Monday, April 6, 2009

The 2009 Cubs: Wake Me in October--Late, Late October

The 2009 baseball season is officially under way, and I, for one, couldn’t care less. You see, I’m a recovering Cubs fan.

These are actually heady times for Cubs fans—back-to-back playoff appearances, four or five overall this decade alone. The last time Cubs fans talked about that kind of postseason consistency was about the last time there was no corruption in Illinois government; roughly, never.

But many in Cub Nation are licking their chops at the prospect of a third straight division crown and another shot at fall glory.

Not me.

What was it George W. Bush said? “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, and you can’t get fooled again”? Whatever it was, I’ve been fooled way too many times as a fan of the boys in blue. I was born just three years after the Wreck of the Old ’69, so I never had to deal with that firsthand. I remember the Cubs teams of the late ‘70’s and early ‘80’s that featured players who were barely qualified to walk upright, let alone play pro baseball.

And then 1984 came. It was a magical year, a magical year. They got Rick Sutcliffe in June, and he proceeded to mow down the National League on his way to a 16-1 record and a Cy Young Award. A kid named Ryne Sandberg burst onto the national scene with an “oh-no-he dih-n’t” 2-home run performance against Bruce Sutter and the hated Cardinals on national TV, back when being on national TV meant people actually watched. That game won him the MVP award that season. You had Dernier and Moreland, Jo-dy-Jo-dy-Jo-dy Davis, Durham and Sarge Matthews, the wily vets Larry Bowa and the Penguin, Ron Cey, as well as future Hall of Fame closer Lee Smith. They clinched in early September—the 9th, if my memory serves me correctly. It was a Wednesday night, I think, because I came home just in time from a church thing to see Sutcliffe strike out the final Pirate of a complete game. I remember watching Jim Frey and the rest of the team charge out of the dugout in wild celebration. There were more Cubs fans than Pirates fans in the old Three Rivers Stadium that night, and several of them held up a long banner that read “39 YEARS OF SUFFERING IS ENOUGH!”, which was a reference to the Cubs’ last postseason appearance in 1945. It seemed like an eternity for a 12-year old boy to wait between the clincher and the playoffs.

The Cubs didn’t have lights at Wrigley back then, so I remember running home from the bus stop to catch the end of the first two games on TV. We had been listening on portable radios in school, but it was worth the sprint home to see the red, white and blue bunting on the brick walls at Wrigley on a day other than the opener. And, of course, the Cubs walloped the Padres 13-0 in the opener, and won the second game of the best-of-five series as well. One more win in three games in San Diego, and the Cubs would have been in the World Series for the first time in a generation. I won’t recount what happened, but suffice it to say, if I ever meet Steve Garvey in person—I don’t care if he’s 80—I’m going to kick him in the nuts. (Of course, I might not be the only one waiting in line to do that). I watched game 5 with my best friend Dave at his house, and we were crushed. Twelve year old boys aren’t supposed to cry, certainly not in front of each other. But we bawled like, well, like girls.

Fast forward a few years past the 1989 and 1998 teams to 2003. I had officially entered the category of “long suffering” Cubs fan, having passed my thirtieth birthday without so much as a first-round National League playoff series win. Everything came together that year. A mature Wood and a young kid named Mark Prior were blowing batters away. Sammy Sosa was hitting balls that would have gotten out of Denali National Park. Dusty Baker, a champion player and renowned manager was at the helm. The Cubs blew by the first round playoff opponent so easily, I don’t even remember who it was. And they earned a 3-1 NLCS series lead against the Marlins, which came from a state that didn’t have professional baseball until ten minutes before September of that year. The Cubs were cruising along behind Prior, just five outs away from the first Chicago World Series since 1959, and the first for the Cubs in 58 years. Then, somebody popped a ball along the Wrigley Field foul line that drifted over the stands and back toward left field. Moises Alou thought he should have been able to catch it, were it not for a fan’s mitt getting in the way—threw his glove down like a child not getting his way. He might’ve been able to catch that ball, but it was not likely. The fan took a lot of heat, mostly because of Alou’s reaction. If Alou just trots back to left field, nobody ever knows who Steve Bartman is. I didn’t blame Bartman at the time and still don’t. But right then, I knew it was over.

