By Rich Cohen
Harper’s, August 2001
When the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series, the automobile was still a new and untrusted invention and the electric light was not yet twenty years old. In the years since the fifth game of that series, most of the European monarchies have collapsed, two world wars have been fought, Communism has risen and fallen, and disco has come and gone and come again. Losing year after year, sometimes in the last weeks of the season, more often in the middle of August, the Cubs have become a symbol of futility, the blind, never-ending hope of a hopeless people. Before his death, Jack Brickhouse, the great Cubs play-by-play man, excused the team by saying, “Everyone is entitled to a bad century.”
For the Cubs, the current season has thus far played out like a dream. The team collected twelve straight victories in May and early June, a feat it had not accomplished since 1936—a year in which, incidentally, the Cubs did not reach the World Series. Despite the fact that such stretches come along once every five or six years in the manner of a remission that, for a time, masks the true direction of the disease, even the most cynical of fans clings, in a secret place hidden beneath the heckles and beer, to the belief in eventual victory. But if 2001 is indeed the breakthrough year, if the new century indeed ushers in a rebirth of the franchise, these rooters will lose a treasure more valuable than any World Series ring: they will lose an enduring, dependable, neatly mystical relationship with loss.
Last August, hoping to discover the secret of this relationship, I checked into a hotel just off Michigan Avenue on the North Side of Chicago and prepared to “cover” the Cubs. The team had just come off a winning streak that had left them a few games below .500 and a half dozen games behind the division leading St. Louis Cardinals, whom, in a few days, they would face at Wrigley Field. In other words, I had arrived at that most heartbreaking moment of any Cubs year: the false spring.
I went for walks along Rush Street, in and out of the bars. At Harry Caray’s on Kinzie and Dearborn, watching the Cubs on television, I heard a big guy in a SHUT UP AND DRINK YOUR BEER T-shirt refer to a towering Sammy Sosa home run as a “God Ball.” He then picked a fight with an old man in a Brewers hat, saying, “Look at your boys! In last place! We are in a solid third! All we got to do is sweep this series, sweep the next series, and go from there.”
On State Street, I ran into a friend who had just returned from New York, where he had made his first visit to Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were great, of course, but he thought the stadium a disgrace. No one familiar with Cub fans would find this judgment at all unusual: the prevailing aesthetic is, of necessity, beauty above victory. Anyone else might argue that Yankee Stadium, no matter how monstrous, is a treasure. Why? Because winning has made it beautiful. On the other hand, Wrigley Field, no matter how picturesque, might be considered an eyesore, because losing has made it ugly. The true Cub fan believes the opposite. My friend said, “I’ll tell you what, kid, that stadium, it sure made me appreciate what we got right here at Wrigley Field.”
Wrigley Field is a trim configuration of red brick and steel. Built in 1914, it was first home to the Chicago Whales of the old Federal League. By the time the Cubs moved here in 1916, they had already won their last World Series. Over the years, with the destruction of most other early twentieth century ballparks, Wrigley has emerged as a lone witness to the glorious dead ball era. After generations of artificial turf and multipurpose stadiums, a new generation of architects has come to emulate Wrigley, building snug downtown parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Houston. For the most part, though, these stadiums are mere approximations, with none of the mood, or feeling, or grime, of the real thing, none of that terrible history. Wrigley Field is, after all, where, in the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth supposedly called his shot, pointing two fingers at center field, then hitting a home run into those very seats.
When I went to the games as a kid, I sat in the bleachers, home of the sport’s most rabid fans. For a bleacher bum, it was a signal achievement to so incense an enemy outfielder that he climbed the wall in an attempt to get at you. I was at a game in which Omar Moreno of the Pirates started that climb only to be pummeled and covered in beer. Of course, such a climb was made possible by that most famous feature of Wrigley: the ivy, the lush green ivy, which softens all that red brick.
Now, here is the disturbing part: that ivy, that beloved, ticket-selling ivy, is a direct outgrowth of management’s realization that the Cubs might never again win a World Series. In 1931, when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley died, he left the team to his son, P. K Wrigley, who refused to waste company resources on baseball; he decided that fans must instead be given a reason other than player competence to go to the park. “The fun … the sunshine, the relaxation. Our idea is to get the public to go see a ball game, win or lose,” said P.K., who then told a young Bill Veeck, who would later become one of the greatest impresarios in the history of baseball, to plant the ivy. It was his way of selling the fans the sunshine.
