The Curse of Charlie Brown and My Possession by Sportball

We’ll see if I get through writing this without getting misty eyes. Odds are nil. I am a Chicago Cubs fan, and today in Chicago the city will be celebrating, commemorating, and even in some curiously mourning the longest dry spell in professional sports. In case you’ve been living under a rock, the Cubs finally, after yes, 108 years, won the World Series. Why get misty-eyed over a baseball game? I guess you had to be there.

In the beginning…

I grew up in the Western Suburbs of the Chicagoland area (yes, we call it that). I spent one season in little league, lacking skills and playing for the worst team in my division–the sort of team the very forgiving, patient, and understanding coach seemed to enjoy coaching. It probably comprised the kids from all over the district who were picked last for any team sport. We played badly, ending the season something like 4-10, 4-16, something awful like that, and two of those wins were due to the other team not even bothering to show up. I was the kid they put in right field on the worst team in the little league, but I played, I tried, and I learned what I could about the sport of baseball.

I also learned about being an uncoordinated kid among kids who could play sports. I learned that being incompetent at sports was a bad thing for a boy to be. You get called names for that. You get laughed at. You get zero sympathy for getting hit by a pitch right in the elbow and crying because, well, you got hit by a fast ball right in the elbow. You learn years later that the boys from across the district who saw what a physically incompetent weakling you are in baseball will find you in junior high and high school and pick on you because you’re an easy target. And if you’re on the worst team in the little league, you learn how to lose graciously. Kind of like the Chicago Cubs.

If you’re a weak kid who’s not good at baseball, you learn to identify with Charlie Brown, the Peanuts character who managed a bad baseball team and always seemed to get the short end of the stick, either through external circumstances or his own bad attitudes. “Just wait ’til next year!” was his despairing declaration at the end of each losing season. Again, kind of like the Cubs.

charlie-brown-baseball-aaugh

Baseball is just something a boy was simply expected to do. Grandpa Leahy and my dad took me to Wrigley Field to see a Cubs game. I went to a Cubs game with my work buddies and we drank beer in the bleachers and engaged in a healthy game of taunting “Left field sucks!” to the people in the other bleachers. Got one of the worst sunburns in my life, got hit on by a cross-dresser on the L, and came home drunker than my mother would have preferred. The Cubs lost. It was still a great time. I admired the 1984 Cubs (the Ryne Sandberg/Jody Davis era), who got as far as the National League Championship Series before being eliminated by the San Diego Padres. They came close, but they lost. Choked. Whatever. Losing was just something the Cubs did, and yet if anyone asked about baseball, I was always a Cubs fan.

Sportball

So I went off to college and started to return much of the resentment and contempt toward people of athletic ability that they had shown me once upon a time. I went to one football game in college, lasted maybe half the game, and spent most of the time drinking beer and talking to girls. I took golf and bowling pass/fail so that a) I wouldn’t irritate anyone in team sports with my incompetence and b) it wouldn’t affect my grade point average.

I spent my 20s with very little attachment to sports, though I never forgot the Cubs. I watched as their 2003 National League Championship dreams collapsed after a more dedicated fan in the stands reached for a ball at the same time as a Cubs outfielder Moises Alou. That poor guy got death threats, for gosh sakes, over a baseball game! I never forgot that, either. Maybe Chicago will finally forgive Steve Bartman. I hope so.

Today my past attitude  would be expressed with disdain by non-athletic hipsters about televised sports and sports fans thusly: “I don’t know anything about ‘sportball.’ All I hear when I watch an interview with a professional football player is, ‘Well, we didn’t sport very well in the first half so we have to sport better than the other guys so we can sport and win in the second half’.” I was never quite that bad, but there were years when I was very definitely not a sports fan.

Becoming a “born again” sports fan

Sometime in my 30s I moved to the Washington, DC, area. I didn’t fit in, I wasn’t a political guy, and I had no interest in being so. I missed my family. So I started going to the bars to watch football. When I realized I couldn’t bring myself to cheer for the Washington Redskins, I became a Chicago Bears fan for the first time in my life. It was a way of being different from the locals without being terribly off-putting (I was also a conservative, and DC is not a conservative town). So I found things to talk about with the locals and with my family.

