The power of the Chicago Cubs, much like the power of any team, coach or sport, is its ability to unite a mass of otherwise unrelated individuals around a shared cause. In this case, what’s truly magical is the way in which the Chicago Cubs have united a full city with dogged optimism tinged with desperation (or maybe desperation tinged with dogged optimism) around the singular purpose of hope.
Ever since meeting my husband 10 years ago—ironically, I was drawn to him both due to his being a sportswriter and a Chicago Cubs fan—I have found less to hope for in professional athletics. So I’ve drifted from consuming professional and even collegiate sports, which at this point are basically one and the same. The business of sports and of many people who comprise it is, by and large, not one I feel very good about supporting. The industry rakes in more money than God while glorifying individuals who in many cases, excel though they do in the hockey rink or on the football field, are inept as humans morally and ethically. Not-for-profit universities, awash in profits from athletic programs, meanwhile, continue to cry poor while ratcheting up tuition rates and making it more and more impossible for students of middling means, like me and my siblings were, to work their ways through the higher educations they’re all but forced to achieve. Not to mention the schools’ unconscionable failure to appropriately compensate the athletes responsible for their financial success.
As I have pulled back from sports as a consumer, my anxiety as a parent has increased over how I’ll navigate the coming years of youth athletics. I hear from colleagues and friends that it’s no longer OK for kids to be three-sport athletes, as my siblings and I were, but that kids now start specializing in one sport at younger and younger ages. I see 8-year-olds and their whole families spending summers trekking across the state and region to athletic tournaments. While I value athletics and believe they play an irreplaceable role in teaching work ethic, determination, teamwork, and in the value of setting and achieving goals, I question what value there is in getting so serious about sports so soon. Most of these kids won’t go on to become Olympic athletes or even athletic scholarship recipients.
To say I don’t love sports, however, would be wildly untrue. I still consider myself to be the sportswriter’s wife. I am still the coach’s daughter.
What my dad may have at times lacked in positive energy as he cursed at his varsity basketball players up and down the sidelines, he more than made up for in his commitment to show up every day for 30 years to coach what were, by and large, teams of unspectacularly talented inner-city Chicago teenage basketball players. Second only to his family, those boys earned the bulk of his life’s time, energy and effort.
When my dad’s high school didn’t have a bus, he drove every player who needed a ride home from games in his own brown van. When the best athlete he ever coached was on trial for murder, he took the stand as a character witness. When other coaches in his league were illegally recruiting players out of his school’s district, he went door to door to the alleged homes of those individual players pretending to deliver pizza, replete with empty pizza boxes. The addresses were all fakes. He reported the fraudulent coaches. Nothing happened. Nothing changed. He kept coaching.
For three decades, he saw those boys—most of them barely managing 5’8”— through graduations, starts of families and pursuits of dreams, or through academic disqualifications, dropouts, and even prison sentences. In my dad’s book, you did not quit halfway through a job, no matter how impossible the job might be or how little personal or worldly success the job might reap. You did not give up.
He still hasn’t. Yet he’s also not one to demonstrate hope. He is a fatalist at heart, accepting whatever the world will give him. Whatever triumphs, goals and victories between the start and the finish, every game, after all, ends.
Given his fatalism, I was shocked to hear him defend the Cubs last night before game three of the National League Championship Series. After two underwhelming performances against the Mets in New York, I was calling the team done.
“It’s their youth,” I said. “They’re out of steam.”
“Today’s another day,” he said. “We’ll see. It was cold in New York. The Mets pitchers were on. Tonight it’s warm and the wind’s blowing out.”
Sports speak a language everyone can understand. Even though I’m a woman and, therein, never really had a chance to play professionally, my thoughts, opinions and assessment of the last three games are as valuable and as relevant as any overpaid commentator or any greenback sportswriter strutting out of the gate. Every person can play. There are lessons to be learned, not only in the playing but also in the challenge and in the pushing past limits you thought were insurmountable to achieve goals you’d only dreamed possible.
That the Chicago Cubs have reached the playoffs at all, that they’ve reached this stage, that they’ve made it four games deep is a dream for many of us. And it’s a dream for many more who, I dare say, hold out hope that they’ll yet witness a World Series win before the last out is called in the brief nine innings of their lives. The prospect of this possibility causes hope to stir in the voices of grown men like my dad who’ve witnessed, as Cubs fans, a virtual lifetime of losses.
However hard this may be to believe for the millions who call this city home, whatever happens tonight, life is good. It’s an Indian summer. Fiery golds and reds engulf the area’s arbor. Snow is not yet falling. A team we love beyond reason comprising professional athletes teetering on adolescence’s edge—athletes who are too young to have screwed up too badly as people and in whom, consequently, we can comfortably believe—has freed our hopes to fly farther than they’ve unfurled in years.
Tonight, the air damp and the wind a grace note, we can listen to Pat and Ron call a baseball game that we actually care about. We can watch players run to their spots on the fields. And—and this is what keeps me coming back—we can still dream of the days when they were our own strong young legs that carried each of us at a sprint to our positions on the field, on the mound or behind the plate. We can dream that the backs of our gloves tease the soft dirt. That our toes rock and feet creep toward the batter, as we prepare to see whether the next pitch might tag us into action. Our eyes and ears and our whole bodies can tingle anticipating where the ball might crack—that it might come our way and we’ll spring into action, ready and wholly reliant on the rote movements and responses we’ve drilled into our bodies through hours and hours of practice.
We can dream that in the opposite half of the inning, as the weight of a bat gently rocks above our hands, we narrow our sights on the seams of a white ball preparing to fly toward us from dozens of feet away, preparing for anything to be possible, any height, any effort, any distance.
Eyes on us, we can leave time and the world. Everything and nothing can merge for an instant. Blood races in our veins. Sweat beads on our temple. Anything is possible. Tonight it’s warm and the wind’s blowing out. We’re alive. And it’s not the end that matters, but only the getting there.