I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, about fifteen miles up Lake Michigan from Wrigley Field. In the summers, if I was not at the beach, or shopping for records at one of the stores uptown, or scanning the radio for my all-time favorite song, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” I was riding the public bus to Evanston, where I caught the elevated train, which threaded its way through a private world of red brick and fire escapes down to the ballpark. On the way I often read the sports section of the Chicago Tribune, or else a book about Cubs history. In school we studied the heroes and gods of antiquity, but for me the Cubs supplied a far handier mythology: the great teams of the eighties (the 1880s), The Cubs, a charter member of professional baseball, known first as the White Stockings, and then, in succession, as the Orphans, the Colts, and the Cubs, played in the Congress Street Grounds, the “nicest park in America,” with 2,000 grandstand seats and velvet-curtained luxury boxes. Championships were won in 1880, 1881, 1882, 1885, and 1886. These were the teams of the legendary Cap Anson, who first devised the strategy wherein players run out of position to back up other players and, in another first, called for the banning of black athletes from the game. In his autobiography, Anson wrote of an early minority hire:
Clarence was a little darkey that I had met sometime before while in Philadelphia.… I had togged him out in a suit of navy blue with brass buttons, at my own expense, and had engaged him as a mascot. He was an ungrateful little rascal….
There was Mike Kelly, a hard-drinking Irishman from the West Side, the first catcher to communicate with the pitcher in a secret code of often comical hand signals. There was Billy “The Evangelist” Sunday, who, before scaring sinners with his fiery prophecies of hell, was a speedy, base-stealing outfielder. In 1906, behind the awesome double-play combination of Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the team posted the best record in major league history, winning 116 games. After each victory, the players went drinking at Biggio Brothers Saloon on Polk and Lincoln Streets. In later years came Grover Cleveland Alexander, a once great pitcher who came back from the First World War shell-shocked. When Alexander fell into seizures on the mound, the infielders would shield him from view. In the biopic, Alexander was played by Ronald Reagan, who himself, as a young man, had called play-by-play for the Cubs.
William Wrigley took control of the Cubs in 1921 and fielded pennant-winning teams in ’32, ’35, and ’38. These teams boasted such superstars as Kiki Cuyler, Hack Wilson, Billy Jurges, Babe Herman, and Rogers Hornsby. In 1932, Jurges was shot in a hotel room by a jilted lover in a black veil, an episode borrowed by Bernard Malamud for his novel The Natural. In 1929, Hornsby batted for a .380 average with 149 RBIs. Hack Wilson, a squat alcoholic of a power hitter, still holds the record for most runs batted in (190) during a single season. After retirement, Hack became a drifter. In 1948, when he died, his body went unclaimed for three days. Nineteen years earlier, in 1929, when the Cubs had lost the World Series, Wilson told a train of badgering reporters, “Let me alone now, fellows. I haven’t anything to say except that I am heartbroken and that we did get some awful breaks.”
In 1953 the club signed its first black superstar, Ernie Banks, a Hall of Famer who encouraged hope in the fans, beginning each season with a little poem, such as, “The Cubs will come alive in sixty-five,” or, “The Cubs will be heavenly in sixty-sevenly.” In my own childhood there were the Reuschel brothers, fat, mustachioed, glasses-wearing screwballers who, to me, looked like the newspaper’s photos of John Wayne Gacy. On my baseball card, the Reuschels, Rick and Paul, are pictured over the words BIG LEAGUE BROTHERS. In this era, due to years of futility—the team had not even been in the postseason since 1945—a certain ugliness grew up between fans and management, peaking in 1983, when, during a postgame press conference, skipper Lee Elia attacked the bleacher bums, saying.
Eighty-five percent of the people in this country work The other fifteen percent come here and boo my players. They oughta go out and get a fucking job and find out what it’s like to go out and earn a fucking living. Eighty-five percent of the fucking world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here. A fucking playground for the cocksuckers.
Each day the Cubs lineup was posted, with slight variation, in the clubhouse. It was a collection of found parts, as is often the case: Damon Buford, a center fielder, who came in a trade from Boston; Joe Girardi, a born-again Christian from Peoria, Illinois, who started with the Cubs a decade ago and had returned to finish his career in Chicago; Mark Grace, the blond-haired, goateed first baseman, who before and after each game smoked a cigarette at his locker; Willie Greene, a third baseman from Milledgeville, Georgia, by way of the Toronto Blue Jays; Ricky Gutierrez, an edgy, error-prone shortstop, a free agent from the Houston Astros; Chad Meyers, a twenty-five-year-old infielder who looked like a sitcom sidekick on the WB (a Cubs fan from Nebraska, Meyers was, as a kid, certain the Cubs were always “just about to win it”); Brant Brown, an outfielder who, in 1998, had dropped a routine fly ball that almost kept the team out of that year’s postseason play.
