By Carolyn Alessio
I grew up watching the Cubs in the 1970s, which was dubbed the era of “Sustained Mediocrity” by Wrigley Nation. My father Sergio, who introduced me to the North Side team, had markedly better memories of the Cubs from his youth. In 1945, the last time they played in the World Series, my father was 16. Similarly, my nine-year-old son will have infinitely more positive memories of growing up with the Cubs. Of the three of us, I am the only one who became a fan in the team’s darkest hours. Literally, because Wrigley Field did not install stadium lights until 1988. Over the years, darkness has periodically plagued but also instructed me, both inside and outside of baseball.
Just as with fighting depression, following the Cubs requires a combination of secular wizardry, superhuman patience, and hope. My father, an electrical engineer and child of Italian immigrants, rarely spent extra money or indulged himself, but every summer he made sure to take me to Wrigley Field. We parked on the grounds of a convent next door that rented out spots during games. I remember the enterprising Sisters in habits waving us into their makeshift lot. The confluence of Catholicism and baseball seemed perfectly natural to me—in many ways, they were the twin religions of our pious household.
In the sparsely filled seats of the upper deck, my father carefully filled out a score card, often consulting the green wooden, manual scoreboard that still sits over center field today (now with electronic screens on each side of it.) My father never spoke to me directly of his experiences with prolonged melancholy, (my mother filled me in later), but I do know that he tried medication briefly as I would later. Back then, however, antidepressants were not nearly as effective or refined. My father did demonstrate however, in his steady following of the Cubs. That routines helped him inestimably—even if built around a team renowned for losing. So my inherited addiction to ritual turned out to save us both.
I don’t think the Cubs’ half-baked performance of the 70s significantly intensified my father’s existing depression, but the experience gave us more insight into the natural psyche of Cubs fans. Just as I hope to shield my children from inheriting my knee-jerk sense of self-doubt and anxious tendencies, I worry about the unintended effects of encouraging my son’s bone-deep affection for the Cubs.
In the 1970s, the Cubs rarely budged from the basement of the National League East except to swap places with the Cardinals, but each morning I dutifully checked the box scores in the newspaper during the season. If the game had run too late–as on the West Coast while playing the Dodgers or Giants–I would call Sports Phone for the score. The number was not 800 or 888 as it might be today; it didn’t even have an area code. I remember still wearing my pajamas many summer mornings when I called the hot line on the kitchen wall phone. I twisted the long plastic phone cord as I waited nervously for the recording to run through the litany of local teams’ scores.
Today, my young son merely grabs my cell phone, summons Siri, and asks, “What’s the Cubs’ score?” The process still involves a few seconds of anxiety, but the efficient digital assistant gets directly to his team. Siri editorializes too much for my taste, however, especially on the rare days when the Cubs have lost badly or, as she smugly says, been “trounced” or “remained in hibernation.”
By 1978 and 79, my adolescence approached, along with severe anxiety beyond most teenage angst, and an ambivalence about eating properly. I had a few friends but preferred to stay home on Friday nights and watch doubleheaders in which the Cubs often lost twice. I was only comfortable contemplating love while watching homerun slugger Dave Kingman on my parents’ old black and white TV. One day I even wrote him a fan letter on pink stationery, and tucked in a McDonald’s gift certificate for $5. A Golden Arches sat across Clark Street from The Friendly Confines, so I figured it would be convenient for my hero. Aside from the excitement of Kingman, who once drilled a 500-foot homer far past the field, and the elegant assists of shortstop Ivan DeJesus Sr., I took refuge in the team’s predictably tepid, afternoon home games. (Wrigley Field would not have lights or night games for another 10 years.) Watching the day games gave shape to my uncertain days and reminded me that other stories existed besides winning.
Two years ago, when my son began watching Cubs games more regularly, and keeping closer track of the schedule, I understood the real legacy of my father. When my son asked about a game that approached in a few hours, I felt a mall reassuring lift in my chest not inspired by SSRIs or Cognitive-Feedback Therapy. Regardless of how our days had gone, or the amount of times we might have been disappointed (or disappointed others), the upcoming game would still take place at a specific stadium at a designated time. Tickets had already been purchased. Baseball continues to shape our days.
