Confessions of a Born Again Cubs Fan (Top of the Ninth)

20 Feb

BleachersOn June 23, 1984, the St. Louis Cardinals played the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. It was NBC’s Saturday game of the week which was a big deal back then for this would be a rare national broadcast. In Cub lore this is known as The Sandberg Game after our Second Baseman, Ryne Sandberg. It was a wild, back-and-forth game. Down by a run, Sandberg hit a game-tying homer off Cardinals closer Bruce Sutter. One inning later, the Cubs were down by two runs and Sandberg hit another game-tying homer of Bruce Sutter.

 

It was also the first baseball game I ever attended, and it forever made me a Chicago Cubs fan. I sat in the bleachers and jumped up and down during those wild moments.

Okay, you got me. I wasn’t there. But like many fans, I feel as if I was. Like certain epoch-defining moments, we occasionally elevate our own importance to not just one of casual observer but of virtual participant. And with sports the personal involvement always seems larger than it really is. In truth, none of what we as individual fans do affects the outcome of any given game. For an avowed agnostic like myself, I am not a normally superstitious person. But when it comes to sports, and baseball in particular, I feel – I know – that incidental actions by distant fans have vast consequences.

The Cubs made it to the playoffs that year. It was their first postseason appearance in thirty-six years. If you understand anything about baseball, and more specifically the Chicago Cubs, you will know that this long-overdue arrival did not go swimmingly. It never does. But for me it was something a bit more personal. The fifth and final game of the playoffs was held on October 7, 1984. Whoever won would go to the World Series. That day was also my ninth birthday. And it is still the worst day of my life.

Thanks, fucking baseball.

***

I could very easily get saccharine and make the case that life is like baseball. That’s what the great baseball poets do. They elevate the game to something it is not – myth, lore, metaphors for America or growing up or getting old. Baseball isn’t any of those things, at least not intrinsically. At times – rare and beautiful occasions that are filled with joy or heartbreak – baseball is better than life. It is not myth because myth is of the past, and those rare transcendent moments I speak of happen in an eternal present, one that is captured and preserved in the amber of memory. It is not a metaphor for America – that would be football, the warlike movement into another’s territory, the reckless machismo, the exuberant infatuation with violence – but it is perhaps a metaphor for what many of us wish America to be.

I mean, whatever the hell that is supposed to be.

***

I moved to New York in 1994, almost ten years after the day I claim to be the worst of my life. I came here for film school. In my mind I was going to make the greatest student film ever, be discovered by some famous director, be given a three picture deal with Warner Bros., and by 2013 I’d be making room on my mantel for another Oscar before bedding my superhot actress wife, he wrote Friday night alone in his boxers, drinking cheap Bourbon and eating leftover pizza.

When you’re 18 you are inherently idealistic because you don’t know that the world is a harsh destructive place. You don’t realize yet that film school is a racket, that people in the film industry are truly awful human beings, that creative types – yourself included – are narcissistic assholes who are virtually incapable of admiring the talents in others, that no one will do your laundry except you, that you cannot simply keep drinking and not think that the next morning will bring consequences, that some women will intentionally try to break your heart because that’s just who they are, that New York is a cold, harsh, lonely place, that It Can’t Happen Here is a lie, that no matter who you vote for you will always be disappointed, that people will judge you by the crudest criterion: your net worth, that all those French fries will catch up to you sooner or later, that the gym is one step below the Writers Guild as a palace of Ego, that love does not last. And that you are not nearly as talented as you once thought you were.

See, that’s life: a long string of unkindnesses. For every Sandberg Game there is a Birthday Game. For every Empire Strikes Back there is a Phantom Menace. For every supposed true love there is the moment you stop drinking the romantic Kool-Aid. I’m not being pessimistic here. I actually look on the bright side more often than not. I’m an idealist. But more specifically, I’m a cynical idealist: I think things suck but that they can get better. That’s why I’m a Democrat and a Cubs fan. Sometimes with those two organizations, the only place to go is up, and the only serviceable emotion is hope.

