I remember the first Major League Baseball game I ever attended in person. It was in St. Louis at old Busch Stadium. Cubs vs. Cardinals. It was a September game, and though I remember Rick Sutcliffe as the starter for the Cubs, according to this archive on Baseball Reference, it was likely either Ed Lynch or Steve Trout. I don’t remember who won. The only thing* I really remember vividly was that our seats were at the top of the upper deck — I think they were actually in Illinois.
* Actually, I also remember that a napkin fell in my aunt’s beer, causing her to giggle uncontrollably because it made her cup resemble a toilet.
Apart from being the first game I saw in person, it was also probably the first game I ever watched in its entirety. I declared myself a fan of the Chicago Cubs — breaking the heart of my grandpa, a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan — several years before I actually began actively following baseball. Oh, I’d watch a few minutes of a game now and then when I got home from school in the afternoon, but only after dealing with the disappointment that my favorite cartoons had been preempted by WGN for a sporting event. I didn't even know the rules. The phrase "Last time at bat" would flash across the screen while a batter waited for the pitch, and I thought it meant the batter had fulfilled his quota of at-bats for the day.
My grandma asked me during this period — still incredulous about my Cubs fandom, no doubt — who my favorite player was. Not wanting to be exposed as a poseur, I shot back with the only name I could think of: Larry Bowa. I’d seen his name during a broadcast, and it was easy to remember. "Bowa?" Grandma turned to Grandpa and said, "He’s the shortstop, isn't he?" And I felt deflated, for I couldn't help feeling that I’d made a serious neophyte fan faux pas by choosing a shortstop of all players for a favorite. I didn't know what a shortstop was or what he did on the team. But I knew immediately that I’d better choose a new hero right quick.
This turns out to have been wise — Bowa was a pretty fair player early in his career, but by the time he came to the Cubs, he was near useless. So I made another arbitrary choice, and selected Ryne Sandberg as my favorite. An infinitely better selection, it turns out. I felt no hint of shame in proclaiming him to my grandparents. He remains to this day my favorite player ever.
The 1986 game at Busch Stadium happened at the end of the season, but once 1987 rolled around, I devoted myself entirely to learning the sport of baseball and immersing myself in rooting for the hapless Chicago Cubs. I watched as many games as I could. I became acquainted with the other teams and players. I studied the backs of baseball cards. I bought a Strat-o-matic game and played it all summer. And I cheered for Andre Dawson* as he hit homerun after homerun for the Cubs that year. So while I identified with and rooted for the Cubs mostly in absencia for a few years prior, if I’m honest with myself I have to admit that I really began actively following the Cubs and baseball in 1987. I was twelve years old.
* My clearest memory of Dawson that summer was actually a game when he was facing Eric Show of the Padres and took a fastball to the head. The cameras zoomed in on Dawson’s inert body lying in the batter’s box before suddenly cutting to a shot of Rick Sutcliffe trying to beat the hell out of one of the Padres’ players! Dawson finally got up, and began pushing people out of his way. Harry Caray croaked with delight, "He’s looking for Show! He’s looking for Show!" Poor Eric Show was removed from the field by stadium security for his own safety.
The Cubs have famously not won a World Series since 1908, a mere 105 years ago. And if you talk to Cubs fans, you’ll discover that they intensely feel each of those 105 years. I do not. I've seen the Cubs be a very good team and I've seen them be a very bad team. Mostly frequently, I've seen them be a forgettably mediocre team. But no matter how long it’s been since they won a championship, I've only been paying attention for 26 years. For me, the Cubs’ futility doesn't extend further back than the second Reagan term. Trying to claim that I, as a Cubs fan, somehow have it worse than the fans of other franchises because my team hasn't won the Series since before World War I is intellectually and emotionally dishonest.
Oh, that 105 years makes us a laughingstock, sure. But it’s a meaningless number to me because as far as I’m concerned, nothing counts if it happened before 1987. That stuff is historically interesting, and I enjoy learning about it. But as far as its impact on me as a fan in the moment — pre-1987 is all theoretical.
The Cubs have not won a World Series in the years between 1987 and now. Neither have the New York Mets, Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Nationals (formerly Montreal Expos), Houston Astros, Milwaukee Brewers, Colorado Rockies, San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays, Baltimore Orioles, Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals, Cleveland Indians, Texas Rangers, or Seattle Mariners. Misery loves company.
Roughly half the teams on that list have at least played in a World Series or two in the last 26 years. But they haven’t won. Ask those Cleveland fans if they’re satisfied to have been runners up.
And yet, I know when I sit down to watch the Cubs play a nationally televised game on the insufferable FOX Network — especially if it’s a playoff game — I’m going to have to put up with stories about goats and a list of things that have happened since 1908. The Seattle Mariners have never even played in a World Series, and they’ll probably get treated with more respect the next time they make the playoffs than the Cubs will, even though the Cubs have advanced to the postseason four out of the last fifteen years — not anything to brag about, perhaps, but it’s more often than the Mets have done it.
What FOX doesn't seem to understand is that the Curse of the Billy Goat doesn't resonate with a child of the 1980s. Why should it? Don’t tell me why my team hasn't won since before the Jazz Age; talk about why they haven’t won since before the end of the Cold War. My suffering doesn't begin with Babe Ruth’s "Called Shot". It begins with the Cubs inexplicably trading ace closer Lee Smith for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper. It continues with Larry Himes freezing out Greg Maddux and letting him have his best seasons with the Atlanta Braves (for whom he helped win a World Series). It includes the signings of miserable free agents like Jeff Blauser, Todd Hundley, and Candy Maldonado. And it culminates with Mark Prior, a once-in-a-lifetime pitching talent destroyed by a manager with no clue how to nurture young players.
Oh, and of course there’s Game 6. October 14, 2003. The single worst day of my life as a fan of baseball.
Okay, fine. When it comes right down to it, being a fan of the Chicago Cubs has mostly sucked. But I didn't experience any of that before 1987, and to try to claim pre-1987 pain retroactively would be lame at best. The way the 1984 NLCS went down was heartbreaking, I’m sure. But I wasn't watching. My heart wasn't broken. I did harbor a serious hatred of the San Diego Padres once I learned about the 1984 NLCS, but that’s another matter. That’s empathy. That’s imagining what it must have been like for the already indoctrinated fans who got their hopes up so high, only to have the ball go through Leon Durham’s legs.
And that’s the rub. When I watch the Cubs play next year, I’ll be hoping they can end 27 years of suffering by me, but also 30 years of suffering by those who became fans in 1984. And 45 years of suffering by those who starting watching right before black cat incident. And indeed 69 years of suffering by those who came back from fighting in World War II only to see the Cubs lose the World Series, but assumed they’d probably be back in it the following year. I am a lifelong member of a fraternity that hangs on every short fly ball and laments management that never does anything right. Okay, okay. I get it. It’s not just about me.
Someday the Cubs will reach the promised land. And when it finally happens, I will bask in the glow of my chosen team’s success, but I will also feel relieved for those that have been here longer than me, that this seemingly impossible occurrence actually did come to pass in their lifetimes.
My suffering has been mercifully brief compared to theirs (yours?). But it’s still the only suffering I've got.