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We've Lost that Losing Feeling:
A Response to the 2016 Chicago Cubs Season
Thomas C. Willadsen

Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the Chicago Cubs’ most recent campaign, I too decided, after investigating the matter carefully, to write an account to you, Baseballphile, so that you may know the Truth. The stunning, earth-shattering truth that Cubs fans have been lifted out of darkness into the light and peace of a World Series championship. Far more than Hope, our faith is in the evidence of things that are now at last seen, such as a pennant flying on the North Side of Chicago for the first time since before the Cold War, and a championship banner atop the centerfield scoreboard for the first time since the Roosevelt Administration. (The Theodore Roosevelt Administration, for those of you keeping score at home.)

While the Cubs are considered “cursed” and their fans “long-suffering,” my first opinion of them was that they were a very strong team. When I started collecting baseball cards and rooting for them in 1969, they had three All-Stars and four future Hall of Famers in their lineup. Pulling for the Cubs between 1968 and 1973 was not the hopeless black hole of despair that it would turn into. Sure, they hadn’t won the National League pennant since 1945—even then it was the longest pennant drought in Major League Baseball—but they fielded very strong teams.

kitchenVery strong teams that always, always found ways to not quite win. I remember the jokes:

Why can’t the Cubs cut the mustard?

They always play ketchup ball.

 

Did you hear that the Cubs are moving to the Philippines?

            Really?

Yep. They’ll be called the Manila Folders!

The Chicago Cubs have been one of three constants in my life, along with my family and the Presbyterian Church. I have remained loyal. Through thin and thin I have endured and waited for the plot twist. Each summer since moving to Oshkosh, Wisconsin, at least one of my sons has accompanied me to a game at “the ivy-covered burial ground.” Some years my nine have shown promise; other years, less so. But I remained loyal.

Heaven knows I had chances to stray. Just six weeks after I moved to New York City, the Mets won their second World Series. I did not become a fan.

At the last church I served, in suburban Baltimore, there was a member who prayed that I would root for the Orioles. The Orioles even offered Clergy Passes. Really. I could show my pass at a special gate and attend any game I wanted, free. But neither prayers nor free games swayed my allegiance.

Six months after moving to Minnesota, the Twins won the World Series. A member of that congregation pointed out that I should consider rooting for the local club, because at least they won once in a while.

“Do you love your children more when they get straight A’s?” I asked.

“Yes, I do.”

“Fine, you can root for the Yankees for all I care. Mercenary!”

***

The 2016 season began with high hopes. The Cubs had ended the prior year with the third best record in the National League’s Central Division—which was also the third best record in baseball. They faced the St. Louis Cardinals in the second round. This was huge. I grew up a Cubs fan in central Illinois. Between April and October there are two religions in central Illinois: Cubs and Cardinals. The rivalry is intense.

These two teams, who have competed in the National League since 1892, had never faced each other in the postseason. (It has only been possible for them to do so since 1995, but still.) The Cubs defeated the Cardinals in last year’s best-of-five series three games to one. It was the first time that the Cubs had won a postseason series at home. In their history, they have only won three postseason series: the 1907 and 1908 World Series and the first round of the 2003 National League playoffs.

The Cubs lost the 2015 League Championship Series to the New York Mets (just one more in a long history of disappointment) but they had beaten the mighty Cardinals on the way there. Wow.

 

A lot of baseball fans were predicting that 2016 might be, at last, the year the Cubs reached the World Series. I did not climb onto this bandwagon.

In January when my barber told me he thought the Cubs would be even better than last year, I pointed out that no one can expect a team to improve on a 97-win season. That’s just greedy. Furthermore, Jake Arrieta could not be the most dominant pitcher ever over a half season again, as he had been. Besides, the Cubs won their last eight games against weak competition. Nope, I was keeping my expectations realistic.        

I have had my heart broken too many times to get my hopes up during Spring Training. I have written in these very pages (“In the Big Inning,” Lent 1998, and “It Could Be Worse: A Midwestern Theology,” Michaelmas 2001) about the tenuous, fragile hopes of Cubs fans. We all have our stories. We remember where we were when the black cat sauntered through a Cubs-Mets game in 1969. We can relive each painful moment of Game 5 of the 1984 National League Championship Series when first baseman Leon Durham muffed a routine ground ball, permitting the Padres to advance to their first World Series, a contest that could have been a rematch of the 1945 World Series. Cubs fans know that a Chicago tavern owner was forbidden from bringing his goat to that Series and cursed the Cubs.

