Last night (November 2, 2016), the Chicago Cubs won the World Series in game 7 against the professional baseball team from Cleveland. As you probably know if you follow baseball–or even if you don’t, like me–this has not happened since 1908. The last time the Cubs won the World Series, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House, Russia still had a Tsar and Hitler was painting postcards for a penny apiece in the streets of Vienna. The Cubs’ victory, which was comically foretold (though a year too early) in the 1989 film Back to the Future II, breaks what I think is the longest-running streaks in the history of baseball. Cubs fan referred to it as the “Curse.” I know, because, though I wouldn’t call myself a Cubs fan today, I certainly used to be, and their unlikely victory in 2016 brings back some memories as well as a sense of vindication that comes, to be frank, several decades too late.
Though I pay virtually no attention to sports today, believe it or not, in my teens and early 20s, I was a big sports fan. Or at least I tried to be. As a kid I was generally bored by sports on TV, and I was one of those bookish nerdy youths who never played a sport in school, so caring about sports didn’t come naturally to me. In the summer of 1988–the same summer where I had a life-changing encounter with a tornado–I lived with my sister in Omaha, Nebraska, and among the social circles I ran in, there were a lot of Chicago Cubs fans. Why there was such a diaspora of Cubs fans in Omaha I never knew, but nearly every day there was a Cubs game televised on WGN and it was always on at our house. Maybe it was a collective excitement, or maybe the dulcet (if slurred) tones of legendary announcer Harry Caray, but I dove eagerly into the Cubs milieu. The fact that I could, at age 16, actually sit still long enough to watch an entire baseball game on TV still amazes me today.
Part of being a Cubs fan in the 1980s was beloved WGN announcer Harry Caray, whose thick glasses and distinctive voice made him an icon. Here he is in 1991 predicting the Cubs would be in the World Series someday. He passed away in 1998.
Of course the Cubs finished in the cellar in 1988, as they always did, but I quickly learned about the “Curse” and the various aspects of it. Not only did I know the last time the Cubs won the Series (1908), but I also knew about the 1906 Cubs-White Sox upset, and the last time the Cubs got close to a World Series without winning (1945). Indeed, the “Curse” was actually something that drew Cubs fans together, at least in my estimation. You could watch a game with a fellow fan and bemoan how terrible the team always seemed to be and how unfair it all was. I suppose behind this was always a hope that this year might be different, and how cool it would be if they eventually went all the way. But, at least for Cubs fans, being perennial losers eventually became something like a force of nature, one of the ordering principles of the universe. You cannot create or destroy matter; you cannot travel faster than the speed of light; the Cubs cannot win the World Series.
In 1989, the Cubs actually seemed to do better. They wound up at least in a pennant race, which they lost, but watching the games on TV–my family was now living in Oregon–was a lot of fun and offered some limited hope that the “Curse” might break. Getting hooked on baseball that summer and autumn, from watching Cubs games, was the reason why I was still watching when the infamous World Series game of October 17, 1989 was interrupted by the Loma Prieta Earthquake. The Cubs had been defeated by that point and I had no clear favorite in the game, but I certainly remember watching the earthquake live, in real time. This memory has always, for me, been associated with the Chicago Cubs.
Where were you? The Cubs weren’t in the 1989 World Series, but they were the reason I was watching when that series was interrupted by an earthquake. October 17, 1989.
Later, in college, I grew busier and gave up the habit of watching baseball games, which were becoming somewhat boring. While there was never a time when I decided to stop being a Cubs fan, I didn’t actively follow them after about 1990 or ’91. At that time, hockey became my sport. My team became the San Jose Sharks, which is kind of ironic because the Sharks are something like hockey’s version of the Cubs–the team that usually places last. For some reason, probably pathological, if I was going to like a sports team, I couldn’t make it easy by picking one that wins a lot. I always had a taste for the perennial underdogs.
In a way I think I was attracted to sports because it’s kind of a low-stakes way to exercise your nationalistic or tribalistic tendencies. Sports is very tribal, especially among teams that are “cursed” like the Cubs and Sharks. It’s something akin to nationalism: an intense uniting love for something largely intangible, communicated through logos and symbols (the merchandise), with its own tribal rituals (games, whether live or televised). One of the great thrills of my life was when I actually went to San Jose–I’m not from there–and saw a Sharks game in person at the “Shark Tank.” It was a lot of fun, but mainly because I was with my tribe. I never saw a Cubs game at Wrigley Field in person, but in 1988 or ’89 I’m sure it would have been the same kind of experience. Sports is nationalism and tribalism writ small. That’s why people are so passionate about it.
This was what I looked like in 1988: scrawny, short hair, and with only one chin. This kid would have been ecstatic at what happened in November 2016. Part of him still is.
In the end, though, sports didn’t really “take” the way it does with other people. Ultimately my Sharks mania subsided, just as my short-lived baseball fandom did. Sports just isn’t a part of my life. I could easily devote nearly four hours of my life to watching a movie reenactment of the Battle of Gettysburg, but spending the same amount of time watching a baseball game on TV would strike me, on an instinctive level, as a waste of a valuable chunk of the day. Sports was something kind of extraneous that I tried artificially to graft into my life, but it didn’t mesh with who I was. If I’d grown up playing baseball or hockey as a kid, likely that would have been a different story. But then the whole focus of my life might have been different. Who knows?
Still, that doesn’t mean that I can’t take pleasure in the fact that a team I once loved, and which was under a more than century-long curse, finally pulled off the big win that we were dreaming about all those years. I’m not a Cubs fan today, but inside me there’s still a shadow of that gawky kid I was in 1988, and that kid, I guarantee you, is beside himself with glee. Here’s hoping Chicago enjoys their much-deserved celebration, and that they don’t have to wait another 108 years to do it again.