"THERE'S NO ROOTING IN THE PRESS BOX"
What you want is always out of reach. Sometimes it's miles out of reach, sometimes you can almost touch it. If you do touch it, you will realize, after a week or two, that it's not really what you want, that what you really want is still out of reach. This is what I was thinking as I arrived at the press window for the first game of the 2016 National League Championship Series. Wrigley Field beneath a Cub-blue sky. Chicago was playing Los Angeles best of seven to determine who would go on to the World Series, which the Cubs had not won since 1908.
Sports Illustrated had gotten me a press pass. I had written several stories about the Cubs for the magazine, but I'm not really a sports reporter. I did not know the etiquette. I dressed as I'd always dressed for a Cubs game — like a Cubs fan. At the window, before issuing my credential, the woman behind the glass said, "Take that off."
"Take what off?"
"The Cubs hat."
"Because you're a reporter — you're supposed to be neutral."
"I'm not neutral," I said. "I haven't been neutral since third grade."
"If you want your credential," she said, "take it off. There's no rooting in the press box."
I went to my first game when I was eight years old. My favorite part was coming out of the tunnel, the field stretched before me as the grasslands must have stretched before the first trapper to make it beyond the Alleghenies. Something about all that greenery in the middle of the city. Only when you see it do you realize it's what you've been craving. But what really got me was the players, scattered, playing long toss, the way they threw, how the ball exploded from their hands. If I can ever do anything that well, I told myself, I'll be happy.
My pass got me onto the field. I'd never been at Wrigley this late in the season. Every other year, save a handful, the Cubs were basically done by late September. The field was crowded with reporters and celebrities. They gossiped and schmoozed but got quiet when Kris Bryant, the Chicago third baseman, went into the batting cage. Bryant had just finished his second big league season. He'd won the Rookie of the Year in his first and would win the MVP for 2016. He's lanky and lean, with bright blue eyes, and he smiles all the time. He learned to hit from his father, a minor leaguer who never made it, who'd himself learned from Ted Williams. In Bryant, you see the end of a chain that goes back to a golden age. He bends his knees at the plate, watching the ball all the way to the end of his bat. He swings from his heels, grinning as he makes contact. People in the left-field bleachers call to fans in the street, "Bryant's up." Dozens assemble, adults who have brought their gloves, hoping to snag one of the monster shots he sends onto Waveland Avenue.
I ran into Theo Epstein, the forty-two-year-old president of the Cubs, the man who'd built the team into a contender. Epstein is a star, having taken over as general manager of the Boston Red Sox when he was just twenty-eight and leading them to their first championship in eighty-six years. In 2011, he moved on to Chicago as a climber will move from Everest to K2. If he won here, he'd have beaten the game's two most storied curses. Yet it was different. He's from Boston and grew up a Red Sox fan — a local boy made good. He arrived in Chicago as an outsider. Winning with him would be just as sweet but not quite as pure. Why had it taken a Red Sox fan to finally turn the Cubs around?
He was making his way through the crowd, chatting and shaking hands. He's sharp faced, as fit as one of his players, with dark hair buzzed at the sides and dark, intelligent eyes. He shook my hand. I know his father, Leslie, a terrific novelist. We talked. I said, "They made me take off my Cubs hat."
"The people at the press window."
"Where is it now?" he asked.
"In my bag."
"Keep it in your lap as we play," he said. "If things go wrong, you can squeeze it for luck."
* * *
The press box is above home plate at Wrigley Field, a two-story glassed-in booth with long tables and enough seats to accommodate a few hundred reporters. The ambience has not changed much since the 1932 World Series, when Babe Ruth supposedly pointed to center field, then hit a home run to the exact place he had been pointing — the famous called shot. The last time I'd been here it was empty. Now it was packed, with over a dozen reporters from Japan alone. I ended up in the "auxiliary press box," a section of seats in the grandstand up near the rafters on the left-field line.
Jon Lester was the Cubs' starting pitcher. He has a mean game face, bald and bearded; he's a bulldog, a left-handed ace. He kept the Dodgers off the bases — the Cubs took an early lead. They were ahead 3 to 1 in the eighth inning, but, as all true Cubs fans know, this is the witching hour, the time when everything goes to hell, when a routine grounder slips through Leon Durham's legs, when Steve Bartman, the fan seated along left field, goes for the foul ball. Just like that, the Dodgers loaded the bases, the air leaked out of the balloon. You could hear it whine. Joe Maddon, the Cubs' manager, brought in his reliever, Aroldis Chapman, a big Cuban who throws in excess of 100 mph. He struck out two batters, but the third man hit the ball into the gap, driving in two runs.
