“I’m goin’ to Chicago.” I had just said these words to my wife with an almost giddy certainty as we watched history play out in the washed out images on the bar’s projector screen. We lived a thousand miles away and could not afford the time off work or the gas to get there. None of that mattered. The Cubs were five outs shy of winning the National League pennant and reaching the World Series for the first time in living memory of all but one member of my family. Their first since the invention of the microwave oven, their first since the integration of the game. Decades of loyalty to these lovable losers were about to pay off. It was going to happen. It was inevitable. Things, it seemed, would finally be made right at Wrigley. That was 13 years ago.
The Marlins’ Louis Castillo would lift a high foul ball down the left field foul line changing the course of things. When Moises Alou’s glove came up empty and the wrath of a city turned on a 26 year old computer programer it had a familiar look. The chorus and the characters were different now, but the arc of a tragedy is always the same. True, the game was not over. In fact, the Cubs still held a 3-0 lead, but it was too late. The plot had already twisted. And 40,000 fans knew how this would end even if the team on the field did not. The shortstop, Alex Gonzalez, would muff a ground ball that should have resulted in a double play and an escape from the inning. Instead Florida would score 8 runs. The Cubs would lose again the following night and not advance to the World Series. And I would not take that Greyhound to Chicago.
I was also 26 years old that night, young enough to still believe there’s always next year. The following spring I did travel to Chicago. It was for a funeral (I wrote about that trip for baseball’s opening day earlier this year). In May of 2004 my grandfather, a lifelong Chicagoan from whom I inherited an immutable love for the Cubs, faded away in a northside nursing home. We took his ashes to Graceland Cemetery at the corner of Clark and Irving Park Road. Laid out in 1860, long before Mrs. O’Leary’s cow made cinders of Chicago, the 121 acre burial ground once sat outside the city limits but now is a quiet corner of the Uptown neighborhood and only half a mile from the ivy covered bricks of Wrigley. Inside its perimeter walls on the northern edge there is a small stone mausoleum embossed with patterns of foliage and the name Rudolph Schloesser. It was an unfamiliar name to me then as it is now. I cannot draw the line connecting myself, or even my grandfather, to him, but we are blood if only in some indirect way. My family crowded into the dim and claustrophobic room where a dusty wooden table cluttered with urns stood before the only window. We cleared a place among them and set the container in the slanting light. A few blocks away in the direction the window faces the Cubs were in the middle innings of an afternoon game against the Cardinals.
After the service in the quiet of his old bedroom I shuffled through the hangers in his closet. There were argyle golfing pants and polyester knit shirts. These were things he hadn’t worn in 20 years. I found a vest— a brown, plainer-than-a-paper-sack, insulated vest. I wore it home on the plane the next morning.
The last time the Cubs were in the World Series my grandfather was 34 years old, younger than I am now. So, on the last Saturday of October, just a few weeks ago, I went back. I spent a quiet, cloudy morning lost on the paved and winding paths at Graceland. The cemetery is the final resting place of several Chicago luminaries— architect, Louis Sullivan; railway industrialist, George Pullman; and Jack Johnson, the first African American heavyweight boxing champion. Their gravesites were noted on the folded map I carried in the pocket of a vest that now belonged to me. Nearing middle age I look astonishingly similar to the photos of my grandfather at my age, the same pattern of baldness, the same blonde mustache and blue eyes. To anyone that knew him I would have looked like some kind of wraith, his very likeness wearing his own clothes and standing at the step of a little stone building that does not bear either of our names. What can you say to a pair of padlocked doors? I mostly just I just told him I would drink enough for two and cheer loud enough for him to hear no matter where he was. And that if it didn’t work out, well, there was always next year.
On the way out I passed a modest diamond shaped monument on the banks of Lake Willowmere. Others had been there. Scattered on the ground were mementos left like votive offerings to a saint— roses, a “W” towel, and a tattered program from a game played long ago. The polished granite cap was engraved with the number 14 and read “Ernie Banks 1931-2015”.
Leaving Graceland I walked the ½ mile down to the corner of Clark and Addison. I had no tickets. But I needed to see that iconic red sign “Wrigley Field, Home of Chicago Cubs”. I have lived in 10 cities in 6 different states. Never Chicago or even Illinois, but the crossroads felt like a homecoming. The whole of Cubbie nation apparently had the same impulse that morning. Soon I was enmeshed in a sea of blue and white jerseys, of Sandburgs and Santos and Rizzos and Dawsons. That corner was the center of the known universe, and moving through the intersection was like trying to escape its gravity. Once free, I walked Sheffield down to the Nisei Lounge where some friends who had also made the trip were waiting inside. This is a dive bar— black walls, black ceilings, linoleum tile floors, no pretention, no kitchen. No food unless you order delivery. Nisei (“knee-say”) is a Japanese word meaning “2nd generation”, and it describes American born children of Japanese immigrants. It opened in 1951 and was one of the few places Japanese-Americans could gather without scrutiny following WWII. The bar has the oldest continuous liquor license in Wrigleyville, and even it has never seen a World Series that included the Cubs.
The four of us were drinking beer from plastic cups when I heard the question, “Where are you guys from?”
“I’m sorry, did you say Nashville or Naysh-v’l,” he said burying that last syllable in his throat to sound his best genuine hayseed.
“The second one,” I told him.
“And you came all the way up here for a baseball game?”
“How could I not,” I asked him, hung halfway between bemused and insulted. “Y’all serve Old Style on tap up here.”
Game 4 that night would not break our way, giving up 10 runs on 7 hits and 2 errors. I woke up Sunday morning hungover and hazy in a 4th floor walk-up on a friend of a friend’s couch. Looking out the window I could see the ironwork of Wrigley over the treetops and a deserted street below. We were 500 miles from the honky tonks of home, and all I could hear was the hum of Nashville in my ears:
“And there's nothing short of dying that's half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleeping city sidewalk and Sunday morning coming down.”