At three o’clock, only the pitchers were in uniform, among them Kerry Wood, a lank, sullen-faced Texan who was once thought to be the savior of the team. In 1998, at twenty, in only his fifth start, Wood struck out twenty batters, tying a major-league record. A few months later he blew out his pitching arm; he was still recovering from the surgery. In his locker he had mounted a Big Mouth Billy Bass, the talking mechanical fish, which, on occasion, he let answer the press queries: “I run on batteries, don’t need no gas, I’m the Big Mouth Billy Bass.”
Sammy Sosa, the great star of the Cubs, showed up shouting, a man of entrances. Although the players in the clubhouse were listening to Pearl Jam, Sosa plugged in his radio and began playing salsa music, the sound of his native Dominican Republic. Someone turned up the Pearl Jam. Sosa turned up the salsa. For a moment, the sunny Caribbean faced off against the once grungy Pacific Northwest. Sosa closed his eyes and started to dance. Today, and each day, it ended with the Pearl Jam turned down and turned off. It was not hard to tell how Sosa’s teammates felt about this.
Standing in front of his locker, Sosa took several practice swings, which, like his body, were short and compact. In 1998 he had kept pace with Mark McGwire in a contest to break the single-season home-run record. Sosa had finished four homers behind McGwire. There are those who called Sosa a hot dog, error-prone, strikeout-prone, a one-way player who padded his statistics with meaningless late-game long balls. Earlier in the season, when the front office threatened to trade Sosa, there had been a tremendous uproar from the fans, who, in exchange for all that losing, expect at least one superstar. After a loss in which Sosa homered with the bases empty and struck out with the bases full, I asked him if he changed his approach depending on the situation—shortened his swing, stepped up in the box. He said, “I just hit the ball as hard as I can.”
How could he now play for a team that never wins, has never won, and, it seems to many of us, never will win?
By five o’clock the reporters had gathered in the clubhouse. They stood in a tight little knot like boys at a high school dance, waiting for some sign from a pretty girl across the floor. Now and then, one of these reporters would plunge in with his tape recorder; depending on whether he was welcomed or rebuffed, the reporter would return saying, “Wow, what a regular guy!” or, “Can you believe how much money those dumb fucks make?”
To reach the field we followed the clatter of cleats through a dank tunnel into the dugout. At eye level the grass, which in the middle of the season was already parched, stretched away to the power alleys. The bench was crowded with that gaggle of former players, broadcasters, and hangers-on that make up the courtier class of the national game. A few hundred fans had gathered for batting practice. They shouted, “Sammy! Sammy! Sammy!” I found myself in a conversation with Joe Girardi. In the clubhouse, I had seen Girardi, and everyone else, naked, and I was struck by his body, which seemed to me old-fashioned, a body from the Great Depression: thick torso and heavy arms, social realism, a WPA poster. He had spent the previous four seasons in New York, where he won three World Series. How could he now play for a team that never wins, has never won, and, it seems to many of us, never will win?
“When I was in third grade, I wrote an essay about how I would play for the Cubs,” Girardi said. “Ten times a summer, I drove with my father from Peoria just to see the games.” Back then, his favorite players were Ron Santo, a third baseman who, as a broadcaster, still travels with the team, and Jose Cardenal, remembered mostly for his vertiginous Afro, on top of which, the cherry on the ice cream sundae, perched his cap. Cardenal is credited with the worst excuse ever given for missing a game: he once told his manager he could not play because his eyelid was stuck open. “When I left the Cubs that first time, I was crushed,” said Girardi. “I had always wanted to be a Cubbie.”
I asked why the team never wins.
“The Yankees have a hundred-million-dollar payroll. Our club is sixty million. And there is also all the money spent on the minor leagues and free agents, signing kids from the Dominican, from Puerto Rico. But it’s more than that. In New York, you go into spring training expecting to get to the World Series. You feel it when you walk in the clubhouse—the pictures of all those Yankee greats, the monuments. There is something special about putting on the pinstripes. In Chicago, they hope for a good season, maybe the playoffs.”
“But they have pictures here at Wrigley Field,” I said. “The Cub greats, Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler.”
