It’s a strange love …
“Anybody can hit – even you. Come on, I know a place we can pick up some tips.”
“Where are we going?”
“To watch a Cubs game.”
“A Cubs game? What are we going to learn from them?”
“Nothing. But the Braves are in town.”
So went my introduction to the Chicago Cubs – the punchline to a cheap joke in a one-season late-90s sitcom syndicated on Nickelodeon UK. I may not have grown up, like many Cubs fans, with the generational futility, with the stories of agonising collapses and with fresh hurt poured on every year. But even though I wouldn’t count myself a Cubs fan until years later, I’d been taught from the first introduction: the Cubs were a joke.
How times have changed. For me, for the Cubs … and for the Atlanta Braves. Ouch.
In these uncertain times, the United Kingdom in which I live is united in perhaps nothing more than in its popular disinterest in baseball. Everybody knows what it is, thanks to the pervasive influence of American culture – the baseball episodes of our favourite imported TV series, Kevin Costner films, the ubiquitous Yankee cap, you can’t miss it. Baseball idioms permeate British English to a baffling extent considering how few would know a real curveball even if it buckled their own knees. But it doesn’t truly have the profile of American football or even basketball. The morning after the World Series ends, the result might get the “and finally” on the sports bulletin. The only chance of actually seeing a game is to be flicking through the high-numbered cable or satellite TV sports channels late at night.
That wasn’t always the way though. Time was that you could watch Sunday Night Baseball and the World Series on free-to-air TV on Channel 5. It was still late at night, but at least it was open to all. That it’s not anymore is perhaps another indicator of the sport’s limited UK audience, but I can guarantee that Channel 5 had at least one viewer (… and there was much rejoicing) for a couple of nights in October 2005.
I was 17 years old and had a week off school, so of course I was awake at three in the morning for no reason other than that I probably only got up at three in the afternoon. After finally saying “no” to the insidious just-one-more-game allure of Championship Manager 4, I decided to do something more useful … and turned on the TV. There it was, on Channel 5 – game three of the 2005 World Series, the Houston Astros versus the Chicago White Sox.
I grew up with cricket, and was still coming down from the sporting nirvana of the previous summer’s incredible, absurd, triumphant Ashes series. So I watched for a while, if only so I could authoritatively dismiss this ‘base ball’ as the cheap alternative I knew it to be. But a terrible thing happened – I kind of liked it.
I watched for maybe an hour and started to get the hang of it, picking up the basics of the count and the strike zone, until eventually I decided to at least try to stay on daylight hours and went to bed. But inevitably I found myself in the same spot the next night for game four. Worse, actually, because I stayed up to the end of this one to see the White Sox clinch the series win with a sweep.
I don’t remember the final out, nor did I realise then just how historic it was. I’m sure I must have seen it though, because I remember a post-game interview with Sox third baseman and playoff hero Joe Crede. He’s the only player I specifically remember from those two games, mainly for that interview and some sharp plays at third. To a cricket obsessive and baseball novice, pitching and hitting look uncultured and crass. But the fielding is hard to dismiss. The arms, especially – those guys can throw.
So I’d seen real baseball for the first time, and for a moment it had me intrigued. But the problem with the World Series is that there’s no more baseball after it – not for months. Within a few days I was back in school and sleeping at night like a normal person, focus returned to the soothing rhythms of cricket with England beginning their tour of Pakistan. The circumstances that would have me channel-hoping in the middle of late October nights never reoccurred. Baseball, out of sight, went out of mind. But it did leave an impression on its way.
I mentioned that historic final out. I’d missed its significance in the moment, but I read up on it the next day. ‘It’ being the Curse of the Black Sox, supposedly brought on by the actions of several White Sox players in taking money to deliberately lose the 1919 World Series. Having won the World Series in 1917 and returned only to throw it away in 1919, they had to wait over 80 years to win it all again in 2005, as I watched obliviously.
