In the darkest depths of winter, once the excitement and distraction of the holidays has worn off, long after we’ve begun to forget the smell of ballpark franks, and when we (Chicagoans) remember mournfully the days when we’d mutter that “it’s not the heat, it’s the humidity,” Fan Fests come along.
Last month, over at the Baseball Prospectus main site, Meg Rowley took an interesting look at what makes Fan Fests so captivating. Those who aren’t involved in sports, or don’t understand just how cult-like baseball—especially Cubs baseball—can be, simply don’t understand. “What do you do there?” they ask, unable to grasp the idea that thousands of people would flock to a 1.3 million square foot hotel in the dead of winter just to celebrate what’s to come. “It’s like having a party to celebrate a party that’s three months away,” one person said to me. But it’s so much more than that. Let’s talk about it.
Over this past weekend, the Cubs hosted their 31st annual Cubs Convention at the Sheraton hotel, in Chicago, and anyone and everyone involved with North Side baseball convened in the large Streeterville hotel. It’s the one place were you see all levels of baseball people come together. You see them all in the confines of a large, yet very concentrated area for a weekend celebrating Cubs baseball. It almost feels, in the best way, like a time warp.
I cannot speak for others, but for me convention weekend has become a threefold utopia. I am in the company of fans, co-workers, fellow writers and media members alike. I almost can’t turn a corner without seeing a familiar face. And I love it.
As a Wrigley Field employee, I set foot in the lobby of our designated staff hotel, The W Chicago, and am immediately greeted by my summer family. From there we venture over to the Sheraton where we all adjourn in the Superior Room and I look across a sea of people. These are people that evoke a ticker-tape of memories in me—layers of distinction between us always seem to fade away as quickly as the tan lines our uniforms once left on us did.
I walk through the lobby with my truest self on display. Often, I’ve thought to myself that baseball people must think that I’m a cheery person who always has a smile glued on my face. That’s because whenever I’m around baseball people, all facets and layers of them, I am me and I am happy to be me.
From team doctors and co-workers, to media members and to the few fans you grow to know, even players who remember you if just because of the lanyard around your neck, each of us are part of why we all love what we do. We are all in attendance for different reasons, yet we are all under one roof, and we share something that words aren’t needed to describe.
But we are all sharply hit with a reminder of why we love what we love: baseball. We don’t even need the game just yet, though we do want it. We don’t need the smell of the frankfurters and beer, or the sweltering heat of the summer (though in mid-January sometimes we long for that more than the baseball itself). We just need the notion that halfway through the journey, when we stand isolated with neither the end nor the beginning quite clearly in focus yet, we are not all that isolated at all. All of us feel that way. Everyone from Kris Bryant’s smiling face, to the bubbly little girl who just met Clark the Cub.
Cubs fans are the most superstitious group of sports fans you will ever come across. From goats and He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named to Ronnie Woo Woo and helmet rubs, Cubs fans have seen and come up with it all. And they have good reason to. When an organization hasn’t come away with the gold in 107 years, fans are bound to let their mind succumb to the idea of curses and omens. The momentum that the Cubs left fans with at the end of the 2015 is still fresh in their minds, and with the progress that has been made in 2016, I can assure you that the feeling in the air at the Sheraton this year was unmatched by any other Fan Fest.
There wasn’t just a feeling of longing for the season to begin that you probably would get at any Fest. Instead, there was a feeling of hope. That’s something that Cubs fans are familiar with in many ways, whether it be in the most jaded form of the word, or the most innocent and childlike sense of it. The latter was what was felt this weekend.
Being more of a spectator this weekend than an attendee, I watched how these events played out with intrigue. Watching three of the most notable security guards at the ballpark attempt to escort Anthony Rizzo and Bryant less than 20 yard to their destination, while being swarmed by onslaughts of adoring and starstruck fans, is really something to witness. It keenly reminds you of the magnitude of all of this.
So does hearing that fans attempted to be the first in John Lackey’s autograph line by arriving outside the exhibition hall doors at 4 am. These things happen at every Fan Fest, but that’s mainly due to the hopes we have about meeting those we see on the field in the flesh, to get a glimpse of who they are and what demeanor they take on right before your eyes. For Cubs fans, it’s much more than that, though. These people aren’t just looking to meet these players due to their celebrity. They’re Cubs fans looking to come in contact with the men who could potentially save them, from whatever it is that they believe in. The curse. The past. The idea behind “just one before I die.” Baseball fandom can be weird. But Cubs fandom is a special kind of weird. It’s a rational kind of weird that is to be pardoned.
As I stood in the ballroom on Saturday for the morning panels, I realized that for many fans this is their one chance to express themselves and whatever they feel, to those who the other 364 days of the year are just a quote on a page or a picture in the Tribune. They walk up to the podium and cathartically release stories and anecdotes about family life and their history, how they became a part of this beautiful mess and what it means to them. No one stops them. They wouldn’t dare. They express the gratitude and hope that they’ve kept bottled up, unable to release it to the people that they really need to. It’s quite the experience. It’s being in a building with tens of thousands of people who all want the same thing, and are interlaced with the people who may be able to give it to them. Those two elements coming together are what make Cubs Convention the most intense and rewarding Fan Fest you’ll probably ever attend.