Last night the Chicago Cubs beat the LA Dodgers 5-0, to win the National League Pennant. It is literally true that I have been waiting for this all my life.
Baseball generally, and the Cubs in particular, were one of the most important things to my dad, as indicated by the fact that my first crib toys were a baseball bat rattle and a plush baseball. My dad lived and died by the Cubs, which meant dying, mainly.
There was a glimmer of hope in 1969. I attended opening day at Wrigley Field that year. I was there with my mom, because my dad couldn’t get off work. I waited patiently before the game and got Ernie Banks’ autograph–on a comic book, because my mom was too cheap to buy a program. (I was visible in a picture on the front page of the Tribune the next day, along with Banks and others waiting for his autograph.) Though Don Money hit 2 homers for the Phillies, Ernie Banks answered with 2 for the Cubs. The game went into extra innings when Willie Smith ended it with a pinch-hit homer. That seemed to be an omen, and the Cubs started off great, eventually building an 8.5 game lead. Yes, there were stumbles, like Don Young dropping two fly balls in a game against the Mets, but it looked like this was the year that would end a mere 24 years(!) of futility.
Then it all went wrong. An old team with thin and overworked starting pitching collapsed. My most vivid memory is Randy Hundley (my favorite player) jumping up-and-down protesting a close play at the plate involving Tommy Agee. (Would things have been different with replay?)
Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” In 1969, April was the most joyous month for Cubs fans. It was September that was cruel beyond words. (Not that April hasn’t been cruel to the Cubs. April 1997 being a particularly acute example.)
The 1970s were miserable–I mean, if Dave Kingman is the most memorable thing about an entire decade of baseball, even “miserable” seems an inadequate description. The aging players of the 1969 team faded rapidly, and the skinflint ownership of the Wrigleys stinted on the farm system, meaning the team’s player development was abysmal.
The 1980s brought a glimmer of hope after a bad beginning. Dallas Green built a very good 1984 team, only to watch it all go for naught when an easy grounder went between Leon Durham’s legs in San Diego. (Ironically, the man Durham replaced, Bill Buckner, was the goat the same year when he infamously let a grounder go between his legs to give the Mets a victory. This was the living proof of the “ex-Cub factor.”)
In the Pirrong households there was much anguish.
The 1990s–another largely lost decade.
Things looked bright again in 2003. But again, the season ended in failure. It is hard to describe the gloom in the motel room in Franklin, Tennessee when my dad and I watched the Cubs lose game 7 to the Marlins the night after the infamous Bartman game. (We were in Franklin on our annual Civil War battlefield trip.)
2003 pretty much snapped it for me. I’d invested a lot emotionally with the Cubs since I could remember, only to experience repeated frustration and disappointment. Family, work, and other things pressed, and I paid only glancing attention to the Cubs until a couple of years ago, when there were glimmers of hope. Even then, I will admit that my commitment was somewhat tentative. Too many Charlie Brown moments had left their mark.
Not my dad, though. He soldiered on, loyally. (Loyalty being one of his many admirable traits, even though that loyalty had often been unrewarded–worse, actually–in his professional life.)
Here, in baseball as in work, his loyalty did not receive its reward. He passed away at the very beginning of the Cubs renaissance. Almost literally at the beginning. We put on the Cubs game in the room of the hospice where he lay dying. He passed away almost exactly at the first pitch of opening day of the 2014 season.
My dad was a second-generation Cubs fan. His father had been an intense fan too, and could claim (reasonably) to have seen the Cubs win a World Series game in a year when they won the World Series–1908. My grandfather grew up in the neighborhood near the old West Side Grounds at Polk and Wood where the Cubs played in the first decade of the 20th century. When my grandfather was an invalid, watching the Cubs on Channel 9 was one of the few joys in his life, even though that was during the nadir of post-War Cub fortunes (he died in September, 1968).
To give an idea of how big baseball was in the Pirrong family, my grandfather would routinely take my dad to see Negro League games in Comiskey Park. In my father’s memory, they were the only white people in sight, and my dad–a North Sider–grew up thinking there were no white people south of Madison Street. My dad was so obsessed with baseball that his ambition was to go into management. After getting his MBA at Northwestern, he left my pregnant mother to attend the Baseball Management Academy in Florida. It was money well spent: he realized that in that era, only family members of ownership had a shot at real responsibility. As he put it, an outsider would be lucky to be put in charge of the peanut concession. So he put his baseball dreams aside and became the picture of a 1960s-1970s middle manager in corporate America.
When my grandfather was failing, my dad would say “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before dad dies.” Then for years he would say about himself “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before I die.” He skipped over me altogether. When my girls were young he told them “I hope the Cubs win a pennant before you die.”
Sadly, his hopes for himself were not realized. He–we–reveled in the Bulls championships of the 1990s, and especially in the Blackhawks wins in 2010 and 2013. But those things would have paled in comparison to a Cubs pennant, if they had been able to achieve it. (He always said “pennant” rather than “World Series.” I’ve been pondering why in recent days.)
But alas, that was not to be. I am trying to share it with him, vicariously, through memory. I remember the first time we went to a game together–Cubs-Reds, 1967 (the Cubs won.) I remember his uncanny ability to turn on the car radio at the very second that the pitcher was winding up for the first pitch. (Even when we watched on TV, we listened to the radio because my father detested Jack Brickhouse. Not that the radio duo of Jack Lloyd and Lou Boudreau were much better: dad called them “fumbles and mumbles.”) I remember his intimate knowledge of the game–pitch selection, pitch location, positioning, calling hit-and-run plays, etc. And yes, I remember him waving his hand and yelling “BULLSHIT” at the TV in response to a bad call or a bad play or a bad managerial move. Because he was into it. (And no, the apple did not fall far from the tree.)
I know there are many Chicagoans who can tell similar stories right now. Because, after all, there have literally been generations of futility. It’s only a game, and it’s only a team, but a particular team playing a particular game have had a profound impact on many people. And the most profound impact has been to forge memories of shared experiences between parents and children–fathers and sons, especially (though they have contributed to shared experiences between me and my girls, too). So last night, being in the moment actually meant scrolling through myriad moments past.
In a few weeks, the 2016 season will fade from most people’s minds, regardless of what happens in the World Series. Life presses. New seasons begin. But it will leave behind the residue of memories, and some future event will bring those memories flooding forth. It would be a blessing to the rememberers if the recollections that do come are as intense and poignant as the memories of my dad that I experienced last night.