A Living Cubs Fan’s Continuing Lament

We are now in a position to answer a question that was raised in 2016—and was also mentioned frequently before that year. “Are Cubs fans the same kind of people now that their team has won a championship, or did the record of futility make Cubs fans a special breed, apart from other sports fans?”

The Chicago Cubs were one of the first professional baseball teams, and in the early years of baseball they were one of the better teams. They set a record of success in 1906, winning 116 games (more than three-quarters of the games they played), but they lost the World Series to their fellow Chicago team, the White Sox. They went on to win the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908. They would win the National League pennant seven more times over the next thirty-seven years, failing each time to win the World Series. Their drought then would become more spectacular, so that by 1980 Cubs’ fan Steve Goodman could sing woefully, “The Cubs haven’t won the National League pennant since the year we dropped the bomb on Japan.” The year 1969 saw them squander a significant lead at the end of the season, falling behind the New York Mets. Six times they reached the playoffs between 1984 and 2008, each time failing to grasp the pennant. Many years between 1945 and 2008, the Cubs were woefully behind their competitors in the National League, allowing their fans to turn their attention to football by the time August arrived. But to be a sports fan in Chicago was generally unrewarding in those years. Someone like me, born in 1962, could live into the middle of the 1980s glumly aware that Chicago sports teams had not won championships in any of the major sports—baseball, football, basketball, or hockey—in my lifetime.

The Cubs in particular were labeled “Lovable Losers.” Fans filled the ballpark, Wrigley Field, on warm summer afternoons when the Cubs played at home. Some fans grumbled that the owners of the Cubs would not bother to produce a winning team so long as the fans showed up to watch their teams lose. Other matters were also blamed for the Cubs’ lack of success. Some said they were exhausted playing home games in the heat of the day while other teams benefited from playing at night. Some said that the team was cursed—a billygoat named Murphy, denied a ticket to accompany his owner to a World
Series game in 1945, was the legendary source of the curse. Big matters and small matters combined to make Cubs fans feel cheated of the championship their team deserved—especially in the years 1969, 1984, and 2003. But Cubs fans remained faithful to their team, raising questions about what would happen to them should their team ever break their losing pattern and win a World Series.

 The team was purchased by the Ricketts family after the 2009 season. Two years later Theo Epstein was hired away from the Boston Red Sox to be President of the franchise. Epstein rebuilt the team from the ground up, bringing young talent into the minor leagues while gradually reforming the major league club through trades and free agent signings. Joe Madden was hired to manage the Cubs after the 2014 season. In 2015, the Cubs made the playoffs as a Wild Card team, defeating the Pirates and the Cardinals before being swept by the Mets for the pennant. The next year, 2016, was the year that the Cubs changed history, ending their 108-year drought by becoming champions in dramatic fashion, winning the final game of the World Series after midnight on the morning of November 3.

During the Christmas holiday of 2016, my father and I talked about the Cubs. I expressed the hope that their championship team would be like the 1990s Chicago Bulls—who won six championships in an eight-year run—and not like the 1980s Chicago Bears—who won but a single Super Bowl despite the talent and popularity of their roster. Sadly, the Cubs turned out to be like the Bears. They returned to the playoffs at the end of the next three seasons, but they fell short of gaining another National League pennant, let alone winning another championship. Gradually, their stars vanished. Some, like Dexter Fowler, signed with other teams. Others, like Ben Zobrist, retired. Finally, during the summer of 2021, Cubs management traded away the biggest remaining stars—Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo, and Javier Baez. Gathering younger and unproven talent in their trades, the Cubs began positioning themselves for possible success in future years, while resigning themselves and their fans to another period of futility reminiscent of the Cubs of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

Why did the Cubs fail to repeat their championship success of 2016? Some fans blame manager Joe Maddon. Indeed, some Cubs fans insist that the Cubs succeeded in 2016 in spite of Joe Maddon. He made questionable decisions, particularly in the last three games of the World Series. Maddon overused Aroldis Chapman to preserve the victories in games five and six, exhausting him to the point that he surrendered the tying runs of game seven. Then Maddon removed Kyle Hendricks sooner than he should have in game seven, bringing in Jon Lester and David Ross for sentimental (rather than strategic) reasons. Lester and Ross also allowed runs to score, narrowing the margin of victory before Chapman’s struggles.

