|A Science Fiction Fanzine||Winter 2008-09|
I Call It Loyalty
Others Call It Futility
illos by Charlie Williams
I am a Cubs fan.
For those of you in the UK, this means I am a supporter of the baseball team known as the Chicago Cubs, one of the oldest baseball teams in existence with a storied and colorful history that dates back to 1870.
Although the Cubs were a top tier team, frequently winning the National League championship in the nineteenth century and the early twentieth century, the last time they won the World Series, the championship between the winners of the National League (founded 1876) and the American League (founded 1901), was in 1908. Although they returned to the World Series several times since then, the last time they played in the World Series was in 1945, a year in which many of the other teams had their star players off fighting the Nazis and the Japanese. The Cubs didn’t really lose any players that year because they were all classified as unfit for military service. Baseball was allowed to continue, and its players ineligible for the draft, during World War II because Franklin Delano Roosevelt pronounced its moral effect on the country essential to the war effort, although many of its stars did enlist.
So, why bring up this painful topic?
Last night, as I write this, the Chicago Cubs clinched their division. In the long run, this probably means nothing, but in the short run, it means they move to the playoffs next week.
Major League Baseball in the US is essentially divided into the following way: There are two leagues (see above), which actually use slightly different rules. Each league is divided into three divisions (East, Central, West). At the end of the season, the teams with the highest winning percentage in each division make their league’s playoffs, along with a fourth “wild card” team which has the highest percentage and didn’t win in their division. This year, whichever team is the wild card in the National League will have a higher winning percentage than the Cubs. A two-round play-off series is held in each league, with the winner of the second round going to face the winner from the other league in the World Series.
Although the Cubs haven’t made the World Series since 1945, they have made it to the playoffs…in 1984, 1989, 1998, 2003, although they didn’t win a playoff series from 1945 until 2007. The reasons most people give for this are a) the Curse of the Billy Goat and b) P.K. Wrigley. Since the latter scenario is less interesting, we’ll look at it first.
The Wrigley family has been involved with the Cubs since 1915 when the team was sold to a restaurateur named Charles Weeghman. Weeghman had some financial troubles and in 1918 William Wrigley, the chewing gum magnate, bought a majority interest in the club. He continued to field winning teams, making it to the World Series in 1918, 1929, and 1932, the year William Wrigley died. His son, P.K. Wrigley took over running the team and made it to the Series in 1935, 1938, and 1945. However, P.K. realized that by selling a day at the ballpark as family entertainment and making the main attraction the ballpark itself (Wrigley Field, built in 1914, is the second oldest ballpark still in use), it didn’t matter if the team won or lost. Many of the teams P.K. Wrigley fielded after that realization were subpar. There was no need to pay money to the players if people would come anyway, and his philosophy worked. When P.K. Wrigley died in 1977, the only team the Cubs fielded that had had a chance of making it since 1945 was in 1969, and they folded late in the season to the New York Mets, stoking a hatred of the Mets that survives to this day.
Following Wrigley’s death, his son, William Wrigley III walked across Michigan Avenue from the Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago to the Chicago Tribune and sold the team in order to pay estate taxes. The Tribune continued P.K.’s philosophy until 1984, and although the Cubs have made it to the playoffs five times since then, there is still no sign of the World Series coming to the North Side of Chicago.
When the Cubs played in the World Series in 1945, a restaurateur named Billy Sianis, who ran a small tavern called the Billy Goat Tavern, bought two tickets to the World Series. When he got there, the park wouldn’t allow him in because his companion was his pet Billy goat.
Sianis stood outside Wrigley Field and cursed the Cubs, saying that because they wouldn’t allow his goat into the park, the Cubs would never play in another World Series. Sixty-two years later, the lesson to be learned is that you shouldn’t piss off a Greek and his goat.