The game was tied — but that's not how it felt to me. It felt as if we were a dozen runs behind and the cause was hopelessly lost and the slaughter rule would have to be invoked. What can I say? It's the nature of my condition, the disease incubated by forty summers at Wrigley Field. I am a Cubs fan. I get to the park expecting to lose, curious only about how it will happen. But the fans in the upper deck that night, especially those under thirty, did not seem downcast or forlorn. In fact, more than a few seemed confident, even happy. They began to chant. I could not make it out at first. Then I could: "We don't quit! We don't quit! We don't quit!" I laughed. Those fools! I said to myself. Do they know nothing of history? We do quit. That's who we are. We are the team that has not won a championship in 108 years, that is often eliminated from the playoffs by late August, that always finds a way to not get it done. Woebegone, befuddled, bewildered. We are the Cubs.
Being a Cubs fan has created my cast of mind. I am not unhappy; I am fatalistic. I know how to live in the moment. I know how to enjoy what I can while I can because I know that disaster is coming. It started with that first game my father took me to when I was eight. 1976. The Cubs were terrible. August, so humid the sky was weeping. The Cubs were playing the great Cincinnati Reds, the Big Red Machine. I do not remember the details, only that at some point we were optimistic and ahead and could not lose ... and then we'd been beaten and it was all over. That was the first time I'd seen a drunk adult, the first time I'd heard a heckler. He was screaming in the leftfield bleachers, flecks of peanut at the corners of his mouth, double-fisted, frosty malts sloshing: "Why don't you get a different fuckin' job, Biittner, ya bum!"
Chicago was outhit 11 to 8 and lost 8 to 3 — classic Cubs math. We walked to the car in silence. We were on the highway before my father turned to me and said, "I want you to promise me something. I want you to promise me you will not become a Cubs fan."
"Because the Cubs do not win," he explained. "And because of that, a Cubs fan will have a diminished life determined by low expectations. Look at me. I know I am going to succeed. You know why? Because I'm a Yankees fan. We win and expect to win. But a Cubs fan knows he will lose. He's sitting there, waiting for it to happen. He'll settle for less as a result. His team has taught him that all human endeavor ends in failure. That team will screw up your life."
Of course, this left me with only one option. I became the most diehard of diehards, a Cubs fanatic, the biggest fan not only on my street but in my town, which, seeing as it was a Cubs-crazy town, made me among the biggest Cubs fans in the world. I collected the baseball cards and read the books, memorized statistics, hearsay, history. It was not just the team I loved. It was the lore, some worldly, some mystical. At night, as I lay in bed, the names of great players went through my mind like a litany. Cap Anson, Orval Overall, Billy Herman, Eddie Waitkus, who was shot in room 1297A of the Edgewater Beach Hotel by a Baseball Annie.
Though I grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, I could speak with confidence of things that had happened to the team in the 1890s, 1910s, 1920s. I loved the decades when the Cubs were good, but I loved the bad times too. No one I knew had ever seen the Cubs win a World Series. Even the oldest people in my town spoke of it as something from the ancient past, the way they might speak about Mrs. O'Leary's cow or the Republican convention that nominated Abraham Lincoln.
Of course, I fantasized about watching a winning team in Wrigley Field. It was the best place in the world to see a game. A brick-and-ivy jewel — never was new, never gets old. But can you imagine actually seeing a meaningful game there? I longed for a championship, but feared it too. Winning the World Series would change everything. Being a Cubs fan made you different, special, better. Wearing that blue cap told the world that you were holier, had escaped the wheel of profit and loss. The others, obsessed with their trophies and parades, were shallow. We were deep. A Cubs fan understood the futility of ambition. He was a kind of Buddhist. He knew that a different team had won last year and that a different team will win next year, so why the gloating? A Cubs fan learns to enjoy those moments of respite, when the world stands before him in all its beauty — bases empty, two outs, Rick Reuschel cruising. A Cubs fan appreciates every August afternoon, because, for him, there is no October. In other words, my father was right. The Cubs ruined me. But what do you expect? Everyone knows that team had been cursed.
* * *
I'm not sure how much of this is true, so bear with me. It's lore. In 1934, a flatbed truck that was carrying goats to the stockyards hit a root buckle, sending a baby goat onto the road, where it was found by a cop, who brought it into a bar on Madison Street. By the end of the day, William Sianis, the owner of the bar, was feeding the goat from a baby bottle. He changed the name of his joint to the Billy Goat Tavern. Tethered inside the front door, the billy goat, now called Murphy, ate peanuts and drank beer. Sianis took Murphy to events all over the city — political rallies, hockey games — in hopes of being written up, getting publicity.
The Cubs reached the World Series in 1945 — that was the last time. Game 4 was played at Wrigley Field. Sianis got two tickets, one for him, one for the goat. There are pictures of Murphy in line, a blanket thrown across his back that reads WE GOT DETROIT'S GOAT. So far, so good. The trouble began when Sianis and Murphy took their seats: box 65, tier 12, seats 6 and 7. There were complaints. It grew into a dispute, which was taken to an usher, carried to another employee, then brought to the executive suite, where P. K. Wrigley, the owner of the franchise, decided the tavern owner could stay but the goat had to go. Asked for a reason, Wrigley told Sianis, "Because your goat smells."
