Have we changed?
Will Leitch, national baseball writer for MLB.com, film critic and general all-around non-fiction writer, makes no secret of the fact that he’s a Cardinals fan. And having grown up in downstate Illinois and having attended the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, he’s had no shortage of contact with Cubs fans in his life. For years, he had predicted that once the Cubs won the World Series, everything would change in Cubsworld. He thought that the Cubs fanbase would undergo the same change in character that he felt the Red Sox nation experienced after they broke their World Series “curse.” His evaluation of the current state of Red Sox fandom is not positive. He thinks Red Sox fans went from praying for a World Championship to demanding more, and often in the most obnoxious ways possible. Red Sox fans, in his estimation, never forgot the decades of insults and chants of “1918.” Now that the Red Sox are on top, they’re out for revenge. Leitch felt that Cubs fans would react in the same way once the Cubs won the World Series.
In a column published last September, Leitch admitted he was wrong about Cubs fans. The article was written early in the month when the Cubs were struggling, but most people outside of Wisconsin were fairly confident that the Cubs would hold off the Brewers for the NL Central title. Of course that didn’t happen, and I think that’s instructive.
Leitch’s description of his impression of Cubs fans after 2016 borders far more on contentment than Boston obnoxiousness. He admits that Cubs fans were “grouchier” in 2018 than they were in 2017 (and he was writing before game 163 and the Wild Card game) but he makes it clear that we Cubs fans, in his Cardinals’ fan estimation, have not gone down the same path as Red Sox fans.
Those comments struck me at the time although I didn’t write about them since we were all too focused on more pressing matters rather than dealing with what a Cardinals fan wrote about Cubs fans. But I think the question that Leitch raises is a good one. Now two years removed from the Cubs’ last title, are we as a fanbase any different than we were in 2015?
Let’s stipulate that we’re dealing in generalities here. Cubs fans come in all kinds of different packages. The comment section here is evidence of that. Cubs fans come in all different sizes and shapes. They come in all different races, religions and genders. There are Cubs fans that polite and demure while others are rude and obnoxious. While they are centered in the Chicagoland area specifically and the Three-I states (Iowa, Illinois, Indiana) in general, Cubs fans are found throughout the world.
But just like dogs come in poodles, golden retrievers, mastiffs and hundreds of other breeds, they’re all still dogs. (And what good dogs they are!) Although doing so is dangerous, I’m going to generalize here about what characteristics unite Cub fans, because I’m not going to have an article unless I do.
To start, there are the gifts of Philip K. Wrigley, the eccentric recluse who owned the Cubs for more than four decades. Much of the Cubs fanbase is the result of decisions made by Wrigley. One is that “beautiful” Wrigley Field would be a cathedral of baseball and a sacred place whether or not the Cubs were winning. Two is that day baseball was holy and superior to night baseball. And the third is that the games would all be available on WGN television and radio.
Obviously the third tenet is going away and the second one is under assault. This will have an impact on what it means to be a Cubs fan going forward. What that impact will be is for future generations to decide.
The other defining characteristic of being a Cubs fan is 1908 and the 108-year title drought. Every Cubs fan has been defined by their devotion to a team that had not delivered the reward of a title to anyone during their lifetime. Only the oldest of Cubs fans could even remember the last National League pennant before 2016.
The media and those outside of the Cubs fanbase liked to describe the team as the “lovable losers,” a phrase much-detested around here. Unlike what many believed, Cubs fans never wanted to lose, nor were we all that lovable about it. Certainly we loved the Cubs unconditionally and we always found a place for them in our hearts no matter how bad they were. But we never found happiness in losing. We found happiness despite losing.
Because I spent more time in a university than anyone really should, I can best explain this by turning to Greek mythology. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind. For this, he was punished by being chained to a rock and having his liver eaten every day by eagles. Then the liver would re-grow overnight and be consumed again the next day.
As Cubs fans, we can see the parallel. Babe Ruth’s “called shot.” Hank Borowy’s disastrous Game 7 start, the Miracle Mets, the ball going through Leon Durham’s legs, Will Clark, Moises Alou and Alex Gonzalez failing to make plays in Game 6. All of these had to feel like an eagle ate our liver. Even Rajai Davis’ home run had to feel like the raptors were tearing our flesh again, even if it turned out to be a false alarm. But in all cases, our liver grew back and we returned to the rock, full of hope that one day Hercules (or Kris Bryant) would set us free. The pain would be worth it in the end, we were sure.
