I have this dream. It’s the seventh game of the World Series, bottom of the ninth inning, Cubs against the Yankees, and the bases are loaded. The score is 2–1, Cubs, but the Yanks are threatening. (The Yankees haven’t been a great team for years, but they’re still satisfying to beat in dreams.) Wrigley Field boils and churns with cheers, claps, and fans on their feet waving “W” flags.
The green field glows. The ivy on the walls gleams under the bright white light and rustles in the crisp lake wind.
The Cubs are an out away from winning a World Series, against all odds. But they’ve run out of pitchers. Fergie Jenkins, Kerry Wood, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, Greg Maddux, and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown (an improbable all-era roster of Cubs all-stars) have all thrown brilliantly. But the bullpen is almost bare. The manager (a gray-haired, knob-nosed fusion of Joe Maddon, Charlie Grimm, and Joe McCarthy) is downcast and flummoxed. Then a light goes on in his eyes.
“It’s a crazy idea, I know,” he tells his coaches. “But I got a feeling . . .”
I hear my name crackle over the old tin speakers and echo over the slatted green seats and scuffed concrete stairs. Astonishment rolls through the crowd. The announcers (who sound like Joe Buck and Bob Costas) are stupefied, if not quite speechless. “A move no one could have predicted . . .” I take slow, deliberate strides over the electrified green grass and look down to see my arms in white sleeves with Cubby blue stripes.
I reach the mound. Some of the astounded hubbub dies. The catcher (all grit and spit, a grizzled combination of Randy Hundley, Gabby Hartnett, and David Ross) hands me the ball. “No need to go over signs,” he says through a chaw and a grin. He knows I have just one pitch: a fat, slow dodo of a throw that catches the wind like a candy wrapper, darts, floats, curves, and is preposterously difficult to hit.
My catcher returns to crouch behind home plate. In the broadcast booth, Joe and Bob sputter to explain this stunning turn. “He’s a fan. But he knows a lot about the franchise, and he’s been practicing his pitch at the gym. And the Cubs must have seen something they liked, because here he is . . .”
The Yankee batter glowers and spits. He’s not Derek, Gehrig, or the Mick, but some malevolent, swearing, gob- spitting, steel-bearded, pinstriped brute. In fact, let’s call him the Brute. He tells our catcher, “Look what the cat dragged to the mound.” Then the Brute glares at me: “Time for batting practice, rook.”
I take a deep breath. The seats at Wrigley roil with 43,000 Cubs fans who take a sudden deep breath at the same time and fall silent. I look to my right to see the all-star Cubs spirits of Kris Bryant and Ron Santo dance on their toes at third, and Addison Russell, Ernie Banks, and Joe Tinker at short. I glance to my right: Javy Báez and Ryno Sandberg are on patrol at second base, while Anthony Rizzo and Mark Grace spit and pound the pockets of their gloves at first.
I look in to my catcher. I draw back my arms. I twist slightly to put my power into the psoas muscle (as my yoga trainer has taught me) and bring my right arm through above my shoulder, snapping off the throw with my right hand.
All action seems to slow. I see the ball hang in the night air, snag the lake wind, then float and weave, its red seams whirling. The Brute spits, then swings mightily. But the fat of his bat misses by six inches, and I hear—43,000 fans hear—his swing whiff the air like a tree cracking and falling.
The Brute steps back to spit and swear. He wipes his huge, grimy hands across his pinstripes and yells out to the mound, “Try that again, meat. I got your number now.”
My wife, Caroline, our daughters, Elise and Paulina, our dog, and my late mother sit together in grandstand seats along the third base line. All but our dog, Daisy, have their heads lowered in anticipated embarrassment. (Daisy believes.) My mother tells all nearby, “Well, you know, darlings, all that writing stuff came later. Pitching for the Cubs is really what he’s always wanted to do. I just hope . . .”
I shake off my catcher’s sign, but it’s an act; I’ll throw the same pitch, and hope he won’t see it coming. I rear back, thrust forward, and let the ball go from the tips of my fingers. It bobs and weaves as capriciously as the flight of a firefly. The Brute holds back for an instant, addled and confused, then tries to punch the ball with his bat.
The gesture looks desperate and pathetic. The Brute misses by a foot. The roar of the crowd is so loud I can only read the lips of the ump as he bellows, “Stee-rike two!”
Up in the booth, Bob and Joe agree as one. “Nothing quite like this has ever been seen in baseball history. The Chicago Cubs—historically one of the most beloved, but easily the most cursed, hexed, and jinxed franchise in sports history—are a strike away from winning the World Series and have bet it all on a longtime fan with a freakishly effective pitch. How amazing! How utterly . . . Cub-like!”
Ernie Banks trots in from short to hold up a single, slim finger. “Just one more, Scooter, one more!” Ron Santo and Kris Bryant pound their gloves at third, while Javy and Ryno draw their toes around second base. I shake off a first sign. Then a second, then a third. My catcher, who knows this plan, gives his plump brown glove a last thump and holds it over the heart of the plate. I rear back and rock my psoas. But this time, I don’t snap off a last floater of a pitch—what the Brute, the NSA, the KGB, MI5, and thousands in the stands and sixty million people tuned in at home expect. Instead, I bring my right arm through with the power of a rocket burst. The seams on the ball whizz and whirr into a blinding blur.
