I grew up thirty miles to the west of Wrigley Field and the stadium that goes by whatever corporate name the new Comiskey has outside it this year. Now I live seven hundred miles to the east of those stadiums, fifteen miles north of Nationals Stadium, and thirty miles south of Camden Yards.
As a kid, the boredom of summer was interrupted by trips into the city to bake in the sun at the corner of Sheffield and Addison. I got to watch Fergie Jenkins go to work. One of my little league baseball cards lists Ron Cey as my favorite baseball and that I preferred to play third base.
The addition of 670 miles of distance means that I can replicate that exact experience with my kids. But there are other options. Although we are closer to the Nationals, the roots of the Orioles in our neighborhood are deeper. It’s an inversion I enjoy. In the western suburbs of Chicago, rooting for the Cubs implied a rejection of the coarse ethnic poverty of a de-industrializing city. The Cubs were finance; the White Sox were the stockyards and freight trains. In the Prince George’s County suburbs of DC within the Beltway, maintaining an affiliation with the Orioles implies a rejection of K Street and government contractors. The Orioles are blue collar; the Nationals are the law firms and lobbyists.
We are fifteen miles to the west of the home stadium of the Baltimore Orioles’ AA affiliate, the Bowie Baysox. If I longed for the national pastime in the summer, we head to Prince George’s Stadium. Our kids’ school runs fundraisers at Baysox games. The club’s spring egg hunt is an annual tradition and for the past three years, both kids had a birthday celebration at the park. Many of the players they see on the field for Bowie move up to Camden. And established Orioles players often spend time with the Baysox – last year our eldest got a baseball autographed by J.J. Hardy for a classmate that is also a rabid Orioles fan. He was thrilled. I revered Scott Sanderson. There is no accounting for who we attach to.
I like the Orioles. I went on the middle school trip to the East Coast and came back with an Orioles cap. In the nineties, when the Cubs were horrible, Baltimore became something close to my second team.
I haven’t become an Orioles fan, nor have I encouraged my kids to develop any ties to the franchise. We cheer for D.C. United, for the Washington Mystics, and for the University of Maryland’s teams as a family, but otherwise have left the other sports alone. They know that I root for the Cubs, Bears, and Bulls. They’ve been members of Clark’s Crew for several years. They have Cubs/Bears/Bulls gear. Our eldest loves Charles Tillman and the concept of the Peanut Punch. But that’s about all there is to it. It had been something in the background for them. Something they knew was a part of their parents’ lives, but not something that they cared much about. Like, they have to listen to me playing The National all the time and they know some of the songs, but it’s not their music and they will, if they have to, tolerate it for a while before asking for Sabrina Carpenter.
Their friends have NFL teams, NBA teams, and MLB teams. They know that LeBron plays for the Cavs, that Brady plays for the Patriots, and that lots of people like the Cowboys, Lakers, and Yankees. Pressed on the point by teammates, our eldest decided two years ago that she was a Pirates fan and bought some Bucs gear when we stopped in Pittsburgh on our way to Michigan for the Thanksgiving holiday.
For the twenty-plus years that my wife and I have been together, the Cubs have been a significant part of our shared experiences. We burned a vacation in Mesa for a week of spring training. It was my Disney World. We try to go to Wrigley for a game once a year. I went to the Cubs Convention the year that Theo took over. We’ve travelled to watch the team play in San Diego, Pittsburgh, and New York (both at Shea and Yankee Stadium). When John Smoltz closed out a Russ Ortiz win in Wrigley to even the National League Divisional Series at two games a piece, we watched Sammy Sosa fly out to center for the last out, jumped in the car, drove to Atlanta, arrived at Turner a couple of hours before gametime, and were in the stands celebrating with other fans as the team won its first playoff series since 1908.
At every location where Cubs fans congregate, there are origin stories. People from towns you’d never heard of, who killed time watching WGN, and loved Harry as if he was a jovial uncle that was welcome in the house anytime. When that era ended, they listened to Ron Santo on a radio stream however they could get it. That our start came as native Chicagoans made us exceptions and opened up a battery of “what was it like?” questions regarding our time inside the friendly confines.
This is all a long way of saying that I wanted to raise Cub fans. But 670 more miles and no WGN increased the degree of difficulty, so much so that I made peace with the fact that it wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I’d like learning about the Pirates if our eldest kept with that interest. Or about the Orioles if they succumbed to peer pressure. Or major league baseball would be like “City Middle” off of Alligator – I’d thoroughly enjoy it, but it would just be background noise for my progeny.
