Sunday, November 6, 2016

The Making of a Cubs Fan

Last week, I had the opportunity to be a spectator at one of the greatest moments in sports history. I wasn't at the stadium in Cleveland or on the street in Wrigleyville, and I wasn't even wearing any Cubs paraphernalia. I was just a Californian who happened to be living in Chicagoland during the momentous year of the curse-breaking, World-Series-winning 2016 Chicago Cubs. This is what it was like to watch the people around me watch this series...which won my heart for the Cubs, and for the community and city around me.

A year ago, I didn't know why there were basic white t-shirts bearing a large blue W on sale at every checkout line at the grocery store.  I thought maybe it stood for Wisconsin--maybe a university in Wisconsin--but I couldn't figure out why it was so important.  Upon exploring our area, I found a large restaurant near the mall called Harry Carays and wondered why a restaurant would be named after the form of suicide reserved for a samurai. At our first Bible study at our new church, a guy hypothesized that the essence of hopefulness is displayed most fully in a Cubs fan, and then mentioned something about a goat and a cat and a guy named Bartman.  A few months ago, we pet-sat some frogs named Rizzo and Bryant and I could not remember their names because they seemed so un-froglike.  Just a few weeks ago, one of my kids' teachers referenced the song that would be played if the Cubs won that night, and I wondered what could be so special about a song at a baseball staduim. I definitely didn't know the answer to the question: "Hey Chicago, whaddya say?" I've been a baseball fan before, but the Angels are a baby team compared to the Cubs. For my non-Chicago friends who might be as clueless as I was, here's the a little rundown of all the traditions I have become acquainted with this October.

The simple blue W on a white background stands for "The W" which is a flag that is hoisted up a mast-like pole at Wrigley field in the event of a Cubs win (no one talks about the "L" flag that can be flown on the opposite side of the mast...hmm, I wonder why).  People all around fly them in their yards and wear them as shirts and hold them up in the stadium.  It's called "flying the W."  It seemed sort of silly to me when I first learned of it, but watching that little flag raise over Wrigley field at the end of Game 5 of the World Series was pretty significant.  Of course, since its Cubs fans we're dealing with here, there are all kinds of beliefs and superstitions surrounding the proper flying of the W, but I will not claim to understand them or try to explain them.

The name Harry Caray is that of a famous long-time announcer at Wrigley field. He passed away in 1998, but his face and thick, black-rimmed glasses are iconic in this area. He sang "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the 7th inning stretch at home games. When Eddie Vedder sang during Game 5, he harmonized with the recorded version of Harry singing.

My friend Courtney (who I know from Flagstaff, but was coincidentally born in Lombard) told me the apples are because Harry Caray was quoted as saying "Sure as God made green apples...someday the Chicago Cubs are going to be in the World Series."

The Cubs have been plagued by a curse or other strange distractions throughout their long history.  You can look them up and already might have if you were remotely interested in the World Series.  I knew nothing of them...but now I understand their references and have even eaten at the Billy Goat Tavern downtown (business establishment owned by the man who was asked to leave Wrigley field during Game 4 of the 1945 World Series because he had brought a live goat into the stadium.  He then "cursed" the team and they began to play poorly and the rest is history.)

Rizzo and Bryant are now names and faces I recognize, along with many more.

For those who have never lived in Chicago, I wanted to give you a little glimpse into what this Cubs World Series experience has been like. Because my gracious, native-Chicagoan friends have let me into their world, I can say now that I am a fan--but compared to them, I am like in the crush stage...and if it is love, then they are in a life-long committed (and slightly abusive, I'd wager) relationship with this team that has traditionally broken their hearts every October.

Watching the roller coaster ride of the World Series impacted me in surprising ways.  It has been more about watching the people who are watching the Cubs than actually watching the Cubs (though they were pretty awesome and I see why my friend, Sherry, tells me she just wants to make a big pot of chili and take it to them in the dugout).  The unlikely victory of this team who are known as the Lovable Losers was about so much more than yearbook or movie predictions or a billy goat or, as the media would like us to think, stats and management.  The experience was so human--so much more about connections and community than breaking a curse.

