A Lovable Loser
Yes, I’m one of those sad fans.
You know who I’m talking about, even if you have never followed the game of baseball, don’t know a pitcher from a utility infielder and could care less about The World Series. The Chicago Cubs have a unique place in the American psyche. It’s a franchise that made losing a literal “loss leader,” and has created an entire culture known as “lovable losers.”
I’ve been a loyal fan since the mid-1960s, and I will always be a loyal fan. I love everything about the team: the logo, the uniforms, the scoreboard, the players, the history, everything.
Flying into Chicago from the east, the final approach into O’Hare Airport often goes right over the near north side of Chicago, and there is Wrigley Field sticking out of a neighborhood called “Wrigleyville,” a tiny bandbox of a ballpark that is undergoing renovation this year (after years of complaints from players about what an old, decrepit, pain-in-the-butt place it is to play - until you actually get out on the field).
Ernie Banks is, after my father, my first hero. His effect on me, his inspiration and joie-de-vie infected me as an 8-year-old boy, and I wish I could tell him that he is a guiding light in my life to this day.
My father worked at WGN in Chicago throughout the mid-60s into the 1970s. As an employee, he was able to get free tickets to the games on a whenever-he-wanted-em basis, since ‘GN was the radio and TV broadcaster for the team. I went to countless games as a little boy, often left in the bleachers with my brothers for a few innings as our dad would rush back over to the station and do some last-minute recording.
We learned that ballpark inside-and-out, and we got to know the idiosyncrasies of baseball as we sneaked into the box seats after the 7th inning to analyze the last nine outs of any given game. It was a different time. The park rarely sold out, especially during the workweek, because there were no night lights at Wrigley Field. We would collect empty plastic cups and put them in the screen fence down the left field line making words: “GO CUBS!” and “LET’S PLAY 2”, the latter being one of Ernie Banks’ favorite quotes.
I remember walking into the ballpark for the first time, and seeing my idol, number 14, warming up at first base. Banks looked ten feet tall, effortlessly fielding throws from other infielders. He hit two ground-rule doubles in that game against the Atlanta Braves, whose right fielder became another hero that afternoon: Henry Aaron hit 2 home runs, besting Ernie and the Cubs.
Later that summer I sat in the grandstand lower deck next to St Louis Cardinals fans who berated me for being a Cubs fan (I was 8 and proudly, pathetically a Cubs fan). They were in their early 20s, just a couple of guys having fun and a few beers, nothing serious, gently chiding this little kid who wouldn’t shut up about how wonderful the Chicago Cubs were. The Cards won when Lou Brock - AN EX-CUB! - walked, stole second and scored the winning run in the top of the 9th.
The guys ribbed me about it, and I sobbed openly. My dad showed up, and the guys apologized to him: “We didn’t mean to make him cry…” and my father said, “Are you happy? All he lives for is Ernie Banks!” I remember them looking at me and trying to make me feel better, but to someone who lived and died with every pitch, where every inning was a season of sorts, it became a day forever emblazoned in my memory. Two years later, my dad arranged a meeting in the Cubs third-base dugout, with Mr. Ernie Banks. My life, at age 10, was complete.
My first date with my future wife was a dream, a vignette out of a romantic comedy directed by Rob Reiner and starring Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. I can watch the reel in my head a million times without tiring of the scene. It takes place in the right field bleachers on a sunny, hot, weekday afternoon, some 20 years after I had become a Cub fan.
I put suntan lotion on her back in those same bleachers I had grown up in, the sun blazing down on us as I rubbed her shoulders and we sat and talked and laughed and held hands, enjoying a perfect summer afternoon.
The Cubs lost because the Reds catcher, someone named Bo Diaz, hit the two fastest home runs I had ever seen into the exact same place down the left field line, three innings apart. The score didn’t matter. There were other events taking place, and as with all things Cubs, the game was just a dramatic backdrop to the theater and important things going on in my life.
The team is doing fairly well this season. They have new, young, exciting players. They’re overhauling the bleachers. The GM is a young guy who took a similar club, The Boston Red Sox, to the World Series for the first time in a century. Perhaps the Cubs make it, this season or next, or the next, or the next.
That doesn’t matter, does it? The Cubs are such an integral part of my being that whatever they do is exactly what should be. Banks used to open each spring training with a short poem, ala “The Cubs will be fine - in ’69” (the worst summer of my life; google the well-documented “collapse” they suffered through at the end of that fateful campaign). This year?
“Something never before seen - in two-thousand-fifteen!”
A guy can dream.