When I was a kid, my dad used to take my brothers and me to Cubs games. Not all the time, but once in a while. Even took my sister once, but she fell asleep on his lap which meant he couldn’t get up and cheer when circumstances called for it. Oh yeah … that was the Cubs of the 1970s — no need to stand and cheer.
Goin’ to Wrigley was one of my favorite things as a kid. Still is. There’s nothin’ like that first glimpse of the impossibly green grass, the perfection of the infield carved from it, and the billowing clouds pushin’ across Chicago’s summer sky. But what sticks in my mind most from those trips to Wrigley was how tall everybody was. Walkin’ in the crowd was like bein’ in a forest of human redwoods. Even in our seats I couldn’t see a thing unless everyone was sittin’ down and I was up on my knees. That’s how I remember watchin’ most games at Wrigley. Makes my ACL swell up just thinkin’ about it.
My dad loved baseball. And more than that, he loved the Cubs. April was the most optimistic month in the Schlombowski household, but there was always a measure of it, no matter how far outta first the Cubs fell. “A 10-game win streak starts today, Joe,” he’d say as he was leavin’ for work. And when he’d get home, it’d be “See, I told ya,” or “I meant tomorrow,” depending on what the Cubs did that day. When they were on the road, Dad would haul our crappy, old black-and-white TV out on the stoop to escape the suffocating heat in our apartment, and watch the games with our neighbor, Mr. Kowalski. They’d smoke cigars and listen to Fergie Jenkins, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ron Santo try as they might to carry a team that was neck-deep in billy goat curse. The smoke seemed sweet, and curled up through the screen on the window of the room my brothers and I shared. I’d fall asleep to the sound of Jack Brickhouse or Vince Lloyd, the muffled conversation, and my dad’s occasionally animated and always colorful commentary on whatever the Cubs were doin’, and whoever was doin’ it to ’em.
To me, the quintessential ($5 word score!) Cubs fan was long ago defined by the intersection of my father and the Chicago Cubs. At Wrigley, I’d look up at him from my seat and see a guy who loved the experience of just being there much more than the game’s outcome. It was about the theater of the sport — its ebb and flow, the glacial pace interrupted by periodic moments of volcanic excitement. My father saw himself as a player in this nine-act play —the jester, if you will — the guy in the stands who has people three sections away laughin’ their asses off, and wishing they had the wit and courage to sling crap at the opposition like he did. You know, the kind of icy yet good-natured barbs that sting, but make one smile at the same time. If they gave a gold glove for that, my dad would have a trophy case full of ’em, and a couple of boxes in the garage for the ones that wouldn’t fit.
Dad wouldn’t pull punches if the Cubs needed a wake up call, either. “That’s part of bein’ a good fan,” he’d say. He taught me that you gotta hold the Cubs’ spikes to the fire when they F-up. And they do F-up. Two words: Greg Maddux. I learned that if you blindly defend a player’s on- and off-field brain farts, or an ownership that’s smothered in lame sauce, or hemorrhoid-inducing front office moves that make you lose your will to live, you’re not a real fan. You’re a “homer.” You’re like Mike Krukow and Duane Kuiper, the guys that do radio for San Francisco — two guys that wouldn’t say anything negative about a Giants player if he stole his grandmother’s life savings and blew it at the track. You could pour their broadcasts over your friggin’ pancakes, my friend. Real fans, Dad taught me, were loyal as a golden retriever, but didn’t act like public defenders when the Cubs play was criminally bad.
Don’t get me wrong. Except for my mom and us kids, my dad loved the Cubs more than anything. Sometimes bowling night would take the pole position, but that was in the off-season. Mostly, though, he lived and died with the Cubs, but did it in a rational way. And THAT, my friend, is what separates Cubs fans from all others. We don’t turn into raving phycho killers when the Cubs lose, and we don’t become obnoxious, our-shit-don’t-stink St Louis fans when we win … actin’ like our team is the best thing that ever stepped foot on a diamond … includin’ the ’27 Yankees.