It's hard to describe what Cubs fans are like (and many baseball fans are like this, to some degree)--but they are definitely superstitious.  Every Cubs fan thinks that where they are sitting or what they are doing directly affects the outcomes and momentum on the field.  My friend in Phoenix thought the Cubs started losing their lead in the 8th inning because she got up to get her daughter from youth group. They are almost in pain watching the games--that's why I called it a slightly abusive relationship.  When the score was tied up in the 8th inning, the fun party we were at came to an abrupt halt. Normally friendly and gracious people left without explanation, started cleaning furiously and moving furniture.  We realized the party was over and scurried out the door before anyone burst into tears.  In the car, I said to Jeremy, "But they haven't lost, they could even still win.  I don't know why everyone gave up." A friend later described the despair by saying, "You know how it felt in the 8th inning when they lost the big lead they had? That's how it has been our whole lives--that feeling...except they don't win. You come to expect it."

And that's just it.  These fans have been brought to the brink and then let down for generations.  They walk around in mourning, get distracted by the holidays, and then start to have a glimmer of hope as the next season starts in the spring.  That's why their unofficial slogan was Maybe Next Year.  There is nothing like the emotionality and endearing hopefulness of a Cubs fan. A tweet after the game ended said "Congratulations! Cubs win! Too bad all their fans died during the 8th inning."

But the sense of connection between all the fans and generations of fans that have been loyal to their Cubbies for the last century was what won my heart as I watched this series unfold. At game 5, the last game at Wrigley Field, as the stands erupted in singing "Go Cubs, Go!" after their exciting win that kept their World Series dreams alive, I was struck by a sign being held high by a middle-aged man that read "This is for Grandpa."

 After the game, fans began writing family members and friends' names on the bricks outside the stadium--people who had not lived to see this moment and who were being missed in this moment by the ones who had come. Tearful fans passed nubs of chalk to other waiting, emotionally overcome fans.

On social media and around my community, I saw young people who could have been out partying it up with their friends instead watching with their grandmas and grandpas, or weeping because someone wasn't here to enjoy the moment with them. Jeremy has laughed at me a few times this week as he's caught me listening to sports radio (which I would never normally do)...but it's because all the show hosts seem to want to do is have people call in and tell their Cubs stories. Like the 94-year-old woman whose brothers went to a Cubs game first thing after they returned from WWII. Or the many who listened to games on the radio with their grandparents. One friend (though I'm sure he's not the only one) comes from a family whose grandma was buried in her Cubs jersey. He drove all the way to Cleveland for Game 7 in a borrowed car and paid for what turned out to be a counterfeit ticket...and then miraculously was GIVEN a free ticket at the last moment from a man who said, "Baseball is the greatest game in the world. This is the World Series. You deserve to be in there. Go have fun." The sense of family connection held by the fans was on display and I can honestly say that there has been something so special about being able to watch these stories up close.

There have been W flags and Cubs gear left at gravesites in cemeteries.

From twitter: 94 year-old WWII vet and lifelong  fan. He gets to celebrate with tears of joy tonight

 There was a man who drove all day from North Carolina to Indiana to listen to the game at his father's grave, who died in 1980, but they promised they would listen to the game together if the Cubs went all the way.

Our friend and neighbor who painted the Cubs logo on his and other's lawns and shot his civil war cannon off in jubilation at the Cubs victory (maybe it was just fireworks but it sure sounded like it) was proudest to have watched the game with his mom--his wife said mother and son had rarely missed watching a game together since he was a little boy.

(See the cannon off to the right?)

My friend Ellen's grandma, who turns 94 tomorrow.  She says she's been holding out for the Cubs to win the World Series.  Ellen rushed over there the day after the final game to bring her a Cubs cupcake and flowers and to talk to her about making a new goal...maybe a repeat win in 2017!

