special edition: a little bit of believing
it’s just baseball. i know that. of course i know that.
but i also know — having suffered through the anguish of loss after loss, in the last inning, the last game of season after season, when it all lay on the line, when we almost could wrap our sweaty palm around a win, but then felt the whoosh and the throb to the heart as it all slipped away once again, having spent night after night of late too scared to watch the screen, too nervous to come out from the dark of the laundry room where i paced in anxious loops or rocked in a creaky chair beside the dryer (true confession; last night) — i also know that, for me anyway, it’s all boiled down to a short course in believing.
baseball, played out on planes of grass and mounds of sand, is a game of hope, counted in balls and strikes. it’s faith, measured in innings.
and after too long a while without a notch in the W column you start to ache deep inside your brain. you start to wonder if the synapses, the ones that shoot off sparks of hope from one dangly neuron to another — not unlike telegraph machines of yore, the ones that tapped out urgent word, dispatched it round the world — you start to wonder if maybe the neural dischargers will dry up and wither away, from lack of positive outcome.
in the middle of some indecipherable moment, when pitches are wild and runners are running and the wrong ones are scoring or being tagged out, you start to think you just might pack up all your hope, and put it away.
you start to wonder if you’ll ever have faith in believing again.
because you can’t remember the last time you snared the happy ending.
and you’re watching so many people you love shuffle off to bed with the heaviest soles in the world. and not a few tears.
over the years, i’ve tucked boys into bed with cheeks streaked wet and heavenly pleadings unmet. i’ve watched boys slump off the couch, so stunned by what they saw on the screen (think 2003, game 6, fan-we-won’t-name reaches out for a fly ball, and 3-0 cubs-marlins lead in the national league championship series whirls down the drain). i’ve watched boys pick up the next morning’s paper as if it were poison, or hot-wired to a bomb that might go off at any minute.
but i’ve seen, too, indelible sketches of faith tucked under a ballcap:
on cold spring nights, with temps hovering in the low 40s at best, i’ve had friends haul sleeping bags to the sidewalk outside wrigley field, keeping vigil all night so they could be among the first in line for season tickets — year after losing year. and we’ve a very dear friend who drove in from upstate new york, overnight, over the weekend, to plop his bum in the season-ticket seat at wrigley he’s held since god-only-knows-when. because he’d never before known a world series game, and he wasn’t about to let a thousand miles get in the way.
the diehards, they never gave up. maybe it was only wimps like me who found ourselves wobbling, who thought our knees might give out, the up-and-down of it all, the cardiac teeter-totter of dizzying hope giving way to crushing what-was-i-thinking.
in moments like those, the best you can do — the best i can do anyway — is what my little guy long ago referred to as “soothe talk,” as i tell myself over and over, it’s just baseball. we’ll all get up in the morning, lace up our shoes, run out of milk once again.
but then, before that thought’s half-baked, you back it up with another one begging the baseball gods for a break.
you tick through the laundry list of heartbreak that’s piled up over the years, and you start to think you might just be on the losing side of this proposition — and not just in baseball. you start to think you might teeter permanently into the camp of those too shattered to ever again believe.
but you can’t imagine how that could be. and you know life’s too sweet to let that be the take-home prize.
and all the while you’re wanting it for everyone you can possibly think of: the 92-year-old blind guy in iowa you read about; the gravestones now decked out in cubs caps, and fly-the-W flags; your very own brothers, schooled in transistor-radio baseball, now grown and scattered but still believers in ernie banks & co.; your own two boys — the ones hauled to wrigley cathedral not long after birth because it was a baptism their father believed in.
i especially wanted it for anyone — and i know deep inside there was someone — lying in a hospital bed somewhere in cubs land, someone i imagined might be waiting to die, refusing to die, till the last out was called, just in case this was the year.
even though at the time of that thought, it wasn’t looking so hopeful.
and then, after a drought of 108 years, the heavens opened, and down came a rain. enough of a rain to cover the field in a blank white prayer shawl.
prayers — everywhere — were whispered, the volume cranked louder and louder.
it wouldn’t be long — not too long, given the very long century-plus leading up to the tenth inning of game 7 of the world series of 2016 — and then, at last, it came, the whoop that found its way to the dark behind the furnace, where by then i was rocking in that old creaky chair (the very image of madame defarge, i imagine).
a young boy called my name, beckoned me to the scene in front of the screen. he couldn’t contain his unbridled joy, my born-again believer. nor could his papa. nor his faithful big brother, connected by text and by heart, across the not-so-many miles.
i breathed once again. i inhaled the heavenly vapors of the happily-ever-after ending. i tucked it away in my heart’s deep-down pocket. whispered, only loud enough for my own self to hear: sometimes, it doesn’t hurt to believe.
faith, newly polished and gleaming again, is what i took home from the end of the drought.
i’ll pull it out whenever it matters. because sometimes the lessons of baseball can’t be contained in dugouts and bleachers.