Sianis’ restaurant has other places in Chicago lore. Michigan Avenue is a multi-level street, and on the lower level, beneath the Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune buildings, is the initial location of the Billy Goat Tavern. This made it a prime watering spot for Chicago’s hard drinking reporters and the politicians who wanted to leak secrets to them (it isn’t too far from City Hall). Furthermore, members of Chicago’s comedy troupe, Second City, used to eat there because, well, it is cheap, and comics are notoriously poorly paid. In the 1970s, this led to former Chicago comics like John Belushi and Bill Murray, who were working in New York on the show Saturday Night Live to create a skit about the fictional Olympia Diner based on the Billy Goat Tavern.
Anyway, in many of the Cubs runs for the World Series since 1984, the Cubs have had Sam Sianis, Billy’s son, trot a Billy goat around the field in the hopes of bringing an end to the curse laid by Billy Sianis, to no effect. Apparently, for the curse to be lifted either the original goat has to be allowed in or Billy had to do the curse lifting.
The Poor Fan
As if there aren’t enough stories to explain the Cubs’ inability to get to the World Series in 99 years, in 2003, a new story was created which denigrated a Cubs fan.
The Cubs were leading the Florida Marlins in the second round of the playoffs and were only five outs away from winning the playoff series with a score of 3-0. A foul ball was hit along the left field line and as Moises Alou reached for it, a fan named Steve Bartman, who was listening to the game on the radio in the front row, also reached for it.
In baseball, there is a tradition of fans getting to keep foul balls as souvenirs if the ball is hit into the stands (also home runs, although at Wrigley the tradition is to throw a home-run ball hit by the opposing team back onto the field). Bartman saw the ball coming his way and reached to catch it. Although the ball was over the stands, Alou could have caught it for an out. Bartman got in his way and another fan wound up with the ball.
After that play, the Cubs fell apart, giving up 8 runs and losing that game and the subsequent game (which I attended). Bartman’s name, address, and place of employment (he works at my wife’s company) were published by the newspapers and he was harassed and hounded. My wife’s company had to hire extra security to keep the news teams off their property.
The ball wound up in the hands of an attorney named Jim. Jim sold the ball for $113,824.16 to restaurateur (do you see a trend here) Grant dePorter who used the ball as a publicity stunt for Harry Carey’s restaurants (Harry Carey was the Cubs announcer from 1981 until his death in 1998), eventually hiring special effects expert Michael Lantieri to destroy the ball in a controlled explosion on February 26, 2004. In the months leading up the the explosion, when the ball was on display, traffic to the restaurant increased by 30%. Lantieri apparently tried several different techniques for destroying a baseball, reportedly going through fifteen balls a day from December through February.
Bartman, meanwhile, turned down job offers from the Florida Marlins and several roles offered by Hollywood and television. He made large donations to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation in honor of Ron Santo, a former Cubs third baseman who suffered from diabetes and is a double amputee. Bartman’s goal was to get his life back to normal, which it usually is, although every now and then he is sought for interviews and many still curse his name.
Some years, like 1984 and 2003, the Cubs really did deserve to make it to the World Series and luck got in the way. Other years, like 1998, they really just stumbled in. In fact, in 1998, they lost the last game of the season and it looked the San Francisco Giants would take the wild card spot. However, the Giants lost their game and a one-game playoff was forced between the two teams, which the Cubs won.
This year, the Cubs had a strong second half of the season, based on which no one could argue that they earned a spot. The Milwaukee Brewers also had a strong season, but the last month or so saw the Brewers struggling. This past week, the Brewers began to regain ground while the Cubs had a losing streak. Although it looked like the Cubs would eventually win the division, it was far from assured and the Cubs have broken our hearts too often to start celebrating.
And this was the year…It had been a century since our last World Series win, 63 years since the last time we appeared in the World Series. We had a good, possibly a great team. We lost the first game at Wrigley. And I was at the second game at Wrigley.
One of the things that made this year special and different from the visits I made to Wrigley for the playoffs in 1998, 2003, and 2007. My brother-in-law worked at Wrigley Field, selling beers during the games. Each of the years the Cubs made it to the playoffs, he tried to get tickets, and failed. This year was different. He not only got a ticket, he got four of them. He would be coming to the game from work and I would be bringing his sons, my nephews, and one of their friends.