We bought season tickets to Broadway Chicago last year because a season ticket was cheaper than a single ticket to Hamilton in Manhattan. We’d see Hamilton and Aladdin and be able to gift the tickets to the other shows to family and friends. The date for our Hamilton tickets – set many, many months in advance – happened to be October 8th. The week before we headed home, we realized that if we got to the city early, our kids could stay with family and we could go to Game 1 of the Divisional Series. A playoff game in Wrigley. We bought two tickets. When told the plan, our eldest objected – why can’t I go? I want to go. That’s a lot of money to piss away on a kid that is likely to spend the final third of the game complaining that she wants to leave or get ice cream or walk around. BUT. But… she wanted to go to a Cubs game. She wanted to go to Wrigley. For a playoff game.
I bought an extra ticket, several rows back in the same section, on an aisle. The two of them would sit together and I would drop by from time to time to see if we needed to switch seats. When we got to the game, our kid wanted us to stay together. Three people, two seats. We checked with the people around us, including the Giants fans a row behind us, and everyone was awesome. Jon Lester versus Johnny Cueto. Two and a half hours of edge of the seat tension, hemmed in by an electric crowd. As Javy Baez walked to the plate in the bottom of the eighth, I bent down and told my daughter “Baez is one of the only guys on this team that’s been able to read Cueto. I think he’s going to hit a home run.” Full count. Tension still rising. Everyone on their feet. Quick pitch. Upper cut. Contact. From our seats on the third base line, we could see the ball cut through the air, and could see Angel Pagan tracking it back and getting his back up against the wall. I had sudden visions of the ball dying short of the basket. Of being close, but falling short. Of passing on the one thing that has defined my lifelong love of the team: disappointment and resignation.
But the ball didn’t die.
As soon as it landed, I looked down and saw my daughter beaming back up at me, and we were hopping. Everyone (except the row behind us) was hopping.
We all sweat through Chapman’s ninth inning and then just stood around inside the stadium until we were ushered out. At the gate before exiting, Theo came down, grinning, allowing the adulation to wash over him and provide evidence that he was just as emotionally involved in the spectacle as everyone that had paid to get in. We walked around the outside of the stadium for another half hour before catching the L home, sharing stories about how we grew up here, how this was our childhood.
The next night, I wore a Cubs jersey to Hamilton. Before the curtain raised, all of the people around us had their phones out following what was happening a few miles to the north, including a refined Russian couple behind us that came in evening wear: “We’re up 4-0!” The show started. At intermission, the ushers immediately gave us an update, “5-2, they pulled Hendricks ‘cause he got hit with a ball.” The show was fantastic. Yet, walking out, the conversations were mixed. The mind-blowing experience of Hamilton versus being up 2-0, with a team that everyone loved.
The next day, we went to see In The Heights at the Porchlight. We were enthralled. Afterwards, hanging out with the cast so that our kids could ask them questions, we talked about the Cubs. About how this was nothing like 2003. And I think that they began to understand, without us having to tell them, how the Cubs are part of the marrow of Chicago. For better or worse, they got to see why their parents are a little crazy but just like everyone else in their hometown.
Back home, we watched the rest of the playoffs together. They were sent to bed when the rains game to delay Game 7 with me telling them that this is what it meant to be a Cubs fan – to have hope, to see that hope crushed, and to, nevertheless, renew your faith. They told me I was wrong, that it was obvious that the Cubs would win, and they went to bed.
Being a Cubs fan is not about the excitement of the playoffs. It is not about the flickering. Maybe for Yankees fans or Braves fans or Cardinals fans or Red Sox fans or Dodgers fans or Giants fans. Being a Cubs fan is about the grind of the regular season. It’s 162 games of box scores and sleepy games sitting amongst distracted fans. We left things alone for the most part. We signed them up for Clark’s Crew again, went to several Baysox games, and watched a few Cubs games on television.
A month ago, we told them that we were going to a Cubs game at Nationals Park. They didn’t object, we watched the Cubs lose (badly) with Arrieta on the mound, and while they didn’t seem to really enjoy themselves, we stayed until the game ended and there were no complaints. We didn’t press our luck, knowing that we had tentative plans to go to Camden to see the Cubs in July.
Last week, we went with our friends and their two kids to watch Jake Arrieta pitch again. Our friends left in the eighth, we stayed until the final out. We talked about the trade for Jose Quintana and how his first start was the next day. Could we pull it off? Could we go to two games back-to-back?
We could. We did. Again, we stayed to the last out. Afterwards, they tried to watch as much of the Braves series as they could. The kids now tell people they are Cubs fans.
My eldest’s first softball card lists her favorite player as Javy Baez.
Yesterday, I bought four tickets to see The National at the Anthem in December. Because I have hope. And sometimes hope is rewarded.