The Cubs had a chance to get out of it with limited damage, but the normally reliable Latino-shortstop-du-jour booted a tailor-made double play ground ball and the Marlins came back to win. The Cubs still had a 3-2 series lead, with Kerry Wood set to pitch one more time. But I knew it was over. Predictably, they lost the final two games and Wrigleyville became a Necropolis. After the game 7 loss, I felt just like I did when I was 12, minus the tears. Men don’t cry, you know, and even if they did, we had since learned that there is no crying in baseball.

Fast forward again, past Prior’s spectacular flame-out and Sosa’s unceremonious departure from town, to 2007. The Cubs had a good team, one that could have won the NL pennant. They got swept by the Diamondbacks in the first round of the playoffs. I was pretty upset, but I knew they’d learn from that series, that they’d be bringing back some very good players and that 2008—the 100-year anniversary of the Cubs’ last World Series victory—was destined to be the year.

They had a great season again, ending up with the best record in the National League and a healthy Kerry Wood dominating at closer. Everyone was predicting a cakewalk to a World Series title. But, impossibly (yet inevitably), for the second consecutive year, they got swept by an NL West team, the Dodgers, in the first round of the playoffs. You could tell from the first pitch of that series that they were going to lose, if not get swept again.

That’s when I got off the bandwagon. I was going to burn my Cubs hat in a symbolic divorce from the team, but for some reason decided against it. But I’m done. I am no longer a Cubs fan. I don’t care about the upcoming season. I don’t care that they signed so-and-so, that so-and-so looks so much better this year, that so-and-so is poised for a breakout season. I just don’t care. I’m not going to get emotionally invested in a team that I know is going to punch me in the stomach again. I just can’t do it. 2003 was gut-wrenching, but 2008 ended with more of a somber finality. It was like watching a beloved grandparent who had been painfully, terminally ill finally slip away. There was sadness, but mostly relief that the suffering was over. You could peacefully say goodbye.

And that’s what I’ve done with the Cubs. I’ve said goodbye. I’ve let them peacefully slip away. I don’t wish them ill will like I do the White Sox or Cardinals (or Padres, for that matter). I don’t hate them. I hope they do well, I really do. But they’ll have to do it without me. I won’t be rooting for anyone else—that’d be silly and icky, like somebody moving to another city and suddenly becoming a big fan of his or her new hometown’s team, one that just “happens” to contend every year and win on occasion. The only way I’d become interested again is if it’s game four of the NLCS (I don’t care if the Cubs win the Series, just like Pop Fisher only wanted Roy Hobbs to get him a NL pennant in The Natural) and the Cubs have a 3-0 series lead, a 10-0 lead in the ninth inning and the other team down to its final out with no one on base. But I know they’ll never be that assured of victory, and so, I won’t be back. Many baseball experts and casual fans alike are again predicting them to win the NL this year, but I know better.

After all, fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, and you can’t get fooled again.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Quiet, Please

I wrote just a few weeks ago about how I've fallen off on my blog writing. I started out last fall completely gung-ho, wanting to share my thoughts and ideas with the world, to encourage conversation on meaningful topics, and to occasionally offer a humorous glance at the truly absurd and those overly serious-types that need a little tweak now and then.

But since the new year started, which happened on or about January 1st, I've really struggled with my motivation to write. And I couldn't pinpoint why.

However, in the solitude of the car over the past couple days, I think I've come to terms with why I don't want to engage on any topics: there's just too much noise.

You see, the nature of the world today is such that people more than ever seem to think they're entitled to hammer others with their opinions, convinced that only their opinions are the right ones. And more often than not, people are so zealously sharing their convictions, their rhetoric ends up coming out in derisive, divisive, hateful sound bites, either vocally or in print. The worst part about it is that it's usually loud, both in actual decibel level and in hyperbolic excess, so much so that they can't hear or understand anyone else's position over the noise, especially when done from behind the anonymity of the internet.

What's even more criminal is that when people get to that point, they don't want to see if there's some middle ground out there, because the position--or the person--they're arguing against must be completely idiotic for having that opposite opinion.