Yeah, life’s a bitch. And by bitch I mean a large furry dog that lets you play with her and is always a lot of fun, but once in a while takes a poop in your bed while you are sleeping in it with the new girl. But, back to the game…

I didn’t hate New York. I was too scared of it to hate it. Even with its street grid for dummies layout, I was eternally lost, never knowing which way was north, what the difference between Murray Hill and Gramercy was, and don’t get me started on Brooklyn.

Between my arrival in 1994 and October of 1996 I watched one baseball game: the one in which Cal Ripken Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record. Like many fans I was fed up with baseball after the strike. And now I was in New York and trying to be an adult when in actuality I was just a scared kid. I didn’t have time for baseball.

Baseball, after all, is unnecessary. Sports are unnecessary. They are bread and circuses, a means for the masses to unwind after one shitty day and before the next. It is never meant to be a substitution for life, just a bonus. Like TV or going to the movies, or even reading books. These are not things without which we would die. These are not food and water, shelter and love, society and civilization. They’re just extras. In that way a Harry Potter book is equivalent to an episode of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills or a song by Prince or a Yankees/Red sox game.

Baseball, however, still had time for me.

***

A  helicopter shot over Manhattan, night, bright lights and all that jazz. We move down south towards Union Square. Leaves are changing, a chill is in the air. We hover for a moment over an ugly NYU dorm. Then we enter:

INT. JACOB’S NYU DORM ROOM – NIGHT

JACOB, a cool, sexy 21-year old sits on his bed reading Twelfth Night for his Shakespeare class. JED, his friend and drinking buddy, sits at Jacob’s old DOS PC writing a paper. The TV plays Game 4 of the World Series: Yankees v. Braves.

JED

Jake, I thought you were a Cubs fan.

JACOB

I am. But this is kind of cool. I mean, I’ve never been in a city with a World Series before.

JED

So are you off the hating baseball bandwagon?

JACOB

I wouldn’t say that, Jed. I’m watching this more out of curiosity’s sake. Besides, the Yankees are supposed to lose. They’re already down two games to one. Down three in this game, and it’s already the eighth inning. I doubt very…

ON THE TV: Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz hits a three-run home run to tie the game.

Jacob and Jed look at each other with eye-popping expressions. They begin to scream loudly. Jacob opens the window and the two of them go out on the balcony. Around the courtyard dozens of NYU students stand on their respective balconies shouting for joy.

Two things happened that night. First, I thought I had become a Yankee fan. Second, I knew I had become a New Yorker. Oh, there are still those who think that someone who has lived in New York for almost two decades is not a “real New Yorker,” but my opinion is that those guys can go fuck themselves. You don’t have to be born or raised here to consider yourself part of the city. New York is a city of immigrants from around the world and around the country. If “real New Yorker” was restricted to the natives, it would be a smattering of fireman from Bensonhurst and a few Upper East Side rich kids.

That night, screaming out my window and listening to the echoes from all the other windows, I felt that I had finally become part of this place, that it was no longer scary, that NYC had finally accepted me for who I was. And since that day I’ve always known which way is north.

And because it was the Yankees that did it, I somehow started rooting for them. I was not a true Fan, I would never be one. Unlike an emigrant to New York, it is difficult to become a true fan of a team after a certain age. Baseball teams have built-in history. There are certain plays everyone remembers, that great catch, that walk-off homer, that error by the usually reliable First Baseman. There are Red Sox or Yankees fans who claim to remember Bucky Dent’s home run, even though they were only three years old at the time. There are people I know in Brooklyn who still remember when the Dodgers unleashed the harshest betrayal in the history of the game and moved to sunny California. Or me, when I say that I remember a game that I wasn’t at, a game I think I may or may not have seen on TV, but which I know play-for-play in my blood.

I was a New Yorker and a Yankee fan. I bought a Yankee hat. I went to Yankee games. If another Yankee fan encountered me at a bar I could have passed as easily as a guy who grew up in the Bronx.

I was a New Yorker and a Yankee fan. And happy.

But nothing lasts.

[We’ll be back with the riveting conclusion to this post after a weeklong message from our sponsors.]

 

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