Maddon and the coaching staff did not serve the players well in Chicago. Even during the playoff games of their championship season, many of the young batters were distressingly ineffective against opposition pitching. While they showed some ability to adjust to pitchers when seeing them multiple times in the same series, too often Cubs batters misread pitches, swinging at offerings well outside the strike zone, thus wasting multiple at-bats. The same problems continued to plague the same batters in following seasons. Modern batters in general, but particularly those who brought a single trophy to Chicago in recent years, seem more concerned with launch angle and exit velocity than they are with making contact with the baseball and directing it to the part of the field where the fielders are not already standing. The fact that Maddon’s term as manager of the Angels was terminated this summer reinforces the opinion that his leadership was overrated and that he caused more harm than good to the players he was managing.

Other fans suggest that the Cubs’ players lost their competitive edge—their “hunger”—after the dramatic winning season of 2016. Michael Jordan and the Bulls remained hungry (although even Jordan had to take time off in the middle of the championship run). Other teams also are able to maintain success year after year, preserving their desire to succeed even in wake of a championship season. Those teams seem able to replace players and keep on winning without having to tear apart the entire team and rebuild after just one championship.

Some fans believe that it’s just a Chicago thing, or just a Cubs thing. Continuing success is not a tradition in Chicago, at least not in baseball and football. Chicago fans support their teams, win or lose; it appears that, as a result, their teams lose more often than they win. It seems unlikely that many (or perhaps any) of the Cubs from the 2016 championship will maintain sufficient success in their careers to be voted into baseball’s Hall of Fame. Jon Lester might be a candidate for the Hall, given his earlier successes in Boston as well as his years with the Cubs. Anthony Rizzo could rise to the level of a Hall of Fame player if he has a few good seasons with the Yankees. Otherwise, the players that Cubs fans learned to love in recent years now past will likely be treated as merely average players, or some of them slightly better than average. Meanwhile, regarding the current team, Cubs fans wait to see whether they are pouring a foundation for future success or merely digging another hole in which to bury the hopes of their faithful followers.

Which brings me back to my original question: is it the same, cheering for a Cubs team that has one championship in its recent history, or has the glamor of supporting “Lovable Losers” been dispelled by that one good year? Are life-long supporters of the Chicago Cubs worthy of respect from the fans of more fortunate and successful teams, or are we no different from the fans of any other struggling team? I do not yet know the answers to those questions. J.

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The Day Chicago Cried

Only after a couple of days can I come to terms with the shocking news that struck baseball fans at the end of last week. Anthony Rizzo traded to the New York Yankees! Javier Baez traded to the New York Mets! Kris Bryant traded to the San Francisco Giants! Relief pitchers sent to other teams, included the hated White Sox, to help them in their quest for post-season glory! The Chicago Cubs, five years after a miraculous championship, reduced to a roster of back-up players and young prospects who might develop into stars in the future—no one can be sure.

I am a life-long Cubs fan. I fondly remember the Cubs of 1969: Ernie Banks, Fergie Jenkins, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Glenn Beckert, Don Kessinger, Randy and Hundley. I remember the Cubs of the 1970s: Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Rick Reuschel, Bobby Murcer, Dave Kingman. I remember the Cubs of the 1980s: Ryne Sandberg, Jody Davis, Rick Suttcliffe, Andre Dawson. I could go on, but you get the point. Win or lose, the Cubs were always my team. I loved them when they were almost champions, as in 1984 and 2003. I loved them when they were lovable losers. I listened to games on the radio, watched some on TV, and on a few special occasions saw them play in Wrigley Field. I endured the rebuilding Cubs franchise a decade ago. I celebrated the championship in 2016. I hoped for a Cubs dynasty. Alas, it was not to be. But this sudden, crashing end—who could expect it? Who could be prepared for it? What are we to do, now that it has happened?

The problem, of course, is money. Players want to be paid what they think they are worth. Owners want to make a profit from their investment in a professional sports team. General managers and team vice presidents get involved, as do agents to represent the players. Rules are made about how much money can be spent on player salaries, with penalties for exceeding the arbitrary “salary cap.” Cubs management faced a crew of heroes whose contracts were due to expire at the same time. Management tried to negotiate contract extensions with those heroes and their agents, but none of the players (or their agents) thought they were being offered enough for their services. Rather than seeing these heroes escape as free agents, management chose to trade them away at the last possible moment, bringing in younger and less expensive players who might (or might not) rise to the level of heroes as they mature.

Fans are left, then, seeing the heroes of the recent past playing for other teams. When the season is over, some of them may move on to yet a third team. The party is over. The good times have ended. No one will be able to put the band back together again.

Engraved in memory (and also preserved digitally) is that instant that Kris Bryant scooped up a ground ball and threw it to Anthony Rizzo, who stepped on first base to record the final out of the final game of the 2016 World Series. They joy on both their faces will never be forgotten. The many other hits and runs and defensive plays and wins and celebrations of this group of players remains part of Chicago Cubs history—but now it is only history. It will never happen again—not with these players, not with the same sense of wonder and awe that accompanied their first team championship in more than one hundred years.

