I’m not much a fan of baseball, but I don’t dislike it either. It’s just difficult to get into the teams without being there, beer in hand. Baseball, like many sports, is better experienced live where there’s a crowd, overpriced beer, overpriced food, and hecklers. It’s a cultural experience.
But, this wasn’t just baseball; it was a phenomenon. A phenomenon defined by a curse, a long history, a compelling narrative, but mostly a curse. Even a hypocritical sports fan like me could feel it (if he wanted to).
Watching Aroldis Chapman strike out José Ramirez in Game 5 of the 2016 World Series, I felt the change. I transformed. A week before I wouldn’t have recognized his name, but now I was invested in his success. Every time he stepped up to the mound, I anticipated the throw, cringed at foul balls and hits, and shook my head when it wasn’t a strike.
My heart soared when the old man, Ross, hit a homerun. I hadn’t known his name a week before, either.
By Game 5, personalities, skillsets, quirks, and quotes became familiar to me, as if I’d been a fan the whole season. I felt like a fan. I watched like a fan and thought about them in between games.
Dispassionately watching their fate play out before me was no longer acceptable; I’d been sucked into their possibility. Their run at the title had even entwined with my daily narrative, “Hey! You a Cubs fan? Yeah? Me too, buddy! Go Cubs!”
If they lost, I’d be shattered. If they won, I’d ride the wave, hypocrisy and all. The emotional course of the following weeks would be determined by the result of this series.
I admit that my fandom slept through the entire season and most of the previous seasons, but there I was, jumping off the couch and dancing around, yelling at the players on the flatscreen to win the fucking game!
It didn’t start out this way, though. I don’t recall much of Game 1 and the family text-chain went ignored. I flipped back and forth between channels, but kept tabs. Being able to talk confidently about the World Series with family over the holidays was important. Knowing who, what, why, when, where and how would give me enough information not to be called out.
Having ready game facts might also help avoid political discussions.
The Cubs lost that game, however- beat soundly, and my lack of enthusiasm was vindicated. I idly wondered if my disinterest contributed to the curse, which was a ridiculous thought.
My cynical id piped in, suggesting that maybe the Indians would blow them out, giving the Cubs a quick death. I felt guilty thinking this and told myself to stop sending negative energy, but that was another ridiculous thought.
Game 2 had the Cubs come back with a vengeance. Arrieta to save the day! My cooling interest rekindled and I felt the absurd notion that the Cosmos was giving me a second chance to get involved.
I told my wife I’d be watching the next game. She shook her head at me but acquiesced.
I started responding to the family text-chain, and bought beer to watch the games (you can’t watch an entire baseball game sober). I took to social media, liking people’s memes and comments on the game, earing likes in return. When my wife called me out for the hypocrite I was, I turned to Twitter. No one knew me there. I became Joe A Superfan, continuing the Cubs love fest.
America was talking about the game. Fans and nonfans were discussing statistics, strategies, players, and the curse. People had theories and I had my anticipation- the fever was spreading.
They lost games 3 and 4, but then Chapman saved them in Game 5 with his warp speed pitching. They destroyed the Indians in Game 6.
America was now high on the Cubs, and my ambivalence was a distant memory. If I were a political candidate, this would’ve been my pivot moment.
Game 7 was the most intense baseball game I’d ever seen. There were 10 innings, tying runs, homeruns, a frustrating rain delay, and finally a silent scream of relief as Bryant made the final play (being past midnight with my wife and child asleep, I had to be quiet). There I was, kneeling on the floor pumping my fist silently to the heavens. The Cubs, my Cubs, had done it!
Happy texts, Facebook love, a final tweet, and a drunken phone call, discussing the game, marked a high point of fandom for me.
With the TV still showing highlights from the game, my thoughts coalesced around a clichéd but essential truth: people don’t love the game; they love being a part of the story it provides.
Maybe I’m no different- I like impossible odds and success stories, too.
In that short week, I’d not only become wrapped up in the series, but their season, the season before, their failures and successes, the young team, realizing that Addison Russell’s name was somewhat prophetic, Rizzo telling Ross he was “glass case of emotions”, a 108 year old curse, and a victory heard around the world. I felt connected to all of this, and everyone who’d watched the Cubs’ story play out was now a part of this grand narrative.
As the weeks have passed, and politics have taken the main stage, my World Series excitement has waned. I imagine it’ll well up over a few drinks when I’m reconnecting with family over the holidays. They will bring in their educated perspectives and theories while I focus on my personal reactions. The Cubs narrative will become a part of our family gathering.
I will likely not follow baseball next season. One World Series was enough of an intense commitment for me. That’s the way it is for us wayward fans.
Unless the Cubs make the playoffs again next year, in which case you can expect see my hypocritical butt back here with my beer and smartphone and unconvinced wife. Because even though sequels often flop, championship repeats can be glorious, and glorious, curse-breaking repeats are safer to talk about than politics.
Photo: Getty Images