2003 brought us “The Bartman Game.” It is most unfortunate that the name Steve Bartman is remembered more readily than left fielder Moises Alou. Bartman is the fan who kept Alou from catching what would have been the second out in the eighth inning, when the Cubs were five outs away from advancing the World Series. They held a three run lead, and their ace, Mark Prior, was on the mound. The wheels came off, and the Cubs ended up losing 8-3. The next night the Florida Marlins defeated them in Game 7 and advanced to the World Series.

I remember the sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I had imagined waking up my seven-year-old to whisper, “The Cubs won the pennant.” But it was not to be.

The Cubs had some success a few years later. In 2007 they won their division, before being swept in the first round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. In 2008 they had the best record in the National League and were swept by the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Shortly after the 2008 season ended, I remember thinking, “I could live a long life and never see the Cubs in the World Series.”  I wasn’t sad about that, just realistic. I was forty-four years old, and it had been sixty-three years. I was no less loyal, but I lowered my expectations.

I also drew a line in the sand: I would not buy another T-shirt until my boys appeared in the Fall Classic.

After the 2016 season began, I started seeing signs and sensing omens that could indicate, in some settings, by rational people, that this really, really could be The Year.

Shortly after Easter, the mother of a third grader in our Sunday school told me that when her daughter, Addison Grace, heard Cubs’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo’s name announced, she shouted “He is Rizzo indeed!”

I was thrilled. Each Easter the call to worship is

Christ is risen.

He is risen indeed.

                        Christ Is Risen.

                        He Is Risen Indeed.

                                    CHRIST IS RISEN!

                                    HE IS RISEN INDEED!!

 

For the rest of the Easter Season I began worship with those three words.

(Those of you who are not part of Cubs Nation should know that Wrigley Field sits at 1060 W. Addison, and Mark Grace was the starting first baseman for the Cubs between 1988 and 2000.)

In June I sent an email to a college friend, a native of Cleveland. The Cavaliers were in the NBA finals and looked like they might end that city’s major sports championship drought. Howard replied, in part, “Speaking of unfathomably long championship droughts, could this really be the Cubbies’ year?”

I responded:

“Of course it could be the Cubbies’ year.

‘It’s June 2.”

Callouses. I had callouses around my heart.

In the middle of the summer I decided to start exercising again. I had sunk into a depression, and exercise helped. Once I got up to a good clip on the NordicTrac, a four syllable pattern emerged: duh, Duh, duh, DUH. Soon I found myself chanting, “Tom is depressed, Tom is depressed,” so I sought a more uplifting phrase for my morning workouts. I arrived at “Pennant for Cubs, pennant for Cubs.” I knew it was wishful thinking, an idle tale, a pipe dream, but I was Walter Mitty down in the basement anyway. I let myself dream.

As the 2016 season entered September it seemed like every day the Cubs reached another milestone: they clinched a playoff spot, the division title, home-field advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and finally home field advantage throughout the National League playoffs. They became the first Cubs team to win more than 100 games since 1935.

At the end of September, my brother asked what I was doing on Friday, October 7.  It was mom’s eightieth birthday, and he had gotten three tickets to the Cubs’ first playoff game against the Giants. The three of us planned to meet outside the ballpark, and he would give me my ticket then. “Too much could go wrong with the mail,” I had emailed him. “If I don’t make it, sell it and send my niece to college. If you don’t make it, live with my bitterness until one of us dies.”

Mom was on cloud nine at the ballpark that night. She told everyone we met, “I went to my first Cubs game in 1949. Today’s my eightieth birthday!” I was happy to see my family, but a gray cloud of dread surrounded me.

Half an hour before the game started my son phoned me. He wished his grandmother a happy birthday, and we talked about the game that was about to start. I suddenly said to him, “Hey, the Cubs could win this game.” In all honesty that thought had not occurred to me until then. I had been steeling myself for disappointment.

The game was a classic pitchers’ duel. As the eighth inning began I started passing the peanuts I’d brought from Wisconsin through Section 525. I turned to my brother and said, “You know, one run is going to win this game.”

In the bottom of the eighth inning, Cubs second baseman Javier Baez lofted a fly to left…that landed in the basket for a home run. The Cubs held on.

I had attended a postseason win at Wrigley Field, on my mother’s eightieth birthday. It could not have been better.

Before I went to bed that night I texted my brother, “Why didn’t we think to bring Mom to a postseason game on her eightieth birthday years ago?”

