Thursday, November 3, 2016

Day 2,243: Fly the W

On September 10, 2001, I ambled past a security line that didn't exist yet and made my way to the front row of the first base side of Wrigley Field, so close I could hear the opposition talking in the dugout, with a man who had a child he didn't want me to know about, and watched the Cubs crush a team from Ohio on the night before the ballparks closed and the planes stopped flying.

As a kid, I didn't play baseball, except the one summer, when I won the sportsmanship award, since I had such a good time watching other people care more about the score than I did. But my brother was a pitcher, and when I was tiny, say, 4 years old, I learned to keep statistics at baseball games. This was back when families considered children differently. I had taught myself to read the year before, so they figured I might as well bring a pencil and paper to the game and make myself useful.

At home, my childhood summers were filled with the sound of wiffle ball games and pinners and the Cubs on TV in the background of everything we did. I traded 45 records for baseball cards with my brother and the neighborhood boys. I always wanted to get Ron Cey and Gary Matthews. Who are they? you ask, if you're not from Chicago.

When I was 20, I lived in Chicago for one semester, and one day, we walked from our apartment to Wrigley, on a whim, paid $5 and sat in the bleachers. No one wanted to go to the games then.

When I was 26 I agreed to go to a Cubs game with my ex-boyfriend, and it was a Cardinals game at that, and he had lost a bet and was forced to wear the St. Louis jersey. It was over 100 degrees and we were in the bleachers, and we waited and waited for the game to start, but it never did. There was no social media then, no texting even, but phones started ringing all over the ballpark, rumors started swirling, and soon enough we learned that Darryl Kile was dead, done in by a heart attack the night before, and they called a baseball game off for grief. I've always wondered if we knew he was dead before his family knew.

I had a professor in college who loved baseball more than was probably rational. He visited Chicago a few times every summer just to watch the Cubs play, and I met up with him once beforehand in a Jewish deli where we had pastrami and cream soda. That day, Kerry Wood, who was 20 years old, threw 20 strikeouts, and after the game, my professor called me to say "When I die, I will be able to say that, if nothing else, I saw that happen."

My 10 year high school reunion was held in one of the frat-boy bars of Wrigleyville about a block from the park in 2003. I'm sure the planners didn't even consider that the Cubs would be playing in October. It didn't turn out how we expected; really though, does anything? That night a guy named Steve Bartman reached for a ball, and our reunion, the neighborhood, our city and our collective consciousness exploded in a fit of misplaced rage and endless, gut-wrenching disappointment for so long we forgot what it was really about.

One day I turned around, and I was grown. It happened slowly and all at once. It was now my job to bring baseball to my kids, so one Saturday I took my daughter to a game and inexplicably caught a foul ball hit by Nate Schierholtz, but I thought my hand might break from the impact and I dropped it. She reached down for it and a grown man took it from her, until another man gave him a Chicago look and he looked at us full of beer and sheepishness and regret and handed it over.

A few years later, my husband and I saw a young kid, only 22, hit a grand slam in the first game of the NLCS.

I found myself knowing there was other parenting advice to give, but telling my son anyway that a triple is the best play in sports, because it doesn't exist. I could have told him something about grace and what lessons there are to learn, but instead I told him a triple's just a double and a guy who ran like hell.

That same son is a switch-hitter, if for no other reason than he started playing ball before he knew you were only supposed to walk to the plate from one side and not the other, and we didn't bother to correct him. This year, right around the time he turned 7, he finally had the chance to play catcher on a day that was so hot his coach poured water and ice over him in the middle of every inning, as the catcher's equipment weighed almost as much as him, and he was dripping with sweat and his face was so red he looked combustible, and the team he played was older and slaughtered them until the game was called early. Kids on his team were crying and exhausted and frustrated and I wondered what to say to him when it ended, deluding myself, as parents do, into thinking I had something to teach. He looked at me and said "That team was really good, weren't they? Wow. And mom! They let me catch for four innings." He was all smiles and I knew if given the chance, he would've started right in again.

For years, we lived on the South Side, and commuted several times a year to watch a team that charged too much for everything, considering. It angered us, the money and whiteness of the crowd, the inaccessibility of it all, the greed, and we kept telling ourselves we wouldn't do it anymore, but we lied.

We had Harry Carray and then we didn't have him anymore. Ron Santo died before he was inducted into the hall of fame. Sammy Sosa blew kisses to his mother and thrilled us while he lied and cheated and our hearts broke. Next year never came, someday sat out in the distance. They built buildings for the sole purpose of selling tickets for a chance to watch a team that never won when it counted, across from the only ballpark anywhere built amidst apartments where people actually lived, where you could watch the El speed past, where you could never forget you were in Chicago, no matter how hard you tried.

And because we are who we are, even our hopeful refrain on its best day sounds like an existential plea: Fly the W. It's the sports version of Fats Waller telling us, let's waltz the rumba, because it's impossible, really, but...why not?

Why not?

In a city beleaguered by its own faults and dealings, in the shadow of our tragic violence and corruption, we made a legend of failure in a beautiful canvass of brick and ivy.

For more than 100 years, we followed a game that looked like ourselves, full of unfulfilled promises, scandal, injury, illness and even death, because we couldn't help it, because we knew that any history is the story of the most deserving people never getting to see their dreams come true, because the possibility of winning would be a redemption for our memories.

And then, next year came, and we found ourselves in someday. The night was long and the rain was imminent and we couldn't decide whether to watch or hide or sleep. And then?

We saw ourselves jump with the joy of childhood, this motley crew of us, this multi-racial group of rookies and retirees, immigrants, Ivy-leaguers, and cancer survivors, and at that moment, our reflection seemed perfect.

In 2016, the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, and we were alive to see it happen.

Holy cow.

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