Winning in the Worst Year
It’s strange television to be watching the Cubs triumph in the fall of 2016, which is to say, in the fall of the worst year ever. It’s not actually the worst year ever, I know that—but it does feel, globally speaking, like the worst or at least the scariest year that I’ve been alive. I mean, consider: climate change moves horrifyingly forward; medical technology did not keep Prince or Bowie alive; recording technology did not keep the police from killing anyone; beet recipes are everywhere; and Trump may lose but will also, it is clear, have offered a structure for cruelty that will persist long after Hillary is in the oval office. Every woman I know is bracing for four or more years of daily evidence that not only will winning the role of leader of the free world not protect you, as a woman, from sexual assault, it will in fact make you more vulnerable to it, will make the attacks on your human worth more spectacular, more regular, more mundane. I am an optimist but I have struggled this year to fight the feeling that the world is getting worse.
And yet: in the face of it all, the Cubs continue to win. For me and for several of my friends, a tribe of deeply politicized expatriate Midwesterners, this means a vertiginous experience of the news: Trump’s insults against Bill Murray’s tears; pussy-grabbing against eighth-inning grand slams. We watched the third presidential debate on one screen and NLCS game 4 simultaneously on another: did we cheer louder for the Cubs’ ten runs or for Hillary’s epic recounting of her last thirty years? It’s unclear. What was clear was the pleasure, the rare-this-year gift, of feeling that rightness was pulling forward, articulating itself, and winning. As a friend and I agreed, making our plans for the opening game of the World Series tonight: a win for the Cubs would be a win for humans everywhere.
That feeling of rightness, attached as it is to the Cubs, is by one account clearly absurd. Let me say, as a third-generation Cubs fan, that I have little defense against the argument that the Cubs are absolutely the worst. We all know how this argument goes: the Cubs market to their fans a sort of sanitized Americana, a nostalgia without history, diversity, or tension. (In this Cubs America, for instance, even Aroldis Chapman, the public face of the MLB’s domestic violence problem, is scrubbed clean—more of 2016’s evidence, if we needed any, of the vulnerability of women to powerful men.) This version of America is particularly appealing to the self-satisfied white people who venture into Lakeview from the suburbs—I think always of The Onion’s Area Man, who “enjoys, causes, the blues”—so daringly taking the train to a carefully manicured portion of a city otherwise brutalized by the destructive economic policies of Rahm and Rauner: how they brave they are, coming into this smug substitute for an urban space! It’s hard not to hate them, even when you are one of them. It’s almost easier to love Wrigley, I have found, from my Los Angeles neighborhood, less than a mile from Dodger Stadium, where you can layer this city’s version of baseball fandom palimpsestically over Chicago’s aggressively white one, than it is within the “friendly confines” (gross) themselves.
When you put it this way, it’s hard to imagine how the Cubs’ march through the National League Championship Series, their defeat of the beautiful Dodgers, could, in any way, be a counter balance to 2016’s grimness. I know my friends and I were not the only Cubs fans watching both the game and the debate. I imagine that for many of those other fans, cheering for the Cubs feels like Making America Great Again. The America that the Cubs market: shouldn’t we worry that it’s Trump’s too?
I can tell you all this—everything bad about the Cubs has been said to me many times—and I won’t deny that it’s true. Yet it feels to me like not the whole truth. My goal here isn’t to refute the anti-Cub argument, offer some counter claim, muster some defense, but just to report: being a Cubs fan feels good to me. It feels good! It feels like it’s pushing back against Trump’s nihilism, rather than nurturing it. I am not saying that the feeling of goodness offers us some interpretive insight into the Cubs: that if their victories feel good, they are good. I'm saying that that feeling of pleasure seems itself to me a world-making kind of gift, at a moment when the world feels like it’s breaking down.
My story of loving the Cubs is as familiar as the criticisms of them. Growing up in rural Iowa, our family’s long tie to the Cubs didn’t feel like marketed Americana, it felt like a tie to something complex and urban and diverse and real. It was the 80s, Reagan was horrifying, I did not feel good about America but I felt good about the Cubs. I felt good about Harry Caray and WGN, even though I did not want to actually watch many Cubs games, and even though I spent most of my childhood summers trying to wrest control of our TV away from my brother, who was (unlike me) actually a fan of a sport, rather than an idea. What was the idea? It was an idea about integrity and saturation and continuity, of fulsome experience: being a Cubs fan, I felt part of something that was bigger than myself, and beautiful.
Was it? I don’t know. Brick and ivy are beautiful. Jody Davis was beautiful, and so was my brother sleeping under his Ryne Sandberg poster. My mother and my uncle and me and all my cousins, my aunt and my grandparents and my dad, all lined up on the train, heading to Wrigley. Hoping was beautiful.
Losing was beautiful. Losing makes a different kind of nostalgia possible. Across many generations of fans, loving the Cubs has been a consistently gutting kind of experience, which is its own kind of pleasure. This weekend I visited my grandmother in her nursing home, and her dementia is such that she did not really remember me, but she smiled in recognition at an old picture of my brother, then a toddler, in a Cubs t-shirt. When I told her the Cubs were winning, her eyes got wide with amazement. “Oh!” she said with quavering wonder. “Really?” Do you see what I mean about 2016? When the Cubs won on Saturday, did you call your grandmother too?
Rooting for the Cubs still feels good for me, despite everything—everything that the Cubs are, and everything that’s going on now. In fact, I suppose it feels good especially because of everything that’s going on now, this bright coherence in the midst of everything that’s frayed this fall. How magical! Because after all, what we really hope for, in sports, is a story: we hope to feel the force of narrative, the force of meaning, a force that feels like God, impose itself on the chaotic realities of our lives. What happens in a game is random, just like life is: games don’t care about good guys or bad guys, and they can never promise that the talented player will live up to their capacity or that what you hope for can be delivered. They cannot be polled, or audience tested. That is what makes them games. And that is why it feels so restorative when something truly beautiful happens — like the double play that ended game six — at the perfect time. Watching the Cubs win this year, these last few weeks especially, has felt like order pushing back against chaos: a deus ex machina for the soul that we have to find believable, because it is happening before our eyes. A year that felt unrelentingly grim, finally felt less so.
It’s impossible to know what will happen in the future. It seems like Hillary will win; the Cubs might. Tonight the World Series will start, and the Cubs might lose to Cleveland. Cleveland! This fragile architecture of right feeling that has built up throughout these epic last few games, may well all come crashing down. If that happens, or if that doesn’t, nothing terrible in the world will really change, nor will it improve.
And yet what I will take from the National League championship, regardless of what happens in the World Series, is a reminder that winning can feel something other than pyrrhic. Trump has so successfully managed to frame the election with his spite that I had almost forgotten that part of what he is unleashing is possible because other kinds of progress are happening. He had made even victories feel like defeats. And the joyful, loose play of the Cubs, their pleasure in each other, the array of ways their success illuminates them — Hendricks’s professorial calm, Baez’s everything — has reminded me that in dark times, winning is something it is possible to enjoy.
In the bottom of the eighth inning of the NLCS game one, when Montero hit his grand slam to not only protect the Cubs’ lead but push it into safe territory, I yelled with delight and then stared aghast at my cheering son in his Cubs hat. “Do not get used to this!” I admonished. “This is not what happens!”
In the broadest sense, that’s true. My children are growing up in a world full of terrors, where nevertheless Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have the chance to win elections, and the Cubs go to the World Series. None of these are pure victories, all of them are riven with cruelties. We’re all standing on a darkling plain, ignorant armies and goat curses everywhere. And yet, that moment happened! Let’s never forget: it felt good.
2016: play ball,