Seeing the playoffs through the eyes of three boys, aged 12-14, who had never made it to any baseball game early enough for batting practice was a wonderful experience as they leaned over the brick wall in left field calling for any ball player who wandered within 100 yards of them to toss a ball to them (it didn’t happen). When batting practice ended, I took them up to the upper deck where their seats were and waited for their father to show up, arriving just as the game started. More on the game below.
But 2008 had two other memorable highpoints. My nephew, the elder of the two I took to the playoffs, managed to catch a foul ball at a Cubs-Brewers game in Milwaukee. A few weeks later, my father caught a foul ball off the bat of Cubs player Ryan Theriot at Wrigley (I was at the game, but in a different part of the stadium). He gave that ball to my elder daughter, who was extremely delighted, having asked me to catch a foul ball for her before I went to the game.
Working at Wrigley
Several years ago, I spent two summers working at Wrigley Field. When most people say something like this, it means that they sold beer or peanuts during the games (which is what my brother-in-law did). I did something different.
On Sundays during the season, when the Cubs are playing on the road, Wrigley Field is open for tours for a minimal charitable donation (at the time $10, which goes to Cubs Care Charities). I spent two summers giving tours of the ballpark. The tours included the standard places open to the public, like the concourse under the stands, the stands, and the bleachers, but also non-public areas like the press box, the visitor and home team locker rooms, and the security office. Two of my more interesting memories were getting to watch a Cubs game on television from within the confines of the visitor’s locker room and escorting a woman out to the warning track in center field so she could scatter her husband’s ashes.
The tours, of course, included information and trivia about the Cubs’ history and the stadium’s history. The tour guides were pretty good on the whole and worked to debunk legends and stories about the field while presenting information in an interesting and memorable manner.
The Sad Evolution of Cubs Fans
Last night, I attended game two of the National League Division Series, when the Cubs got drubbed by the Los Angeles Dodgers 10-3 (that score makes it look closer than it really was) to fall to 0-2 in the best of five series. Comparing last night’s crowd to the crowd that attended the third game of the 1998 National League Division Series against the Atlanta Braves is instructive, in a sad way. It shows a metamorphosis of Cubs fans (although it might just show the hazy rosy glow ten years can put on a memory).
In 1998, the Cubs finished the regular season with a record of 90-73, including a one-game playoff against the San Francisco Giants to break a tie. At the time, it had been nine years since the Cubs had made the post season (losing to the Giants in the playoffs). With the Wild Card slot in their gloves, the Cubs lost on the road in Atlanta 7-1 and 2-1. They returned to a post-season starved Wrigley Field in a do-or-die role.
And the Cubs died. Just as they had done in 1989 and 1984, although not as spectacularly as they had in 1984. That level of ineptitude wouldn’t be achieved until they died in 2003. The final score of that third and final game of the 1998 Division Series was 6-2. Including the first Grand Slam I got to see in person, unfortunately off the bat of a Brave, Eddie Perez.
It was a season that saw the Cubs play well, but finish weak, nearly ending in a three way tie for the Wild Card. They lost their last game and were only saved by the fact that the Giants also lost their last game. It was a season that revitalized baseball after the 1994, with Sammy Sosa (he’s really not that good a player) and Mark McGwire chasing Roger Maris’s asterisked season home run record, and crushing it, with Sosa belting in 66 and McGwire topping him with 70. For a while, Ken Griffey, Jr. (now with the Southside team) was also in the race, although he eventually finished a distant third with 56. Kerry Wood, who is the only Cub from the 98 team still with the club, helped open the Cubs’ year with a bang, striking out 20 Astros on May 6. Perhaps the only real dark point of that season for the Cubs was the death of Harry Caray on February 18, four days after he collapsed at a Palm Springs, CA restaurant.