* i must end with an asterisk, as only a wimp would do, in deepest apologies to the fine and glorious folk of cleveland, ohio, who this morning are wearing the sting of the heart i know so well. i was soothing myself — when it looked like a loss might be in store for our end of the equation — by looking up the stories of various players and reminding myself how each and every one prayed for — and deserved — the happiest ending. baseball doesn’t end in a tie, i am told. which proves that i did not make the rules. so to everyone saddened by this stunning development, my deepest sympathies. there is, of course, always next year.
and in the meantime, i’m shipping this ahead of the usual friday-morning deadline because i’ll be teaching flocks of young students tomorrow (the ones who skip the cubs’ victory parade, anyway). and because, well, this is all very hot off the press, this notion of world series champion cubs. and why not leap into the heat of the moment?
before i go, do tell, what are the lessons you’ve learned about hope, and the blessing of believing? how did life teach those particular truths?
because the chair is always, always about story and heart-filled word, i’m going to gather here a compendium of some of the best writing i’m finding, recapping the game and what this all means:
here, from my dear dear friend, paul sullivan, known and loved by all of us as “paulie,” the chicago tribune’s great cubs writer.
and my brother bri found this beauty from espn’s wright thompson, about mourning those who didn’t live to see it.
and i’m waiting for roger angell, the great great writer and chronicler of baseball and this world series in particular, to post his latest at the new yorker. stay tuned for that keeper. in the meantime, he’s a great one on the two magnificent drought-ending managers — joe maddon and terry francona — from the new yorker’s ian crouch.
My dad was among those who came into the world and left it during the 108 years of near misses and crushing defeats. The one thing I forgot to include in his obituary and eulogy was that he was a die-hard Cubs fan from the time he was a boy boarding the Addison bus at the far-western limits of the city. How could I forget that Cubs games, with Jack Brickhouse and Lloyd Pettit, were the soundtrack of long-ago summers? If my dad didn’t have a weekend day’s worth of chores, he’d be in front of the black-and-white TV in time for the national anthem, maybe with a can of Chicago-brewed Canadian Ace on the floor next to his chair. If he had errands, the games crackled out of a diminutive transistor radio suspended from a knob on the dash of our radioless ’62 VW Bug. He never gave up, and during his last summer in the hospital, neither did I. When I wasn’t there to turn it on, I had the nurses tune in the Cubs game on the TV in his room, even though he was deep in another place. I trusted that it would get through to him and maybe sustain him.
and, dear karen, you know it sustained him. and your memories are so delicately, indelibly etched. i can see and hear all of it, just reading along.
having spent so many years in hospital rooms (as the nurse, thank god, not the patient) on summer afternoons or evenings, i know how very deeply the Cubs on the screen sustained countless kids and parents. you’d hear the game broadcast in quadruplicate — or however many kids were under your care — as you zipped from room to room, barely missing a ball or a strike. and some of the moments i remember most dearly were when the game hit some highpoint — or low point — and one of the folks who happened to be near the bedside cleaning the room might lean on the mop handle and take in a minute or two of the game with a kid. the whole world was woven more tightly together over Cubs baseball on WGN (world’s greatest newspaper). thanks for making me remember. xoxo
Thanks for the mini shout out…it is hard enough to hail from a town that been heaped with derision. The kindness was appreciated! Cleveland is a tough, hardworking town that only had one river and would not benefit/profit from a redesign by brilliant politicians and architects after a tragic fire. In many ways it is a simplified version of Chicago culture and style. Same kind of people, same problems, same industries, but without the pizazz. I have lived in Chicago 42 years and love this town deeply, but my 23 years in Cleveland were my formative ones. Heck, I sat behind Rocky Colavito in church on Sundays and we were season ticket holders to the old Lakefront Stadium. My uncle was a major sports writer for the Plain Dealer. I have said that the Tribe is in my DNA and the Cubs are more the result of my RNA. Cubs history is part of a northsider’s world, no escaping it even though we are a thoroughly American League family ~ the Yankees and Sox are more our speed. It is a conundrum. I can’t give into emotion for the win or loss. In the end I am probably feeling more like the mother of Serena and Venus! Both teams get some of my pride and sorrow and so I am stranded a bit here in the middle of nowhere. I have been a bit mute on the whole business, BUT if Cleveland manages to get to the series next year, then I will be there front and center cheering. Bless the broken curse and Go Tribe Go. xxoo
ah, dear lamcal, you do here what you always do so beautifully: you pierce beneath the hard crust at the surface, you peel back and take us into the heart. you shine a light on the story, the beating heart that is always always there — when we take time to listen, to find it. so your pain is our pain. your city is a city i want to wrap my heart around — and you, mother of venus and serena, right along with your hometown. you sat behind rocky colavito at mass?!?! that is SO classic! your uncle was a sportswriter for the Plain Dealer? is there a more mythic slice of the american pie than that? i can picture him, with notes tucked in the band of his hat, shirt sleeves rolled up, tapping away at the keys, but not till his notebook was filled with spicy quote, and plenty of off-the-record besides. everything i know about cleveland, i love. and that LeBron story, back in the late spring, early summer, that was something! i was rooting every drop of the way. sending love. especially for the side of you that’s feeling the loss. xoxox
Beautiful piece. Thrilling finale. Love the young Cub team that went out to play
like they play for the love of the game and nothing else! Loved their risky-but-wise decisions made by
Madden. Never seen so many nervous fans as I did in game 7.
