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Robert J. Elisberg Headshot

Okay, So It's Been a Bad Century

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And it begins again. The baseball season has started this week. A time of wondrous hope for fans, the chance that maybe, just maybe their team will win.

And then there are the Chicago Cubs. It's been 102 years.

At a certain point, that number loses all meaning. It's so huge and inexplicable, it almost doesn't seem possible.

It's possible.

People marvel that there are so many Cubs fans - but they miss the point. The amazing thing isn't that there are so many Cubs fans. It's that there are any.

Every Spring, commentators wax poetic about the Chicago Cubs and Cubs fans, trying to explain the relationship. They're usually very wrong. There's nothing poetic about losing for 102 years.

And so too Every Spring there are those who get weary hearing about the poor, martyred Cubs fans. How they revel in losing, that they prefer martyrdom. Well, they don't get it either. There's nothing joyful about losing for 102 years.

What is always missing from such thought is the simple perspective of every day reality.

Here is the reality.

It is not fun to lose for 102 years. There's just no other way to even imagine 102 years of losing being otherwise. Even during their worst years when the Cubs would be eliminated from the post-season by...oh, say, July, I'd still snap off the broadcast after a loss in September.

But to win a single game that same September, when 30 games out of first place? It would make my day. And still does. Each victory is a joyous explosion. Harry Caray's "Cubs win! Cubs win! Cubs win!" did not become legendary for no reason.

When you've lost for 102 years, any victory is sweet. The Chicago journalist Mike Royko once wrote how former Cubs owner P.K. Wrigley was in fact a guru, teaching Cubs fans to appreciate the simple things of life: a walk, a successfully caught ball, a bloop single.

When the Cubs won merely the division in 1984, someone held up a famous sign in the stands. "Now my life is complete."

I remember watching a Cubs game in a friend's house when we were 11 years old. We were stretched out on the floor, immersed by the TV screen. His mother walked by the room, stopped a moment and stared. Then, in dead seriousness, she said, "I hate the Cubs. They ruined my brother's life, and now they're ruining my son's." And she walked off.

But they didn't ruin our lives. They made it richer. Made it more understandable. Made it something we could better adapt to. There have been famous, agonizing losses in Cubs history. You learn to get past it.

You learn that what Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Brickhouse said is true: "Every team can have a bad century."

Kids in Chicago still race home from school to catch the last few innings of a home day game on television. Year after year, generation after generation. It's how their passion and love of the team starts and then grows and finally blossoms.

Watching the games, in fervent prayer that the Cubs would win. Alas, in vain.

In vain, yet what grows is a love of the team for simply being the team. You don't follow the Cubs because you think they're going to win this year - if you did, there would be no Cubs fans.

You follow the Cubs because...you love the Cubs. You would no more throw the Cubs out of your life because they lost than you would disinherit a family member because they were going through hard times. You would hug them all the closer.

You follow the Cubs because you love the game.

You follow them for who they are. Loyally, fervently, passionately. Hoping beyond hope that they win. But knowing that that likely won't be the case.

And the thing is, after losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing and losing...Cubs fans face it all with open clarity. They don't sit and mope and wring their hands. They stare at a loss and say, "Jesus, the Cubs suck."

The fans have faced a disaster of a century (let me repeat that, a century), and it's terribly annoying. There has been no merciful let-up, it goes on through the invention of radio, World War I, the flapper era, Prohibition, the stock market crash, the Depression, World War II, the invention of television, the Baby Boom, the Korean War, hula hoops,
Camelot, the Vietnam War, Woodstock, Watergate, Man landing on the Moon, Yuppies, the creation of the Internet, Iran-Contra, Generation-X, the invention of cell phones, the Clinton impeachment, 9/11, the Iraq War, 3-D movies and the end isn't in sight. To be crushed through this, left bruised, battered and adrift on an iceberg -- and yet persevere and still embrace the team with an unfettered, unearthly love is about the opposite of whining as any definition ever written.

The Cubs draw amazing crowds. In a park that seats only about 35,000 people, plays most of its games during the day and televises ALL its home games, the Cubs still draw over three million people...and that's when they lose. When they are winning, the city goes ballistic.

The Cubs have a good team this year. I hope. Yet on Opening Day, they were beat by Atlanta 16-5. It was their worst Opening Day defeat in the team's 126 year history. That's saying a lot.

Afterwards, my 88-year-old father (who grew up eight blocks from Wrigley Field) said, "Wait 'till next year."

And so we will wait. But we'll still follow the next 161 games and hope.

In the end, it's simple. Cubs fans have shown through 102 years what loyalty and love to a team is supposed to mean. You love something, not because it's A Winner, but because you love it for itself.

In the face of anything.

God help us, anything.

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