A remarkable thing happened during game two of the 2016 World Series.
Chicago Cubs slugger Kyle Schwarber hit a RBI single in the third inning. That’s not the remarkable part. What made it remarkable was that I witnessed Schwarber make his hit in person, while sitting in the crowd at Cleveland’s Progressive Field, and I didn’t burst into tears like a wheezing man-baby.
This was not typical behavior for me. I’d been crying, or at least welling up, after even the most routine plays by the Cubs during that particular postseason. If they so much as drew a walk, it was like I was drunk-watching Field of Dreams at 2 a.m.
I wasn’t weepy just because I love baseball that much. (I do.) I was crying because my dad didn’t live long enough to see his beloved team finally win a World Series.
I’m not the only one. Every World Series, regardless of who’s playing, seems to inspire a tsunami of male tears. Every World Series I’ve ever watched has invariably ended with cry-fiving strangers.
Cry-fiving, a word I’ve just invented, is an amalgam of the classic sports victory high-five and uncontrollable weeping caused by realizing that your feelings about baseball are wrapped up in your very complicated relationship with your dad.
On a scale of formidable competitors, they were somewhere between the Washington Generals and Paris in 1940.
But when Schwarber hit that ball, the tears didn’t come. Something had changed.
It was probably because I was too focused on Charlie, my (then) 5-year-old son, who had jumped onto his seat and started howling with maniacal glee the moment he heard the crack of wood hitting cowhide.
“Cubs win! Cubs win!” he shouted.
Okay, so he didn’t quite understand the subtleties of the game yet. But he knew that the Cubs, our team, had more points on the scoreboard, and they were doing more running on the field than the “bad guy” team, and that was enough to get him excited.
The first time I went to a Cubs game was in the spring of 1977, when I was just 8 years old.
My father drove my younger brother Mark and me from northern Michigan, where we lived in a town of just a few hundred people, to the frightening, crime-infested metropolis of Chicago to see a game at Wrigley Field.
It was a six-hour drive in our family’s turd-brown Chevy Caprice station wagon that stalled whenever you came to a complete stop. It was our first road trip without mom — she opted to stay home — and it felt like a male rite of passage, an all-guy pilgrimage to the Promised Land.
Our excitement ended, however, when we witnessed the Cubs lose and lose hard to the Cardinals. The final score was a dismal 21–3.
It was an amazing game in that the Cubs were amazingly bad. On a scale of formidable competitors, they were somewhere between the Washington Generals and Paris in 1940.
After the carnage, as we wandered out of Wrigley and back to our car, Mark and I grumbled about the baseball steamrolling we’d just witnessed. But Dad was beaming.
“Well, maybe they’ll do better tomorrow,” he said.
A few years later, we moved to the suburbs of Chicago, and the Cubs became my dad’s favorite team. We went to Wrigley Field so often, the hot dog vendors knew him by first name.
He knew where the secret (free) street parking was. By the time I was 15, I’d watched the Cubs play, and usually lose, from every possible vantage at Wrigley.
My dad didn’t have the best stress-coping skills in the rest of his life. but whenever he was sitting in Wrigley, nursing a beer and watching his beloved Cubs get spanked into submission yet again, he had the expression of somebody sitting in a hot tub and getting a foot massage.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he’d say with a shrug and head home.
Mark and I rebelled. Rooting for the Cubs in Chicago during the ’80s and ’90s didn’t make much sense, especially when we had teams like the Bulls and the Bears giving us geographical self-esteem. Going to a Cubs game was only a good idea if you wanted to get day drunk.
“Always say ’That’s bullshit’ if your batter strikes out.”
I started to come around in my 30s. I realized what my dad saw in the Cubs. If you’ve been a fan of this team for long enough, you reach a certain Zen understanding about failure. You stop clinging to false hope and start living with the bliss of low expectations.
You become okay with just sitting in the bleachers on a warm summer day, drinking $10 beer and enjoying the slow-paced, predictable rhythms of a baseball game.
I used to mock my dad when he said things like, “Maybe tomorrow.” But then I became an adult, and I went to Wrigley Field every weekend in the summer and repeated those same words, which were as comforting as the Lord’s Prayer. “Maybe tomorrow.”
Probably not, but maybe!
In 2016, that tomorrow had finally come. The Cubs were in the World Series, for the first time since 1945! They hadn’t won a Series since 1908!