It wasn’t many Wikipedia links from there to find out about the other ‘curses’. There was the Boston Red Sox’ Curse of the Bambino, which ascribed their World Series title drought to the 1919 sale of Babe Ruth to the then not-so-big-time New York Yankees. The Red Sox, 1918 champions, would not win again for decades while Yankees went on to unparalleled success through the rest of the century. The Red Sox finally won the World Series again in 2004. And finally, there was the Curse of the Billy Goat.
The Curse of the Billy Goat afflicts the Chicago Cubs – if you didn’t know, you might have guessed. The story goes that a fan and his pet goat were asked to leave Wrigley Field during game four of the 1945 World Series against the Detroit Tigers. Outraged, he (presumably the fan and not the goat, but Wikipedia is ambiguous) supposedly said that the Cubs “ain’t gonna win no more”.
Now, I don’t believe in curses and – not that I want to tell anyone what to think – neither should you. But everyone likes a good story. The curses Black Sox and Bambino, those are two great stories. But the Curse of the Billy Goat just doesn’t work, on any level. That curses aren’t real is almost the least of its problems.
The important thing, though, is that I’d finally seen real baseball, and a) I hadn’t been able to write it off as ‘toy cricket’, as I may once have called it, and actually quite liked it, and b) there were those Cubs again. And again, not cast in a good light. I’d been told they were losers, and now I’d been shown: they hadn’t won the World Series since 1908, by then a 97-year drought (not to mention 37 years before an angry man with a goat was rightfully ejected from Wrigley Field).
But whatever they were, they’d made an impression. I found the plain truth of the nearly century-long losing streak – the last great championship drought – far more compelling than the ‘curse’ that sought to explain it. Baseball wouldn’t come back onto my radar for a long time, but when it did, I’d realise the Cubs already had their claws in me.
There was no great aligning of the stars that brought me back to baseball, this time for good (not that there was the first time). Coincidence and curiosity, that’s all. It was October 2013, and the Red Sox were playing the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series. A rare article to that effect caught my eye on the BBC Sport website. Baseball was by then ghettoised on ESPN UK, but at the time I had access to it so I thought I’d give it another look. I forgot to actually do so several times, until I finally remembered in time for what proved to be the final game of the season.
Game six of the 2013 World Series will probably not be regarded as a classic. While not a blow-out, it was fairly routine as World Series clinching games go, the Red Sox beating the Cardinals 6-1. The decisive moment came in the bottom of the third inning, when Cardinals rookie starter Michael Wacha ran into trouble and Red Sox outfielder Shane Victorino did this:
Despite being a World Series winning hit, I expect that moment won’t be particularly well-remembered outside Boston. I’ve never heard it referenced since, and it doesn’t have half the YouTube views of the decisive moments of the next two World Series clinchers like Joe Panik’s flip, Madison Bumgarner’s five-inning save or Eric Hosmer’s dash home.
Arguably, it doesn’t even stand out in that Red Sox postseason run. Two late grand slams at Fenway Park against the Detroit Tigers in the ALCS were more pivotal, more clutch. Consecutive games ending on an obstruction call and then a pick-off, both World Series firsts, were certainly weirder.
But it’s probably the most important play I’ll ever see. It’s the play that made an unlikely baseball fan of me.
It’s the sound. Listen to it again. Before the pitch there’s an anticipatory, almost predatory buzz as the crowd scents blood. It explodes at the crack of the bat, but it only gets louder as the ball sails towards Fenway’s Green Monster. It gets so loud the sound distorts in the microphones, so loud you almost don’t hear the impact on the wall. For an instant the roar turns celebratory as the lead runners score, then the urgency rises again as Jonny Gomes races the throw home. Safe is the call, and as Gomes bounds towards the dugout and Victorino runs chest-thumping into third the park erupts again, finally, in pure triumph.
The circumstances of that play – the Red Sox at Fenway, with a chance to clinch the World Series – are primed for the spectacular. Still, it illustrates baseball’s core dramatic appeal. Every baserunner has a high potential impact on the outcome, cranking up the tension over the course of a rally. But until someone drives them home, it’s all just that – tension in the spring, potential energy. The Red Sox and Michael Wacha duelled over the course of ten minutes and five plate appearances to the point of maximum tension: two out, bases loaded. In the game without a clock, there’s nowhere to go but through the next batter. Something has to give, and even as Wacha falls behind in the count, there’s a chance he gets out of it with no harm done. Right up to the instant Victorino hits the wall, there’s a chance that the entire inning’s work goes for nothing. The instant he does, his team is decisively ahead.