And the game ended. The stands and bleachers were full. Sammy Sosa took a victory lap around the warning track, followed by the rest of the Cubs, to the cheers of the fans. A Braves fan near me commented, “Don’t they realize they lost?” And we did, but it didn’t matter. We had just witnessed a great season, a team that made the post season. A team that helped put to rest the spectre of the 39 years from 1945 to 1984 when we didn’t make the post season. And we celebrated and supported our team. An hour after the game, people began to leave.
That was then.
In 2003, the Cubs made the post season again, winning their Division series and going on to the National League Championship Series against the Florida Marlins. It looked like we had it. And then a ball went into the stands. Moises Alou couldn’t get to it, possibly because several fans reached for it, including one whose name has been denigrated as a scapegoat for the last five years. That play didn’t sink our hopes. The following several, as the Cubs screwed up, booting easy plays and giving up runs like there was no tomorrow, is what killed us. I was at two games in that series. The first was filled with positive energy. The latter, the last game of the season for the Cubs, had no energy at all. We were at a wake, only the corpse wouldn’t realize it was dead for nine long innings.
We made it back in 2007, our third postseason in nine years. The Cubs hadn’t made the post season with that sort of regularity since 1929-1938, when we made the post season four times in nine years. And, just like 1998, we were swept, this time by the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Which brings us to 2008. We had the best record in the National League: 90-64. We led the league continuously from early May until the last day of the season, something anathema to a baseball team that created the June Swoon. And we lost our first game of the National League Division Series.
I arrived at the park yesterday with two of my nephews and one of their friends. They had never been to a post season game, and neither had their father, my brother-in-law, who used to work at Wrigley Field selling beer. I brought the boys to make sure they’d have a chance to experience the pre-game circus…the live radio broadcast across Clark Street, the stilt walkers outside the stadium, batting practice.
With former Cubs pitcher Fergie Jenkins (1966-1973, 1982-1983) throwing out the first pitch, the crowd’s energy was almost palpable. The yoyo-effect was very much in evidence, the crowd standing for seemingly random pitches, not just the important ones. It looked like the Cubs would have a chance to tie up the series after a heart-breaking loss the night before. And then the game started.
The second inning saw the first of the errors, eventually the Cubs would error for the cycle, with errors committed by Mark DeRosa at second and Derrek Lee and first, later in the game, they would be joined by third baseman Aramis Ramirez and, in the ninth inning, apparently afraid to be left out, short stop Ryan Theriot. The second inning also saw pitcher Carlos Zambrano giving up five runs, four of them unearned.
And it was in the second inning that the metamorphosis of Cubs fans began to be apparent. Instead of continuing to support the team and cheer them on, many of the Cubs fans turned on the team. There was still cheering and yo-yoing for important pitches, but there was also a lot of cursing at the Cubs. It seems the Cubs have acquired a new generation of fans that have no experience with the arid years of 1945-1984, or even the sparse years from 1984-1998. This new style of fan seems to think that the Cubs deserve a spot in the playoffs and, despite the fact that no Cub team has made it to the World Series in 63 years, these fans seem to think that anything less that the World Series is a catastrophe, rather than business as usual. It is a nasty side of sports fandom and one I really hadn’t seen at Cubs games before.
Futility, Thy name is Seegers.
The day after the Cubs lost the playoffs, the Chicago Tribune ran a short interview with a 75 year old Cubs fan. He was at the playoff game I was at. He was a season ticket holder and has been waiting practically his entire life to see the Cubs in the World Series. In 1945, when he was twelve years old, the age of my younger nephew, he had his chance. The Cubs were playing the Detroit Tigers and his friend offered him a ticket to a World Series game at Wrigley Field. Jerry Seegers asked his mother if he could go and she replied, “You've got a lot of time to go to the World Series.” Sixty-three years later, Mr. Seeger was in Wrigley Field to again see his mother’s promise go unfilled, sitting six rows behind home plate.
There’s a joke I tell, I may have originated it, I think I did, but there is also a chance I heard it somewhere.
So, what is the difference between an optimist, a pessimist, and a Cubs fan?
The Optimist says the glass is half full...
The Pessimist says the glass is half empty...
The Cubs fan asks, "When's it gonna spill?"