[November 2nd, 2016, 4:50 p.m.]
I don’t have a fancy Cubs fan story. I’ve never met Harry Caray or had a run-in with a player on the team. I don’t have a house full of memorabilia or autographed baseballs. My story is like the story of so many long-distance Cubs fans, the prodigal children of a home we’ve never (or rarely) seen, except through a screen with those three little letters—W-G-N—sitting in the corner or along the bottom of the frame.
I was raised to be a Cubs fan by my father. Truth be told, I don’t know when he became a Cubs fan, as he grew up in Michigan watching the Detroit Tigers. I grew up in Houston ignoring the Astros and watching the Cubbies on WGN. I was “raised in the faith,” taught to stay true to my boys in blue through good times and bad. And I have, for the most part. (Some years, it was harder than others.)
My baseball hero was always Ryne Sandberg. When I was a pudgy 8 year old playing YMCA coach-pitch baseball, I did everything I could to convince the coaches to put me in at second base (they almost never did) and give me the #23 (I won that battle).
I was never that athletic, but I have always loved the game. The crack of the bat was music to my ears, the beauty of a freshly-lined ballpark brought a tear to my eye, and the sound of Harry Caray leading “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” still warms my heart.
I’ve watched a lot of bad Cubs baseball over the years. A lot of it. As a result, my loyalty never wavered, but my excitement for the Cubs waned during high school. I caught the fever again in 1998, the year of Sosa and McGwire, the year of Kerry Wood’s amazing 20 strike-out game, the year we beat the Giants to make it to the playoffs only to be swept by the Braves and Greg Maddux (the traitor!).
Then, after college, I got sucked into it again in 2003—with that killer pitching staff of Prior, Wood, and Zambrano, and guys like Aramis and Sosa and Moises Alou leading the offense. Then the Bartman Game happened. I remember standing stunned in the middle of my living room in my first post-college apartment, watching the game alone, yelling at the bare walls around me about the injustice of it all.
Over the next decade or so, my excitement would grow and fade. Each spring, I’d tell my coworkers, “This is the year! I can feel it!” only to witness another August flame-out. Every season, I’d do my best to see at least one Cubs game when they came to town, only to watch them lose to the Astros over and over and over. (They did beat them occasionally, but never when *I* was there.) I even made the pilgrimage to the Friendly Confines with my dad in 2006, where we sat in the blessed bleachers and watched our Cubbies lose to (ironically) the Astros. Twice. At least the weather was beautiful and the hot dogs sure were tasty.
I started getting the itch again at the end of last season. Social media helped a lot with this, since my wife and I don’t have cable (grumble, grumble, bills, adulting, grumble). While I haven’t watched much of any regular-season baseball this year, I began semi-regularly checking the scores, watching highlights online, getting to know the squad. I watched in amazement as they won game after game after game. This was (and is) the best Cubs team, top to bottom, I’ve seen in my life.
The playoffs this year have been a blur. Since the first two rounds were not televised where I could see them, I’ve had to rely on the MLB app’s glacial refresh rate to “watch” the action pitch-by-molasses-slow-pitch, turning to Twitter to see clips and GIFs of the highlights. (This, by the way, is a TERRIBLE way to watch baseball. But I’m cheap–er, frugal–so it’s my own fault.)
The Cubs then made it to the World Series, only to go down 3 games to 1. That’s when I began feeling that old familiar dread. The sickness in the pit of my stomach. The 1998 feeling. The 2003 feeling. The zombie-rumble of “There’s always next year” ringing in my ears.
Confession time: I almost didn’t watch Game 5. They looked so defeated in Game 4, so lackluster in the face of such good pitching by the Indians, I was afraid to watch Game 5. Somehow, I swallowed the knot of seeming-inevitability that was hanging in my throat, and sat down to watch the ballgame. And it was miraculous. Then came Game 6, and the run-bonanza Cubbies I had been cheering for all season finally returned.
So now, tonight, in just a few hours, my boys in blue will be taking the field to try to make history. I’m…numb. I don’t know. So many years of high hopes and let-downs. It’s like I keep waiting for the other shoe to drop. I am almost afraid to get my hopes up again. But if any year was “next year,” it’s gotta be THIS year, right? Right?
See you on the other side.
[November 3rd, 2016, 12:oo p.m.]
I’m still not sure if I dreamed all that. Try as I might, I can’t shake the feeling of unreality of it all. My phone practically exploded, buzzing itself almost off the table, as I watched the celebration begin on the field.
What a game. What a series. What a finish.
To be totally honest, when Bryant threw that final out to Rizzo, what I felt wasn’t shock, or excitement, or elation.
What I felt was relief. Emotionally-exhausted relief. I didn’t even cry out or cheer. All I could muster in that numb unreality was a silent fist-pump, standing in the middle of my living room, as my wife smiled and watched me from the couch.
[Why standing in the middle of the living room? Because I was excited or into the moment? Oh, no, no, no. Because my blasted rabbit-ears antenna on the blasted television decided to freak out and stop showing the game IN THE BOTTOM OF THE TENTH. For three tense minutes as I fiddled with the antenna, I struggled to keep my frustration in check. It finally pixelated itself back to a picture with 2 outs.]
Even after the guys rushed onto the field, jumping around and screaming, as interviews were given and awards were handed out (and I watched through the frequent glitching of the TV signal), I just sat. When I finally reached for my phone and started cycling through the messages, my first tweet in response pretty much summed up my feelings:
And now it’s Thursday. I’m at work. Life doesn’t stop when history is witnessed. It just keeps rolling. But the November sun is shining just a touch brighter today, and its glow is reflected off the skin of the bright green apple on my desk.
Here’s the thing, though, gang: There’s more to life than this game that I have loved and followed for most of my life.
Last night, before the game, I tweeted out something I still fully believe: as much as baseball is a good gift from God that we can enjoy, it’s all dust and noise in the light of eternity. Baseball is a fun thing, a good thing, but it isn’t an ultimate thing. Why? Because baseball is a wonderful pastime but a terrible god. Our hearts must be aimed much higher than the outfield bleachers.
While we Cubs fans will revel in this off-season as our beloved team are the “reigning” champs, in April they’ll have to give the trophy back and put that title back on the line. And they may even lose.
And guess what? That’s okay.
Because baseball teams and loved ones and life itself will let us down and disappoint us, and that’s just life. But even that very disappointment will be a loving reminder that we were made to put our ultimate hope, our ultimate joy, in Someone profoundly greater than all of this.
All these lesser joys are sweet to the taste, but they are the faintest echoes of that Greater Joy–a joy unfading, an inheritance undefiled, a victory unending, secure forever for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus.