Why We Cheer: From the diary of a Cub Fan Nation
This is the story that got me on ESPN. I've been waiting for more than a month to share it with everybody here, although it is something I've written about twice before and will almost certainly write about sometime again as my own story continues to change and grow.
Unlike many of you, I was not born into a Cubs family. My father was never a huge baseball fan to begin with and my brother bleeds Sawx red. I became a Cubs fan in 1987, primarily because my best friend in kindergarten was also a Cubs fan.
I think that there are essentially three phases that Cub fans go through as they age. When we're young, we are those wide-eyed optimists, wearing the rose colored glasses while swilling our Cubbie Blue Kool-Aid. We are too innocent to realize that we've fallen for an organization as poorly run as a Bush-presided oil company. We do not yet recognize that the Chicago owners are a faceless corporation with both eyes on the profit margin whose final interest is not in the team's place in the standings, but their yearly attendance figures. However, when I was a kid, it was easy to believe that the Cubs were going to be good.
My first season where I watched the majority of the games was 1989. It was easy to be a Cub fan back then - they were a good young team, they were one of the best in the NL, and they charged into the playoffs where they were quickly dispatched by the Giants. In some ways, I knew more then than I do now. I could have told you the names of every player, his position, the number on his back and his statistics in the box scores. I couldn't do that today, although I probably could go into graphic detail about Kerry Wood's grizzled beard and Darryl Ward's bulbous ass.
My real trials as a Cub fan, however, would come in the half decade after 1989. The Cubs fell into the pool of mediocre, and with a few exceptions they were mostly a 78 win team. I certainly didn't understand at the time why it was that they sucked so badly. I was confused by it, and I believed with bright abandon that any game the Cubs played was a game they should win. I failed to understand the disparity between players like Derrick May and Barry Bonds. C'mon, it wasn't my fault -- I was a kid. My confusion only escalated as time went on. I was certainly surprised when the Cubs allowed Andre Dawson to leave town a homer shy of 400 on his career. I was befuddled when they let Greg Maddux go, as he was the best pitcher in the world. And I was flabbergasted when Ryne Sandberg retired early, in the horrible 1994 season. I didn't really see the thing that connected these events. I didn't see that they were a team without direction. It wouldn't be until I was in my early 20's that I'd experience that first taste of bitterness.
1995 was a defining year for me as a fan. Sure, I always loved the Cubs. I followed them closely. However, it was the final series of the '95 season that I crossed over the threshold from being a casual fan to becoming an obessed one. The Cubs had hired Andy MacPhail that year. He was a man with a pedigree and a track record, the savior the organization had needed, and for a brief time it looked as though he'd actually deliver on his reputation.
The '95 Cubs were a decent team. They started out strongly, winning what seemed like a lot of games late. They played hard, they had fun, and they benefited from surprisingly good seasons from pitchers like Jim Bullinger, Kevin Foster, Frank Castillo, and Jamie Navarro. Toward the end of the year, they went on something like a 7 game winning streak extending into a final 4 game series against the Houston Astros at Wrigley Field. With only a handful of games remaining, the Cubs were still in the hunt for the new Wild Card spot. They were playing September baseball that actually mattered.
It was the most thrilling regular season baseball I had ever seen. It was better than prime time television. Every game was close. Every contest was high scoring. The Cubs lost the last 2, missing the playoffs, but it didn't matter. I loved it. But the thing that really got to me was what happened after the last game, when Harry Caray was saying goodbye to the fans for another long winter.
He was standing in the booth, saying farewell, and he started crying. By then, he'd been a veteran of broadcasting for something like 50 years. He was a professional, he was old school, and yet he was crying, saying "this is not like me, I'm not like this, I don't know why this is happening." But I know why. The Cubs had gotten to him. That's what they do - they get to people. It doesn't matter if you're a conservative in a suit, it doesn't matter if you're dry and reserved, sooner or later the Cubs will get to you and you will be a blubbering mass sobbing in front of the world.
That was when I crossed over a line and became obsessed.
Unfortunately for me, and for Ryne Sanderg who was also inspired by the '95 squad, the '96 and '97 teams failed to deliver. But 1998 was special. I was a senior in high school and I probably watched on TV or listened on the radio to all but a dozen games. I was there for Kerry Wood's 20 strikeout game and Sammy Sosa's 20 homerun month. On the day I graduated high school, I piled into a rented convertable with my brother, sister, and friends, and we drove to Chicago in order to see my first game at Wrigley Field. It was on July 1, against the Diamondbacks. Kerry Wood struck out 12, Sammy Sosa blasted 2 doubles off the ivy, and Rod Beck walked a tight rope to get another save.
