October 27, 2016
It’s hard for people not steeped in tradition to understand it, but when the Cubs return to Chicago Friday night to play in the World Series for the first time since 1945, it’ll be about more than the baseball for many watching.
The texts, I imagine, were pretty similar across the country.
P: How we doin’, boys? This is getting real…
M: I don’t wanna jinx anything, but yeah pretty amazing so far
S: I can’t for all the bartman talk
M: “BLUE OCTOBER”
We stared at our screens, flipping back and forth between the actions and the words, trying to find context for the uncontextable. Could we have called each other? Sure. It might have been nice, actually, to ring up my brothers in Chicagoland, to catch the pulse closer to the action. There were things to talk about besides baseball, too, and with my young daughters asleep and my wife working an overnight ER shift, there wasn’t much stopping me.
But that’s not how the world works. And anyway, one wrong word, we all knew, could screw the whole thing up.
P: I know. I almost felt superstitious texting you
M: All I know is that when the game is over Southport will be flooded with traffic
S: They got it, they are gonna win it all! Nothing bad can happen with 5 outs left. (Said millions of people in 2003)
And so our fingers did the talking, just as they did for Kyle Hendricks, the young Chicago Cubs pitcher charged with reversing 108 years of ineptitude. Maybe that’s too harsh a word. We’d embraced the failure after all. But Hendricks seemed disinterested in that history. Hell, at times he seemed disinterested in the magnitude of the game if not the game itself. As the lead grew for the Cubs inning by inning, Hendricks wore the same stoic expression.
Beneath that exterior, though, was a man immersed in the moment. Or, perhaps more accurately, a man who refused to leave the moment. Thinking about the next inning, or the victory, or the World Series returning to Chicago for the first time since 1945 would have opened the door to failure, to things he couldn’t control, to billy goats and curses. But the ball in his hand, the batter 60 feet and 6 inches away? He could control that.
In that moment, I loved Kyle Hendricks, I man I’ve never met and likely never will. Every strike brought us – and I do mean us – that much closer to this moment that everyone under the age of 108 had dreamed of from their entire lifetimes. For the Chicago Cubs to make it to the World Series would be to rewrite the entire vision we had for ourselves, to change our expectations and reassess our very lives.
Of course that sounds like raging hyperbole and drippy sentimentalism, but it’s true. Every word of it.
I didn’t say any of this in my texts, of course. There’s nothing to philosophize in the moment, when every pitch nudges history. What I did instead was pace around the room, stretch, eat dessert, and think about my grandfather in Illinois, 800 miles away from my mountain farm in North Carolina.
P: Why take Hendricks out? Don’t over manage.
S: Don’t doubt Maddon.
And then, just like that, Cubs closer Aroldis Chapman induced a groundball from Dodgers almost-star Yasiel Puig. Shortstop Addison Russell scooped it up and tossed it to second baseman Javier Baez for the force out. But Baez is blessed with a cannon of an arm and a fearlessness that emanates from his every gesture. He fired the ball to Anthony Rizzo at first.
It beat Puig by a millisecond.
The Chicago Cubs were going to the World Series.
* * * * *
The last time the Chicago Cubs played in a World Series, my grandfather was on the French Riviera. This was not by choice. A private first-class in World War II, John Latter pulled recon missions on the Rhine and Rhur Rivers. Although frequently behind German lines, he escaped unharmed. That is, until a fellow American screwing around accidentally shot my grandfather in the leg.
The shell went in and out and into my grandfather’s leg again. The Russians coming in from the east occupied that region at the time of my grandfather’s injury. That’s how he came to be hospitalized in a Russian hospital in Germany for several weeks, hungry and hot and anxious to return home to his widowed mother and sister. The leg healed, and by the time the U.S. got around to extracting him he was rewarded with some R&R time in France.
He listened to one World Series game on Armed Forces Radio in France. The Detroit Tigers, of course, took the series. Little did my grandfather know he’d have to wait another 71 years to actually see the Cubs in the Fall Classic for the first time.
* * * * *
If there’s one thing my grandfather’s house had when I was growing up, it was TVs. Lots and lots of TVs. A big wooden set in the family room. A black-and-white portable in the kitchen. A big tube in the bedroom. One upstairs in my uncle’s room. When a new model came out, the TVs shuffled until each room had upgraded. Even the pool area had an old rabbit-eared set that could be lugged out when the Cubs were on.
This pool area was no joke. I’m not sure if my grandfather was hoping to embody the American Dream in one household feature, but a 40’ x 20’ heated pool with a retractable roof certainly laid claim to some type of success. Even an electrical fire that melted the fiberglass walls and roof couldn’t stop the pool; it was open the next season.
When my grandfather returned to the Chicago area after World War II, the world was a different place. This was especially true at home. When he’d been drafted in 1944, he had a father. Then right before he was deployed overseas, he didn’t. A successful attorney, Great-Grandpa Latter kept the family from ever feeling the pain of the Great Depression. But now there was no lawyer income, no steady male presence at home. When my grandfather came back to the North side, he worked and used the GI Bill to take night classes. He got a degree. He kept his family afloat.
