If you don’t know baseball — lucky you — the Cubs are famously one of the worst teams in professional sports. They have not won the World Series since 1908, which is, as the announcers love to say, the longest championship drought in US professional sports history.
I grew up when the Cubs were so woeful that you could take the El to Wrigley Field the day of the game and have your choice of seats to watch a team that you knew would probably lose. But bleacher seats were cheap and sunny. My older sister could work on her tan. And Wrigley was very mellow back then. The games were all during the day, so you had kids, moms, teenagers, retirees, people between jobs and people who could take the afternoon off to watch a game. Those are such pleasant memories of childhood and summer.
Most of the kids in my neighborhood played baseball together in our front yards; we loved the game, and we rooted for the Cubs. Sure, we knew it was a lost cause. Everyone knew that the owners were cheapskates, and people said, half jokingly, that there was a curse on the team. We heard our parents and older siblings talk about the 1969 Cubs, which had cast the most recent shadow of futility over the team.
Then the Tribune Company bought the team, and the Cubs became less terrible, and periodically even good. But the team still could never could get over the hump. Whenever the Cubs made the playoffs, they would find new ways to an ignominious and improbably heartbreaking exit. There was 1984, 1989 and 2003. Leon Durham’s glove, Will Clark, Steve Bartman.
Growing up a Cubs fan is nature’s way of teaching that bad things happen. Again and again.
In 1989 I sat in Candlestick Park and watched my Cubs lose the NLCS to the Giants. That hurt, but I lived in the Bay Area then, so I had the Oakland A’s to root for. The A’s were everything the Cubs weren’t. I got to root for a winning baseball team, finally, and I knew anything could happen in baseball. So it wasn’t until 2003, when the Cubs exited their last NLCS in even more disheartening fashion, that I finally decided to put the Cubs behind me.
It dawned on me then that I did not have to be an active Cubs fan any more. I could be like normal people, and enjoy them casually. If they were ever good, I could watch them again, as I would enjoy a sunny day. The rest of the time, I didn’t have to pay attention. Like bad weather, Cubs baseball just was. You didn’t have to focus on it.
My kids were playing their own sports by then, and those were more fun to watch anyway. When my son started hockey, and a friend started giving us Blackhawks tickets, I became more of a hockey fan. Hockey was fun, and Blackhawks were a fun team to root for. They were terrible when we started going, but by 2007, a few years later, hope had developed. They were young. They were improving. It felt like they were building something.
Being a Blackhawks fan is nothing like being a Cubs fan. The Hawks are really good. Not just supremely skilled, but hard-working, well-managed and blessed with a winning attitude. They play a skill game that’s enjoyable to watch, a hockey version of joga bonita. And they have remarkable determination and belief in themselves.
Being a longtime Cubs fan is to expect to see your team collapse just when victory seems within its grasp. Being a Blackhawks fan is to believe that even when all seems lost, your team will somehow find a way to win.
There’s also a David and Goliath aspect. The Blackhawks haven’t been the smart money or old-time hockey choice. They are a small and skilled team that the other teams physically punish in the playoffs, determined to beat up and exhaust. And yet that small, skilled team that most experts think isn’t tough enough to survive bruising playoff hockey has won the Stanley Cup three of the last six years.
So I have left behind baseball, the sport of my youth, and taken up hockey, the sport of my children’s youth. I just like hockey better. And I admire the Hawks and how they play.
But, in an improbable coincidence, tonight is a big night for both my teams, past and present. Tonight in their home rink the Blackhawks will raise the banner for the 2014-2015 Stanley Cup championship, and begin the defense of their title. The Cubs meanwhile will be in Pittsburgh, playing the National League wild card game against the Pirates. Whoever wins that wild card game then has to play a five-game divisional series against the best team in baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals, who happen to be the Cubs’ historic rivals.
The Cubs are a very young team and have surprised this season. They have been well-managed and are fun to watch again. They are probably a year away from seriously competing for anything. But Back to the Future II predicted a Cubs World Series win in 2015, and anything can happen in baseball.
I am a Hawks fan, though, so tonight I will be watching hockey. I was at the United Center last spring when they clinched their playoff spot. I watched their journey through the Stanley Cup playoffs. And I will enjoy seeing that third banner rise to the rafters.
But if the Cubs win tonight, and advance to play the Cardinals, I just might watch a few minutes of a game or two. I’m not going to put my heart into it. But everyone should enjoy a sunny day.