I think it’s been all the years of sleepin’ in the rest of baseball’s garbage that’s given us some perspective. Of course, those decades of ineptitude (another $5 word score) have given us a lotta heartache, too. But you won’t find Cubs fans, even this year, countin’ any chickens just cuz we’re havin’ the best season since 1908. Giants fans, on the other hand? Crimminy … they’ve been sayin’ how 2016 is a lock for their 4th ring in 7 years just cuz it’s an even numbered year. And they been doin’ it since last year. Arrogance anyone? Makes me glad I didn’t grow up in San Francisco, where they serve crap like gluten-free flatbread, strawberry lavender spa water and fried Brussels sprouts with lemon aioli in their ball park. That ain’t baseball food! But that’s cuz those ain’t real baseball fans, either. They’re mostly new money tech geeks goin’ to games cuz it’s a “cool” thing to do, not cuz they grew up with posters of Mays and McCovey plasterin’ their bedroom walls. Me? My room looked like the friggin’ Chicago Cubs wing at Cooperstown, I had baseball cards of every Cubs player since they were known as the Orphans, my glove was an Ernie Banks autographed Rawlings, and Sister Mary Rachel used to yank my Cubs hat off me so I wouldn’t wear it up for communion.
It’s no surprise I turned out this way — with a blue pinstriped soul and a heart covered in ivy. I was brain washed … only it was carried out in a subtle, methodical way as to not be identified with such a negative term. That’s how it works with fathers and sons. It’s gradual — an almost imperceptible indoctrination ($10 word bonus) that takes decades, and from which there is no salvation. It’s passed along from father to son, like your great great grandfather’s pocket watch, only with the Cubs it’s a pocket watch that, until last year, was more like a friggin’ sun dial. No modern digital readout, no stop watch functionality, no Swiss movement. Sentimental, but not workin’ that great. Still, in spite of the Cubs bein’ the Cubs for the past 108 years, stickin’ with ’em has been a source of pride. Of course it’s been a source of frustration, depression and the frequent four-letter word salads, too. Mostly, though, bein’ a Cubs fan is a matter of character — a demonstration of loyalty and brotherhood, perseverance and patience. Anyone can root for the Yankees and their 27 rings, but it takes a special person to follow a team that’s lived in the basement longer than your grade school hockey skates. Can you imagine the Hollywooders in LA stickin’ with the Dodgers on a century-long drought? Not a friggin’ chance. They don’t even stick it out for one game — typically showin’ up late, leavin’ early, and braggin’ about beatin’ the traffic instead of the slapdicks in the other dugout. Pathetic.
Anyway, my father is guilty. Guilty of makin’ me love somethin’ that hasn’t loved me back. Guilty of makin’ me a slave to hope. Guilty of makin’ me go back to a well that’s been as dry as the chalk between third and home. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Why? Because of everything that makes a Cubs fan a Cubs fan — none of which has ever had a damn thing to do with wins or losses. How could it? If followin’ the Cubs was tied to the record you wouldn’t have three million churning through Wrigley’s turnstiles every year. You wouldn’t flip on the radio for a game in Pittsburgh and, based on the crowd noise, swear to Jesus they were playin’ at home. You wouldn’t have 108 years of “wait until next year” cuz the Cubs woulda left years ago for greener infields outside of Chicago.
So, here’s to you, Cubs fans, especially you, Dad, for dyein’ me in the wool. I raise a frosty Old Style to all of you. You make goin’ to Wrigley like sittin’ in my living room with 40,000 of my best friends, and what the hell is better than that? (Except for playin’ hide the sausage with the missus, of course.) Meetin’ one of you, anywhere — like Pauly, one of the faithful I met the other day in Seattle, of all places — is like runnin’ into a long lost friend. Thanks for that. You’re the best. Each and every one of you.