“Yeah, but just think about those pictures,” he said. “Still shots, each player by himself. In Yankee Stadium, it’s group shots, the team celebrating on the mound, in the clubhouse, the champagne, winning it all. Here you won’t see that.”
When Girardi went to take batting practice, I wandered out onto the field. The players chirped and fluttered around the cage like birds; players from the Cubs and players from the Cardinals met one another with backslaps and hugs. “In our day, there was no fraternizing,” Ron Santo told me. “You never saw one team up watching the other team hit. Never saw a guy hugging the other guy. You walked across the white lines, money was not the criteria. Winning was.” Sosa greeted every Latin player on the Cardinals, then wandered over to the seats, the crowd bubbling before him like surf. He spotted two friends from the Dominican and led them out onto the field. They were potbellied, sleepy-eyed, with slow, sad smiles; one wore a silk shirt decorated with naked girls, fast cars, tropical sunsets.
I walked over to a circle of beat reporters, three of them: a young banana-shaped one; a middle-aged, balding, red-haired one; and an old stately one with no hair at all. I said hello. Without a word, each turned his back on me. It took me some time to realize that these reporters, who after each game filed stories for the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and a third paper I had never heard of, were actually participants in the Cubs’ perpetual loss and naturally took a pride in the project that made it necessary to resent someone like myself, who had come aboard the Titanic to snap a few shots before shoving off. Of course, that ship was at least heading toward a conclusion, a climax. The Cubs, on the other hand, were and are forever adrift.
The only friend I made among the press was a kid entirely untouched by the stinking heartbreak of history. His name was Nick, and he was on summer break from Drake University in Iowa. He had landed a part-rime job writing about the Cubs for his hometown newspaper in Oak Park. A few times a week Nick went to the clubhouse and, without the least hesitation, pulled aside his favorite players. Before this game, he had talked to some of the Cardinals, even to Will Clark, rumored to be the crankiest man in the league.
Nick said, “Can I ask you some questions, Mr. Clark?”
Mr. Clark said, “Get the fuck away from me, kid.”
Nick told me that Mr. Clark had stunk of beer.
Nick led me up to the press box, high above home plate. As we talked, I could see the lake, blue and crowded with sailboats, beyond the apartment buildings. The game was a sellout, standing room only, men and women at the back of the bleachers in sketchy outline. To some, this remained the best explanation for the Cubs’ woes: if a team with a losing record sold 40,000 tickets on a Monday night and drew, win or lose, 2 million fans a year, while the White Sox, in first place on the South Side of the city, could not even sell out on a Saturday afternoon, what was the incentive? Why should the Tribune Company, which owns the Cubs, spend millions to build a winning team if, all these years later, the fans were still willing to pay for sunshine? “We hear a lot of that,” Kevin Tapani, a Cubs pitcher, told me. “But I don’t know of any player that says, ‘We’ve got a sold-out crowd, let’s lose.”
“Fuck my teammates.”—Sammy Sosa
Of course, Tapani, at thirty-six, was precisely the sort of player a team might go after if it was not determined to win; that is to say, yes, Tapani tried to win, but perhaps, at this point in his career, he was no longer good enough to win consistently. And yet the Cubs did spend money. Not so much as the Dodgers or the Orioles but more than some successful teams (the Kansas City Royals, the Oakland A’s), and they traded for players and hired managers who had won elsewhere. A Cubs fan therefore learns to distrust the easy answers and to accept each moment, each game, for what it is, not for where it is leading, which is nowhere. A victory, any victory, is a victory. Like tonight, for example, with a warm breeze off the Lake, and the sun going down (ah, that beautiful Cubs sunshine), and the team at last stirring to life. Jeff Huson, a journeyman third baseman, with teeth as small and perfect as white Chiclets, drove a ball down the left field line, scoring the winning runs. And then we were following the ramps down to the clubhouse, where the players, having already changed into Nike shower sandals and gym shorts, ate fried chicken off Styrofoam plates and watched SportsCenter on ESPN. There was music, there was clowning. Cubs win! Cubs win!
Three hours before the first pitch, Carol Slezak, a columnist for the Sun-Times, was in the dugout, looking for a story. Baseball is a world of men, and so it was strange and pleasing to see a woman on the field. Some of the older Latin coaches commented on Slezak’s eyes, her legs. “You are making me uncomfortable,” she said. “Stop it.”
A year ago, Slezak had written a column about Sosa’s music, how it had become an irritating and never-ending soundtrack. Sosa and Glenallen Hill (since traded) had pulled her aside and yelled at her. “Do you know how angry Sammy’s teammates are at you?” Hill said. “They love Sammy.”