Few other sports produce such massive instantaneous shifts on the scoreboard, and none does it like baseball does it.
As intrigued as I briefly was in 2005, I didn’t get that kind of stark lesson on what baseball is about. Victorino’s double off the Monster was more than a lesson – a revelation. I wouldn’t forget this time. Far from it, I was moved with the zeal of the convert … but with no place to go.
See, the trouble with the World Series is that there’s no more baseball after it. Not for months.
I was always going to be a Cubs fan. It’s obvious with hindsight, like so many things. Whatever kind of weird you have to be to see somebody else’s century of failure and futility and think “Yes! I’ll have me some of that!” – that’s my kind of weird.
I didn’t know it at the time, though. I did know that I’d need a team to follow, because that’s the kind of fan I am. I can live without it, but I like being invested. So as I knew I’d end up throwing my lot in with some or other team eventually, I thought I’d better take some care and make sure I chose well. Imagine I’d been careless and, say, taken pity on the beaten Cardinals – it doesn’t bear thinking about.
I spent the offseason learning about the sport, watching old games on YouTube and reading about positions, pitch types, platoon advantages and so on. I didn’t pay much attention to baseball’s current events through the winter, so by the time the 2014 season began I still didn’t have much clue who was who. On a few hunches and prejudiced assumptions about great swathes of North America, I picked a handful of teams to follow and see where they took me.
There were the Seattle Mariners, for their nice colours. The New York Mets, for New York City and not being the Yankees. The Oakland A’s, for the Moneyball phenomenon of which I was aware but had not read. The Toronto Blue Jays, for Canada. Maybe a couple more. None of them mattered though, because by the end of the first week I was only interested in the Cubs.
At the time, I didn’t know they were going to be bad that year. I didn’t know they were in the midst of a gruelling rebuild. Having grown up with British sport I wasn’t even familiar with the concept of a rebuild. Here, there’s no team control, no amateur drafts. It’s a free market, where the rich stay good and the poor stay bad. Occasionally one of the poor gets rich, then gets good, but that’s about the extent of it. A faint awareness of the Yankees winning everything in the 90s hadn’t prepared me to think baseball was any different.
I didn’t mind. Even as they lurched to a 13-27 start, I didn’t mind. For the first time, but not that last, I’ll admit to feelings that probably ran counter to those of the true die-hards, the long-suffering born-and-raised Cubs fans: I kind of liked it. I didn’t like my new favourite team losing every day (that daily grind was an itself an education for someone used to weekly sports – though one I’ve adapted to and now seem to handle better than many baseball fans online). Better to say I appreciated the opportunity to serve a kind of apprenticeship.
My affection for the Cubs runs deep by now, but there’s no denying that the initial attraction was based on the hundred-year championship drought. Its end will be one of the greatest ever stories in sport, and I wanted a stake in it. But I’m not a casual bandwagoneer, allegiance free-floating like a plastic bag on the wind and just as valuable. I take this stuff seriously – too seriously, as these thousands of words attest. I commit. I invest. But that does take time. The 2014 Cubs, bless them, they gave me time.
Over that year I came to know the team and its fandom about as well as I possibly could from an ocean away. Every morning I checked the overnight scores, watched every highlight. I watched every game I could on ESPN UK and some via less legitimate means. When MLB.tv went on sale, I went straight and watched even more. I read all the blogs I could find, and every discussion thread. I read daily minor league updates and top prospect lists, followed the draft and the trade deadline. Jake Arrieta became an ace and Anthony Rizzo became the leader, the talent stacked up in the minor leagues like a dam about to burst, like an oncoming storm, and I followed it all – devoured it, more like. Another losing season it might have been, but I drank it all in and took something from every single day.