In late September this year at Wrigley Field, as the Cubs sailed past the Cardinals in their last home game, a St. Louis fan sitting behind my family chanted, “Eleven championships!” The man spoke as though he had personally enabled those winning seasons, maybe by summoning the spirit of the Cardinals’ legendary Stan Musial, or by boosting each Cardinal’s Sabermetric prowess. My nine-year-old Little Leaguer smiled at the fan’s desperate bragging. Recently, when the Cubs lost two playoff games in a row to the Dodgers, I experienced again the basis for that feeling of deep connection to a team’s fate.
In public I blamed Clayton Kershaw’s maddening curveball for muffling the Cubs’ bats, but in private, I decided that my own mistaken display of a “W” sign in our front window after one loss had triggered the Cubs’ dangerous dive. I quickly remedied the situation and all seemed well, except for the fact that somebody was closely observing my superstitious behavior. Somebody, that is, besides my bemused husband and skeptical teen daughter. I figured it out on the eve of the opening game of the World Series, when my son earnestly reminded me to “Take down the ‘W.'”
These days, so much else about my old team has radically changed that I often feel on the verge of disorientation. The Cubs are playing bizarrely late in October, and all season long the team has displayed consistently powerful hitting and stingy pitching. When my son marvels at Kris Bryant’s batting average or Jake Arrieta’s ERA, I automatically feel nervous, not just for the team’s transformed franchise but because I want to protect my son from disappointment, the past, and having a hall of mirrors in his head like mine. So naturally I turn to quirky ministrations that just might help preserve the magical balance. Of course, the rest of Chicago and perhaps the Western Hemisphere is also blathering away about the “curse of the Billy Goat” and other black magic that has kept the Cubs from even playing in a World Series for 72 years.
But observing a mother’s odd baseball rituals up-close at home might lead a child to transfer the strategies to his own Little League play. Instead of practicing daily to improve as he did last season, maybe my son could just designate a lucky pair of long socks and pray for a downpour when his team faces a tricky situation. A young baseball devotee like him might not even differentiate completely between professional and amateur ball. My son learned this lesson vividly and firsthand last May at Wrigley, when he joined more than 900 other kids one afternoon in running the bases after the game. The video that my husband made, set to the theme song from “The Natural,” shows him trotting along at an efficient pace, confident and with no trace of the Club Foot he was born with long ago. It all looked so, well, natural, that later I was surprised to hear that my son had been shocked that the bases were “a lot farther apart” than he had thought.
Last July, a reference to a Cubs team of the past unexpectedly connected my son and me. After his Little League team played a challenging final game to finish third out of six teams, my son’s coach called the boys together and began to hand out awards. These were not the mass-produced, flimsy trophies usually shoved at players by the league, however, but brand new Rawlings baseballs on which the coach had written personal tributes and comparisons to famous professional players. As he presented each award, the coach compared his nine- and ten-year-olds to All-Stars and Hall-of-Famers like Cincinnati Reds catcher Johnny Bench. To support the comparison, the coach cited specific examples both from beloved moments in professional baseball, as well as meticulous Little League game-notes that he had kept all season.
When the coach got to my son, he presented him with the award named for Andre Dawson, a Cubs outfielder from the late 1980s and early 1990s. I knew the name well, from my later, somewhat happier fan days while in high school (when the team actually made the playoffs). Dawson, as the Little League coach explained, was known as “The Hawk” because he was persistent and rarely avoided fielding a ball, just like my son, who had transformed himself from a tentative, shaky outfielder into a go-to third baseman. Listening to the presentations, and watching the young players lean in, solemn and wide-eyed, I felt a sense of grace. The patient coach was using similar reference points to help guide the boys. Maybe I wasn’t as off-course in parenting as I had believed—or at least I was doing an acceptable job of managing my limitations.
Not long ago, on the afternoon following the Indians’ 6-0 victory over the Cubs in the first game of the World Series, I asked my son on the way home from school what he thought had changed in our team since they triumphed over the Dodgers. “Well,” he said, skipping a rock into an alley pothole, “I did eat a Cubs cookie the night they got the pennant.” It took me a moment to picture the frosted cookie with the team logo that my husband and I had brought him from a wedding, and even then I glanced over to see if my son was serious. But he just shrugged and smiled to himself, like he was working out his own private form of Cubs Sabermetrics in his head.
Carolyn Alessio lives with her family in Chicago’s Little Italy neighborhood, and teaches high school in nearby Pilsen where only a small but mighty portion of her students are Cubs fans. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Pushcart Prize anthology, The Chronicle of Higher Education and is forthcoming in America.