But faith is the substance of things hoped for….you die for your faith–and then comes
sweet victory and longing is fulfilled. It’s a mystery. Go Cubs!
dear M, love that you see straight to the heart of the sport. some of my best earliest memories come from the old twin beds in the room that was yours, when we’d lie there in the dark, listening to the squawk coming out of the radio atop your dresser. you and me, we used to lie there trying to solve every problem we could think of, and our constant amazement was sifting through this thing called life that we both so deeply wanted to understand. baseball for you, your love of the ’69 Cubs, ’twas but one of the joys of growing up beside you….xoxox
(…kvellin’ over that brother comment and response, above.)
I like reading about the Cubs through your eyes with the perspective of your boy family. Not a fan (though not not a fan) I grew up with both a die-hard father and stepfather who I thought were alone in their level of obsession. Turns out that we weren’t special. It seems that there is no indifference when it comes to the Cubs.
And like everyone, even I have memories of the Cubs in my early life, like going to Ernie Banks Days and Cubs-Sox exhibition games when there was simply an American League and a National League. I like those simple baseball days, like I like the simple tv days of three networks and Channel 11.
Cubs are in the background, too, of family tales, like when my stepfather took his date who was a twin to a Cubs game and lamented to her that he did not care for her sister, when they had pulled a switch on him that particular day.
It has been bumpy for my mom who had two husbands who lived for the Cubs, now gone. She watched with the fervor of them both. I look forward to reading Wright Thompson’s article and passing it on to my mom. Thank you (and Brian) for that.
it’s amazing how very much so many decades of Cubs are soundtrack to so many lives. your story of your mom’s lens on this latest chapter is compelling and one i’d not quite heard. pretty funny tale about your stepdad — OOPS!!!!
thanks for wandering by the chair, always good to find you here. xoxox
Were you one of the kind writers coming to the high school to talk about writing and journalism? I felt so badly thinking of all of these busy people giving of their time, only to have most of the students be calling in “sick” with blue fever.
i was, but it was fine. the kids who were there were great. and i’d be happy to come talk to any kid any time who wants to talk about writing from the heart. my husband was there too — they gave him gaffney auditorium, which wasn’t quite filled to capacity! i just felt bad for the teachers who worked so hard to make it a truly fine day. as soon as we heard the parade wasn’t monday, but friday, we sort of knew we’d have a few extra handouts…..no worries. and you were kind to even think your compassionate thought. it truly was once in a lifetime (so far) for chicago, so i understood through and through the kids wanting to be there in the front row of history…..
Being raised in a baseball-loving family in Chicago is a faith of sorts, as you so eloquently (as always) put it: because it was a baptism their father believed in. Mine too. But we were White Sox fans, rather exotic for North Shore-reared kids, yet there we were: Catholic, Irish, season ticket-holding Sox Fans. Just born into it. In fact, we always thought our maternal South Side grandmother, Helen Mary Marnan House rather odd for straying from the flock as a devoted Cubs fan. The kind with the radio always crackling with the game in summer. She loved Jack Brickhouse, Ernie Banks, and going against the grain in general.
The White Sox clinched the series in 2005, the year after my dad died (my cousins sent him off from his wake with the season schedule tucked right in there with him though). He never experienced the joy after a lifetime of devoted fanaticism—the opening days with snow or sunburns all around in August. It’s just baseball in Chicago, no matter which end of the Red Line you’re on.
Boy, can it be tough to hang in there, and all baseball fans in Chicago know the struggle of staying faithful and believing. Remember how the 2005 Sox team made ‘Don’t Stop Believing’ their rally cry song? It was magic. And there comes a point every Christmas when you walk into the family room at my cousins and the 2005 White Sox DVD is playing in a victory-lap loop, and we all get a little misty still.
So imagine my surprise to find myself as a White Sox Fan, now living in New York and singing “Root root root for the Cubbies” with the all the gusto of Harry Caray (to be fair: his voice also very familiar to South Side Hitmen devotees). But how could I not? What a season! What a series! And how deeply I felt for my long-suffering North Side fan friends, and the city that will always have my heart deep down. After all, we could all use a good dose of magic right now. So fly that W and keep the faith!
i love you, that is all!
seriously, i love every bit of this — all the memories coming to life, as i sometimes heard your papa’s game-listening tendencies crackling over the split-rail fence between our two yards, growing up side by side, as we did. i love your use of “crackling,” because that’s what the radios did, that’s what happened to the exclamations of brickhouse or caray — they crackled with the thrill of the game. you evoke it all so beautifully, my irish, chicago transplant, root-root-rooting away there in your uber-hip brooklyn.
wish you were here, sweetheart. you woulda been licking this off a spoon. much love. always. xoxox
l love you too, that is all! xxoo
Love this, bam. Just reading it now. My favorite quote, heard at the conclusion of game 7, by Anthony Rizzo: “The boys believed.” We are such big believers here that we have a sign hung above our dining room window that says in giant letters: BELIEVE.
Beautiful. It’s all about believing…especially when it feels just out of reach…