Fairytales, Real Life, and Baseball

cubs_game 7

For the past several months, I’ve been writing a book about how certain myths recur again and again in the lives of men. And how each of us are unconsciously recreating these stories, through the characters and content of our seemingly ordinary lives.

Most times, this underlying architecture is pretty hard to see. But occasionally, it makes itself obvious. As it did last night for the whole country to see, in Game 7 of the World Series. Here’s the story:

Anthony Rizzo was chewing the shirt sleeve of veteran catcher David Ross between innings. Literally chewing the fabric. Ross is thirty-nine. Rizzo is twenty-six. He was looking for any port in the storm sweeping through his young psyche. Game Seven, World Series. Nobody in this ball club had ever felt pressure to win like this. Not in their lifetime. Not in their fathers or grandfather’s lifetimes. If they could pull this off, if Rizzo could just hold it together for six more innings, they’ve be the first Cubs champions in 108 years.

Full disclaimer, I am not a neutral observer in this drama. I am a Cubs fan. I grew up a Cubs fan, which meant that for my entire life, a Cubs’ loss was an inevitable as a sunrise. You hope it won’t happen. You pray the wins keep coming, that your team finally makes it to the dance floor before the music stops, before cold reality snatches the dream away for another year… but it always did.

When a team gets beat so often and so cruelly, entire belief systems develop around them – whole mythologies about why and who caused it. “The curse of the billy goat,” for example, many believed was placed on the club in 1945 by an angry fan who got kicked out of Wrigley Field for bringing his pet goat. The ghost of Steve Bartman, an over-enthusiastic fan who reached over the infield wall in 2003 to snatch a ball away from a Cubs outfielder and blow the playoffs. (Bartman was driven out of the city for that). Superstition around the Cubs is so deep, the fans won’t even sing their own fight song until AFTER a win, because it contains a forward-looking phrase “the Cubs are gonna win to-day.” And that would jinx things for sure.

If we never got to a playoff series, this might have been tolerable. But we did go. Hopes were dangled. Promises made. Please God, just let ‘em win. If you let ‘em finally win, I’ll do anything. We’ll do anything you ask. Erect churches. Build monuments. Love all mankind. And God smiled. Then snatched it away.

To show you how deep this wound lies, only one night ago (Game Six) I was watching with two other Chicago fans. We were up by seven runs at one point. Seven runs is a massive lead, but these men were BOTH still terrified. “Could still lose, could still lose,” Derek kept chanting. And that stress was nothing compared to Game Seven.

One of my favorite headlines for the entire season ran in the Chicago Sun Times the next morning. It read:

Game 7: Because that’s how the story is supposed to go.

Exactly. Because there IS a mandatory narrative to a transformation this big. Any victory this long delayed cannot come easily. An easy win would never fulfill our inner narrative. And make no mistake, the inner narrative of a million Cubs fans was absolutely controlling this game.

And so, it had to be a battle. An epic battle that fans would talk about for the next hundred years. It had to be played in hostile territory (Cleveland). We had to have the lead and lose it. Twice! We had to see our mightiest pitcher choke. Watch routine throws turn into bone-headed errors. And that 39 year old catcher? We would watch him fail to block a wild pitch, allowing not one, but two opponents to score! Then we watched him dust himself off, come back and smack a home run over the centerfield wall his next time at bat. His last time at bat, ever. Redemption.

And finally, if as this were all not enough, as if the gods would never cease toying with us, a rainstorm blew in off Lake Erie to drench the field and send the players running for cover. Into the clubhouse to wait. And sweat. And chew on shirt sleeves.

“Because that’s how the story’s supposed to go.”

What story, you ask? The triumph of the underdog. The triumph over adversity. The greater the adversity, the greater the triumph.

“An Excruciating Final Test” –  Bob Nightengale, USA Sports
“Curse Cast Off in the Witching Hour”  –  Tyler Kepner, NY Times

I love sports writers. They write with such emotion. And they get nearer the truth, sometimes, than they even know. It was the Cubs’ night to win (8 to 7 in 10 innings) but it had to be monumentally difficult, almost insurmountable. It had to push them into a realm of heightened, almost surreal opposition – the witching hour – before access could finally be granted. When a curse is built up for this long, held in the hearts and minds of millions, that’s what it takes to break it – to cross that magic threshold, from losers to champions.

Ric Gibbs’ new book “Quick, Where’s My Cape?” will be published (God-willing) next month. Let me know here, if you’d like an advanced copy.