[Note: The Chicago Cubs open the 2013 season on the road in Pittsburgh today. Last year, when they opened at home as they do in alternate years, and I penned this apologia to Cub fandom. I think it remains apropos. To me, at any rate. 105 years and counting …]
The grass is cut and the ivy’s struggling to turn green and right now, everybody’s magic number is 165. I often joke that I prefer my baseball tinged with a bit of soul-crushing despair, but now, in the quiet of the morning of Opening Day, hours before the first pitch, there’s this part of me that wants to believe the slate really is wiped clean every April and every team really has a shot – every team including my team, the team I love in the perverse way only a Cub fan can love a team.
It’s what I call the Unbearable Cubness of Being, both embracing the monumental futility of Cubs fandom and knowing, at the very same time, that there really is nothing extraordinary about failing to win a title in 103 years. Or, perish the thought, 104 years. [OR 105 YEARS! – ed.]
Because here’s the thing you may not know about Cub fans. We don’t hold our team to any different standard than the fans of any other teams hold theirs to. We want and expect the same things any self-respecting Yankee fan wants and expects at the start of every season: A division title, a pennant, and a World Series trophy.
There’s this persistent misconception that we Cub fans don’t care. There’s this absurd – blasphemous, actually – notion that Cub fans embrace this godforsaken loveable losers moniker, that we somehow enjoy the annual pathos, the cellar-dwelling, the occasional almost-but-not-quite sorties into the National League playoffs. Or, worse, that we’re not real baseball fans to begin with. That we go to the ballpark for the picnic-like atmosphere; that we sip beer and talk on cell phones and mug for the WGN television cameras, oblivious to subtle art that takes place between the first and third base lines.
In a word: Bull crap.
Well, that’s two words. But it’s bull crap just the same, this idea that we’re a bunch of effete, latte-drinking yuppies who wear our Cubness like its some kind of fashion statement. I know all eight ways to get on base (think that through in your head; and by the way, a hit is a hit … there are seven ways other than getting a hit to get on base). I sat in those bleachers on so many summer afternoons as a teenager that I learned how to cuss the way only bleacher bum can cuss on a Tuesday afternoon in July. And I knew exactly what Lee Elia was talking about that fateful day in 1983. (He was right, by the way; that team was damn good, one season away from the playoffs in the first time in forever, and he was righteously pissed off. Real Cub fans knew it. Needless to say, it ain’t safe for work, but here’s the audio.)
More than that, Cub fans understand this one truism about sports: That nobody’s entitled to win. That no matter how much you think you deserve it, or your team deserves it, the other guys are going to show up and they’re going to play just as hard as your guys, and there’s no guarantee your guys are going to win. Ever. And 103 – or 104 [OR 105!! – ed.] – years of futility doesn’t change that elemental fact.
That’s why they play the damn games.
Because the outcome’s not predetermined. There’s no such thing as fate and there’s no such thing as curses and there’s no such thing as deserving it or being entitled to it. There’s just a guy at the plate and a pitcher sixty-feet-six-inches away, and a ball hurtling at you at 95 miles an hour or breaking like it’s rolling off the edge of a table, and you either hit that ball or you don’t, and nobody’s going to give you a victory just because they feel sorry for you.
So you play the damn game, every game, knowing that you might play a hundred years or more and never win a title.
If, as a fan, you can’t accept that simple but immutable fact of baseball – that your team may never win a title, but they play anyway – then you shouldn’t really be a baseball fan in the first place. That’s not to say you shouldn’t want your team to win a title with every fiber of your being. Of course you should. But if you can’t accept the fact that it might not happen this year, or any year, you’re missing the point.