The pool area, I always thought, somehow represented the old “by the bootstraps” mentality of that time. You have everything, you lose everything, and then you earn everything back by sheer determination and an inability to settle for less. The sociologist in me wants to argue about cultural capital, about knowing how to work the world when you come from a certain class, but the point is moot. We swam in a hot pool and closed the roof when it rained or got cold and watched Greg Maddux in the shallow end. So there’s that.
That pool is where I saw Ryne Sandberg work a plate appearance for 13 pitches. Thirteen. Ball. Strike. And then foul, after foul, after foul. I wish I knew if he lined a double into left-center or if he eventually took a walk, setting up Mark Grace and Andre Dawson to do their work, but that part is gone from my memory. Same with any dialogue that would have accompanied it. I was only 8 or 9 years old, based on the television that was down there at the time.
I’d love to believe that my grandfather made some grand point during the endless at bat that tied in all these loose elements. “See, Philip,” he’d say, “that’s why you never quit. That’s why you always keep swinging. Just like I did in Russia. Just like I did at home. Keep swinging, and you can have all this.” Odds are, however, we just enjoyed a moment standing in the shallow end, a warm breeze dropping in through the open roof, watching another Cubs legend hack away during a futile season.
* * * * *
As much as I enjoyed the Cubs, it was hard to escape them sometimes. My favorite afternoon cartoons as a kid were shown on WGN, a network which had exclusive rights to the Cubs before the cable sports industry had enough financial clout to steal any games away. They also had good cartoons that would be preempted by a day game. Thus my expected afternoon of Tale Spin and Animaniacs was often trumped by yet another appearance by Mike Morgan and his 6.69 ERA.
Oh, how I prayed for rainouts then.
* * * * *
The day my mom dropped me off for college in Asheville, North Carolina, she knew I was never coming back. The mountains, she told me later, she knew they’d captivate me and keep me out of the Midwest forever. She was right. Since my sophomore years of college in 2001, I haven’t stayed in the Chicago area for more than two weeks at a time.
But even as the northwest suburbs became a place to visit biannually, the sports teams never left my blood. The Bulls would always be my basketball team. The Bears would be my football game (until the endless concussions and disabilities made me lose interest). And the Cubs, well, I was stuck with an unrequited, long-distance love for the Cubs.
So it was that the biggest flirtations came from afar. I was at my friend Liz’s apartment in Asheville when Moises Alou and Steve Bartman memorably went for the same foul ball. After that, the Cubs blowing the series seemed as likely as Mark Prior and Kerry Wood blowing out their arms spectacularly in the next few years. That is to say: destined.
I moved to Virginia a few years later, just in time to see the Cubs get dismantled by the Diamondbacks in the 2007 NLCS. That was rough, but surely a move to Colorado (home of many ex-Chicagoans) would bring some good juju to 2008. Maybe I read the signs wrong. After all, my most vivid memory of that season is acquiring Rich Harden at the trade deadline. I heard about this trade over and over again on the two-day, 16-hour drive back and forth between Fort Collins and Kingdom City, Missouri, where my cats had escaped during our move several weeks before. Needless to say, the Cubs were swept in the NLDS by the Dodgers and I never found Apache or Mahalo.
Still, even when we moved back to North Carolina in 2011, I kept the blue flag flying (albeit, in a storage room). I tried to sneak in an inning or two if they appeared on national TV, but the Cubs were atrocious and my priorities were changing. My wife was working 60-hour weeks; the last thing she wanted when she finally had the opportunity to collapse on the couch was to watch multimillionaire throw things at each other. Then there were my two little girls who wanted the type of undivided attention that mandated we had no TV on during the daylight hours.
That meant Aspen and Willow never knew about Derrick May, my favorite mid-1990s Cub who I thought would someday make it big. (He didn’t.) I couldn’t tell them about the excitement I used to feel when broadcaster Steve Stone would say “Randall Kirk Myers” was coming in to close a game, even if the Cubs were struggling to .500. They didn’t know about the lazy summer days watching Steve Buchele, Glenallen Hill, and Kevin Roberson. They never heard the name “Heathcliff Slocumb.”
They didn’t, but my grandfather did.
* * * * *
My grandfather had a complicated relationship with Carlos Zambrano. A mercurial pitcher for almost a decade, Zambrano never shied away from showing emotion. He’d throw tantrums on the mound, get worked up, talk trash. Grandpa called him a “jerk,” that is until he retired the side or smacked one of his occasional home runs. Then he was a welcome household guest every fifth day.
Zambrano made a lot of appearances in the house. All the Cubs did. Once a pleasant diversion during a hectic workday or something to read about in the morning paper, the Cubs became my grandfather’s daytime friends. He talked about “this kid, Starling Castro” like it was someone who might drop by for dinner some evening. He raved about Anthony Rizzo and the crazy speed of Tony Campana. Sure the pitching sucked and the hitting sucked and they struck out too much and they bungled away a lot of leads, but hey, Travis Wood seemed pretty cool.