So I want to take a pause and thank the 2014 Cubs, and their fans, for letting me get to know them. I know it was yet another lost year in a long rebuild, with no guarantees that better times were coming. I feel guilty for selfishly appreciating that, when so many have waited for so long. I know that even in that one year, some will have lost grandparents, parents and friends that waited their whole lives for a Cubs championship and never got to see it. Just this week, the New York Daily News published the story of a long-serving Cubs scout desperate for a World Series ring and made me feel terrible for contemplating wanting anything but the utmost success for the Cubs. But I have to admit: I needed that rebuilding season. Without it, I couldn’t have shared in what was to come.
2014 proved to be the final year of the rebuild, and more definitively than anyone might have guessed. Over the winter the front office got aggressive in adding win-now players through trade and free-agency. The prospect dam broke and the trickle that began in late 2014 became a flood. And the Cubs got good – really, really fast. And really good. Fast.
I followed even closer, and enjoyed it even more – of course I did, the Cubs were winning. But it wasn’t without some anxiety.
I think I was lucky to start following the Cubs when I did, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I got in ahead of a period of flux on the roster. That meant that I was just in time to get to know the coming generation of prospects while they were still in the minors. When they arrived in the majors, I knew them as well as almost any Cubs fans besides the prospect bloggers who’d taught the rest of us. The same applied with new arrivals like Dexter Fowler and Jon Lester, and the 2014 breakouts of Rizzo and Arrieta let me grasp their narratives too. As the new core of the team came together I was able to know the 2015 Cubs on a near-equal footing with everybody else – far faster than could have been possible with a more mature team.
Secondly – and here’s the anxiety – I was able to justify to myself that I wasn’t a bandwagon-jumping Johnny-come-lately, because I was on for a full year before when the bandwagon had much less going for it. This was silly, because a) it was entirely internal and no one actually cares, and b) I already knew my intentions were sincere.
Nonetheless, the unexpected success of the 2015 Cubs came so quickly that I actually worried I hadn’t earned the right to enjoy it with everybody else. For the second time, I had feelings at odds with the rest of Cubs fandom. Maybe, I thought, I don’t even want the Cubs to win the World Series just yet – just give me one more year, one playoff torment to share in.
Blasphemy, right? Also, first world problems, right? But such concerns would be allayed by two things. Well, three.
Let’s skip ahead and deal with the third – the third is the New York Mets, who unceremoniously ended the Cubs’ wonderful season with a four-game sweep of the National League Championship Series. If I had any remaining doubt about what I really wanted, the Mets eradicated it. Faced with the reality of it, I remembered the obvious truth, one I already knew from pre-baseball experience: losing sucks, elimination sucks. Seriously, screw the Mets.
Now back to the good stuff before that. First, I visited Chicago in late September. I spent a few days there at the end of a trip that began in Boston and New York, in each city taking in some baseball and the usual tourist crap. I had a great time on the East Coast, but there’s a certain distance between people in those cities. The kind of places where one could break into song on a crowded subway car and nobody would even lift their head to look. I know because it happened. Just me and this kid from the Bronx, staring at each other through a crowded train, and I felt like the crazy one for noticing. Kid had a voice, though. This – the distant quality – wasn’t unexpected as it was roughly in line with my experience of London, where I’ve visited family many times.
Chicago was different, though. I don’t know how valid the stereotype of Midwestern politeness is, or how it applies to Chicago, but I felt like it was there. I still got the sense of being in this huge, exciting city but without the impersonal edge. The streets were busy without being crowded, people spoke to one another on public transport, even security guards were friendly. I liked it. (Admittedly, I saw a tourist-friendly fraction of the city. I’m aware there are other parts of the city going through serious problems, but I can only speak from experience.)
The feeling translated to the ballpark as well. Wrigley Field is a magical place, of course it is, but then so is Fenway Park. Citi Field is a great new facility too, and not at all soulless like some. And Yankee Stadium … well, forget Yankee Stadium. But the fans were the difference. I was travelling and going to games alone, and that can be intimidating. I enjoyed my time at the other ballparks but Cubs fans were the only ones to make me feel welcome, letting the guy on his own in on their conversations and sharing high-fives after big plays.
