Monday, September 15, 2008


Okay, people, ‘fess up. Did you think this season would be easy for the Cubs?

I mean as recently as late August, when they were 35 games over .500 and the media mouths were lavishing praise on them and talking about a “dream season.” Did you think they’d float to baseball supremacy after all their years of also-running?

If you said “yes,” you’re not a real Cubs’ fan. Real Cubs fans expect only catastrophe; it’s all we’ve ever experienced. If God had wanted our lives to be happy, He (or She) would have made us Yankees’ fans. Or, at least, Cardinals’ fans.

September brought the cold wind of reality, or should have. The team ended August and began this month by losing eight of nine games, and only the Brewers’ equal ineptitude prevented their divisional lead from evaporating. Cub bats went cold, fielders developed the muffs, pitchers couldn’t hold leads. Just like in the old days.

The boys have strung together a few wins since, and seem sure to make the playoffs, but their recent form indicates that their post-season prospects might not be brilliant. Despite his no-hitter last night, a sore-shoulder cloud hangs over Carlos “Big Baby” Zambrano, their top starting pitcher. Rich “Handle With Care” Harden, starter No. 3, has been as fragile as advertised. He can’t go past six innings and seems to require a couple of weeks’ rest between starts. “Closer” Kerry Wood? Kyra Sedgwick has been better lately.

Derrek Lee, their putative Big Bopper, no longer can get around on good fastballs; he’s been hitting into so many double plays his uniform number should be 643. Kosuke Fukudome, the early-season hitting hero, can’t get around on anything; his batting style would shame a Little Leaguer. Aramis Ramirez takes week-long naps. Any pitcher who gives Alfonzo Soriano anything but an eye-high fastball or slider in the dirt should lose his job.

I knew this was coming because I’m a real Cubs’ fan, which is to say that I always think the glass is totally empty. It’s a defense mechanism, of course; if you expect nothing you’re not disappointed when that’s what you get. Cubs’ fans are said to “live and die” with their team, but that’s nonsense because our shells are so hard armadillos envy us. If I’d have died every time the Cubbies did I never would have made it to my Bar Mitzvah.

I know people who do live and die with the Cubs, albeit figuratively. Eddie Cohen, my classmate at Roosevelt High, got so frustrated with the team that some years ago he started Cubs Anonymous, a 12-step program to rid ones' self of Cubs’ addiction. He’s got a website and would be glad to sell you a t-shirt and membership card if you ask.

Chuck Brusso, my pal in Scottsdale, so despairs of the team’s day-to-day prospects that he can’t bring himself to watch it play, following its progress (or lack of it) on Sports Center or in the newspapers. He says the last time he peeked at a Cubs’ game on TV-- inadvertently, in a restaurant-- he saw someone named Bartman reach out of the stands and snatch a foul fly from Moises Alou. He still blames himself for that.

But to my mind the ultimate Cubs’ fan was someone much younger than Cohen, Brusso or, even, I. He was Steve Goodman, a skinny North Side kid who played the guitar and sang—mostly his own compositions—in Chicago’s Old Town and Lincoln Avenue folk bars in the 1970s. He was very good at what he did, and although he died young (at age 36, of leukemia, in 1984) made a mark that still remains. If you’ve never heard Willie Nelson’s recording of Steve’s “The City of New Orleans,” about the Illinois Central train, you’re missing a treat.

Steve often performed wearing a Cubs’ cap. He wrote several songs about the team. One of them was the upbeat “Go, Cubs, Go” which is played at Wrigley Field after each Cub victory these days, although it was written to be played before games.

But Steve was clear-eyed about the object of his affections. The chorus of his song “A Dying Cubs’ Fan’s Last Request,” says it all about the team:

“Do they still play the blues in Chicago,
When the baseball season rolls around?
When the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play,
In their ivy-covered burial ground?
When I was a boy they were my pride and joy,
But now they only bring fatigue
To the home of the brave,
The land of the free
And the doormat of the National League.”

Even so, Go Cubs!


Anonymous said...

Fred: Your best writing to date. Your piece combines a Cubs fan's Woody Allenesque resignation with the ethnic angst that has produced some of America's best late 20th Century humor. The Cubs transcend mere human concepts of victory and defeat. They dwell in the zen of eternal futility -- i.e., see the lack of success; be the lack of success. Some would write this off as loser psychology but it may be something nobler -- a mission that teaches us about the value and continuity of existence despite lack of ultimate achievement. This is reflective of the real world, and a lesson for which the Cubs should be cherished. (LJMz)

Mike Levy said...

Once again a great piece of writing! Especially enjoyed your comment on jersey number 643...just one of many exhibits of your sardonic wit. Growing up, I used to think being a Phillies fan was frustrating, the only way you could see the Phils in first place was to turn the newspaper upside-down...but we had nothing on Cubs fans. You even nearly totally imported our entire World Series team and still managed to go nowhere. My best wishes and by the way, my mother used to say..."if you expect little, you're never disappointed".

Mike Levy.

Jenn said...

"...Steve’s “The City of New Orleans,” about the Illinois Central train, you’re missing a treat."

I suspect the version of this song that I love so much was not Willie's rendition. More folk, less country, and lacking Willie's distinctive... er... whine.

Just checked, and yep. I love the Arlo version.

That song just hurts my heart every time I hear it.

Tom in Chicago said...

Fred - now that they've clinched something, I'm really worried. I'm like your friend who doesn't want to know how they're doing real-time. Does it really matter if I know? I'd rather hear about it later.

Keep up the great work,
Tom in Chicago