In the past month or so, since the Red Sox clinched their second World Series title in three years, I've been visited by a bothersome dream.
It's late at night and I awaken with a startling feeling that I'm supposed to be somewhere important. I climb from bed and light a cigarette (I quit six months ago so this happens often), pull on a pair of jeans and a blue t-shirt bearing a minimalist logo of a bear cub's head. I kiss my sleeping wife and drift toward the open door.
Now I'm on the sidewalk.
It's a balmy autumn evening and somewhere far away, a crowd makes noise like crashing surf.
I finish the cigarette and light two more, remembering the Surgeon General's warning that clean lungs and a cancer-free lifestyle require health-conscious Americans to smoke a pack a day (back off...it's my dream.)
Afterward I board the Red Line and ride three stops to Wrigley Field.
The World Series is in progress and I panic, fearing that I've lost my ticket. But no, I have it, and I approach a gaunt senior citizen manning a turnstile. He looks familiar in a History Channel sort of way, dressed in a black suit and hat circa 1908. I hand over my ticket and he inspects it. Then he shakes his head, crumples it in his fist and tosses it into the gutter.
It's not your year, kid, he says.
But wait Mister Ford, I say...I'm a model fan!
The old man sucks his teeth and grins. Wrong model, he says.
"It's worth noting that the average new car gets twenty miles to the gallon...less than Henry Ford's Model T got when it went on the market, ninety-nine years ago last month."
I read this factoid in an article by Elizabeth Kolbert in a recent issue of The New Yorker in which she discussed fuel-efficient automobiles. It was an interesting piece, not least because Kolbert is a quick and witty writer, but to this Chicagoan only one point resonated.
The Chicago Cubs have now officially been losers longer than there have been cars.
Let me frame it another way.
The last time the Cubs won the World Series, penicillin, Mickey Mouse, nylon, movies with sound, and bubblegum had not yet been invented.
Teddy Roosevelt had two years to go in his presidency.
Also: Ronald Reagan had not been born, Robert Peary had not been to the North Pole and China was still ruled by dynasty.
Speaking of dynasties, in the 100 years that have passed since the Cubs won their lone World Series title, the New York Yankees have accumulated 26 of them.
Half of that, 13, should be an assault to the senses of any non-Yankees fan. Chicago Cubs fans in particular should have stormed Wrigley Field with pitchforks, burning torches and sweat socks full of horseshit and demand the head of Andy MacPhail and Jim Hendry and of all the other organizational geniuses who came before them.
But what do Cubs fans do instead?
I'll tell you what they do because I'm them...I'm him.
What we do is have another beer, curse perfunctorily and then recall with fondness The Lip, Mister Cub, Ryno and Harry, and all of those thousands of warm and sunny perfect afternoons with a perfect little train clickety-clacking behind the park and the perfect blue inland sea sparkling behind the little train, the ivy creeping over the crumbling walls while the t-shirts of comely ladies cling to them tightly, and we forgive the Cubs for being stinking consistent losers.
We are, in this sense, like the children of an alcoholic parent; the significant other of a charming failure; the best buddy of a huggable crack addict.
We love them and at the heart of this love is loyalty.
Unfortunately so is being a sucker.
No one was more of a natural born sucker than me the first time I fell in love.
The girl wasn't out to fool me. No, in fact it was the opposite. She was sweet, honest and without guile.
The problem was that I yearned and with such surety and conviction that I came to expect it.
Hello-o-o Cubs fan!
I was sixteen and built like a hockey stick. She was also sixteen and so perfect that in her presence my tongue became a spiked blowfish. I had things to say, important, passionate things, but somehow it all came out sounding like I'd been freebasing Novocain.
From the lips to the eyes to the smile to the smell, she owned my heart like a bookie owns a mark: the only satisfaction I ever got was consistently giving her everything I had. Adoration, time, attention, and all the while she was dating older guys as I considered ways to draw her attention and played lots of baseball.
I was a notch above OK, an outfielder who was medium fast and hit with consistency. Not spectacular but reliable, and sometimes, because it's baseball and baseball is chess with superstition and cleats, in the right place at the right time to make a better than good play.
It was how I finally fell out of love.
I was 18 and playing in a summer league for older guys who'd played high school baseball and who after that summer would probably never play organized baseball again. I had a 1966 Mustang that rarely ran, a job at my uncle's diner slinging wieners, and the '84 Cubs. That meant Jim Frey, Rick Sutcliffe, Jody Davis, Ryne Sandberg and Larry Bowa.
It also meant the Cub's first post-season appearance since 1945.
At that point in the season they had played so well that the possibility of going all the way had become a probability. Watching them each afternoon on WGN, I felt like Papillion eyeing the blue Pacific while lashing coconuts into a raft while: liberation was at hand.
Little by little, the Cubs power infused my own game.
I hit harder and ran faster.
