In preparation for tonight’s first game of the World Series, I’d like to announce to any Milwaukeean inclined to do so: It’s all right to root for the Cubs. I’m a Milwaukeean, and I’ve been doing it all year.
The obvious reason is history. There have been so many disappointments over the years – most poignantly in 1984 and 2003, when the Cubs needed just one more win to make the World Series but then lost three games in a row to fall short. Both years, there was talk of fate, and the goat-owner’s curse. The story of the Cubs this year – even if Cleveland beats them in the Series, I would argue – is a parable about how you can let go of the deeply held thought that you’re destined to lose. We can all benefit from that parable.
But there’s also Milwaukee history to consider. Modern Major League baseball has been here only since 1953, when the Braves arrived from Boston. Before that, we were Cubs fans. My dad, who grew up here in the ‘30s and ‘40s, followed the Cubs on WGN radio, when Milwaukee was part of Chicagoland, at least on the airwaves. That was a good team he followed, too, with such future Hall-of-Famers as Gabby Hartnett, Kiki Cuyler and Billy Herman. Dad was born in 1925, and before he turned 21, the Cubs were in the World Series five times (admittedly losing all five, to the A’s, Yankees, Tigers, Yankees and Tigers). Of course that last time was 1945, THE last time, before this year.
I know it can be irritating when Chicago fans fill up Miller Park during Cubs-Brewers games, and the cheers are louder for Cubs rallies than for the Brewers. And I have to admit, I got pretty pissed off this season when these people had the bad manners to boo Ryan Braun in his own stadium. (Luckily, Braun was able to answer, on several occasions, with home runs. In the future, consider that, Cubs fans.) But in September, the rebuilding Brewers won five of seven games from the best team in baseball. And after one of those victories, the Cubs’ laid-back, straightforward manager, Joe Maddon, declined Chicago media’s attempts to blame the defeat on Cubs failures and instead heaped praise on a number of Milwaukee’s up-and-comers. That took some of the sting out of a losing season.
And face it: We are still part of Chicagoland. One of the things I’ve always loved about Milwaukee is our humility. We have Chicago to thank for that, in large part. People in a lot of cities (New York, San Francisco, Washington, L.A.) can be deluded into thinking their home is the center of the known universe. Just 90 miles up the road from a metropolis that dwarfs us – a place that itself bristled at being called the Second City, which it no longer is — that’s just not possible here.
Another thing I love about Milwaukee: You get to listen to three baseball teams on the radio. I do listen to the Brewers, and am a Brewers fan. But when the Cubs or White Sox are winning, it’s fun to eavesdrop on the conversation. My car radio’s been set on WSCR, which broadcasts Cubs games, for the last several weeks, listening to the endless talk of Bryant and Rizzo, Baez and Russel, Lester and Hendricks. The fears of another fold after their team was shut out by the Dodgers in games 2 and 3 of the National League Championship Series, and the confidence – overconfidence? – these past few days, going into Cleveland. The late, great Chicagoan Mike Royko used to do a column every year before the World Series in which he would analyze which of the two cities with teams in the contest deserved the win more. I suppose it would be Chicago this year, because Cleveland already has the Cavaliers. Of course, as a major Cubs fan who once hatched a plan to make himself president of the team, I suppose he’d have to disqualify himself.
Royko’s one of a long, long list of people about whom you could say, I wish he was here to see this. At the top of that list for me is a friend of mine named Michael, who just loved the Cubs. I went with him to the memorable September game in 1998 when Sammy Sosa, chasing Mark McGwire for the home run record, hit Nos. 64 and 65, but the Cubs lost the game on a three-run error in the ninth. “I clanked it,” said the outfielder who dropped the ball, and post-game Chicago commentators were full of fatalistic dread. (The Cubs did make the post-season that year, but were swept by the Braves in three games. Destiny.) Michael was a brilliant guy, with great compassion and generosity. (For my 60th birthday, he made me a CD of baseball songs and recordings, including “Who’s on First” by Abbot and Costello.) But he struggled for many years with a deep depression, and died alone in his house in January 2015. I think he loved the Cubs partly because they kept him company in his sadness. Gee, how I wish he could see them now, transformed.
Anyway, this year, whenever I wanted to watch the Cubs with company, I dropped by Axel’s Bar at Oakland and Locust, where a number of astute Cubs fans happen to gather. I was there for a little bit of Game 4 of the NLCS, when the Cubs offense finally came alive in a 10-2 win over the Dodgers, and there were high-fives all around. I also dropped in for the last few innings of Game 6, when they convincingly beat the world’s best pitcher and won the pennant for the first time in 71 years. Pandemonium broke out at Axels after the last out (a double-play). One Axel’s regular was in tears; people danced around with a Cubs “W” flag. Amidst the celebration, the young woman who’d brought the flag asked the bartender to plug her phone into the sound system, and we heard over and over, and sang along to, “Go, Cubs, Go!/ Go, Cubs, Go!/ Hey, Chicago, what do you say?/ Cubs are gonna win today.” It suddenly occurred to me that we might be in the process of saying goodbye to the team of star-crossed losers that so many people have loved for so long. So I Googled Steve Goodman on my phone, and found the lead song on Michael’s CD: “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request.” – “Do they still play the blues in Chicago / When baseball season rolls around? / When the snow melts away do the Cubbies still play / In their ivy-covered burial ground?”
The late Steve Goodman – that’s another name for the list of people you wish could see this. But more to the point: Go, Cubs, Go! And thinking of you, Michael.