We Can Get Through It . . . Just Once

Nothing drives home the reality of a season’s demise like losing a double dip to a team that’s been below .500 since Barry Bonds’ head was normal-person size.

To help ease the pain, I want to introduce any newcomers to a song that has become an annual tradition in the offices of And Counting. The above clip has nothing to do with baseball. It has everything to do with the inability to ever get it right. So if you’re as upset as I am that the Cubs’ best wasn’t good enough (cuz here we are back where we were before), I give you Mr. James Ingram.

Acceptance

The 2009 dream is over. Thankfully, we still have games to watch. But it’s time to face facts. There will be at least 102 years between Cubs World Series Championships.

The standard denial is to lower that number by one. It comes with the silly notion that a championship lasts for a year. Sorry. The sad truth of the Holy Grail for which all Cub fans pine is that a World Series victory is locked inside an instant. As the old French ballad goes, “Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment / Chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.” For you who don’t parlez Français, it means the pleasure of a World Series lasts for but a moment, but the pain it causes lasts your whole damn life.

The Cubs won in the fall of ’08. The soonest they’ll win another is ’10. That’s the nicest way I can say the wait will be 102 years.

On the Brink

Lose tonight, and the foregone conclusion becomes plain old reality.

If the Rockies win tonight, 100 Cubbie runs won’t matter.

But if the Cubs win . . . and the *gulp* Brewers win, Chicago’s playoff chances live on in blatant desperation.

A lot of other people have a lot of opinions about a lot of other Cub-related issues. Right now, I’m just contemplating the moment and leaving rational thought for another day.

The Cubs’ Last Gasp

There is one last step in the grieving process: acceptance. I just want to say, I’m not quite there.

I don’t pretend to think the Cubs have a realistic chance of winning the rest of their games. Or the Rockies losing the rest of theirs. Or the Braves cooling off dramatically. Or the Giants and the Marlins both failing their way through the final week. Obviously that’s way too many individually far-fetched and collectively impossible contingencies to hope for.

But the off day shared by the Cubs and Rockies has given our playoff chances one more day on life-support. However faint the pulse, however rattling the breaths, this dying vegetable of a season is not yet clinically dead.

I’ve gone through all the other stages of grief. I can’t deny the fate of this team. I lack the strength to appropriately arouse my anger at Paul Sullivan’s feeble excuses for journalism. I have lost all bargaining power. I’m done trying to be positive. But I’m just not ready to check the box next to Acceptance.

I’m going to enjoy the gigantic deep breath that is this off day. And on Tuesday, I’ll hope the Cubs can make it through one more day. I won’t even think about Wednesday.

Holler if you’re with me.

The Myth and Genius of Meaningless Games

Part of the grieving process of Cub fans is the ability to start to think positively again. Milton Bradley’s suspension has made that a lot easier on most of us, but let’s not lose ourselves by rejoicing in the negative . . . if we do, Milton Bradley wins.

I want to think instead about this last batch of remaining games in the 2009 season. Particularly, I’d like to focus on the phrase that pops up from the ground like a masochistic groundhog ready to announce six more months of baseball winter: “These games are meaningless.” Allow me to strenuously agree and disagree.

Yes, these games are meaningless, and that’s the point of a pastime! The word pastime originates from the English phrase “pass time,” meaning to occupy ones attention so as to distract one from thoughts of those things that make life suck. Essentially, all we’re trying to do by watching baseball is to better enjoy the journey of the big hand and the little hand in their circuit around the face of the big green clock in center field. We’re not in this for the meaning.

If we wanted meaning, we’d do something important, like not call off sick or volunteer at a homeless shelter or throw bags of tea at people trying to pass healthcare legislation. Not all of our lives suck, but all of our lives do have meaning (some good, some bad) outside of baseball. Baseball transports us away from the meaning. It’s guys with sticks and balls and more opportunities for sexual innuendo than any adult would ever need.

Cubs baseball particularly provides an escape like no other. Cubs baseball is Fantasy Baseball. The scoreboard that time forgot. The enchanted ivy cascading down the outfield’s unscalable walls. The curse of a century. The men who become boys when they cross the magic white lines. Entire crowds erupting into song that would be entirely ridiculous in any other setting but here—in this movie, in this fairy tale, in this unending Disney flick—make perfect sense.

Meaningless? I should hope so. Yet, why do we care so much?

