As a longtime Cub fan dating back to the Ernie Banks days*, I am often asked about my tormented relationship with the Cubs. On the precipice of the 2015 season it is a little different. Some baseball prognosticators actually think that the Cubs will make the playoffs this year with their abundance of young (unproven) talent. I think .500 ball is a more realistic outcome and this is fortified by some of my recent off-season readings, which included three books about the Cubs.
This winter I received Jimmy Greenfield's 100 Things a Cub Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die (2012), which I appropriated as a nightly bedtime story before turning off the light. In one and two page snippets, Greenfield mixes Cub history, lore, and brief bios of famous players. Some players were known for their athletic ability (Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams and Hack Wilson) and others for their nicknames (Dave “King Kong” Kingman, Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Mitch “Wild Thing” Williams). I know quite a bit about the Cubs, but not everything. For example, I didn't know before Wrigley Field, that the Cubs played at the West Side Grounds between 1893 and 1915. Legend has it that the expression “way out in left field” originated at this site, because of the ballpark's left field proximity to a psychiatric ward. “As the story goes,” writes Greenfield, “ players patrolling left field could overhear patients in the ward. And so the term 'way out in left field' came to mean someone questioning your sanity.”
Greenfield references many books about the Cubs including others in my library: Wrigleyville: A Magical Historical Tour of the Chicago Cubs (1996) by Peter Golenbock and Rick Talley's The Cubs of `69: Recollections of the Team That Should Have Been (1989).
I revisited both books this winter upon the passing of Mr. Cub, Ernie Banks. I liked Ernie who was on the downside of his career when I was youth, so I don't remember his National League MVP years of 1958 and 1959 and didn't realize that he was the first African-American to play for the Cubs. However, if you re-read Talley's book you realize that there was much more to Ernie than unbridled “let's play two” optimism. Even Ernie had a hard time saying good things about Cubs manager Leo Durocher who managed the Cubs during their greatest collapse (attributed mostly to Durocher playing his starters into the ground) in the summer of 1969.
I certainly remember the Cubs debacle of 1969 and it was my moment when a Cubs fan earns his or Cubby Bear stripes (my younger daughter earned hers in the 2003 Bartman game where the Cubs were five outs away from the World Series). That's what it means to be a Cubs fan – to have tremendous optimism and hope and then have it crushed like so many paper beer cups in the bleachers, paraphrasing folk singer-song writer Steve Goodman, who wrote the Cub National Anthem, A Dying Cub's Fan Last Request in 1981. (See Goodman perform it here on top a left field rooftop before all the modernization.)
Envisioning playoff victories for the 2015 team before the first pitch of the season is a sure recipe for disappointment, and thus my prediction is simply that more Cubs fans will be likely being coming into the fold with heartaches, not celebration hangovers.
* This photo comes from a family trip in 2001. It includes my sister, daughter, niece and nephew. The Cubs lost to the Pirates that day. My first Cub game was sometime in the mid-60s when my Uncle Bill took me to a Cubs double-header. Banks hit two home runs that day.