The crowd inhales. The Brute rocks back on his heels, too astonished even to lift his bat from his shoulders.
The radar gun f lickers before it glows with three numerals: 101 mph. My fastball smacks the catcher’s mitt like a crack of lightning. The Brute thumps his hitless bat on the ground in defeat and frustration, where it leaves an angry gash the size of a canal. The ump cries, “Strike three!” Joe and Bob sputter, “I can’t believe it! I can’t believe it! Against all odds, and after more than a century . . .” as Ernie, Ron, Ryno, Kris, Javy, Gabby, David, Fergie, Kyle, Jon, and Kerry pile all over me on the mound and a sea of Cubby blue fills the Friendly Confines of the greatest and greenest old brick ballpark, with her ivy-covered walls.
I am a Cubs fan. A husband and father, an American, a Chicagoan, and a Cubs fan. My politics, religion, and personal tastes change with whatever I learn from life. But being a Cubs fan is my nature, my heritage, and probably somewhere in my chromosomes.
If you prick me, I’m quite sure I’ll bleed Cubby blue.
I am in the news business, and try to keep myself apprised of the timeliest information about unrest, wars, finance, and affairs of state. But in the morning, I usually check the scores of Cubs games the moment my feet hit the floor.
I’ve been blessed to see the Rose City of Petra, the Pink City of Jaipur, and the gracefully gushing fountains in the Place de la Concorde. But I still can’t imagine a more beautiful place on earth than Wrigley Field, an ivied spot in a city setting of red brick against lakefront towers, especially on a soft August afternoon or crisp autumn night.
In the poetic opening words of The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow defines the churning urban forces that have shaped his title character. I’ve made a few adjustments:
I am an American, north side Chicago born—Chicago, that City of Big Shoulders—and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, and historically often dead last in the National League. But a man’s character is his fate, says Heraclitus, or as Moe Drabowsky, the Cubs pitcher, once put it, “We came out of the dugout for opening day and saw a fan holding up a sign: ‘Wait ’Til Next Year.’”
To be devoted to the Chicago Cubs is to carry a torch of love that defies comparison. If rooting for the New York Yankees has been like rooting for Wal-Mart or Microsoft, what has it been like to root for the Cubs?
No metaphor for doom has ever improved on “rooting for the Chicago Cubs.”
People used to use compare the Cubs to the Hindenburg and the Titanic. But lives were actually lost in those failures; and besides, they sank just once. The Cubs couldn’t win a World Series for 108 years.
During those decades, scientists split the atom in Chicago. Chicagoans built towers that scraped the sky. They improvised a new kind of comedy and transformed drama. Chicago writers pumped blood and muscle into literature. A Chicagoan walked on the moon. Chicagoans won Nobel Prizes in every category and invented Twinkies, Playboy magazine, and open-heart surgery. A Chicago man was elected president of the United States. (And actually, I’m glad it was a White Sox fan. A Cubs fan with nuclear weapons? I imagine a mushroom cloud over Milwaukee. “Oh, jeez, I thought that was to call for a pizza . . .”)
But the Chicago Cubs still couldn’t win the World Series. The Cubs have been the passion that confirms the triumph of hope over experience.
During the holiday season that followed the Cubs 2016 World Series win, a department store Santa Claus caught my eye with a white-gloved wave. He told his elves to let me approach his gilded chair. Santa reached below his throne, doffed his signature red stocking cap, and pulled on a Cubs hat.
“I was a marine,” Santa said. “Went to ’Nam in sixty- nine. By August, Cubs were nine games up in the National League race,” he continued, “when they sent me out into the shit.” Santa swore like a sailor, or anyhow like a marine. “No Twitter-twat or e-mail in those days. We couldn’t listen to that Good Morning, Vietnam guy either, or Charlie would find us. It was just us, Charlie, and the shit. By the time I got out of the jungle, it was December. I grabbed hold of the first guy I saw in the clear and shook him to pieces. ‘Who the hell won the World Series?’ I asked. ‘Who won?’ ‘Oh, New York,’ he told me, and I said, ‘Fucking Yankees, again, hey? Well, at least the Cubs finally got our chance.’ And this kid says, ‘No sir. It was the New York Mets what won.’ And I shouted at him, ‘The Mets? Fucking Mets, not even the Yanks? The goddamn Cubs had a nine-game lead! Did the team bus run off a cliff? Goddamn mother-loving ass- licking . . .” Santa Cub grew exhaustively vulgar. “‘I survived the shit just to hear that the Cubs blew it again?’”
“But this year . . .” I told him, and Santa Cub jiggled his post-marine belly like a bowlful of jelly.
“We earned the World Series 108 times over, hey? Our daddies and mammies and grandparents. Me and you.”
A few more families had lined up to see him, and Santa switched back to his home-field red headgear. He adjusted his belly like an umpire’s chest protector.
“C’mon, kids,” he called over to the families. “Step on over and say hello. Just chatting with this nice man. Santa and this man already got our present, didn’t we, pallie? One we’ve waited for a long time.”
Santa really does have a twinkle in his eye.