CHICAGO – Regular readers of this column know that I’m a fan of the longest-running failures in baseball and perhaps all of sports.
That would be the Chicago Cubs. My mother’s family was from Chicago, and rooting for underdogs builds character. Anyone can root for a perennial winner.
Someone once observed, accurately, that Cub fans are 90 percent scar tissue. After decades of heartbreak, however, it looks as if this just might be our year. If you follow baseball, you know the Cubs had the best regular-season record in either of the major leagues this year.
Decades of heartbreak? I watched at the Red Lion Riverside in 1984 when, for the first time since 1945, the Cubs were a mere one game away from advancing to the World Series. They’d won the first two games of a five-game playoff by a combined score of 17-2.
And lost the next three games.
I watched the 1989 playoffs at Wrigley Field when they took one of two games in Chicago – and went on to ignominious defeat in San Francisco.
The 2003 playoffs are still painful to recall. That was the year the Cubs were up by a score of 3-0 and just five outs away from winning their first pennant in 58 years. In a moment that will live in infamy, a fan named Steve Bartman deflected a ball that otherwise would have been caught for one of the five outs. The Cubs ended up losing the game and were eliminated the following night, sending their fans into apoplexy followed by extended mourning. Bartman is currently living in exile on the International Space Station.
It took a long time to heal after the Bartman debacle, but Cub fans are nothing if not resilient. Last month, I made my first, hopeful visit to Wrigley Field since then. This year’s young, talented Cubs were wrapping up a phenomenal season, and if they are in fact the team destined to break the infamous curse, I wanted to see them in person at least once.
The game was the reason for the trip, but my wife and I, our daughter and her significant other went learned things on a tour of the ballpark that we didn’t know about Wrigley Field, baseball history and even football history.
Our guide told us that the concession stands that are fixtures at everything from Boise Hawks games to major sports events worldwide originated at Wrigley Field? Before there were concession stands, vendors there sold food from carts they pushed through the stands. The carts, which had smoke or steam from the food cooking and umbrellas to protect the vendors from sun and rain, blocked fans’ view of the game.
Until some inventive soul came up with the idea of having fans go to the food instead of taking the food to the fans. The world’s first concession stand was at Wrigley Field. Something to think about next time you order a Bronco dog at Albertson Stadium.
In Wrigley Field’s early days, an insane asylum was just outside the left field fence. Patients watched the games from their windows and shouted bizarre, sometimes insulting things to the players. When young players took them to heart, the veterans told them not to worry because “it came out of left field.” An expression now in general use for far more than baseball.
When they hear the name Wrigley, most people think of chewing gum. But according to our tour guide, the Wrigleys weren’t always synonymous with it. William Wrigley used a stick of banana-flavored gum (now known as Juicy Fruit) as an incentive for customers to buy his main products – soap and baking powder. When he saw people keeping the gum but throwing away the soap or baking powder, he made chewing gum his main product and an empire was born.
A bit of trivia for football fans: The Chicago Bears played at Wrigley Field for nearly half a century. When they started, in 1921, the trademark, red and white marquee over the ballpark entrance was green and yellow. Bears founder George Halas was adamant that it be changed because those were the colors of the Bears’ arch rivals, the Green Bay Packers. (The back side of the marquee is still green and yellow.)
A little known fact among today’s NFL fans is that the Bears owe their name to the Cubs. Before they were the Bears, they were the Staleys. When the decision was announced that they’d be playing at Wrigley, a reporter asked Halas if they’d change their name to Cubs because of it. His response was that they were too big and strong to be Cubs; hence, the Chicago Bears.
When friends learned that we’d be going to Chicago, they asked if that was wise given the epidemic of shootings there. We were a bit concerned ourselves, but the Chicago we experienced was nothing like that seen in news segments about the violence. People were picnicking in parks, boating on the river, sailing on the lake … Locals told us the violence was largely confined to certain neighborhoods.
At Wrigley Field, it seemed far away. The Cubs were behind most of the game we attended but tied it in dramatic fashion in the bottom of the ninth inning and won with a walk-off home run in the bottom of the tenth. They’d clinched their division late the night before when the Giants beat the Cardinals, and with the winning home run the fans went wild. The party at the ballpark lasted over an hour. In the rest of the city, it went well into the night.
They could still blow it, of course. They are the Cubs. Regardless of season records, all true Cub fans know from bitter experience to be prepared for epic disappointment.
But by any measure, 108 years without a World Series victory should be enough. Whatever the transgression may have been that led to the notorious Cubs curse, the players and fans have more than paid for it. If there is a god of baseball, maybe he or she will finally give us a break.
We’ve had more than enough heartbreak.
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Statesman and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.