No, these games aren’t meaningless, they mean everything! I like the fall. My wife loves the fall. Leaves changing colors. Bonfires. Hayrides that sound enjoyable but quickly turn to itchy, blotchy, irritated regrets. It’s all wonderful. But world series championship or not, the end of baseball in the fall is the saddest point in my year. Because the game . . . every game, means something.

I love Darth Vader’s speech in Field of Dreams. It captures the emotional lure of baseball, the way we are inexplicably drawn to it. It is as American as the Declaration of Independence. And as old-fashioned. But baseball’s lore and history merely decorate the true meaning of baseball—the brick wall behind the ivy, the Vienna Beef beneath the pickles, relish, mustard, onions, tomatoes, peppers, and celery salt—relationships.

Like almost no other experience, baseball allows us to connect with friends, family, and strangers converging on a single, multi-faceted experience. The leisurely pace between each dramatic showdown allows us the time to talk, to listen, and to take in the richness of each other’s company. The game is an excuse to be together and to block out the nonsense that would deprive our lives of meaning.

Every baseball game I’ve ever been to has featured at least one meaningful exchange with the people around me (usually dozens of them). With my sons, with my wife, with my dad (who hates baseball, but enjoys Wrigley), with my mom (who loves baseball and got me started on this lovely doomed ride), and with people I know I can trust simply because of the round red C on their caps and the smiles on their faces.

This can be a lonely world. But not at Wrigley (unless, Mr. Bradley, you decide you want it that way). If that doesn’t mean something, then I don’t know what does. So excuse me if the lack of trophies, champagne showers, pennants, and parades doesn’t void my Cubs watching of its meaning.

As bad as this season has been, I don’t want it to end. Do you?

Go, Cubs. Just . . . Go.

Another Cubs loss, another step toward reality. The elimination numbers (WC and NL Central) are still in double digits, so mathematical hope lives on. But you can feel 2009 slipping away, a fragment of what it once was.

Maybe it’s time for you to slip away into the “reflection” stage of grief. It’s okay to feel alone, to walk that finely stitched seam between loneliness and solitude. It might be sweet joy to linger after a win with 40,000 friends singing or just tolerating “Go, Cubs, Go,” as you all bask in the glee of your collective fortune. But after a loss that only serves to confirm the imminent dread crashing all around you . . . that’s not the kind of misery you want company for.

I always think it helps to step outside. Enclosures are just containers for the pain. Step into the open air and let out the 2009 version of your hurt. Breathe in the air too new to know suffering or too ancient to care. It doesn’t matter. You’re unbound by walls or losses or underperforming millionaires. You are free.

I also find it helpful to hold a baseball in your hands. Resist the urge to throw it through a window. Just let its tactile spherical elegance take you back to the moment when you and baseball first fell in love. Don’t worry about what went wrong. Just remember the joy of the best baseball moments and the people you shared them with. Remind yourself that baseball, particularly Cubs baseball, isn’t about winning.

Oh that it was, but who are we kidding?

Cubs Have Bases Loaded with Off Season On Deck

The Cubs do this all the time in games, and now they’re toying us on a doom-defying playoff level. You know those games where the Cubs urge you to change the channel early? They give the opposition a 9-run lead, swing at the first pitch every at-bat and look categorically awful in every aspect of the game . . . for 8 innings.

Then the 9th inning rolls around, and the first two guys make outs (think “Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same“) and whatever totally unrealistic comeback hopes you may have entertained you then send packing on their dreary way.

Then a couple guys get on. Then a double. A walk. Two hit batsmen and a dropped popup. Suddenly the bases are juiced and the tying run is on deck. You swore you wouldn’t do it, but you’re now beckoning hope to come back and sit next to you on the couch. You let the thought of a miracle creep into your head and tickle your occipital lobe.

Invariably, someone Santo’s described as having “the power to tie it up, no doubt” flies out lazily to left, leaving you feeling like a grade-A sucker. Your head might actually assume the form of a sucker a la Woody Woodpecker.

Welcome to the 2009 Chicago Cubs. They’re trying to mess with us using the same illusion on a grander scale. Instead of making their lovely assistant disappear, they’re telling us the Statue of Liberty will vanish. Instead of staging their comeback down 7 in the 9th, they’re doing it down 5 1/2 on September 16. Well, I’ve seen this trick before, and I’m not falling for it.

Unless . . . well, unless they can sweep the Brewers and the Giants. Then . . . well, maybe then there’d be a chance. Aargh, Curses!