Tears well in my eyes, and a lump forms in my throat. I’ve never met these men and probably never will. They don’t know my name or anything about me. I helped, in a small way, to pay their salary, buying team memorabilia and sitting through commercials between innings. For them I am merely part of a cloud of countless fans, people for whom they exhibited their rare athletic talents, people with whom they shared the joy of a championship even those none of us came to bat or took the field or even sat with them in the bullpen.

Maybe history will show that they were not good enough. Maybe a better team can be formed with a new cast of players. Maybe their careers, seen from a distance, will show that the 2016 championship was a fluke, a coincidence of a few moderately talented players all having a good year at the same time. I prefer to believe that something special marked this team. Bryant and Rizzo and Baez—along with Jon Lester and Ben Zobrist and Kyle Schwarber and Travis Wood and Dexter Fowler—captured something that transcends even the glory of one championship season in one sport. They were a gift to Chicago, to the sport of baseball, and to the human spirit in us all. J

Is virtue its own reward, or do nice guys finish last?

Yesterday afternoon I stopped at the bank on my way home from work. I put on my mask and got out of my car. A man who arrived in the parking lot just before me was getting out of his car; when he saw my mask, he realized he also needed to wear a mask and returned to his car. Closer to the door, I walked past a frail-looking white-haired woman with a cane. She was fumbling to get her mask adjusted. I could have gotten inside ahead of her. Instead, I waited at the door and held it open for her.

Two tellers were at their windows and there was no line. But one of the tellers was doing bank business on the computer and was not ready to work with customers. The woman I had allowed in front of me went to the other teller, and I waited in line on the red box, as the bank requires these days.

And I waited, and waited some more. The woman merely wanted to withdraw some cash from her checking account and also verify the balance in that account. But every step of this simple process took extra time, starting with finding her card and putting it into the banks machine. She had to take off her sunglasses, find her other glasses in her purse, and put them on. When the teller verified her balance, she asked also to confirm that another payment had already been processed. Even when she had gotten all the information she wanted and had received her cash, she continued to visit with the teller (who gently pointed out to her that other people were waiting in line). Still, she had to take the time to put her glasses back in her purse and put on her sunglasses before she left the spot in front of the teller.

I’m not complaining. I wasn’t in a hurry. I felt sorrier for the man who could have been in front of both of us, instead of fourth in line. (Another woman entered the bank behind me before he arrived with his mask.) But I did reflect on the choice I had made, holding the door open for a frail white-haired woman when I could have been first in line instead of having to wait. It further happened that, the instant the woman left and I took her place with the one teller, the other teller finished his task and called for the next customer.

“Virtue is its own reward” came to my mind. In a fairer universe, some privilege or blessing would have come my way because I held the door for the woman and let her enter the bank first. My courtesy was not rewarded; my time was wasted standing in line at the bank because of my choice to let her go first. A second phrase later occurred to me: “nice guys finish last.” Remembering that saying produced another rabbit hole to explore.

The saying is attributed to baseball manager Leo Durocher. I remember Durocher as manager of the Chicago Cubs, who for many years deserved their nickname of “America’s Lovable Losers.” Checking the Internet to see if Durocher indeed said, “nice guys finish last,” I discovered several boring and pointless facts. First, the saying is a brief summary of a longer statement he made about nice guys playing baseball and how they rank in the standings. Second, he did not say it about the Cubs; he said it about the New York Giants while Durocher was managing the Dodgers in 1946. Third, the expression “nice guys finish last” is linked to copious literature about human relationships and dating, including many scientific studies seeking to prove or disprove the adage that “nice guys finish last.” Connected to the saying and to the studies are observations that “nice guys” may be overlooked in the dating game, that “nice guys” often seem less assertive and confident and masculine than other guys, and that many men think they are “nice guys” when they are merely losers.

Not that any of this matters. More than anything else, I am flailing about, hunting for something to say on my blog, at a time when creative juices seem to have run dry. Not wanting to address the topics that preoccupy most of our minds (mine included) leaves me stuck in neutral, revving my engine at the red light, losing readers by my inactivity.

How is your day going? J.

Ebony and Irony

Two dozen years ago Alanis Morissette had a hit song called “Ironic” which was annoying, for the most part, because most of the situations it described were merely contrasts of opposites, not ironic at all. Getting a free pass when you’ve already paid for a ticket—that, I will grant, is ironic. But rain on your wedding day? Where’s the irony there? Meeting your dream man and his beautiful wife? Awkward, perhaps, but hardly ironic.