The Cubs won their series against the Giants three games to one. They moved on to face the Los Angeles Dodgers for the National League pennant. I was cautiously, tentatively optimistic. I was starting to trust that maybe, just maybe, this Cubs team was different.

When Game 4 of this series started, the Cubs were behind two games to one, and had been shut out by the Dodgers in the last two games. They were looking listless. They were hitless through the first three innings, then the clean-up hitter, Ben Zobrist, bunted for a single. It was as though they had woken up; they scored four runs that inning and they regained their mid-season swagger. I was rooting for a Cubs team that had swagger! They went on to win 10-2. They never trailed again in the series.

Game 6 was held at Wrigley Field, Saturday, October 22. By extraordinary good luck, I was scheduled to be in Chicago that weekend for homecoming weekend and a continuing education event starting the following Monday.

I would be in Chicago the day the Cubs could win their first pennant in 71 years!

I had to go to Wrigley Field. I had to touch the outer wall for luck. I had done this in 1984, when the Cubs played their first postseason game since 1945. I skipped “Masterpieces of French Literature” that day and took the el into the city. I planned to buy a souvenir for my mom for her birthday. I arrived after the game had started. The streets around the stadium were deserted. I touched the wall, walked around the stadium and found a vendor to sell me a painter’s cap to give to my mother. As I headed to the el I heard the loudest noise in my life. Cubs starting pitcher Rick Sutcliffe hit a home run in the third inning. The Cubs went on to win 13-0.

I told the friend whose couch I was sleeping on that I had to go touch the ballpark. I was taking the el, in case he wanted to come along. I knew it was irrational, delusional…but why take a chance?

We drove in his new, tiny car instead. We parked a few blocks east of the ballpark and joined the throng of people streaming toward the yard. We touched the wall on Sheffield Avenue. We walked around the park. We drove to a restaurant for supper and watched the game on TV. The Cubs scored twice in the first inning, and I was almost certain that they would win.

They did.

The next day I attended the church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood where I had been a seminary intern. A few people recognized me. I introduced myself as “Seminary Intern, Emeritus.” After worship I walked about fifteen blocks to Wrigley Field, repeating, “The Cubs won the pennant. The Cubs won the pennant.” I phoned my mother and asked if she wanted me to buy her a shirt. The pennant had ended my embargo. She told me she’d wait until they won the World Series. Where did she get that confidence?

The Cubs faced the Cleveland Indians in the World Series. Cleveland had not won the series since 1948, the longest drought in the American League. I emailed Howard and pointed out, “One of these teams has to win.”

I was completely content just to see the Cubs in the World Series.

Then I hoped that they didn’t get swept. What relief they won the second game.

They went behind three games to one, and I hoped they didn’t lose the series in Chicago. They won Game 5 before returning to Cleveland. Their swagger was back. This team felt different. They had the best record in baseball, and they were playing like the best team in baseball. I felt something like confidence, I think, as they began Game 6. They scored three times in the first inning, and I just knew they would win. I didn’t even bother watching.

They took a 5-1 lead in Game 7, but ominous signs appeared. The Indians scored two runs on a wild pitch that temporarily dazed catcher David Ross. This felt familiar.

In the bottom of the eighth inning, the radio announcer was counting down the outs to a championship as the Cubs held a 6-3 lead. “Don’t do that,” I communicated to him telepathically, “They were five outs away from the pennant in 2003!”

The Indians tied the game. I felt the same sick, dejection in my stomach I had felt in 2003. When the rain delay started I went to bed. They could lose without my wasting two hours, staying up too late to hear the bitter end.

Wait. It didn’t end bitterly. My son phoned and urged me to turn on the game. I did.

They won.

And now an army of fans are on terra incognita. We’ve lost that losing feeling. Personally, I don’t miss it. But I’m 52 years old, and I’m not sure I know how to swagger. We’ve lost losing. Now what?

A cryptic record of the years of losing appears on a building across Sheffield Avenue from Wrigley Field. A sign reads “EAMUS CATULI! AC 0000000.” My Jesuit friend tells me this means “Go Cubs!” in Latin. The digits following are for the number of years since the Cubs won their division, appeared in the World Series and won the World Series. On Wednesday, November 2, about 11:45 p.m. Central Daylight Time, someone reset the sign. No more 08, 71, 108. It is finished.

 

The Reverend Doctor Thomas C. Willadsen is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

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