By: Dominick Mayer
On October 14th, 1908, the Chicago Cubs beat the Detroit Tigers by a score of 2 to 0 in Detroit’s Bennett Park to win the World Series by a total of four games to one. But that’s hardly important. For instance, consider that the reason the Cubs were in the position to win said Series was in part due to what’s widely known as Merkle’s Boner. About a month earlier, the New York Giants (not to be confused with the football team that nearly murdered Jay Cutler on national television three years ago) were on the verge of beating the Cubs to win the pennant, when rookie Fred Merkle failed to touch second base on what would’ve been an RBI hit otherwise. The Cubs’ Johnny Evers had the wherewithal to expose this mistake, even after New York’s fans had rushed the field, and ended the game, leading to the Cubs winning a one-game playoff that would take them to the Series. So the Cubs’ last championship, won 105 years ago, was due to a boner.
In 1984, the Cubs hadn’t been to the playoffs since 1945. After giving up a two-game first round lead against the San Diego Padres, they came within three innings of advancing to the World Series. With the game tied at three runs in the seventh inning, infielder Leon Durham flubbed a catch on a routine ground ball, allowing it to roll between his legs. The Padres would use this as a jumping point to win the game 6-3 and eliminate the Cubs.
In 2003, the Cubs were five outs away from going to the Series. In Game 6 of a thrilling best-of-seven with the pre-ostentatious home run statue Florida Marlins, the Cubs were off to a dominant start and enjoying a near-flawless performance on the part of ace pitcher Mark Prior. Prior gave up a massive hit set to land right on the left field fence, when a fan named Steve Bartman gave the Marlins a home run thanks to a then-unsung rule about fans nabbing borderline hits. Fielder Moises Alou fell to earth attempting to catch a ball that wasn’t his to have, Prior would melt down on the mound shortly thereafter and the Cubs would lose that game, and a night later the whole thing, despite being just five outs away.
Why do I know all this?
Because I’m a Chicago Cubs fan.
As with any other cultural curio that invites the fetishization of failure, it’s not enough to just be a Cubs fan without knowing the legends. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen; hang out in Wrigleyville during game day and you’ll see plenty of people content to rock the red and blue while getting shitfaced and attempting to have sex with people wearing like colors. Actually, on second thought, don’t do that. Last time I tried, it was like being back in the seventh grade, what with the nonsensical homophobic slurs and those smells, the prevalent odors of Axe body spray and vanilla and the subtle but omnipresent scent of desperation.
The Cubs have always been painted as the lovable losers of professional sports, but that’s started to hold less salt over time, particularly after their 97-win 2008 campaign that saw them get swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Los Angeles Dodgers. What really did it was the goddamn Boston Red Sox, who had to go and exorcize their own demons in 2004. Not only did we get a mediocre Jimmy Fallon star vehicle out of the whole affair, but now the Cubs’ total inability to build a farm system, maintain their cool in pressure situations or generally pull their shit together was a lot more obvious. Talk shifted from “there’s always next year” to “why not this year,” and eventually the Ricketts family decided to advertise 2012’s failed team as Year One. If we can’t overcome the stigma of the clock, we’ll just reset it. Right?
During the 1990s, when the Cubs had only one playoff season over the course of the decade despite the much-publicized and deeply ill-fated Sammy Sosa phenomenon, I was elsewhere in the greater Chicagoland area living a life that doomed me to an eternity of Cubs fandom. When I was four years old and in preschool, every Friday the Sun-Times would be laid out for finger painting time. When other kids would draw pictures of their houses or the sun or flowers or demons that communicated with them through their television sets, I would calmly re-assemble the Arts & Entertainment section in numerical order and pore over what Roger Ebert had to say about movies.
It’d be due to repeated behavior of this nature, coupled with a total inability to interact with human beings my own age, that about two years later I’d be identified as a loser for the first time.
I’ve never really understood “loser” as an insult. For instance, if someone calls me a pussy, it’s because they’re subconsciously terrified of vagina dentata and negotiate this phobia by hating women and anybody who didn’t grow pubes faster than them. If I were to be gay-bashed, which happened a ton in my youth because I used big words and eight-year-old boys are maybe the most sadistic people on Earth, it’s because someone else at some point learned that gay = different, different = wrong, and by the transitive property I should have my food stolen from me at lunch. These things make sense. Loser, by contrast, doesn’t. If you call someone a loser, it denotes the absence of something that you yourself clearly have. By that logic, every time somebody calls somebody else a loser, they should have to then follow it up with whatever that person is lacking. Even if it’s an adequately sizable penis, which is more often than not the implication, you’d at least be using proper nomenclature.
As part of my loserdom, I never got the appeal of sports, preferring to pass my days reading books and hanging out with my imaginary friends, the surf ninjas from the 1993 film of same name. The first time I remember being into sports was when my grandfather and I would take long drives out to Oakbrook Mall to go “bumming,” which was the masculine version of window shopping I guess, and listening to Cubs games on the way back. He’d tell me about watching games at Wrigley with men named Tony the Head, which I didn’t realize was weird until later, and sold me wholesale on the romance of the Cubs mythology. The goats, the blackouts, the integrity. And in 2003, during easily one of the worst stretches of my life to date, I watched an unassuming man with a Walkman instantly add a new chapter to that mythology. And I was hooked.
It was never the baseball. Baseball, realistically, is really fun to watch in person and similar to chamomile tea on television. I didn’t become obsessed with the Cubs because I liked watching a guy who’d one day get his skin dyed hit balls over what’s a relatively small fence by major league standards. I loved it because these were the losers people adored. No matter how many times they were a disappointment, people would rally around the colors and willingly believe every single time. Lives were started, lived and ended without the Cubs winning a series, but that didn’t matter. It gave people faith that the ones who fail you the most will one day rally in glory and give you a reason to triumphantly hurl burning trash cans through store windows. It taught me that if you keep loyal to something, and can do it even when it lets you down, you’re better off than most.
And even when the Cubs win the Series, and indeed they will one day, they’ll always be those losers. One championship won’t erase the legends, the waiting, the prayers uttered over day-old, overpriced cups of Old Style. To paraphrase the band Titus Andronicus, they will always be losers, and that’s okay. That’s who the Cubs are, and neither repeated failures nor idle threats of relocation can change that. They are the eternal underdog heroes. They are the siren song of the land that made me.