“Do you want to hear what Sammy’s teammates say about his music,” asked Slezak
Sammy told her, “Fuck my teammates.”
Today, Carol was in a pregame panic. Her deadline was a few hours away and she had yet to find a subject. Players suggested she write about the heat. “I have a policy,” she said. “No stories about weather.” Mark Grace greeted her in a large way and sat at the end of the bench, determined to help. Each generation, there is one Cub who seems, for fans, to stand for the team. For the last several years that had been Grace. Previously, it had been Ryne Sandberg, Bill Buckner, Rick Monday, Ernie Banks. One of the great things about baseball is that, by setting these players, whose careers overlap, in a time line, you can link yourself clear back to Mike Kelly and Johnny Evers. After suggesting several stories, which Carol dismissed, Grace said, “What about the heat?”
Grace took off his hat, rubbed his scalp. A few weeks earlier, several Cubs had shaved their heads in a gesture of solidarity. Grace was lucky; he looked good. Some of the other guys had emerged knotty-skulled, or bug-eyed, or jug-eared. Grace talked about being thirty-six. In the minor leagues, the Cubs were developing Hee Seop Choi, a Korean power-hitting first baseman, to take his position. To a player like Grace, this was what the end must look like—a husky nobody from the minors with no feel for the game.
Mark Grace was the classic Cub playing in a pointless doubleheader on an August afternoon with the wind blowing in and nothing on the line but a flutter at the bottom of the standings. Only a player like Grace, who got the joke of being a Cub1 and still reveled in it, could possibly explain to me how and why it was that each Cub season began and ended in futility.
I asked him if there was any thrill to being the spoiler, stopping some other team from making the play-offs often the only role left for the Cubs. “No, I don’t take a whole lot of pleasure in it,” he said. “But the last thing you want is somebody clinching on your turf, mobbing, pouring bubbly on your field.”
Sosa emerged from the tunnel and shouted, “I just took a big shit. It feels good when you take your big shit.”
The temperature at game time was 91 degrees. In the fifth inning, the umpire left the game due to heat exhaustion. I asked Carol Slezak if the players were upset after such a loss, and she said, “They pretend to be.” The next day, in the Sun-Times, I read her story about how exceptionally hot it was at the game.
Even after a player retires from the Cubs, he remains a hero in Chicago, a god in the pantheon of loss. For players traded to the team this is a consolation. The smart ones, who understand a thing or two about history, must know that they will never be part of a dynasty here. Kevin Tapani remembers when he learned of his trade to the team: “Everyone around here tells you the history and says, ‘Now you are a part of it. You’re one of the lovable losers.’ And so you think, ‘Well, I was not a loser to start with, I did not come here to lose, I will not carry on like a loser.’” Some deluded Cubs even speak of being part of the team that at last breaks the streak. But fans—some of us, anyway, who know the truth—pity the talented young prospect who, having won in Little League, high school, and everywhere else, finds himself on the Cubs. Hope you enjoyed the ride, friend. Because, barring a trade, your winning days are over. In return such a player, if he is good enough to make an impression, is given the city. Chicago loves its Cubs as it loves no other athletes. The Cubs personify Chicago’s striving, the pride that locals take in even the smallest construction, the sense that the rest of the country, especially New York City, is giving us the high hat.
This love was in evidence a few minutes before yet another afternoon game against the Cardinals, as Ryne Sandberg, who for twelve seasons was the star of the Cubs, wandered across the infield to shouts and cheers. In 1994, Sandberg, the highest-paid player in the game, had returned millions of dollars and gone into early retirement, saying he wasn’t happy with his performance. He came back in ‘96, found that he had lost his swing, and retired again. It was like watching someone grow old in public. He was now an instructor with the team. On the field, he wore prefaded jeans and a button-down shirt and moved with the stiffness one expects in a retired athlete, his glossy, handsome face turning red in the sun.
For every Cub fan, there is a season, an inning, an at bat, when all hope is lost, when, at long last, he becomes disillusioned and realizes with dread certainty that no matter how good its prospects the team will never win. “The better they look,” my father2 had warned, “the bigger the heartbreak.” For some, hope was lost in 1969, when, after decades of loss, the management fielded an uncharacteristic collection of future Hall of Famers and all-stars. By September 1 the team was in first place by eight games. After each victory, Ron Santo, the third baseman, would jump up and click his heels. A song that year had the fans singing, “Hey hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way!” By mid-September they had been overtaken by the expansion New York Mets, who went on to sweep the World Series. “The Mets were not a team you worried about,” Santo told me. “It was divine intervention. God just lived in New York that year.”