Here’s some genuine irony for you. Imagine an author whose latest project is writing a book about depression. He wants to describe the condition, offer some helpful explanations of depression and some workable remedies, and—most important—make it clear that Christians can face depression in this sin-polluted world. Christians should not feel guilty about being depressed. (What a spiral into deeper darkness!) Christians should let no one tell them that, if they had more faith, they would not be depressed. Christians should stop expecting joy and flowers every step of the way. They should believe Jesus when he says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit… blessed are those who mourn… blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sale.” Christians should rediscover the meaning of “the dark night of the soul,” the time when faith grows strongest because it has no distractions from the power of God’s promises.

So, this author tries to write. But the writing goes slowly, because… the author is depressed. COVID-19 shutdowns and mask wars on social media and the politicalization of every event under the sun has this author too discouraged to put into words his lessons on depression. He wants to address how physical challenges and mental challenges and emotional challenges and spiritual challenges can share responsibility for a person’s depression; he also wants to discuss how the solution to depression includes physical factors and mental factors and emotional factors and spiritual factors. Maybe the July heat and humidity and clouds and thunderstorms are interfering with the author’s creativity. Maybe the author needs to take a week’s break from news sites and social media. Maybe some spiritual enemy wants to keep this book from being written. Or maybe, just maybe, the topic of depression is just too depressing for some authors to address at book length.

Isn’t it ironic?

I had two dreams last night. In one of them, I was playing in the outfield for the Chicago Cubs. I was not in uniform and had not signed a contract with the team, yet there I was between center field and right field during an official ball game. Twice I had to field ground balls that had found their way past the infielders for a single. In the other dream, I was visiting an old flame. (I hope you know what that means; I’m in no mood to stop and define my terms.) To me, the visit seemed awkward and I felt that I should leave. But she said she was happy for me to be there and encouraged me to stay. Now that I am awake, the dream puzzles me. It would far better match my frame of mind, short-term and long-term, if I had wanted to stay and she was insisting that I leave.

What does it mean?

We have passed the half-way mark of the eventful year 2020. I have the instrumental portion of Kansas’ “Song for America” running through my head, which is a worthwhile soundtrack for this summer afternoon. The cats are resting; the house is quiet except for an occasional outdoor rumble. I hope that your day and your summer are going well. J.

The Chicago Cubs will be champions again

Tomorrow afternoon the Chicago Cubs begin their season and their quest for another championship. They will get started in Texas against the Rangers. The roster has not changed much from the crew that won ninety-five games last year but stumbled in the playoffs. The biggest difference is that the players are healthier now, and they are determined to make their fans forget about last year by winning it all this year.

My parents were die-hard Cubs fans, and it was natural for me to follow in their footsteps. We listened to games on the radio back when the announcers were Vince Lloyd and Lou Boudreau. (My father was not fond of Jack Brickhouse, the television announcer.) I vividly remember the Cubs of 1969: Ernie Banks, Billy Williams, Ron Santo, Don Kessinger, Randy Hundley, Fergie Jenkins—they even had a pair of pitchers whose names were Hands and Fingers. The ’69 Cubs were far ahead of the competition all season, only to be overtaken by the Miracle Mets in September. Many people in Chicago joked that the Cubs were going to move to the Philippines and call themselves the Manila Folders.

Gradually in the 1970s the Cubs lineup changed, as all professional sports teams must do. Players came and went: Rick Monday, Jose Cardenal, Bill Madlock, Rick Reuschel, Bobby Murcer, and Dave Kingman. Although they started some seasons strongly, the Cubs never put together enough wins to enter the playoffs in the 1970s or at the start of the 1980s.

This changed in 1984. Dallas Greene had been named General Manager of the Cubs, and he pulled together a championship-caliber team. He exchanged shortstops with the Philadelphia Phillies and persuaded them to toss in a young infielder, future Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg. Greene traded for starting pitchers Dennis Eckersley and Rick Suttcliffe, and the Cubs won the National League East Division. They were favored over the San Diego Padres, winners of the West Division; but after winning the first two games in Chicago, the Cubs lost three straight in San Diego, coming from an early lead to fall behind in each game.

The Cubs were expected to do well again in 1985, but injuries to their starting pitchers triggered a losing streak in May from which they never recovered. They returned to the playoffs in 1989 but were handled by the San Francisco Giants, who were on their way to an earthquake-interrupted World Series against Oakland. In 1994 the Cubs earned a Wild Card berth in a season that included record-level home run prowess from the Cub’s Sammy Sosa and the St. Louis Cardinal’s Mark McGuire, but they were beaten in the playoffs by the Atlanta Braves.

