Rooting For The Cubs, Again And Again

Rooting For The Cubs, Again And Again


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. 





Bringing Her Home

Bringing Her Home

sleeping_jn_car_seatBy Carissa Kapcar

We broke it out into five steps. It was easier to process this way.

  1. Ovulate,
  2. Conceive,
  3. Don’t miscarry,
  4. Deliver a living baby,
  5. Bring the baby home.

Five seemingly simple steps and one overriding mantra to keep ourselves focused on the now, “today we are pregnant and it’s going well.”

Now in the hospital, tiny fingers tighten around my index finger, and the tethers around my heart finally loosen. No longer connected via umbilical cord, this little grip continues the physical link from me to my baby, but also provides the power for my baby to fuel me in the form of healing the angst and stress that I’ve carried over the past 46 months.

I was pregnant four times in 46 months and never left the hospital with a baby.

We pull away from the hospital. Silence fills the vehicle interrupted only by the subtle clicking sound of the turn signal, visually announcing our presence to the many shoppers accessorized by their parcels hurriedly crossing the intersections of Streeterville as the waves of Lake Michigan and the blustery trademark of the Windy City announce the first week of November with fury. The passerby’s bury their chins into their collars. They have no way of knowing the warmth that is filling the interior of the minivan next to them. This is the minivan that with the space to seat seven has cruelly mocked me, the mother with just one child, shuttling duel-side-sliding doors and fourteen cupholders around the suburbs.

Three years ago, just a few days after my first pregnancy a masked surgeon had firmly taken my upper arms into her hands and locked eyes onto mine insisting, “you need to know that this is life-threatening. We have to operate immediately.” We had just learned that our newborn son had an intestinal malrotation and wanted to have him baptized prior to surgery. She was trying to help me understand that there wasn’t time.

We turn onto East Chicago Avenue. The sleek lines and square roof of the Museum of Contemporary Art force a contrast to the gothic spirals and gilded towers of Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine.   Yet, the horizontal and the vertical work together to stand guard over the children on the playground. Old and new, tall and wide, there is room for both just as my own grief of the past and joy of today can co-exist.

After his surgery our son had spent a few weeks in the NICU where I would visit daily and pump in a room, separated from other nursing mothers by only a thin curtain and the sound of machines that adorned our nipples instead of suckling newborns. Although I couldn’t hold my baby, I’d still hopefully and eagerly wash my hands for a three-minute minimum before each visit. A few steady weeks of progress and he was discharged. There was no fanfare, no balloons. We obeyed the unspoken code of the NICU and quietly slipped out while saying a silent prayer for the other parents and their babies who remained.

The turn signal chimes again as we wait to make a soft right through the cement jersey wall which always makes me question the permissibility of this turn onto Lake Shore Drive. The road bends as the Ferris wheel from Navy Pier claims the last piece of skyline before the vastness of the lake hypnotizes the mind. Our son, now almost four, describes the Ferris wheel as a clock.

A successful surgery left only in its wake a scar that now stretches across my son’s stomach and life-threatening food allergies that have permeated our lives. Yet the threat was haunting enough to plague my second pregnancy with concern. Having just moved across the country, we plowed through nine months in a new place with new doctors, new jobs and new friends. We talked with pediatricians, OBGYNs and specialists all of who assured us that this new child was just fine. And my second baby was just fine until when at thirty-eight weeks into my second pregnancy I didn’t feel the baby move.

We cross the Chicago River and pass marinas to the left and Buckingham Fountain to the right. During summer, the marinas are bustling with boats and sails while the fountain’s water powerfully propels upwards of 25 feet. But with winter knocking, the marinas are empty and the fountain is still.

Our second child had been born still. When a doctor confirmed that there was no heartbeat we spent the next several hours preparing to do the most difficult thing of our lives and deliver a baby that we knew would come in silence. Silence and then a hushed whisper informing us “it’s a girl” was followed immediately not with a baby’s wail, but rather her mother’s wail. A day later, we had another lonely discharge from the hospital without the baby that we loved dearly.