Think about that: The last time the Cubs were World Series champs, cars were still called horseless carriages. Adolf Hitler still thought he was going to be a painter. There was no such thing as penicillin. If you got polio, you were kind of screwed. A 13-year-old Babe Ruth had only recently gotten pubic hair.
I wasn’t expecting to go to the World Series in 2016. But then the kind people at Chevrolet offered me free tickets — right behind first base! — and all I had to do was drive a Chevy Cruze Hatchback from Chicago to the game in Cleveland, and then write about the experience later.
Um, yes please! (And they say being a freelance writer doesn’t pay.)
Honestly, they could have asked me to arrive at the game in a G-string, my body spray-painted Cubs blue, wearing a goat mask and an “I Heart Steve Bartman” cap and I would’ve said yes.
I liked the symbolism of it. I went to my first Cubs game in a Chevy with my dad, and now here I was as a father, taking my son on another six-hour journey, but this time in a Chevy with a few more tech perks.
While my brother and I were tormented by lumpy seats and AC that felt more like the hot breath of a St. Bernard, my son’s biggest complaint was that the car’s WiFi stopped working for five minutes in rural Indiana.
Charlie had seen the Cubs play before, but he was too young to care. His first real memory of actually watching and caring about baseball happened when the Cubs made it to the World Series.
The gravity of that was not lost on me. My son will only ever know the Chicago Cubs as a team that is good enough to be in the World Series.
“You smell like poop!” my son shrieked, as a batter for the opposing team struck out.
“Excuse me?” I asked, glaring at him.
“Relax, Daddy. It’s a game.”
It was impossible not to notice the adults standing around us — most of whom were Cleveland fans — smiling or muffling laughter.
That’s another great thing about being in a World Series opposite a team that loses almost as much as you do — the Indians haven’t won a World Series since 1948. It makes the mood more like an AA meeting than a fierce rivalry.
We were surrounded by Indians fans. But every single one of them told my wife and me that Charlie — who was dressed entirely in blue, with a Cubs hat and a homemade “Cubs Destroy You” banner — was adorable.
Their wives and girlfriends flirted with him, and the men gave him instructions on how to trash-talk the competition.
“Always say ‘That’s bullshit’ if your batter strikes out,” a guy in full Indians regalia told my son.
“That’s bullshit!” My son replied giddily, enjoying how this word made his parents’ shoulders tighten.
Somewhere around the top of the sixth inning, it was looking grim for the Indians. They were down 5–0, and the home team fans weren’t as delighted anymore by my son’s antics.
But Charlie was oblivious to the growing tension, and he climbed back onto his seat to hurl taunts at the field.
“You’re my butt!” he shouted to nobody in particular.
A few rows behind us, one of the more drunken Cleveland fans started throwing Cracker Jacks at Charlie, ostensibly because his view was being blocked.
“Sit down, little Cub,” he slurringly shouted.
Charlie was momentarily stunned. Among his many “firsts” that night, it was his first assault by a disgruntled baseball rival.
Charlie didn’t say anything. I don’t think he knew how to respond.
I absolutely did. I wanted to unleash a string of expletives on the intoxicated sore loser. But I bit my lip. I let Charlie experience this tense showdown and waited to see how he would respond.
He turned and looked at the sea of sour faces. Nobody smiled back at him this time. They were scowling, their hands deep in jacket pockets, waiting for this nightmare to be over.
Charlie reached for his box of Swedish Fish, pulled out a handful, and offered one to the guy in the Indians hat sitting directly behind us.
“Here,” he said, waving the red candy in front of the man’s face until he noticed it. “Take it. It’s yummy.”
The man tried to wave him away, but Charlie was persistent.
“Thanks, little guy,” he said, taking the mangled gummy and shoving it into his mouth.
Charlie patted him on the arm and said, “It’s okay. Maybe they’ll be better tomorrow.”
That’s when I started crying.
Do you want to make me weep inconsolably over a baseball game? Forget Schwarber. Show me a kid who has never known a Cubs losing streak, echoing a grandfather who never stopped believing in the losingest team in baseball, reminds a frustrated fan for the other team what it means to be hopeful.
Come to think of it, two remarkable things happened that night.
I think my dad would be proud. Confused, too. Very, very confused. “The Cubs are doing what now?” But proud nonetheless.