Hopes were high in 2003 when the Cubs won the National League Central Division. For the first time since baseball’s playoffs involved more than the World Series, the Cubs won a playoff series, beating the Atlanta Braves. The Miami Marlins were the Cubs’ next opponent. The Cubs were five outs away from earning the National League Pennant and a trip to the World Series in game six, played in Chicago, when the wheels fell off the cart. Surrendering eight runs in a disastrous eighth inning, the Cubs lost game six, the Cubs went on to lose game seven the next night, ending their championship hopes. They returned to the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 but failed to win a single playoff game either year.

In 2011 the Cubs organization hired Theo Epstein to handle the structure of the team. He came with a plan, warning fans that it would take several years to bear fruit. Before the 2015 season, Epstein hired Joe Madden to manage the Cubs and then signed free agent pitcher Jon Lester. The team came together during the course of the summer and won enough games to be one of the two National League Wild Card teams. The Cubs beat the Pittsburg Pirates in the single Wild Card game, then went on to beat the Cardinals before being swept for the pennant in four games by the New York Mets.

The year 2016 was magic for Cubs fans. The team dominated baseball all season, winning the division by a clear margin. In the National League playoffs they outperformed the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers, bringing the first National League Pennant to Chicago since 1945. In the World Series they faced the Cleveland Indians. Trailing three games to one, the Cubs roared back to force a dramatic game seven in Cleveland in November. Despite several puzzling moves by Joe Madden, the Cubs jumped out to a five point lead. Four outs away from a championship, the Cubs allowed the Indians to tie the score. After nine innings the score was still tied. A rain delay allowed the Cubs to regroup, and they scored two runs in the top of the tenth. Although they allowed one run in the bottom of the inning, the Cubs managed to procure the final out. Early in the morning of November 3, 2016, the Cubs were finally world champions. Their previous championship had come in 1908, exactly 108 years earlier. There are 108 stitches in a baseball.

The Cubs returned to the playoffs in 2017, overcoming the Washington Nationals in a hard-fought series before bowing to the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 2018 the Cubs won 95 games but were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers atop the Central Division. Losing a single tie-breaking game to the Brewers in Chicago, the Cubs lost again the next night in a Wild Card game against the Colorado Rockies. This led to a long winter of discontent and a spring full of hope that this is the year the Cubs will return to their champion ways. J.

The celebrity roast of Nelson Mandela

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was.

I wanted to write a post about something I saw on TV a long time ago and how it affected me. But when I started factchecking what I saw, it turns out that what I remember didn’t actually happen. Some people would blame this on the Mandela Effect, saying it really did happen, but the lines of history have changed. Others would simply acknowledge that memory is not as reliable as we generally want it to be.

Here’s what I remember: in the 1970s there were frequent television specials called celebrity roasts. These were staged like tributes to performers such as Bob Hope or Lucille Ball, but instead of honoring their careers and achievements, these shows made the honorees the brunt of jokes and humorous insults. The roasts were, of course, heavily scripted. The episode I remember honored Orson Welles. The reason I remember that episode is that, at the end, when the honoree got to stand and respond to all the evening’s speeches, Welles deliberately jettisoned the script that had been prepared for him and gave sincere, spontaneous, and glowing tributes to all the entertainers who had just spent the hour insulting him. I would like to think that Welles’ graceful and kind example helped me to mature at least a little bit, realizing that it is classier to be kind to others than to return insults with insults.

The Internet confirms that dozens of such specials were filmed and broadcast in the 1970s. Dean Martin was the host for all these roasts except the one in which he was honored, when Don Rickles hosted. Rich Little and Nipsey Russell were frequent speakers at these roasts. I thought I remembered Paul Lynde being on them often, but he only spoke at two roasts. In addition to the many comedians that were involved, occasionally athletes were honored. Two politicians—Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan—also received the gauntlet of the roast.

But although Orson Welles was a speaker at several of these roasts, he was never honored with a roast. My memory of his gracious kindness is a false memory.

Well, not entirely false.

A little further digging has shown that, on October 5, 1978, James Stewart was honored with a roast. Orson Welles was one of the speakers. When Welles rose to speak, he discarded his script and gave Stewart a heart-felt tribute based on memories of experiences they had shared. When Stewart had his opportunity to speak at the end of the event, he responded to Welles in the same spirit. It is possible that he also spoke kindly of the other speakers.

It is natural that, because of Welles’ classy behavior at this roast, I would think of him as the featured star rather than merely one of the speakers at the event. This is why factchecking is important: human memory is quite fallible.

