Is There Anything Worse Than Being A Cubs Fan?

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.


I Get to be a Packer Fan Again Sunday

I got Bart Starr’s autograph without even knowing it was him

When I was young, my parents owned a resort in northern Wisconsin. Miller’s Hidden Haven on Lost Land Lake. Always liked the way that sounded. I’ll never forget riding around the resort with my dad in his red GMC pickup truck. Like all little boys, I loved riding in the back. We’d just ride around and “fix things” as I recall. Those were wonderful times that will stay with me forever.

The locals call northern Wisconsin God’s country. Our resort was on a heavily wooded point on the lake. It truly was God’s country. My best friend, Michael Brandt lived a couple of miles away at Lost Land Lake Lodge. When we wanted to hang out, we’d jump in our boats and meet up somewhere on the lake. Mine had a 7.5 horsepower blue and gray Evinrude. I loved that boat. I was in second grade when I started running around the lake by myself. Seems odd now.

When fall arrived each year, it was time to close down the resort and make the long drive back to Dyer, Indiana for the winter. One year as we were getting ready to leave, my dad announced with a great deal of excitement that we would be taking a side-trip to Green Bay. He was a huge Packer fan, and of course, he made the natural assumption that I was one as well. While that was true, I really wasn’t into football back then as much as he was.

When we got to Green Bay, we drove straight to Lambeau Field, home of the Packers. The team was working out on a practice field adjacent to the stadium. In those days, fans could walk right up to the players when practice was over. My dad could barely contain his exuberance as he handed me a pen and pad of paper. “Go get some autographs,” he said with genuine enthusiasm.

With more than a little trepidation, I walked up to a  group of Packers. I was a small skinny boy and these guys looked like they were at least eight feet tall. I asked the biggest one for his autograph. (assuming he must be the best player since he was the biggest player.) He got down on one knee and smiled as he signed my pad. “I’d be happy to give it to you,” said Steve Wright, (a so-so player who’s name I’ve remembered all these years) “but why don’t you ask   that guy over there for HIS autograph?

I walked up to “that guy over there,” and asked him to sign my pad. He leaned over and said, “Sure I will,” as he reached for my pen. After he gave it back to me, I thanked him and ran back to show my dad all two of my autographs. He could barely contain himself as he read the second name out loud: “Bart Starr!” He was beaming. My dad was the happiest “boy” on the field that day.

I’m a Colts fan these days, but whenever I get the opportunity, I root for the Green Bay Packers. I remember sitting with my dad in front of the television all those Sundays and watching our team. Those images will never leave me.

My dad’s gone now, but come this Sunday, I’ll be thinking about that day long ago, when I got Bart Starr’s autograph for him. I’ll be cheering for both of us.