(And while it’s a coincidence, the Cubs franchise was born in fire. The 1871 White Stockings had their season interrupted by the Great Chicago Fire and then took two years off while the city recovered. The team resumed play in 1874 and founded the National League in 1876, dominating the sport for the next 15 years and then again from 1906 to 1910.)
So the ability to deal with pain was one way to define the experience of being a Cubs fan. But I turn to a different Greek myth to illustrate the other. Sisyphus was also punished for disobeying the gods. forced to push a boulder up a hill only to see it roll down the other side. Then Sisyphus would have to chase after the boulder and push it back up the hill again. The struggle never ended.
Sisyphus is probably most often referenced nowadays through French novelist Albert Camus’ essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Camus uses Sisyphus to point out the correct path for dealing with the absurdity of existence. For Camus, Sisyphus found meaning in the meaningless through the struggle. In the moment that the rock rolled down the other side of the hill, Camus believed that Sisyphus was given the reprieve necessary to contemplate his existence. Camus famously concludes that we must assume that Sisyphus was happy.
(By the way, Camus wrote this as part of a larger argument as to why suicide was the wrong answer to the absurdity of life. He also wrote it during that Nazi occupation while he was a part of the French underground. This doesn’t have much to do with what it means to be a Cubs fan, but it does give some insight into the world that Camus was dealing with. It also proves that Camus was a badass.)
Yet Cubs fans really didn’t react to the Sisyphean task of winning a World Series in the way Camus’ suggested. Camus said to embrace the struggle and acknowledge the absence of any purpose or goal. Cubs fans did embrace the beauty of the struggle, but we never felt the struggle was more important than the goal of winning.
Cubs fans failed to acknowledge the absurdity of their situation and instead took their cue from a more pop philosopher: Charlie Brown. Charlie Brown took the field every game with the expectation that he would win. Sure, he had an outfielder who was uninterested in catching the ball. She’d rather flirt with the catcher, who would rather be playing Beethoven on a toy piano than actually catching. One player couldn’t see the ball for all the dust that surrounded him. Another took a blanket out into the field with him. His shortstop was a beagle.
Yet Charlie Brown never lost hope. And that’s what defined the Cubs fan over the 108-year drought. Sure, the team was a mess, but that beagle could hit a bit. That kid’s blanket could snare a line drive from time to time. Maybe if this time everything fell right, Charlie Brown’s team could finally win. They never did, but he never lost hope that they one day they would.
Charles Schulz was a Giants fan, but that response of hope in the face of absurdity defines the Cubs fan in my mind. (And Giants and Cubs fans actually have a lot in common. The Giants won plenty of titles in New York, but they never won one in San Francisco before 2010. By then, the team at the Polo Grounds was as distant to them as Tinker-to-Evers-to-Chance was to Cubs fans. And much farther away geographically.)
So what happened in 2016 was that the Cubs finally got that rock to stay at the top of the hill. (Yes, I know that wasn’t what Sisyphus was supposed to do. He was just supposed to push it from one side to the other in eternal torment. But myths change to accommodate new circumstances.) After 108 years, the Cubs finally accomplished the impossible. So what was there to do then? Really, nothing other than knock the boulder back down the hill and start all over again.
So to answer the question, that’s why I don’t think Cubs fans have changed much. Maybe a little, but not much. Sure, expectations are higher now. We used to complain about the Cubs not having a payroll in the top ten of baseball. Now we complain that the Cubs’ payroll isn’t in the top three. We expect that we won’t have to wait another 108 years for another title, but we still expect that the eagles will eat our livers, as they did in the final two games of the 2018 season. Were we angry, sad and disappointed? Yes. But we knew those two losses don’t define us any more now than all those other losses did. What defined us was the willingness to go on in the face of those losses.
I don’t think we as Cubs fans will ever lose the appreciation of the struggle. Yankees fans expect titles. Red Sox fans now demand them. Dodgers fans are just puzzled why they don’t have one recently. Cubs fans still just hope for a title. Even if the Cubs win three more World Series titles in the next 15 years, I don’t think that’s going to change much.