Someday, We WILL Go All the Way

You remember. Last year at about this time the collective emotions of Cubmania were being swept away heavenward by the Pearl-Jammiest Cubs song ever. Eddie Vedder, the consummate celebrity Cubs fan, was commissioned by Ernie Banks (Mr. Cub himself) to write a song about the Cubs. He did, and he released it in what felt like the climactic throes of a 100-year “will they or won’t they” love affair with the World Series.

Last September, that song (whether it’s called “All the Way,” “Someday We’ll Go All the Way,” or “We’ll Go All the Way,” I can’t be exactly sure) evoked the best of feelings in me. The Cubs had the division wrapped up. The National League looked really bad and the Cubs looked really good. Maybe even 100-win good. I couldn’t listen to that song without imagining the celebration of the Cubbie Championship Centennial.

Every time, the scene in my mind is the same. I run out my front door and start screaming. I run all around the neighborhood. I complete the Forrest Gump cross-continental circuit in about 30 minutes, shouting “Yeah!!!!!” for everyone in America to hear. I wind up on a mountain top where a shaft of light shines down on me, kneeling, arms extended toward the manifest glory . . . crying and covered in beer.

When that song was playing, that image overtook my brain. It was exquisite bliss. I didn’t even feel like an idiot entertaining the thought of the Cubs winning it all. It felt almost real.

But, as you also remember quite well, that dream was shattered in the three ugliest baseball games ever played.

If your experience has been at all like mine, it’s been hard to hear that song ever since. Not too many Cubs fans I know have that song on repeat since October 2008. Nobody was writing bonus stanzas about Milton Bradley and the Aarons Heilman and Miles during Spring Training. The pain was too fresh. The cut was too deep.

But I want to encourage you to give that song a fresh listen. When we wanted to feel hopeful last year, Eddie’s ode to Cubdom was up to the task. Let me tell you, it can be equally mournful as the funeral dirge to this year’s hopes. It has actually helped me grieve a little better and breathe a little easier.

Take a listen. Let the tears flow. The healing can’t begin until the grieving is complete. There you go.

All the Way
Eddie Vedder

Don’t let anyone say that it’s just a game
For I’ve seen other teams and it’s never the same
When you’re born in Chicago you’re blessed and you’re healed
The first time you walk into Wrigley Field
Our heroes wear pinstripes
Heroes in blue
Give us the chance to feel like heroes too
Forever we’ll win and if we should lose
We know someday we’ll go all the way
Yeah
Someday we’ll go all the way

We are one with the Cubs
With the Cubs we’re in love
Yeah, hold our head high as the underdogs
We are not fair-weather but foul-weather fans
We’re like brothers in arms in the streets and the stands
There’s magic in the ivy and the old scoreboard
The same one I stared at as a kid keeping score
In a world full of greed, I could never want more
Than someday we’ll go all the way
Yeah
Someday we’ll go all the way
Someday we’ll go all the way
Yeah
Someday we’ll go all the way
Someday we’ll go all the way

And here’s to the men and the legends we’ve known
Teaching us faith and giving us hope
United we stand and united we’ll fall
Down to our knees the day we win it all

Ernie Banks said “Oh, let’s play two”
Or did he mean 200 years
In the same ball park
Our diamond, our jewel
The home of our joy and our tears
Keeping traditions and wishes made new
A place where our grandfathers, fathers they grew
A spiritual feeling if I ever knew
And if you ain’t been I am sorry for you
And when the day comes with that last winning run
And I’m crying and covered in beer
I’ll look to the sky and know I was right
To think someday we’ll go all the way
Yeah
Someday we’ll go all the way . . .

Rotten Miracles

Most Cubs fans have given up hope, at least for 2009. And rightly so. We’ve made our peace with this season. We’re in fall mode. We’re ready to watch the Bears and Jay Cutler make us forget all about the misery of . . . oh. No. Still here in the misery. The Bears are still the Bears. Chicago sports are still Chicago sports. Old Yeller’s still dead.

Well, guess what: the ivy’s still green. I guess it serves us right for trying to rush through the grieving process. A wise man once said, “Never rush a miracle. You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.”

In the days and weeks to come, I’ll be posting some things to help with the grieving/miraculous hope process. You know, to make it less rotten. For today, I offer you the words of the great Langston Hughes:

Dream Deferred

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore—

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over—

like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?