Because our Cubs-watching party ended so abruptly, we went home as a family and I put the kids to bed with the radio on to hear the rest of the game. The rain delay meant that they fell asleep before hearing the celebrations, but I guess we were forging our own family connectedness as Cubs fans because we experienced it intimately, as a family. Evan, who has had the hardest time accepting Chicago as his home (even though he is mostly happy in his day-to-day life), decided to root for the Indians because he couldn't root for the Cubbies; he had been harassed by some older boys a few months ago for wearing an Angels hat and I think he couldn't bear to join with Chicago fans for fear of losing his CA identity. Even though he's the baseball-lover of our family, he wasn't enjoying the experience as he could have. He was stubborn and alone as his school was decked out in Cubbies gear and his friends were talking about the games. The day of Game 7, my mom sent him an article about how Joe Madden (the Cubs manager) always carries an Angels hat with him--a keepsake of his dad's that is near to his heart, and a reminder of when he used to be an Angels coach. With just a few minutes until we were supposed to leave for our Game 7 party, he got a white shirt and made his own Cubs gear and cheered his heart out, sleeping in it that night and wearing it proudly to school the next day. I guess that's how Cubs fans are made...straight to the heart through personal connections, not statistics and probability.

Ultimately, though, my favorite part about watching the Cubs fans watch their Cubbies win has been the sense of human connectedness that's been on display. There's something unifying in a community when people are drawn together by a common love--signs up in windows, Go Cubs! being used as a salutation, conversations at school after each game, talking about common experiences. I love watching the videos of people celebrating--they are reaching out for any hand to high-five or squeeze, they are hugging complete strangers. They are running towards each other in the street. My kids are singing "Go Cubs Go" with total joy with their friends. On the night of the final victory, neighbors who often don't speak were coming out their front doors just to experience the moment with someone else. Even though the game ended more than days ago, the radio still has people calling in to just share their experiences of watching the games or going to the parade. The feeling is like after something tragic like 9-11 when people want to be together and talk about where they were when it happened and look at symbols from the event and live in the feelings together--only it's totally joyful and celebratory!

(this video is so good)

I'm a sucker for connections and I admit I have been sucked right into all of this. I drove to Wrigley field on a whim the day of Game 7, just to see it all with my own eyes. Sherry, my Cubs tour guide, shared her memories and emotions with me and we had so much fun watching Wrigleyville fill up with fans, even though the game was in Cleveland. The stadium itself projects a sense of connectedness--it's just situated right in an old big parking lots and freeways and fences surrounding's even called "The Friendly Confines."  Sherry and I bonded over cheese curds and stories of Cubs history and personal history and she welcomed me proudly into this world I really have no right to call my own, yet that she gave me a ticket with which to enter. We regretted that we forgot to go look at the bricks bearing loved ones' names on the sides of the stadium, but then she, in true Cubs superstitious form said, "No, it's probably better this way because I might have written one name and then forgotten to write another one and then been so regretful all day and it might have caused the Cubs to lose."

I got so swept up in the emotion and community-feeling of it all, I added something to our fire hydrant we painted because we were finishing it up the day after Game 7.

So, this is what it has been like for me, an outsider, to spectate the spectators and ultimately become a Cubs fan myself. I've enjoyed it so much and don't want it to end. I drove downtown with Evan and Annie yesterday afternoon to see the river dyed blue and the buildings lit up red and blue.  We even drove past the stadium with "Go Cubs Go" playing in the car. On a deeper level, this whole experience has been indicative of our human desire to see bad things end and victory won. To together be a part of something bigger than ourselves that erases the bad times and seems to transcend time. To behold the joy in each other's faces at the undoing of a curse. I can't help think about greater realities--the hope of Christ's return and the joy of sin's defeat and how we will look at each other in utter disbelief and relief.  This week, I saw strangers united, old men jumping up and down like young boys, something that seemed bad to us (a rain delay) but that turned to something good, me as an insider brought in at the last moment but able to experience all the celebration with everyone else, and the compelling joy of a multitude of people cheering for something beyond themselves that they are so thankful to have been a part of.  And this is only baseball.

Check out this article--so sweet! Grandma's and Grandpa's reactions to Cubs win

And of course, here's the Go Cubs Go song, if you haven't heard it by now;