For some, hope was lost in 1989, when the Cubs, with Mark Grace at first base, were swept in the play-offs by the San Francisco Giants. For some it was in 1998, with Sosa hitting all those homers and the team still looking pathetic in the play-offs. For me it was 1984 and the collapse of the great team anchored by Ryne Sandberg, who that year won the National League MVP. In 1981 the Wrigley family had sold the franchise to the Tribune Company, filling the loyalists with hope. Whereas the Wrigleys had refused to spend top dollar on talent, often trading away their best prospects and, what’s worse, evincing a kind of country club racism, for years signing no black players and then signing only a few, the Tribune Company was a cash-rich empire. For the first time in years real money was spent on the Cubs. A new general manager was brought in, and soon he had built the first team I ever really cared about. That team had Lee Smith, the fire-throwing relief pitcher, and Rick Sutcliffe, the red-headed ace, and Harry Caray, the great broadcaster, the true visage of the Cubs, who told you not what players were averaging but what they should be averaging were the world a decent place. “He’s really up around .400,” Harry would say. “He’s hit the ball well, but at people.” Harry said that the Cubs infield was not only the most competent in the game but by far the best looking: “Sandberg: classical good looks. Bowa: scrappy, sinewy, and sexy. Cey: just look at that guy! Durham: what woman would not love Bull Durham?”
Sooner or later every Cubs fan, if he is at all reflective, comes to realize that if the Cubs were somehow to cast off the past and win, they would no longer be the Cubs.
The team won the National League East by six-and-a-half games. In August several Cubs, including Sutcliffe and Durham, released a country song that my brother called “a crime—an idiotic, stupid, jinx-inducing crime.” The song went like this: “As sure as there’s ivy on the center field wall, the men in blue are gonna win it all.” And: “We’re on top and looking down and picking up more steam.” And: “There’s been lots of talk about no lights in Wrigley Park, we don’t care, if we make it there, we’ll play in the dark.”
The Cubs at that time were the only professional team without lights, a fact that, from time to time, was suggested as a reason for their woes. When the team played night games on the road, so went the reasoning, they were out of sorts, up past their bedtime. In 1984 the commissioner of baseball was more concerned with the fact that no night games at Wrigley meant the league would be robbed of prime-time TV revenue. As a result, the Cubs, in a great miscarriage of justice, were stripped of their home-field advantage, which, in the best-of-five play-off, proved crucial. I skipped school to attend the first game, which the Cubs won in a blowout. I followed game two at school, checking the score between classes on TV: another victory. The Cubs then went to San Diego, where they had to win only one of the next three games to clinch a trip to the World Series. In each game the Cubs went into the seventh inning with the lead. In each game they choked. The final blow came with a home run by Steve Garvey, the square-jawed Padres first baseman at the end of his career. The footage of the ensuing trot, Garvey pumping his fist, suggested everything that is wrong with the world.
Sooner or later every Cubs fan, if he is at all reflective, comes to realize that if the Cubs were somehow to cast off the past and win, they would no longer be the Cubs. There is a thrill in victory, yes, but there is a certainty in defeat, and is losing not, in the end, more righteous than winning? Sure, the team might enjoy the arrogance of victory for a season or two, or three, or however long it lasted, but it would thereby destroy the more interesting part of its identity. It would become just another club that won not long ago and is now not so good and not so bad. The first shall be the last and the last shall be the first. But what of those in the middle?
Since 1908, ninety-two teams have had hard luck, like the Red Sox, who have not won the World Series in eighty-three years, but the Red Sox have often gone deep into the Series. Perhaps there is more of a sting to the near miss, but the deep pain, the good stuff, is only to be had by never even coming close. If one must lose, it may as well be spectacularly, as was the case with the series I saw in Arizona. Everything went wrong. Every play was botched. Every player stank. If this were a movie I would title it, simply, Three Days in August.
The Diamondbacks play in a kind of terrarium, a vast biosphere in the center of Phoenix with a retractable roof and seats running clear up to the great glass panels. It was well over 100 degrees out there in the desert, but inside it is always a brisk 72; there is even a kind of autumn crispness in the air. Each player’s equipment had been hung in lockers on the far side of the clubhouse. Unfortunately, Sosa’s locker was at some distance from an electrical outlet, and thus he could not plug in his radio. A work crew was brought in to run an extension cord across the floor, which a pitcher proceeded to trip on.