It probably didn’t hurt that I saw the Cubs play some great baseball, as they went 3-1 against the Cardinals and Milwaukee Brewers in a stretch that included Starlin Castro’s only Wrigley Field curtain call, Kris Bryant turning a wild pitch into an unassisted putout at third and one of the defensive plays of the season from Addison Russell to seal a win over the Cardinals.
The whole experience meant that I travelled home with my affections greatly heightened – not only for the uniformed figures from my TV screen but for everything around them – the ballpark, the fans, and the city of Chicago.
I felt so strongly that when the postseason began a few weeks later, I found it exhilarating as expected but also hard to watch. Not for the tension, although that too, but for the longing to be there. That leads me to the second thing.
Having made the postseason comfortably in the end, the Cubs set down the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Wild Card came and held a 2-1 lead over the Cardinals in the best-of-five National League Division Series with a chance to clinch it in game four. At the end of another sensational game, they were heading into the final inning in position to do just that – to win a postseason series at Wrigley Field for the first time ever, and against the rival Cardinals of all teams.
In that moment, I wanted to be there so much that it hurt. Instead I was thousands of miles away with a dark night settling outside my window while this perfect evening unfolded in Chicago. As I watched the final inning, almost as concerned about my shaky internet connection cutting out as I was about Hector Rondón blowing the save, it felt like nobody for miles around was even aware of this thing that felt so momentous to me. It was probably true.
Rondón, much like my wireless, wasn’t perfect but got the job done. As he faced the final Cardinals batter, Cubs radio announcer Pat Hughes called it so:
“If you feel like you can’t sit still, you are not alone.
“I wish all of you could be right here at this moment – unbelievable atmosphere!
“And the oh-two … swing and a miss! Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win!”
I trimmed some of the baseball. Sorry. But it wasn’t entirely about baseball for me by then.
Of all the spoken words I’ve ever heard, few have ever reached out to me like that call. Maybe I should pay more attention to the world’s great orators, poets and lyricists, but they’ve never moved me like that call moved me. It was perfect. It didn’t stop me wishing I was there. But hearing those words from the voice of the Cubs gave me what I really wanted: to feel a part of it. Belonging.
This whole ‘sincerity’ thing I’m doing here, I find it entirely unbecoming. But I have to say… thank you, Pat Hughes, for saying what I didn’t even know I so wanted to hear. For bringing me right into the park from half the world away, thank you.
It’s now a little over a year since my affirmational visit to Wrigley Field. The surprising 2015 Cubs have been succeeded by the dominant 2016 edition. At the end of the regular season, they are the undisputed best in baseball – it’s not close. But that counts for little as they head into the postseason. A higher seeding, home field advantage … nothing that can’t be cancelled out by one umpire’s call, one bounce of a ball, one hot streak or slump. Baseball, in short.
I don’t know if the Cubs win the World Series this year. Maybe they will, but probably they won’t. That’s baseball – stupid, brilliant baseball. These two things, though, I do know …
Firstly, I want them to win, profoundly and unequivocally. Any anxiety I felt about having ‘earned the right’ to share in it is long gone. I just want it to happen so I and millions of others – from the oldest of Cubs fans to, I expect, a majority of baseball-loving neutrals – can finally enjoy it.
Secondly, I will be back next year either way. ‘Back’ isn’t even the word, because I won’t be going anywhere – I’ll be obsessing all winter too. My interest began in 2014, or maybe long before, with the World Series drought. But my love – yeah, I said it – has grown around the team and the city behind the curse.
The drought is a great story waiting desperately for its final chapter. The current team has the talent to write it and some to spare, but there are no guarantees in sport. In baseball, fewer still. It’s coming though, someday, and I can’t wait to see it. But almost as much, almost, I want to see what comes after.
It’s a hell of a time to be a Cubs fan. I rue having missed so much even in my lifetime. Three years ago, I’d never have guessed I’d be any part of it. I’m all-in now though, and I’m not leaving.