The '98 team was a thrill to watch. They were my first playoff Cubs team as an adult, but they never had a chance. They were three-and-done in October, Kerry Wood would go on to suffer the first of umpteen arm injuries, and 1999 was an unforgettably forgettable season as the Cubs crashed back to mediocrity.
And still I believed.
I said earlier that there are phases in every Cub fan's life, and the first is blind optimism. It wasn't until 2003 that I began to really exit that phase. You know what happened that year, and if you're anything like me, you know where I went next as a Cub fan.
I'll be honest with you. I followed 2003 just as closely as I follow any Cubs season. I watched the games and I even went to some. I lived and died with them in October, but when Bartman deflected that ball, when Prior imploded on the mound, when Dusty remained on the bench, and when Gonzalez bobbled the double play ball I lost that season. It's like my brain hit the eject button. I remember next to nothing. I have no warm memories of how they played like anything but the Cubs that year. I know they buried the Cardinals early in September, but I don't remember who did what or how the games went. What I do know - what I remember - is that they broke my heart.
I think the second phase of Cubs fandom is bitterness and anger. Look around. I'm sure you know some 40-year-old diehards. They're probably not the most pleasant bunch to speak with on the day after a brutal Cubs loss. It seems to me that a lot of Cub fans battle depression, they battle alcoholism, and they experience divorces. I can't really blame them.
The way I have to look at it is simple. Cubs fans invest thousands if not tens of thousands of hours watching, talking, and thinking about the Cubs. Likewise, we spend thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars in supporting the Cubs. We don't do it for kicks. We invest so much time, money, and passion into Cubs baseball with an expectation of getting a return - victory. The Cubs have not delivered on our investment.
How can people blame us for becoming sad, or bitter, or angry? How could anybody expect any other kind of result? I am now in my 21st season of waiting for the Cubs to win for once. That's 2 decades for me. Some of us are in their 9th. The weight only gets heavier.
I will admit that there are some people out there who just don't get it. I'm sure that, if you're a Cubs fan, you've heard somebody say to you, "why don't you just become a fan of the Yankees?" The worst is when a koolaid-swilling Cubbie fan makes that remark. People just don't get it. We're frustrated, but we can't give up. We can't stop now. We've invested too much.
However, I have noticed something since 2004. I haven't met a Cub fan who's quit, but I have heard on more than one occasion Cubs fans proclaim that they will hide their love of the team from their children. They don't want their kids to go through the same lifetime of disappointment, especially when the world is soul-crushing in
so many other ways. Me, I'm not there yet. I'm hurt by what happened in '03 and '04, I'm angry that so little was done in '05 and '06, but I'm not convinced that it's a lost cause. In fact, I don't think many people really are.
I'm certain now that I was not the only one to notice the remorse of Cub fans. I think that somebody in the organization noticed, too, because in 2007, the team began to make some amazing changes. For the first time in my life, they went out and acquired the best players, the most necessary, in order for them to compete. From Soriano to Lilly to Fukudome, Jim Hendry has acquired every player he's wanted since bitter Cub fans left Wrigley Field half empty in September 2006. It seems to me that things are looking better.
And that's just it. I'm 28 years old now, and I will be 29 in November. In my lifetime, I've seen 10 winning seasons, and soon I will have seen 6 playoff appearances. I really don't know if the Cubs will finally win the World Series this year, but I believe it could happen. In fact, I believe it will happen.
I titled this article "why we cheer." In my case, I cheer not only because I have to, but because I want to. I am proud to be a Cub fan. I am excited, and I believe they will win, and soon. And while a World Series victory would not make up for a lifetime of crushing defeats, it would at the very least justify living through it all. It's like I said to Wayne. Maybe we will need to have lived a lifetime of sports misery in order to experience a solitary moment of unrelenting joy. And that's what it would be like.
When the Cubs win the World Series, it will be unlike anything we've seen. It will be like a religious experience. It will be amazing. That is why I cheer. I want to be there to see it. I'm going to see it soon; I don't doubt it for a second, and neither should you.
When we redesigned GROTA the first time back in the spring of aught seven, we debated internally about having a reader's blog. We saw the community that Al Yellon had over at Bleed Cubbie Blue and we thought, "hey, maybe we can get in on some of that action!" However, at the time we declined, choosing instead to stay the course.
This time around, we made it a reality. Sure, you can respond and comment as you always have, but what I want to see above all else is people posting blogs just like this one. You can see them by clicking here. You can post your own by looking under "My Account" on the left hand column and clicking on "Create Content; Blog Entry." You can blog about the Cubs until your heart is content over there. You disagree with me? Write a blog about it. You have your own spin? Blog away. We want to know your take. We want to know why you cheer. Tell us there.