I’ve been screaming at my TV since then, and “Da Bears” have as sketchy a record as the Cubs some years, though they had been to a Super Bowl, and I remember that being a whole lot of fun…and within my lifetime. But while the Bulls, Blackhawks, and even that other baseball team in the city, the White Sox, managed to win their respective league championships, the Cubs continued to disappoint. Losing was just something the Cubs did.

The change on the North Side

And then last year, I started hearing curious things about the Cubs. Their front office was different, their manager was different, the players were young and talented. They reached the playoffs for the first time in 12 years. Perhaps I ought to try watching them again. So I watched the Cubs in October, which is usually not something one does.

They won the Wild Card Game. They won the National League Division Series against a very tough St. Louis Cardinals team in four games. Then came the Championship Series and the New York Mets. The Cubs weren’t as “hot” as they had been in St. Louis, and after four games, bam! Back to Chicago and “Better luck next year!”The Cubs got better this year, though, and if I came across one of their games while channel surfing, the odds were better that I’d stop and watch the game. They really were good. And the wins kept coming. They had the best record in baseball that year. Could this really be it? Could the drought, the curse, the perpetual losing actual end? It’s easy to be cynical about such things.

I missed the first half of the playoffs because the games were on networks my cable package didn’t carry, but they kept winning. They finally got to the NLCS and a network I could watch. The world was stressful and weary, and I needed something else besides to watch besides politics and the news of the world. I dedicated myself to watching the Cubs games, every single one, from start to finish. And I was seeing something I’d never seen before–or something I’d not seen in a long time: the team fought back from deficits. They refused to get dispirited in the face of adversity. And they were really, really fun to watch.

What this World Series has meant to me

I needed to tell all that to get to the actual Series because, like many Chicagoans (or Chicago suburbanites), my relationship with baseball and the Cubs has been long and complicated. What other team than the Cubs could teach three generations of Leahys among others the virtues of persistence, hope, and optimism in the face of and failure? Not all the kids of my generation played football, but nearly all of us played or watched baseball or at least softball. Not all of those memories are great, but they are part of who we are, and many of my peers from that time grew up as Cubs fans.

So the Good Lord saw fit to put the Cubs up against the team with the second-longest World Series drought in Major League Baseball and scores of their own to settle. We got maximum drama: the Cleveland Indians went up three games to one, and many of us felt, oh great, we’re doomed again. Curses or superstitions were invoked. Some fans couldn’t watch, the whole thing being too painful or stressful to watch. I determined to keep watching. And they won a game to get themselves out of the hole. And another. They tied the frickin’ series–unheard of! The Cubs and the Indians in Game 7 of the World Series? Surely the Apocalypse was upon us.

We had a close game in Game 7. Early lead. Tie scores. Rain delay. Extra inning. And then this happened:

And so all that experience comes back to you–whatever it is: the wins, the losses, the long experience with supporting a team that has not been taken seriously, the family members who lived their entire lives without seeing a Cubs pennant win or World Series win. It’s like having an ancient prophecy to come true during your lifetime. It’s like laying a beloved relative to rest or nostalgia for those who have left us believing in something without ever seeing it come to pass. It’s like seeing your childhood struggles redeemed. So yes, grown men cheered and cried at that moment.

Did millions (and yes, it’s millions) of Chicago Cubs fans do anything particularly different November 3, 2016? No. We sat and watched or listened or monitored our Twitter feeds for news about nine men playing a game of sport. We had so many voiced and unvoiced expectations, and for the first time in 108 years, something magical happened, and the team we expected to lose emerged victorious. However, it will be a while before some of us come to terms with a new relationship with the world because to define yourself as a Cubs fan for nearly a century has been to define yourself as a fan of the underdog or a lover of a lost cause. But that’s not true anymore. We aren’t perpetual losers, we can win. We aren’t cursed, we aren’t doomed. We can win. Anything is possible!

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