Here’s another example: I remember hearing an exciting baseball game on the radio in 1984. The Cubs and the Cardinals were playing in Wrigley Field, and my parents and I were weeding the garden behind our house as we listened on a small transistor radio. The game was tied in the eighth inning, and the Cubs had put in their star reliever, Lee Smith, to preserve the tie. The pitcher was due to bat sixth in the bottom of the inning, so it seemed like a safe move to bring in Smith. (Baseball fans will understand the strategy.) But the plan backfired. In the bottom of the eighth inning, the Cubs found themselves still in a scoreless tie, with the bases loaded, two outs, and their best relief pitcher coming to the plate. Relief pitchers rarely are called to hit. They are almost a certain out. And, indeed, Smith did strike out in that at bat. But not before Leon Durham stole home. Smith returned in the ninth to finish the game and earn the victory in a 1-0 game.

Last year I went through microfilmed records of old newspapers to find the description and account of that game. Most of it happened just the way I remember it. But Lee Smith was not the pitcher who came to bat with the bases loaded and two outs in the bottom of the eighth inning. The pitcher’s name was Warren Brusstar. And while Brusstar was a decent pitcher who won eight games and saved eight games in his three seasons with the Cubs, he was no Lee Smith.

Why would I remember Lee Smith coming to bat instead of Warren Brusstar? Because Smith was the star reliever for the Cubs that year; he was the kind of pitcher you would want to leave in the game to pitch the ninth inning. In fact, I have no idea why Smith did not pitch in that game. Maybe he was injured, or maybe he had pitched a lot the day before. But for many years, whenever I remembered that game, I had the wrong pitcher in mind.

My memory is not what it used to be.

Then again, it never was. J.

Another post about baseball

“I don’t have to tell you that the one constant through all the years has been baseball. America has been erased like a blackboard, only to be rebuilt and then erased again. But baseball has marked time with America has rolled by like a procession of steamrollers. It is the same game that Moonlight Graham played in 1905. It is a living part of history, like calico dresses, stone crockery, and threshing crews eating at outdoor tables. It continually reminds us of what once was, like an Indian-head penny in a handful of new coins.” W. P. Kinsella, Shoeless Joe. The novel was made into a movie, Field of Dreams, in which Terrance Mann delivers a speech based on these words.

Baseball has always been a game of strategy as well as talent. From the competition between pitcher and batter to the alignment of fielders on the diamond, baseball players try to outthink the competition. The statistics of baseball have become ever more complicated, with technology assisting the measurement of the speed of pitches and of hit balls, launch angles, and other fine details of the game. Players and coaches study these statistics in an effort to improve. They also study the opposing players, searching for tendencies that can be exploited as weaknesses.

When I was in high school, I patterned my batting stance after Dave Kingman. Kingman played in the major leagues for sixteen seasons, including three with the Chicago Cubs. His stance at the plate was wide, with the distance between his feet greater than the spread of his shoulders. He had an upper cut in his swing long before people were discussing launch angles. In his career, Kingman hit 442 home runs. That’s a lot. He also struck out 1816 times, also a lot. Sometimes he would hit the ball five hundred feet… straight up in the air, only to have it be caught in the infield not far from home plate.

Analysis of the 2018 baseball season shows that a higher percentage of runs scored was due to home runs than ever before, and a higher percentage of outs was due to strikeouts than ever before. It is as if every batter wants to be Dave Kingman. Forty years ago, not everyone wanted to be Dave Kingman. At that time I was taught how to modify my stance to drive the ball to right field or left field. The goal was to get a hit by putting the ball where the fielders were not close. In today’s baseball games, many teams adopt “the shift” on defense. If they know that the tendency of a batter is to hit to the right side of the field, they put three infielders there and only one on the left. A good coach should be able to teach a good hitter to take advantage of the shift. I remember one game in the 2016 playoffs when Ben Zobrist ended a string of hitless at-bats for the Cubs team by bunting the ball down the third base line. The San Francisco Giants had to adjust their defense to account for this possibility; the Cubs responded with a string of hits, went on to win the game and the series against the Giants, to beat the Dodgers for the pennant, and to beat the Indians for the World Championship. It all came down to one bunt.

Pitching has changed in baseball. Pitchers go through such contortions to add speed or spin to the ball that it is rare for a pitcher not to need major surgery on his arm or shoulder before his career has ended. Batters have to adjust. They learn to react to the habits of a pitcher, seeing how he prepares for each pitch and guessing from those preparations what the pitch will be. Pitchers study the habits of batters, knowing which of them have a tendency to swing at pitches they cannot hit. New players have a brief advantage, since their habits have not been revealed. After a short time, though, new players have to adjust because the opposing teams have learned their habits.