Sianis issued the famous curse that night: As long as the goat is not allowed into the park, the Cubs will not win. The team lost the 1945 World Series in seven games. Sianis sent Wrigley a telegram. It posed a question that has haunted Cubs fans ever since: "Who smells now?"
At first, the curse was regarded as a joke, but over time people began to wonder. The strange turns that kept the team out of the postseason, many of them occurring in strange ways, demanded explanation. In September 1950, after yet another dispiriting season, Wrigley wrote to Sianis, begging forgiveness. "Please extend to [the goat] my most sincere and abject apologies ... and ask him to not only remove the 'Hex' but to reverse the flow and start pulling for us." The curse was finally lifted by Sianis in 1969, then lifted again by Sianis's nephew Sam in 1973, but of course the original billy goat was dead by then. In 1984, Dallas Green, the Cubs' general manager, asked Sam Sianis, who took over when his uncle died, to remove the hex for good. "All is forgiven," said Green. "Please bring the goat." In 1994, when the Cubs got off to a 3–9 start, manager Tom Trebelhorn had the greatest Cub of all, Ernie Banks, walk along the warning track with Sam Sianis and his new goat, Socrates, beside a procession of chanting monks. The team finished in last place.
Which raises a question: Do we really believe in a curse? Do I really believe in a curse? Of course not. I'm a monotheist, a modern. I take no truck with voodoo goblins and affronted goats. And yet there really is no way to look at Cubs history without asking the question: Are we cursed? Maybe belief in the curse is the curse. Maybe it's the mind-set that has hexed the team. It's been a ready-made excuse, a way for players and owners to explain away failure. It did not even start with Sianis and Murphy. It actually goes back much farther, to the beginning of the franchise.
"DON'T HATE ON '08"
You began to see them everywhere — T-shirts and hoodies and hats, all making reference to 1908, the last year the Chicago Cubs won the World Series. They began to proliferate after the 2008 season. Many fans expected the Cubs to win that year, if only for the bloody logic of it. A hundred years in the wilderness seemed like enough. Cubs announcer Jack Brickhouse had famously said, "Any team can have a bad century." Well, we were past that now, into a second hundred years. No one had ever been this bad this long, and there was a need to describe that misery in numbers.
I saw the first shirt at Wrigley Field in 2009. A kid was wearing it as he walked with his father along the concourse. It shocked me, which is why I fixed on it. Across the top, in huge letters: CHICAGO CUBS, WORLD CHAMPIONS. In smaller letters below: 1908. It made me see the absurdity of my situation.
One day, my son came to breakfast in a shirt that said DON'T HATE ON '08. I didn't buy it for him; these things just seem to materialize. Of course, to my son and hundreds of thousands of other fans, it was a gag, a joke. It was like a late-night comic saying, "You're like Johnny Carson, you're so old." Because they are dumb and have no idea what 1908 really means. Broadcasters tried to explain it by talking about some of the things the game did not have when the Cubs last won a championship — television, airplanes — but that too missed the point. The year 1908 is not just a marker, a place of origin. Not just the distant shore, the world we left behind. It's a story of its own.
The Cubs were first known as the White Stockings, a charter member of the National League in 1876. On the positive side, that team won six of the first eleven pennants. On the negative, that team, specifically its leader and star, Cap Anson, established the color line that was to segregate baseball until 1947. Anson did it by refusing to let his team play if there were any black athletes on the field. Many consider this — the game's original sin — as the true source of the curse.
In 1905, the franchise, which had been owned by Albert Spalding, the great pitcher, was purchased by the sportswriter Charlie Murphy for $125,000. Murphy borrowed a lot of that money from Charles Taft, a Cincinnati financier and the half brother of William Howard Taft, who'd soon become president. The team, which had been called the Orphans and the Remnants, had been struggling, but began to improve almost as soon as Murphy took over. Because the new owner was Irish, reporters started calling them the Spuds. It bothered Murphy, city officials, fans. It felt like a slur. Then, one morning, as The Chicago Daily News was about to go to press, a publisher came into the newsroom and told the sports editor to change the headline — "Spuds" is offensive. Needing a word to fit the space, the editor switched Spuds to Cubs.
The name stuck because it expressed the character of the team. Cute and small but showing signs of ferocity. It began with manager Frank Selee, whom Murphy hired away from the Boston Beaneaters, where he'd won five National League pennants. Selee, a forerunner to the modern front-office guru, was short, more bald than not, with an impressive handlebar mustache. Though he never made it in the majors himself, he had a preternatural ability to spot talent. He would stand near the field, watching practice. After ten minutes, he could tell who should be in, who should be out, and where each person should play. As soon as he arrived in Chicago, he began putting together the pieces of one of the greatest teams of all time. When you see a kid in that 1908 T-shirt, that's what you're seeing — the legacy of Frank Selee.