Across the room sat a table with a pile of magazines, on top of which was a Sports Illustrated Where Are They Now? issue that showed William “Refrigerator” Perry, a lineman for the Bears, once a famous athlete in Chicago, in a hard hat and work clothes, over the words, “Bricklayer, Aiken, South Carolina.” The Cubs walked by this magazine as if it had nothing to do with them. They watched, on DVD, the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in which Judge Reinhold, caught masturbating in the bathroom, says, “Doesn’t anyone around here knock?” Sosa made the jerk-off motion—a locker-room gesture so basic and true it was like a revelation.
In the dugout, Mark Grace was talking with Joe Garagiola, himself a former catcher and now the vice president and general manager of the Diamondbacks. Grace told Garagiola that he considered himself a throwback, an old-fashioned player, demonstrated by the fact that, among other things, he did not wear batting gloves, saying he prefers “the feel of the wood.” Since he was a rookie, he said, the big change in the game had been pitchers, who no longer intimidated in the same way. If, as a young Cub, he had come to the plate following a home run, he could have expected the next pitch to be a fastball at his back, “between the one and the seven.” Now, Grace said, pitchers were so nervous about getting tossed from a game that “the best ball to hit is the one right after the home run.” The following night, after Sammy Sosa’s long home run off Randy Johnson, the next pitch is a fastball, to Grace, “between the one and the seven.”
With each loss, the clubhouse grew noticeably darker. There was no music during the losing streak, no chatter. Only the sound of Sosa talking with reporters about his most recent home run—a moon shot that kissed the outer glass of Enron Field before falling back into the seats. With each home run, you could see the chasm widening between Sammy and his teammates. “I never really watch the ball,” Sosa said. “I put my head down and run the bases. But I know I got that one good.” In the locker room, Tim Worrell, a pitcher who gave up a homer that meant a lot more than Sammy’s, sat with his head in his hands. A coach, stationed before a VCR, with two empty beer cans at his side, watched the home run, freezing the frame just prior to the disaster: Worrell in his follow-through, the ball hanging like a pigeon over the plate. The coach took notes, rewound, lived through the terrible moment again, then hit fast-forward: the batter, with lickety-split cartoon speed, dashed around the bases to score.
I think I wanted to travel with the Cubs and see them suffer in return for all of the suffering they have caused me. But being on the road with the team in a true slump—well, I guess I had no idea how awful it would be: the stillness of the clubhouses, the eyes on the floor, the jumpiness. Mark Grace saying, “I’m 0 for this road trip, and that really sucks,” and after every game the manager, Don Baylor—why does a manager wear cleats?—making his statement to the press, the general of an army in perpetual retreat: “Defensively, we’ve gone from the bottom to second in the league.” Or, “That was a home run people can talk about for years. … Unfortunately, it comes as part of another loss.” It was hard to imagine how the Cubs would ever win another game.
Eventually I put the problem to the man charged, hopelessly, with fixing it. “What this club has always done is lose,” Baylor told me. “So even if you have to change the players, you need to find a way to switch the mind-set. You have to find winning players who will talk about winning and not about how the organization has never won.”
GENERAL MANAGER’S OFFICE
One afternoon in Chicago I met with Andy MacPhail, the president and general manager of the Cubs, in his office at Wrigley Field. MacPhail, who won two World Series with the Minnesota Twins, descends from baseball royalty. His grandfather Larry MacPhail, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, helped pioneer night baseball in the major leagues. His father, Lee MacPhail, was the general manager of the Yankees and the Orioles and the president of the American League. For Andy, a neatly dressed middle-aged man with blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, turning the Cubs around is perhaps the only way he can outdo his father and grandfather, both members of baseball’s Hall of Fame. “The Cubs have not been good enough at bringing players through the system,” he told me. “Other clubs have done it better. You don’t have to look further than the Yankees, who’ve been going to the World Series ad nauseam in the nineties. People think it’s the payroll, but look at Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera—all of them come from the Yankees system. That’s what we need to do, and I’m confident that we’re doing it. We’re going to have our share of players coming up. I can see them in the pipeline.”
I asked if there wasn’t something greater at play with the Cubs. A corporation-wide funk, a mental or emotional block, a culture of loss.
“I don’t think that there is a curse, if that’s what you mean.”
