Winning at Last in Wrigleyville

Winning at Last in Wrigleyville

The Cubs had already been losing for over a hundred years before I showed up in Chicago. The logical part of me knows that their World Series winning moment on November 2, 2016, would have happened regardless of if I was standing, covered in rain, sweat, and tears, under the smoggy Illinois sky, bathed in the neon red light of the iconic Wrigley Field Sign. But there’s another part of me that wonders if it might not have.

To be a fan of baseball’s losingest team means that you’ll entertain that kind of suspicion.

Maybe without the police officer who told us not to judge him as tears streamed down his wrinkled face, without the daredevil on top of the telephone pole, without the bartender wearing his lucky jersey, without the grandfather in his faded blue cap glued to the TV at home, and without me, the baseball-naïve Chicago newcomer, none of this would have happened. Maybe we all played the tiniest part. Maybe we didn’t ride the bandwagon -- we pulled it.

It’s true that I still have to be constantly reminded of the rules of baseball when I’m watching (is it halftime yet?), and up until a week ago I could only name two of the Cubs players (LaStella, because his name reminds me of my own, and Young-Money Dave, the old guy who plays “Forever Young” as his walk-out song.) “Three strikes and you’re out, four balls and you walk” is nearly the extent of my baseball knowledge. I’m the definition of a "band wagoner" if you’ve ever seen one. 

Part of what I love about the Cubs is that their story doesn’t start with me. It started with a baseball club in a city that was barely a city yet. It started with a smelly goat and a legendary curse and became years and years of sports lore and statistics. It involves countless players who never found victory and generations of fans who learned how to lose, over and over.

It didn’t start with me, but I still understand it. My first years in Chicago were hard. The buildings and the bustle overwhelmed me, and after moving away from a small town that held everything I’d ever known and loved, I became simply another occupied train seat on my morning commute. In Chicago I learned how to find identity as the underdog - no, not even as the underdog, just the average person who still couldn’t seem to win. I often got physically lost among the skyscrapers in those new-to-the-city days, but even more than that, a part of me felt lost. It was all too easy to convince myself to eat dinner with only my Netflix account for company, all too easy to hide among the thousands of foreign faces, and all too easy to pull back and become a spectator in my own life.

But even when this city felt nothing like home and the sport of baseball meant nothing to me, the Cubs felt like something I could get behind. Chicago has a way of charming even the most stubborn country-dweller, and Wrigley Field can win over even the least enthusiastic fan. I found myself at a game behind those ivy walls within my first week here. Watching the Cubs lose in that old, beautiful stadium worked a little bit of magic on me.

That’s the irresistible thing about the Cubs - they don’t have to win. They have to show up and play. The fun of a Cubs game isn’t about returning home in the afterglow of victory as much as it is simply cheering for your team (although it is definitely fun to win, as we learned this weekend). There’s a lifetime’s worth of grace towards the Cubs in the hearts of their millions of fans. Watching them, I realized that there is a lifetime’s worth of grace available for me too. I just have to show up in my own life.

That’s how I went from a spectator, to a fan, to a part of something really big.

I found that it didn’t matter all that much if you bought your Cubs cap in 1908 or 2008, or if you had been cheering for years or since yesterday. If you could throw back your head and shout, if you were willing to learn the chorus to the Cubs song “(Go Cubs Go!”), or if you owned just a scrap of red or blue clothing, you were welcome in the club. It wasn’t about "earning it" as much as it was about just showing up.

Grace invites us to show up in the narrative, no matter how little we’ve earned it. Hope invites us to tune in once more, even when history has taught us to expect loss after loss (after loss after loss after... well, you know). Real grace is grace that belongs to the lifelong loser. And that’s something any one of us can claim.

The Cubs weren’t even in their hometown when they changed history, but we showed up anyway. We donned all the blue we own and flooded the streets of our city, high-fived our neighbors, and hugged each other. We celebrated together as the scoreboard bragged of our lead, gasped together when the count was tied, and collectively held our breath. Up until the last moment, hardened by years of cynicism and loss, lifelong fans tried to accept an impending defeat. 

But even they couldn’t snap the glimmer of longing out of their eyes as Zobrist hit his double in the tenth inning. Standing shoulder to shoulder with strangers at the intersection of Addison and Clark, backs to Wrigley Field, peering at a tiny TV screen through the crowded window of a crowded bar, we hoped against hope and against history that this time, this game, this moment would be different.

And then, miraculously, mercifully, the final out was called. We blinked, as millions of personal and collective stories of defeat were rewritten. We had won. And then... we lost it.

Experiencing that win outside of Wrigley Field was otherworldly. As I screamed and sang while surrounded by thousands of other celebrating fans, I felt the weight of my own piece in the narrative. This city had taught me how to lose, which was all I needed to be fit for a taste of this grace, this heavenly victory -- to be a necessary part of this glorious win.

The Cubs would have won, the curse would have been broken, the beer would have flown, the streets would have rumbled, and the victory song would have been screamed from a thousand throats whether or not I had been there. But I was there, and we were all there, because we had all learned how to lose and still show up again. The years of waiting had taught us the art of showing up, and all those seasons of loss drew the right people to each other in preparation for this moment. Messy grace, real grace, pulls behind it a welcoming bandwagon. And that night in Chicago, no one was excluded from the celebration.

I hope I live to see the Cubs win again, but either way, I can’t wait to tell my grandchildren that on the night when Chicago exploded with 108 years of built up hope, I showed up.

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