As the Chicago Cubs use the coming months to prepare for the 2019 season, I hope they will adjust their thinking. Learn to hit the ball to the opposite field to compensate for the shift. Level the launch angle for contact with the pitch rather than trying always to hit a home run. Use the bunt and the stolen base to upset the rhythm of the opposition. Pitch more to induce weak fly balls and groundouts rather than trying to strike out every batter. Over time, good fundamental baseball always overcomes the latest tactic or gimmick. This matters, because the one constant through all the years has been baseball. J.

The Chicago Cubs

Now that the World Series is under way, I will write about my favorite baseball team, the Chicago Cubs. They are not playing in this year’s World Series, but only two years ago they won the World Series, ending the longest championship drought of any professional sport.

Around Christmas of 2016 I told my father that I hoped the Cubs would take after the (basketball) Chicago Bulls of the 90s who won six championships in the span of eight years. I hoped that they would not take after the (football) Chicago Bears of the 80s who assembled a talented team but only won one Super Bowl. I regret to say that, over the last two seasons, the Cubs have resembled the Bears more than the Bulls.

This year the Cubs won ninety-five games. That tied them for most wins in the National League, which is a good thing. They were tied with the Milwaukee Brewers, who—like the Cubs—play in the Central Division of the National League. Because they were tied, the teams had to play each other in one game to determine who would represent the Central Division in the playoffs. The Los Angeles Dodgers and Colorado Rockies, both in the West Division, also finished the season with the same number of wins and also played one game to name the division champion. This is the first time that two extra games have been added to the schedule at the last minute to determine the championship of two divisions.

Because the Cubs won more than half the games they played against the Brewers this year, the tie-breaking game was played in Chicago. The Cubs lost that game 3-1. The Rockies also lost on the same day. This led to the Cubs and Rockies playing a game to determine the Wild Card team. Because the Cubs had the better record, that game also was in Chicago. The Cubs lost again, this time 2-1.

It is possible to win a baseball game 1-0. In fact, it happens quite often. Usually, though, when a team scores only one run, they lose the game. When Chicago’s offense fails in the two most important games of the year, fans like me worry. Granted, they were one of the best teams all year long. Granted, they have been in the playoffs the last four years, making it to the pennant-deciding games three of those years. And granted, they have recently won a championship in memorable style. But champions cannot rest on their laurels.* Their fans expect them to succeed every year.

The Cubs have assembled a team with awesome talent. This season they had to contend with injuries and other distractions. They still did very well. But only one team can be a champion. Cubs fans waited 108 years to see the Cubs win a World Series. (They won the World Series in 1907 and again in 1908.) They do not want to wait another century for another championship.

A meme was posted on Facebook by a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals. It depicted a “participation trophy” for the 2018 Cubs in the postseason. That was clever. It was also painful to see.

The bright spot is that the Cubs were beaten by the Colorado Rockies. There are ten teams in the National League East and West divisions, and now eight of them have blocked the Cubs from advancing in the playoffs. Aside from the Dodgers, who took the pennant from the Cubs in 2017, no National League team has stopped the Cubs in the playoffs more than once. Every time the Cubs faced a team in the playoffs more than once, the Cubs won the second time. (On the other hand, every East or West Division team that met the Cubs in the playoffs for the first time beat the Cubs—until 2017, when the Washington Nationals broke the pattern by losing to the Cubs.) So, according to that pattern, only Philadelphia stands in the way of a Cubs Championship in 2019.

Cubs fans have suffered from the slogan “Wait til next year” for most of our lives. The great players wearing Cubs uniforms today owe it to their fans to do more than participate. They are paid to be champions, and champions they will be.

 

*The expression “rest on your laurels” comes from the ancient Greek Olympic games. In the ancient world, winners were not given gold medals. They were given laurel crowns—C-shaped ornaments worn on the head, woven from branches taken from a laurel tree. Julius Caesar wore a laurel crown. So does the cartoon Little Caesar of the pizza chain. Laurel crowns dry up quickly. They become brittle and fall apart. Therefore, athletes need to go out and win new crowns. They cannot rest on their laurels. J.

Cubs win!

The Chicago Cubs clinched their division by defeating the St. Louis Cardinals last night. Since the expansion of the major league baseball playoffs, few teams have managed to return to the playoffs the year after winning the championship. The San Francisco Giants managed a dynasty of sorts, winning three championships in five years (all even-numbered years). The New York Yankees are the last team to win consecutive championships, doing so in 1998, 1999, and 2000.

I have been a Cubs fan since childhood. We Cubs fans were known for our faithful endurance, supporting a team that had not won a championship since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, a team that had not even won a pennant since the year World War II ended. The victories of 2016 were deeply satisfying, as the Cubs dominated the opposition all season, winning more than one hundred games, and then proceeded to bring home the National League pennant. The World Series was hard-fought, memorable for all baseball fans. The championship was not decided until the seventh game of the series, and that game lasted ten innings, including a brief rain delay.