We spent the morning on the streets with our hands in our pockets and our shoulders drawn up tight against the bite of the wind. The skies grayed, and I broke away to walk the four corners of Wrigley alone. On the corner of Sheffield and Waveland, at the entrance to the outfield bleachers, there is a statue of Harry Caray, who, for 16 years, was the solid, sometimes slurring voice of the team. Someone had left maybe a dozen green apples at its base, an homage to his remark back in 1991 that, “sure as God made green apples someday the Chicago Cubs are gonna be in a World Series, and maybe sooner than we think.” It would take 25 years.
That afternoon we nursed pints at Old Crow while watching Sunday football game clocks tick away. Old Crow is in many ways the antithesis of Nisei Lounge. It is new money in cowboy clothes. There is barnwood and corrugated steel on every surface, modern country music and smoked brisket in the air. This is Texas come boot scootin’ into Wrigleyville. And it marks the new, tourist friendly establishments edging into the neighborhood. From the roof of Old Crow you can survey the change underway at the corner of Addison and Clark where an entire block has been razed to make way for a development called (unimaginatively) Addison & Clark— 148 apartment units and 146,000 sq. ft. of retail space due to open in 2018. After what seemed like an interminable length of time the evening sky darkened above the glass roof and we braced ourselves for what storm would come. With the Cubs down in the series 3-1 Sunday’s game would either be the final nail in a quickly closing coffin or a celebration of the first World Series game won at Wrigley since the Truman administration.
By the time Wayne Messmer’s baritone sang out, “O say can you see…” Old Crow was far beyond its capacity of 900. I found a few linear inches of bar space and shoehorned myself in just in time for first pitch. Next to me was a trio of college students all wearing brand new jerseys of brand new stars. They considered themselves more football fans, but the Cubs, at least for them, for this summer, had made baseball exciting again. Beer is the currency of barroom diplomacy, and so I bought the kids a round. When I had to hit the bathroom they would spread their elbows and swallow up my real estate until I returned.
Watching Game 5 that night was exhausting as though every pitch contained the fate of all things. Hands troubled half full glasses shifting them around to no purpose over the lacquered bar top. The score swung. We swung with it until after more than 3 hours the Cubs took a 3-2 lead into the 9th. The air was combustible. And with Aroldis Chapman on the mound throwing 103 mph the charge was set. When he hurled strike three past a swinging Jose Ramirez it was as though the sky had cracked. Stranger hugging stranger; kisses and high fives. The loudspeakers blared Steve Goodman’s Go Cubs Go, and we sang our voices hoarse and ragged in a drunken victory choir. Too loud to hear even my own self sing.
You might have thought we’d won the whole damn thing. We hadn’t even tied the series. Not yet. But in that moment, after 71 years of waiting, for legions of beleaguered Cubs fans one win at home was enough.
The Cubs would board a plane to Cleveland. I traveled home to Tennessee. No, I did not carry home memories of a championship. That would have to wait. What I did witness was something so many have not had the privilege of living to see— a city electric with hope, a communal awe. On Tuesday night Game 6 played out as though a Game 7 was something preordained. Chicago lept to a 7-0 lead by the 4th inning, and with 108 years of history chasing them did not even pause to look over their shoulders. 24 hours later the season and a century was reduced to one game. It had to be such as this, for the gods and ghosts of our grandfathers would see it no way other. That day I found it near impossible to focus on anything existing in the present moment. Because when you are 26 years old there really is always next year. But now at 40, these years, this history, is no longer weightless. Time has an accountable mass. A thing to be carried. And so when I got home just before Dexter Fowler stepped into the batter’s box and my 8 year old daughter stepped out wearing her Cubs socks and Kris Bryant t-shirt I kissed her forehead and smiled. I knew what the night meant even if she could not. “I hope the Cubs win tonight for two reasons,” she told me, “One, I want to see them win the World Series, and two, I want to see you cry.”
Fowler led off by putting the 4th pitch of the game over the centerfield wall. I allowed myself to get too comfortable, became too optimistic with a team that doesn’t historically reward optimism. But fortune followed fortune until Chicago carried a 5-1 lead into the 5th. Suddenly all those hand held signs in Chicago, the ones that read “It’s Gonna Happen”, didn’t look so brazen. The team looked like the same that had won 103 regular season games by following a mantra of playing loose and in the moment— “Try not to suck.” It looked inevitable almost. But Maddon, the manager and mechanic of this finely tuned machine heedlessly tinkered with the levers and dials, put his fingers into the path of moving parts. There was a succession of curious pitching changes— Hendricks out for Lester, Lester out for Chapman, and the machine got out of rhythm. The gears jammed. The apparatus stalled. And in the 8th inning, 4 outs shy of a championship, we watched the Indians’ Rajai Davis put a 2-2 pitch into the left field seats to tie the game. Billy goats and black cats resurrected in a single swing. Old mythologies as fact.
But then the rain.
If baseball is theater then the infield tarp rolling out was the curtain coming down, calling intermission just as the plot unraveled. “It’s actually not gonna happen,” I smoldered as my family sat in a dumbstruck silence. Tears gathered in my daughter's eyes. My wife just left the room. My son, our youngest, fell asleep next to me on the couch. Time inched. After a 17 minute delay the skies cleared, the tarp was rolled up, the curtain lifted.
“You will always remember this,” I told my kids, now both awake long past their bedtime, “no matter how it ends.”
The Indians players ran out to their positions on the field as my daughter hugged her knees tight to her chest and sighed, “I hope it ends well,”
I smiled down at them both. “We always do.”
And for the first time in a long time it did.