We dart in and out of traffic and progress south. With my free hand I pat the soft fleece rising and falling with each breath and tuck it under the straps of the car seat. I physically need to be close and hold, to comfort and to be comforted.

After the delivery of our daughter, my body had gone through the physical recovery of having just had a baby yet my arms were empty. Lactating breasts and a contracting uterus were not nearly as painful as the phantom sensations of holding a baby. Slowly digging, fiercely forging, we scraped, clawed and fought our way up by shedding fifty pounds of pregnancy weight, talking with a grief counselor and regularly attending a support group. We searched, reached, researched….and screamed! We needed answers, but there were none to give. So after six months, we bravely tried to get pregnant again. A recurrent pregnancy loss specialist explained to us that my third pregnancy would not last. At just five weeks the growth wasn’t tracking.

In front of us the handsome columns of the Field Museum loom at the bend in the drive so that you can almost believe you’ll drive right into its halls of discovery. Our son calls this the Dinosaur Museum versus the Train Museum, which is further south.

It had been there, standing in the lobby of the Museum of Science and Industry, or as our son calls it, the Train Museum, that I answered a phone call and learned that I had started my fourth pregnancy. We fought hard for that pregnancy. There were months of waiting to recover from the miscarriage followed by unsuccessful conception attempts. White sticks at the bottom of a drawer with their sad single line, procedures, appointments, and even acupuncture all contributed to that significant phone call, which launched us on our terrifying journey.

I rest my head and see Soldier Field to the West appearing like a floating spaceship grounded by Roman columns. In the throws of fall football season this is the home to thousands of tailgaters. I smell meat on a grill. We’ve missed tailgating, holidays, weddings, laughter and dancing. There has been no fun, no light…only pragmatic and heavy. I bend down and take in the airy and milky newborn breath wafting above the car seat, both savoring the sweetness of it — and needing proof of it.

We had needed a lot of reassurance during the fourth pregnancy and made multiple unexpected trips to the hospital seeking it from doctors who compassionately gave it to us. I employed every last ounce of positive thinking and only put myself in happy situations. This impacted my choice of media, friendships and activities. We made ourselves purchase nursery decorations (I cried the entire way home feeling guilty and excited at the same time.) I’d socially isolate myself before ultrasounds as I steadied and repeated our mantra. Our doctors had a goal to deliver the baby before the prior point of loss. So, beginning at 30 weeks I had regular monitoring and at 37 weeks an amniocentesis to confirm lung maturity before the scheduled delivery. That night we were too nervous to be far away from the hospital so we splurged and stayed across the street at the W Hotel. We ordered Giordano’s pizza and superstitiously watched the same movie we had watched the night before our son was born, “Lost in Translation.” Over Bill Murray and deep dish we told ourselves it would be OK. The next morning we woke early and went to a Cathedral before walking to the hospital where our prayers from that day, and the many days before, were answered.

A green sign indicates that I-55 is approaching. After living here for two years, we finally understand that the marker is really referencing “The Stevenson.” We merge as the road widens, rises up and stretches out before us. My shoulders relax, I sit back in my seat and finally now the tears fall from my eyes.

Step 5. Today, we are taking our baby home.

Author’s Note: Occasionally, I make the drive from the hospital campus area in downtown Chicago to our home in the suburbs at various times throughout the year for appointments and meetings.  Whenever I do so, it continues to feel special and reminds me of that sacred drive home with our newborn daughter.  While I am not a native Chicagoan, my children were born here and are being raised here.  It is for this reason that the area described in the piece will always be beloved space for me and has indeed become my sweet home, Chicago.



Carissa Kapcar is a happy, grateful, sometimes funny and often times tired mother of four (three living) shuttling a minivan around the Chicago area suburbs and clinging to just enough irreverence to stay sane. She writes regularly