The Cubs’ first opponent in the playoffs next month will be the Washington Nationals. Although the Nationals have never won a playoff series, I am concerned about the Cubs’ chances due to an odd pattern in their post-season history. From the year teams had to win a playoff series to gain the league pennant until the Cubs’ championship of 2016, they were in the playoffs seven times. In 1984 they came close to defeating the San Diego Padres for the pennant, but the Padres managed to win the series over the Cubs. In 1989 the Cubs returned to the playoffs, only to be defeated by the San Francisco Giants. In 1998 the Cubs and Giants were tied for the wildcard position and played a one-game extra game, which the Cubs won. However, afterward they were beaten by the Atlanta Braves. Do you see the pattern yet? Each time the Cubs were knocked out of the playoffs, they were beaten by a different team.

In 2003 the Cubs returned to the playoffs. They met the Braves again and won the series; afterward they had to face the Florida Marlins. The Cubs were within five outs of winning game six and the pennant when the team seemed to fall apart, yielding eight runs, the game, and (the next night) the series. In 2007 the Cubs were beaten three straight games by the Arizona Diamondbacks; in 2008, they were beaten three straight by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The pattern continued.

The Cubs were sold to a new owner, who brought in new management. The new management rebuilt the Cubs from the ground up. In 2015, they surged into contention, earning one of two wildcard spots in the National League. They defeated the Pittsburgh Pirates in the one-game wildcard playoff game, and then won a series against the Cardinals, demonstrating that they could not be stopped in the playoffs by a team in their own division. But when they played the New York Mets, the Cubs were swept in four straight games.

Seven different teams have stopped them in the playoffs: the Padres, Giants, Braves, Marlins, Diamondbacks, Dodgers, and Mets. Three teams remain to be challenged: the Nationals, Colorado Rockies, and Philadelphia Phillies. In 2016, the Cubs were privileged to face the Giants and the Dodgers, teams that had stopped them before. But now they have to break their pattern completely by beating a team that has not threatened them in the playoffs to date.

On the other hand, the Cubs have a pattern of winning championships two years in a row—they did so in 1907 and 1908. J.

Summer of ’69

As we approach the end of the book in the World Civilizations class I teach, I invite students to name the earliest event they can remember happening that is in history books today. Students older than me frequently speak of the assassination of President Kennedy. Students of traditional college age used to mention the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, then the fall of the Berlin Wall. For several years the earliest event remembered by many students was the terrorist attack of 9-11. I discovered this summer that, for this year’s incoming freshmen, the fall of the World Trade towers is a historic event; they cannot recall the day it happened.

I remember some events from my early childhood, but the first historic events I remember took place in the summer of 1969. Chief among those events was, of course, mankind’s first visit to the moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon, while a third astronaut, Mike Collins, came along for the ride but continued circling the moon during their mission. I remember sitting in the living room watching the grainy broadcast of Armstrong climbing down the ladder and setting foot on the moon. I remember hearing him say, “That’s one small step for [a] man—one giant leap for mankind.” I remember the other details of the mission as well. It pleases me that my earliest historic memory consists of good news and high accomplishments, not an assassination or attack or accidental explosion.

I remember the Chicago Cubs were doing well in the summer of 1969; they seemed destined to enter the playoffs for the first time since they lost the World Series in 1945. I remember the heat of August as they began losing more games than they were winning. I remember my father’s disgust after some of those losses. I remember the New York Mets passing the Cubs in the standings and taking their place in the playoffs. Reason to hope for success would not return to Cubs fans for another fifteen years.

I remember seeing my first hippies. They were a carful of people with long hair and brightly-colored clothes, shouting happily and waving to the little boy (me) standing by the street. I knew they were hippies. I had seen something on television about hippies and about a concert they were attending somewhere in the state of New York.

I didn’t see the documentary movie about Woodstock until I was in college. They showed Woodstock on campus, and my friends and I went into a frenzy of celebrating everything sixties and hippie-related. A few years later I found the three-disc album from the concert in a record store and bought it and played it over and over. Yet a few years later, I bought the VHS package of the documentary, watching it every August. When those tapes were wearing out, I replaced them with the DVD package released for the fortieth anniversary of Woodstock—it contains several songs that were not included in the original documentary, including performances by Jefferson Airplane and by Janis Joplin.

Some five-year-old and six-year-old children today are going to remember the summer of 2017. It will be their introduction to current events that become history. I wish they could remember successes, accomplishments, and acts of human kindness. The summer is not yet over; we still have a chance to make history. J.