My grandfather had nowhere to go. A fractured hip and subsequent surgery left him mostly immobilized for the better part of four years. He couldn’t drive. He needed a walker or cane. He was stranded, a captive audience in his beautiful home with a view of a lake he could not reach on his own accord. It was like house arrest, except he’d done nothing wrong.
For most of these games, my grandmother was by his side. Not because she was a Cubs fan, but because she had little autonomy in the matter. Although diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2001, and though defined as end-stage since 2003, she was still here. She couldn’t talk, she was hooked up to a feeding tube, and she required round-the-clock in-home health care (including several caregivers who would end up in the police blotter, unbeknownst to my grandfather at the time), but she was there. When Castro singled in a winning run, Grandma might get a loving squeeze from Grandpa. If he struck out, she might hear my grandfather curse them out as “a bunch of bums.”
I saw Zambrano and Castro and Soriano every time I came home for a summer visit. I’d watch an inning before heading down to the pool with my daughters, a pool my grandfather could no longer swim in. It stayed heated and ready all the same. I’d lean on the recliner or sit on the built-in bench beside the picture window. Sometimes we talked about my life, sometimes his. We’d size each other up during a stop in the action, making sure we both looked healthy and happy. Then Jeff Samardzija would hang a slider and I’d go swim with my daughters. By the time I’d come back up to say goodbye for the afternoon, the Cubs would inevitably be down 5-2.
My grandfather stayed there, waiting for the next program on CNBC or Fox or CNN. Sometimes my uncle came in. Sometimes my dad. Both could leave. Not my grandfather. Not my grandmother, who stared passively off into space or napped quietly in her matching recliner. There was nowhere to go. The 62-inch plasma screen mounted on the wall wasn’t a window to the outside world. It was the world.
* * * * *
Sometimes, when I see a vehicle on the Blue Ridge Parkway with an Illinois license plate, I get excited. That’s my state, I think. I wonder about talking to them, about asking what they think of it here. Inevitably they’re from Naperville or Schaumburg – everyone who escapes Illinois is.
But then I realize I don’t really have much in common with them. They could be 43 years old and from Galena or Rockford or Galesburg. I’m 34 from Kildeer. I left Illinois in 2000. That’s 16 years ago. To think we have something deep in common is a granfalloon, as Kurt Vonnegut famously dubbed it. The association is meaningless.
Then again, maybe they’re a Cubs fan. Somehow that carries the day.
* * * * *
And now we’re here. The World Series is tied 1-1. I stayed up too late watching it last night and am paying a tired price for it today. But it was worth it to see Arrieta shine, to see Rizzo and Bryant and Schwarber and Baez work their magic. Who knew that the greatest decisions the Cubs made since 1945 would be hiring Theo Epstein, a man with lots of experience on ending curses, and Joe Maddon, a bespectacled, white-haired manager who knew how to keep all the kids chill in the moment?
I was a redshirt senior in college when the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit to overtake the Yankees in the greatest postseason series I’ve ever seen. I lived with four roommates, including a Canadian and a guy who slept on our futon free of charge. Other than a round of dinnertime Jeopardy! and some Adult Swim cartoons, the TV was often a point of mild contention. But not that October. We screamed out, “Caveman!” every time Johnny Damon got up to bat. We screamed at Big Papi and the pine tar on Manny Ramirez’s helmet. And after the deficit was gone and the hapless Cardinals stepped up and young Epstein smiled at his vision come to fruition, then and only then did I know how much joy a long-suffering fan base can experience, Yankees be damned.
And then Epstein came to the Cubs. He blew it up. He reassembled it. And once all the parts looked snug and functional, he brought in the best manager in baseball.
Sometimes, when he turns a certain direction in the dugout, Maddon looks a bit like my grandfather. Not in his actions; my grandfather is far sterner. And not in his demeanor; my grandfather is far more explosive. Joe Maddon is younger and certainly more mobile, but the resemblance is there all the same.
I like that. I like that a lot.
And so I finally called my grandfather on Sunday, about 12 hours after the Cubs made it to the World Series for the first time since 1945.
“Did you stay up?” I asked. “I thought about calling you, but didn’t want to wake you.”
“I stayed up,” he said with a laugh that said he was 91 and not inclined to mess with the frivolities of sleep. “I wouldn’t miss it. Remember, I wasn’t in the country last time they made the World Series. I’ve never seen it.”
The groundball, the defining moment, the fans who wouldn’t leave Wrigley Field for hours – we rehashed it all. And then, like any borderline Millennial, I chimed in that I was glad he’d gotten to see the Cubs make the World Series. Wasn’t it a thrill?
“Of course,” he said. “But it would be pretty anticlimactic if they lost in the World Series.”
“I’m sure they will,” he said.
“They better,” my grandfather said. “Bunch of bums if they didn’t.”