the Cubs had playing those days — forgettable (to some) journeymen like George Altman and Ed Bailey, or more memorable phenoms like Billy Williams and Ron Santo. I knew what each was capable of at every at bat. I could see them each achieving some kind of glory.
* * *
Opening Day, April 1965 or thereabouts, and the hated Cardinals are visiting Wrigley Field. I listen for nine innings, pounding my mitt on every windup. The Cards hold a three-run lead and it’s getting dark.
Two Cubs scratch their way on base. Ernie walks up to the plate and all Vince and Lou can talk about is how hard it is to see the ball because dusk is falling and Wrigley Field has no lights.
I can see what Ernie is going to do.
Cub fans know the score, and what it will take to overcome it.
Long, long fly ball. Cowbells ringing for a three-run homer. Game is tied but Ernie Banks, a man more blessed than possessed, wins the day.
The game is then called because of darkness, to be played all over again the next afternoon. I don’t remember the outcome of that one. Instead, I have in my memory a perfectly realized moment of baseball lore.
* * *
I don’t want to talk about 1969, the year the Cubs seemed a sure bet to win the pennant. They folded desperately in August and September to the Mets — a team of true destiny, I’ll grant you. But did it have to be the Mets?
I still visualize one painful story. The Mets had clinched the division title by winning three games from the Cubs. On the last meaningless day of the season, a numbnut named Ed Kranepool walked up to a despairing Cubs’ dugout and yelled out mockingly:
“It’s a beautiful day for baseball, Ernie. Wanna play two?”
Human cruelty knows no discretion. Cub fans still bleed for that man, Ed.
* * *
It wasn’t until 1977 that I first saw a game in Wrigley Field. Ernie Banks called it the “Friendly Confines.” It might as well have been my home.
There must be a word for that sensation when a thing of anticipated beauty looks, feels, sounds exactly as you imagine it. In baseball, Wrigley Field is fulfillment.
The lush infield grass looks like the field every kid wants to play on but never can find. The verdant ivy around the outfield bleachers gives the illusion of a soft cushion, until a ball—or an outfielder’s bones—cracks against the brick wall underneath.
This ballpark embraces the event. There are no mascots or flashy scoreboards to tell you how to act and cheer. Cub fans know the score, and what it will take to overcome it.
The Cubs were in contention that year until the All-Star game. I saw them blow a two-run lead to the Dodgers and drop to fourth place. An old man sitting next to me muttered out loud.
“I’ve been watching this team lose like this for 30 years,” he said.
Then he pulled a team schedule out of his wallet and opened the calendar to the current month. “Look,” he groused, pointing to the crease between July and August. “They’ve even got it printed, ‘FOLD HERE’.”
* * *
This week, in Pittsburgh, I have witnessed the Cubs clinch a division title, and I don’t know how to feel.
Who are these ballplayers who have given me the happiest summer of my life?
They are the Chicago Cubs, and they have passed a test that few gave them any chance of surviving. They won with speed, power, pitching, defense and depth. The complete team. The ideal season.
I’ve never bought the Cubs-as-lovable-losers metaphor for life that creeps onto editorial pages from time to time. Cub fans have never learned to enjoy losing. We have only learned that the season is finite and therefore forgiving—that as long as we refuse to assume the roles of victims, we will come back to realize our most idle visions.
So we’ve no right to gloat in victory, even over the Mets, because we’ve no right to claim this year as destiny. We can only pound our mitts and play another game. Maybe two.
I can’t help it anymore. That’s just the way I see it.
I’m a Cub fan. What’s your excuse?