You may not care about baseball, in which case you probably think the vicissitudes of a certain professional baseball team that makes its home on the north side of Chicago don’t matter. You would be right about this, of course. In the first place, Chicago is 150 miles away from here. Though we are constantly reminded that we live in a global village, that capitalism and telecommunications have made the world into one big neighborhood, 150 miles — a three-hour drive — still feels like a lifetime away. What’s more, when we’re constantly bombarded with news of undeclared war, government spying, the corruption of our government and the evaporation of our national borders, the fact that a bunch of pin-striped millionaires called “the Cubs” can’t get their act together … well, as Humphrey Bogart put it to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca: a problem like that wouldn’t seem to amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.
But since this is the world we’ve made for ourselves, it seems fitting to pause for a moment and consider the spectacle of futility that has been embodied by the Chicago Cubs baseball team during this month of May.
As I write this, the Cubs are ranked last in the National League in runs, batting average, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs, walks, slugging percentage, on-base percentage and walks allowed. The Cubs have found so many ways to lose ballgames in the past month they have recalled that scene in the original version of The Poseidon Adventure, the one where the preacher played by Gene Hackman yells out to a seemingly angry God: “We don’t ask you to be for us, but why are you against us?”
Hackman falls into a kind of liquefied inferno after that little speech. Ernest Borgnine and, of all people, Red Buttons manage to survive. Go figure.
Cub fans, whose numbers are legion, have been trying to figure out what it is that spells doom for their team for several generations now. The last time they won a World Series was 1908; the last time they played in one was 1945. My dad was just back from serving in the Army during the Second World War for that series. He’s 82 now. Before the Cubs came to within a couple innings of making the series again in 2003, he turned to me with a hopeful gleam in his eye as if to say, “Yes. This team will make it to the Promised Land before my time is through.”
That would be nice. Since then, however, I think we have both come to understand that unless someone finds the Fountain of Youth (or the Tribune Company sells the team), seeing the Cubs play in the World Series is probably about as likely as George Bush admitting that the only faulty intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq was his own.
Don’t get me wrong: This does not mean that my father and I — or my son, for that matter, who has been born into this cycle — live in a perpetual slough of despond. Life-long Cubs fans aren’t like that. Bill Murray put it best after the ’03 meltdown when he said, “Cubs fans can take it. We are not like the others.”
What Bill was referring to was the fact that Cubs fans have learned to live with more nuanced pleasures than those associated with that coarse goddess, Victory. Sure, everybody supposedly loves a winner, but most of us never win anything besides the occasional office pool or Christmas raffle. This is what makes the spectacle surrounding contemporary children’s sports — the robotic handing out of trophies for participation in everything from peewee football to T-ball — so pathetic. Everyone, we seem to say, can be a Yankee. Never mind that the Yankees, although they invariably make the playoffs, account for but a fraction of all those who ever play the game.
Cubs fans know: We can’t all be Yankees.
Being a Yankee is like being part of the 2 percent of households in this country that control 80 percent of the wealth. Few of us will ever break into that charmed circle with anything but a set of burglar’s tools. Recognizing this fact is what is known in other venues as Critical Thinking.
Since the other professional team in Chicago, the White Sox, won a World Series last year, the condition of Cubs nation has become even more acute. A few poor souls were punchy enough to say out loud that now that the Sox had been served, it was finally our turn. The saps. They remind me of those liberals who keep thinking that, someday, Americans are going to wake up to their own self-interest and demand universal health care.
This latest losing binge has pushed Cubs fans further still. Not only are we blowing one ballgame after another, it’s becoming clear our great pitchers, Wood and Prior, will probably never live up to the potential we once blithely took for granted. A few of us have gone so far as to try pledging allegiance to some other team (other than the Sox, that is). But this gesture, like threatening to move to Canada, is hollow.
The Cubs are our fate. For better or worse, this is where we live.