I wanted them to win so badly that it made me want to win, even in that pastime league where the fire of competition burned at a low flame. Actually it was more the flicker of a cigarette lighter given that most fielders ended an inning by firing up a square as they trudged to the dugout.
At 18, I was a Marlboro man.
So was the catcher for the other team.
He was small, thick and pink, a squat side of corned beef whom I recognized as having been a couple of years older than me in high school and a former star athlete. He approached the plate with a cigarette dangling from his lips and, squinting from centerfield, I saw that he had a beginner's mustache. I remember thinking that he resembled a baby Adolph Hitler and then the pitcher wound up and let go, baby Hitler connected and I started running sideways.
It was a shot, headed for the parking lot on the other side of waist-high chain link fence. Baby Hitler was already headed for home when I threw my arm into the air, leaned over the fence and pulled the ball out of the sky.
Third out. End of the game. My team won.
I jogged into the dugout collecting a hearty round of ass-slapping from my teammates, each as surprised as me that I'd caught the ball. Then I lit a smoke and climbed on a bicycle. My Mustang was an oil-burning disaster so I'd resorted to peddling to the games. I was riding slowly, enjoying the mingle of cigarette smoke and fresh air when I heard an engine gargle and looked over at baby Hitler cruising alongside on a motorcycle too big for him. Sitting behind him, hugging his waist, was the girl I loved. He pointed at the curb like a traffic cop. I shook my head...no thanks, I had places to peddle...and he twisted the accelerator and pulled in front of me. I leaned forward over the handlebars looking past him as he toed the kickstand.
I smiled at her and she smiled back.
Baby Hitler's round mustachioed face crowded my field of vision.
He said, "What do you think you're doing?"
A sidebar: I may've been a just OK ballplayer but I was a world-class smart-ass endowed with the ability to continue making smart-ass remarks right up to the point where some guy would finally scream, "Smart-ass motherfucker!" and punch me in the face. That happened a lot throughout my youth and continued as I grew older, and the thing was, I remained a smart-ass but started punching back. I found that I was as good at punching back as I was at being a smart-ass. The two talents complimented each other nicely.
I said, "Smoking a cigarette. Riding a bike. Maybe I'll get lucky and one will cancel out the other."
He said, "You caught that baseball."
"Nobody snags my balls."
"That's sad. I like having my balls snagged." I produced the Marlboros and said, "Have a smoke. Relax."
He slapped the pack away and put a finger on my chest. "Listen smart-ass, the next time we play and I hit one your way, you'd better not fucking go for it."
I looked past him where she was sitting on the motorcycle and thought, say something. Tell him to grow up and shave that stupid mustache...but she sat there waiting for something to happen without speaking on my behalf, and that was it. I didn't love her anymore.
She hadn't done anything in particular but in particular had done nothing. I realized then that my affection was displaced and not because she didn't love me back. It was much more starkly real than that; it was because my existence didn't matter. I was a pleasant diversion, an amusing apostle who scattered rose petals and occasionally smuggled beer, but unnecessary. And in the end, whether love, friendship, or fanship, the crucial element of a relationship is to be needed.
And then I felt free, like Andy Dufresne popping from sewage. And baby Hitler wasn't an older guy with a chopper anymore. He was just a little fat man with a bad mustache.
I climbed off the bike smoking. I probably told him to fuck himself but I don't remember. If I did, it was only to get the thing started so I could beat his ass. But no, he just stared for a moment and then climbed back on the motorcycle, kicked it and rode away. She didn't look back, or maybe she did. I don't remember that either. All I remember is realizing he'd performed that little circus act to impress her because he loved her and that it hadn't gone well, and it made me feel bad for him.
Three weeks later the Cubs dropped the fifth game of the playoffs to the Padres who took home their first National League Pennant.
And another year passed by.
If I ever read another essay that uses baseball as a metaphor for life I'm going to find the bespectacled, pointy-nosed, right-leaning columnist that wrote it and do to him what I should have done to baby Hitler 23 years ago.
Baseball is not like life. If it was, it could explain Nazi Germany and Paris Hilton and it can't.
Baseball today is what it has always been: a slow game populated by superstitious weirdoes who tend toward gambling, alcohol and potbellies.
It's not pro football, which has morphed with television into bite-sized commercial chunks of speed-metal plus X-Box, and not pro basketball, that freak show of galloping giants. Both of those games draw viewership, attendance and endorsements at a level baseball can only dream of and that's because they've become entertainment versus sports. On the other hand, no matter how it's tarted-up, pro baseball takes four long hours, sometimes one of the teams doesn't even score, and everyone, including the umpires, plays with their balls.
In other words, pro baseball still needs fans.
Without fans, the Cubs would be just another century-long loser in a bad uniform.
Some things you stop loving, like the wrong girl on the back of baby Hitler's motorcycle.
Other things you don't.
It's nice to be needed.