The perks of being a perpetually disappointed Cubs fan—until last night

We’re used to dropping the ball.
We’re used to dropping the ball.
Image: AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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There’s a pretty creepy meme floating around the internet today. It’s a yearbook photograph of a kid named Michael Lee from 1993, captioned with his senior quote:

“Chicago Cubs. 2016 World Champions. You heard it here first.”

I don’t know if this was a crazy coincidence, or if Michael Lee is some kind of clairvoyant. What I do know is that the guy isn’t from Chicago. Because until their World Series victory against the Cleveland Indians last night, there were approximately three things every Chicagoan could be unfailingly certain of: there will still be snow on the ground in May, New York pizza is just an open-face quesadilla, and the Cubs aren’t winning the World Series this year.

* * *

The Cubs are my team for two reasons. The first is obvious: I’m from Chicago. In fact, I spent my early years on the city’s North Side, a stone’s throw from Wrigley Field. A cardboard cutout of Ron Santo loomed over the crib in my very first bedroom on North Paulina Street. I didn’t stand a chance.

The second reason I’m a Cubs fan is, for lack of a less melodramatic term, spiritual. I was hopeless at every sport I tried—soccer, baseball, even horseback riding. I couldn’t get out of my own way, and for most of my life, neither could the Cubs. I related to them in a way I could never relate to the Michael Jordan-era Bulls basketball dynasty. I just couldn’t wrap my head around the concept of such high-caliber competition and inborn talent.

I eventually committed to competitive swimming, and after a few years of stolid mediocrity, was decisively surpassed by most of my peers. I settled into my rightful place at the rear of the pack (school?), finishing sets a good five minutes after nearly everyone in my age-group. Breathing heavily, arms flung every which way, the only way times I appeared even remotely competitive was when I could surreptitiously tug myself along the lane line.

I knew I was terrible and everyone else did too. It was embarrassing and awkward and made me horrifically anxious, but I kept with it for years.

This was, to be fair, partly my parents’ fault. My mom and dad have never allowed for a lot of quitting. But part of it was also self-motivated. I grew up in a sports culture where the journey and the process were valued above the win-loss total. This is a shell you have to grow when your Major League Baseball franchise hasn’t won a World Series in over a century.

Chicago, unlike the football fields of Texas or the hockey rinks of Minnesota, is not a place where athleticism is necessarily framed in terms of being the absolute best. Kids around me played sports because they were good for us—they kept us fit, instilled sportsmanship, and the ability to work with a team. We didn’t play because there was a trophy waiting on the other side for us. We didn’t play to get our photograph in the local paper. Nobody was asking!

Yes, I received my fair share of “participation ribbons” along the way (cruelly conspicuous in their rainbow hue). But even as a child I think I knew, however grudgingly, that those grueling two-a-day practices—which left my hair yellow and crunchy and smelling like Clorox—were more important than where I placed in the competitions. It was predilection for effort—an ability to pour my heart and soul and sweat into something, and not collapse when the end result was less than desirable.

This is how kids growing up in Cubs country over the last 108 years have evolved. The city is a recycling plant for disappointment, swallowing up bitterness and churning out toughness. (Fighting Arctic blasts on the way to school in February plays a part in that too.) I’m better for it, I hope. If anything, it’s a conditioning that has made success taste that much sweeter. And last night was pretty damn sweet.