Now that football is over and thoughts turn to baseball, “the inevitable” is a couple of months away from beginning all over again. I’m so used to it.
Kermit the Frog says, “It isn’t easy being green.” Guess what Kermit? It’s no walk in the park being a Cubs fan either. Anyone who knows baseball knows that. And even worse, many “real” baseball fans look down their baseball noses at us. They think we don’t know much about the game. I suppose their logic isn’t completely without merit: After all, if we did know much about baseball, why would we be Cubs fans in the first place?
I grew up in the Calumet Region of northwest Indiana. Region Rats are generally either fans of the White Sox or the Cubs. Never both. Unfortunately, I was born a Cubs fan.
I’ve thought a lot about this self-inflicted heartache my whole life. Why do we put ourselves through this every year? Optimism? Denial? Both? It’s the same routine every spring: Maybe this will be the year. Sometimes, we come right out and tell ourselves: This WILL be the year!
Why do we think “this year” will be any different than all the other years? To most fans, “magic number” refers to the combination of their team’s wins and the second place team’s losses needed to clinch the division. Our magic number is usually a combination of Cubs losses and other teams’ wins that will eliminate the Cubs from the post-season. Again.
Not only is a Cubs fan’s life filled with disappointment and heartbreak, every once in awhile in can get downright cruel. Case in point:
My favorite Cubs team of all time was the 1969 edition. Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks had moved from shortstop to first base. Glenn Beckert (who seldom struck out) was at second, Don Kessinger at short, with the late, lovable Ron Santo at third. Sweet Swingin’ Billy (Williams) from Whistler was in left, and a pretty good catcher by the name of Randy Hundley was behind the plate.
We had some pretty good pitchers too, including Canadian Ferguson Jenkins (now in the Hall of Fame) and Ken Holtzman, who threw a no-hitter that year. (Although it took the Lake Michigan wind pushing a Hank Aaron homerun back into the field of play to make it happen.) Ironically, Holztman’s effort was the only no-hitter in the history of baseball with no strike-outs. Go figure.
IN THAT YEAR’S ALL-STAR GAME, THE NATIONAL LEAGUE’S INFIELD WAS COMPOSED ENTIRELY OF CUBS.
The Cubbies were managed by the irascible Leo Durocher in those days. Leo the Lip was nearing the end of a successful career and was a bit long in the tooth by 1969. How could anyone not love Leo? You never knew what was going to come out of his mouth when someone stuck a microphone in his face. Among my favorite Leo quotes:
I believe in rules. Sure I do. If there weren’t any rules, how could you break them?
I never did say that you can’t be a nice guy and win. I said that if I was playing third base and my mother rounded third with the winning run, I’d trip her.
Baseball is like church. Many attend, few understand.
Buy a steak for a player on another club after the game, but don’t even speak to him on the field. Get out there and beat him to death.
Anyway, the day after the Holztman no-hitter, the Cubs had their largest lead of the season: 8 1/2 games up on the Cardinals, 9 1/2 ahead of the Mets. Surely, this was FINALLY the year. Unfortunately, 1969 was also the year of Gil Hodges’ Amazing Mets. During a collapse for the ages, the Cubs lost 17 of their last 25 games while the Mets won 38 of 49 and went on to beat the Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.
Some blamed the epic collapse on the Curse of the Billy Goat, which was allegedly placed on the Cubs in 1945. Billy Goat Tavern owner Billy Sianis was asked to leave a World Series game at Wrigley Field between the Cubs and the Tigers because the odor of his pet goat was bothering other fans. Sianis became outraged and declared: “Them Cubs…they aren’t gonna win no more!” The Cubs were up 2 games to one at that point but went on to lose the World Series to the Tigers. Of course they did.
Then there was the infamous black cat incident that many Cubs fans believe was the beginning of the end of the 1969 season. During the first inning of a crucial game with the Mets at Shea Stadium, a black cat walked across the field right in front of the Cubs dugout, past Ron Santo, who was waiting on deck. The Mets won the game, took the division lead the next day, and the rest is history.
Not only would the 2003 Cubs remind me of who was in charge of my baseball emotions, they would do it in spectacular fashion. The Cubs were playing the Florida Marlins at Wrigley in game 6 of the National League Championship Series. They held a 3 games to 2 lead in the seven game series, and were up 3-0 in the eighth inning. They were five outs away from a trip to the World Series.
Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo was at the plate. He hit a popup foul down the third baseline. As Cubs outfielder Moises Alou neared the wall to make the catch, the now-infamous Steve Bartman reached out and touched the ball. Alou didn’t make the catch. The Cubs went on to lose game. They also lost game seven and the Marlins went on to beat the New York Yankees in the World Series. 1969 revisited. Only this time, we were strung along until the very end.
My son Andrew was 11 years old at the time. He was not only a very good baseball player, he was a fourth-generation die-hard Cubs fan as well. The morning after the Bartman Incident, I came downstairs to find him sitting at the kitchen counter, staring wistfully out the window. “You know what dad,” he said, “I’ll probably die before the Cubs win the World Series, won’t I?” I thought for a minute and replied, “You know…I was about your age when I started thinking that too.”
We laughed on the outside, but we hurt on the inside. I’m sure we’ll share more than a few of those laughs along the way…probably beginning this fall.