I love baseball. There is a romance to the game, but as every romance eventually does, it too rips out your heart and laughs at your pain. People unstruck by the romance of baseball don’t get the grief, and I understand that. Those who have been struck always do… and it’s something we share together despite our disparate loyalties to our various teams.
I love baseball even though it has not loved me very well in return for most of my life. Yes, one year, in 2016, I was privileged to experience the euphoria of my team winning the final game of the season and celebrating a championship. It was the only time in my life I entered the winter without a cloud of sadness hanging over my soul. You don’t fully know what it is until it’s gone for the first time.
I didn’t really notice that the haunting pain had vanished until, reflecting on what was different about the winter of 2016-2017, I realized that winning the World Series meant that finally, baseball season ended without breaking my heart. It was the most amazing sensation – the season had finished not with disappointment and loss but with a deep delirious joy that carried all the way through the dismal chill of winter. My heart was intact. That was a first. “So THIS is what that feels like!”, I exclaimed to no one in particular.
As a Cubs fan, often lacking the opportunity to admire a great team, I learned over the years to celebrate the greatness of the game itself and to honor the players whose accomplishments defined that greatness. I came to admire not only the players but everyone in the industry, from scouts and scorekeepers to ushers and groundskeepers. In a way, the long years of frustration with my team made me a better baseball fan: while being a devoted fan of my team, I could also tip my cap to all. I was no less a Cubs fan just because I admired Tony Gwynn’s swing or Bob Gibson’s glare. I didn’t love Ron Santo less just because I thought Brooks Robinson was amazing. I didn’t think the Cubs-Cards games lacked intensity just because I knew that the Red Sox – Yankees feud was the greatest rivalry in sports. I don’t think less of Ernie Banks or Billy Willians just because I salute Willie McCovey and Willie Mays. I know who my heroes are, the ones I saw as a small boy first learning the love of the game: Santo, Hundley, Kessinger, Beckert, Jenkins, Williams, Banks… but I also knew the game itself was bigger than them.
Saluting the others was the only way I could get through those winters because the Cubs had never crossed home safely. They’d gotten close a time or two, but on each occasion, they were either thrown out at the plate or stumbled rounding third. I used to cry every last day of the season when the last out was made and the last player headed for the locker room.
I’d watch Ken Burns’ documentary on Baseball just to avoid counting down the days until pitchers and catchers report in mid-February. In dark December, that sun-kissed day seemed to be ages away, and April baseball felt about as close as the second coming. Yep, Ken Burns got me through some interminable Januarys.
But not in 2016. No, that was the Winter of indescribable joy, undiminished by snow and ice. That year, baseball kissed my cheek rather than kicking my ass. I didn’t watch Ken Burns. I watched replays of game seven, a spectacle I witnessed in person from section 551, row X, seat 17 at Cleveland’s Progressive Field.
And what of 2018?
The Cubs have fought through a lot of injuries this year and some off-season moves to strengthen the pitching haven’t worked out. The offense has been inconsistent at best. They won 95 games but they lost the division title today – in an added day to break a tie, game 163 – to a very deserving Brewers team that has had a September for the ages. Tonight, I’m still pretty sad about it all – with the loss today, I could feel the chill autumn air swirling in and winter whispering its arrival, coming in from the bullpen to strike me out.
True, the Cubs are not done yet; they’re still alive, in the playoffs as a wildcard, playing postseason baseball for the fourth straight year, something I’ve never seen before because the Cubs had never done it before. So there’s hope; for at least one more day, there’s hope.
Never Quit! Right?
Even so, I bet this isn’t the year I get a free ride through Winter.
From 2018, but I’m assured it applies to 2020 just as well.
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