Don't believe me? Check any online edition of any newspaper that offers a reader comment section. Then, find a story about politics, either local or national. Then, scroll down and read the comments from readers. There are usually a couple thoughtful remarks, but a lot of the time, it ends up degenerating into truly mean-spirited partisanship. If you really don't believe me, I point you to an online story in today's Bloomington (Illinois) Pantagraph, about the new federal tobacco tax that is going to be taking effect.

You'll have to trust me when I say this particular set of comments is actually pretty civil, based on what usually gets said. I've perused some other papers' websites and this kind of "discourse" is pretty much par for the course.

Turn on FOX News, or FOX Nation, or whatever they're calling themselves this week. Turn on MSNBC. Turn on Nancy Grace. Turn on Rush Limbaugh or Keith Olbermann. Read Ann Coulter. Turn on any program that features any of the spin doctors talking about any issue. They're all convinced that they're right and that not only is the rest of the world wrong, but that everyone else int he world are complete idiots. Granted, they (usually) don't come right out and say it, but the implication is there. They so tightly and blindly hang onto old ideologies that they can't see anything but the glow of their own auras in front of them. (I hold up Karl Rove as an example, who was smugly asking the other night what would be wrong with GM or AIG failing. I thought to myself, "Self, I wonder what he would be thinking if he were suddenly out of work, and found out that his 401(k) had been raided, and that the CEO of the company he just got laid off from got a $20 million golden parachute. I wonder if he'd be abstaining from collecting unemployment on principle. I wonder if he'd be standing there during the foreclosure proceedings on his house, thinking, 'Gosh, the system works. I deserve this for not saving more and investing better, for not getting a better degree, getting into a more secure job in a more secure field.'" He just doesn't consider the possibility that there might be a reason for a different opinion, other than idiocy.)

The last straw came as I was driving around for work the other day, some people on the radio on some talk show were expressing outrage over some topic. And it happened that I agreed with them, but, suddenly, I just couldn't take it anymore. I couldn't take the polarization. I couldn't take the divisiveness. I couldn't take that there was merely a decent prospect and not a 100% chance of returning back to a dull roar, let alone a normal conversation. I wanted quiet and I wanted peace. I wanted--I want--everyone to stop screaming at each other. And, to put on my Veruca Salt tights, I want it now.

(You might say, no, idiot, you're overreacting. People aren't screaming at each other, they're just having a vigorous, yet civil exchange of ideas. I would disagree. I've been involved in vigorous, yet civil exchanges of ideas [right, Mikey?], and the garbage that takes place in the aforementioned forums is not in the same area code as civil.)

So instead of just railing about something without offering an alternative, as so many bloggers/posters/politicians like to do, I propose the following:

I think everybody should listen to more classical music.

In fact, I instituted that rule in my house a few weeks ago when my kids had been on a streak of being truly awful for an unusually long period of time. No Hannah Montana, no High School Musical, no Jonas Brothers, not even Delilah on Magic 100.7 when they go to bed at night. In the car, whenever we're all together, during dinner, only classical music is allowed. The television is also off limits, at least for the kids, unless special permission has been granted. I'm trying to promote an atmosphere that's more harmonious, one that's calmer, more polite, more civil, more peaceful. One that's less Blagojevich. In other words, can't we all just get along?

I think the wonder that is classical music can help effect that change not only in my own home and my own attitude, but in this 24/7 battle for ideological supremacy.

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't know what this ultimately means for my blogging. None of the discussion here has been the slightest bit contentious--every comment, every respondent, has been thoughtful, insightful, intelligent and respectful of others' opinions. If the whole world would function like that, I think I'd remain more engaged. I think most people would become more engaged. But to be constantly bombarded with the implication that you're an idiot not only by experts, but by John Q. Anonymous as well, has to be extremely daunting. I don't want to disengage completely; I just want people to be engaged more civilly--and to quote, ugh, Michael Jackson--I'm starting with the man in the mirror.

Maybe more Mozart and less Limbaugh* could start that. Who's with me?

* I use "Limbaugh" only for its alliterative value--I could just as easily have said "Olbermann" here. They are both complete blowholes--read nothing into the fact I picked the conservative one.