“To be honest, I have been trying to figure that one out myself,” he said, “and here is what I realized: through different ownerships, managers, general managers, players, equipment managers, the one constant has been the ballpark, the vagaries of playing in Wrigley Field. In Minnesota, in the dome, we had AstroTurf, 70 degrees, and no wind, every day. You could customize your team to the environment where you played. You can’t do that here. One day the wind is howling straight in from the lake; the next day it’s howling straight out. You really have to be good all the way around.”
“What about the Cubs teams that were good but still lost?” I asked. “How do you explain ’69 and ’84?”
“I don’t think that there is a curse, if that’s what you mean.”
In 1945, when the Cubs last went to the World Series, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, not allowed to bring his goat into the park, is said to have hexed the team—a curse some fans say explains ’69 and ’84, and all the rest of it.
I told MacPhail what Ron Santo had told me on the road. “Once you win it, and establish that you are a winning club, it becomes easier,” said Santo, who in his playing career never won anything. “When you have won and somebody comes to this organization, they cannot look back and say, ‘Well, we haven’t won since 1908, or even been there since 1945.’”
“I hate to disagree with a Cub legend,” said MacPhail, “but I can’t get into the occult. My problem is wins and losses, supply and demand. Do you really think Bill Buckner or Leon Durham was thinking about 1969? I don’t think it’s in the players’ minds. I do think it is popular with fans to have teams that represent futility. They like to have lovable losers. Even in the years where we were pretty good, they are slow to recognize it, or believe it, or want to believe it. Now, I find that personally repugnant, and I am going to die trying to change it.”
When it happens, it happens fast. One moment the Cubs cannot string together two hits, or turn a double play, or steal a base. The next minute they are driving the ball all over the field, sliding into clouds of dirt, racing around the bases. The beat reporters typed furiously into their laptops, adjectives flying everywhere. A press-box announcer said that the fifteen runs scored by the Cubs ties their season record set in May in a game against Montreal, which the Cubs lost 16–15. In the clubhouse after the game, it was V-E Day all over again, music cranked up, players goofing in the showers. There were whoops, shouts, backslaps. In the aftershock of a high ten, I was racked by a memory that filled me with shame: In the sixth grade I was on a hockey team, the Winnetka Warriors, that had started the season 0 and 13. In our fourteenth game we beat a team from up north. Afterward, as the two teams stood side by side, we started to sing, “We are the Champions!” The other team, who knew they had lost to the biggest losers in the league, waited until we reached the line, “No time for losers.” That’s when the brawl broke out. I fought for my team, of course, but I was ashamed doing it. And that’s pretty much how I felt watching the locker room parry after the Cubs beat the Astros. There was something self-deceiving in the whole crummy display.
At night when I can’t sleep, I sometimes think back on my travels with the Cubs, and it is always the same image that first comes to mind: I was in the clubhouse in Arizona after another defeat. The room was somber, the players dressing quickly in front of their lockers. Several reporters had gathered around Mark Grace, who had caught that Randy Johnson fastball between the shoulder blades—retaliation for Sosa’s long home run; Grace had staggered and collapsed.
As Grace buttoned his shirt, one of the reporters said, “Looked like Johnson didn’t have his best stuff out there.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Grace. “The one that hit me felt pretty good.”
You could already see the bruise. It was red and blue, and within it was a darker bruise left by the stitches on the ball. Over the next several days, this wound would develop like a photograph of yet another painful season for the Chicago Cubs.
1 At the end of the season, Grace would leave Chicago; unwanted, he would sign a two-year contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. At the press conference he would say, “I know we play [the Cubs] nine times this year, and I want to kick their butt nine times … I gave my heart and soul for thirteen years to the Chicago Cubs.” Cub greats have often met a dubious end. In my era, Bill Buckner was traded to Boston at the end of his career, where, in game six of the 1986 World Series, he let a routine grounder hop between his legs, costing the Red Sox their first championship since 1918. This inevitably leads to Mike Royko’s Cubs theorem: If you want to determine the outcome of any particular baseball game, simply calculate which team has more ex-Cubs. That’s your loser. There are exceptions to this rule—players who go on to win Cy Young Awards and pennants elsewhere but these usually result from awful deals. The worst trade in team history sent twenty-four-year-old Lou Brock to St. Louis, where he would rewrite the record books, in exchange for thirty-seven-year-old Ernie Broglio, a warhorse of a pitcher who would retire a year later.
2A New Yorker, my father had urged me to follow the Dodgers or the Yankees, the teams he had watched as a kid. He worried that in cheering for the Cubs I would come to accept losing as the natural condition of things and so ruin my life.
[Photo Credit: Baseball Bugs via Wikimedia Commons]