Willson Contreras hit a game-tying three-run homer on Sunday night. It was the sort of home run that has become more common in the past two years for the Cubs, the seizing of an opportunity that in years past might have been squandered. It was beautiful and dramatic and it made me yell in joy and exchange high fives with my roommate.
The Cubs lost on Sunday. Randal Grichuk singled with the bases loaded off of World Series hero Mike Montgomery, and the Cubs dropped Opening Day to their hated rivals to the south. A World Series victory does wonders, though, insulating one against the pitfalls and pratfalls that inevitably come with spring and with a season anew. Still, Randal Grichuk. It’s always a Randal Grichuk. To experience the ecstasy of Willson’s home run only moments before the dagger-in-the-heart of Grichuk’s base hit reminded me, and perhaps you as well, of the paradoxical nature of being a Cubs fan in the wake of a World Series win. It’s The Year After, and sure, things will Never Be The Same, but that doesn’t mean they never were.
What makes being a Cubs fan unique?
For all the tortured metaphors of ballpark-as-cathedral, painfully purple odes to players and teams of years past, Ozymandian paeans to World Series long since swept away beyond the unkempt warning tracks of time, there are only a handful of things that might make being a Cubs fan different than being, say, being a Padres or an Orioles fan. Baseball fandom, as one might erroneously say about relievers, is largely fungible. Who one roots for doesn’t indicate a single damned thing about their moral character, their demeanor, their makeup, their future. Nor should it.
You’re a Cubs fan because your parent or grandparent or friend was a Cubs fan, because you happened to live in some proximity to that rusting out metropolis of the Midwest, because you caught some games on WGN while they still broadcast nationally. It’s no greater calling than being left-handed or liking Kurosawa films or thinking that Kanye’s new stuff isn’t as good as College Dropout. We’re not special, despite many delusions to the contrary.
What does differentiate the Cubs fan is nebulous, almost imperceptible if one doesn’t live with it already. It’s the collective memory of years of failure—the enduring melancholy of not even really coming close to achieving the ultimate goal, and yet rarely dipping into despondency. It’s the type of feeling that makes an 11-year-old Zack rage and cry in the wake of dropping the 2003 NLCS like he was shouldering a hundred years of failure, despite his youth. Collective memory, shared history and its attendant emotions, is what makes our imagined communities of fandom endure. Chances are that you and I have never met; yet there is a communion between us, as fans sharing a history and partaking in the ritualized viewing and analyzing and reminiscing of baseball.
For those of us who experienced first-hand the Cubs’ rebuild, and for those of us who have lived with the historical memory of Cubs failure, Willson’s home run was the refraction of familiar feelings through a looking glass. How many times did our teams tease us with moments of joy only to crush us with a spectacular—or, more often, a terribly banal—defeat? Immediately after the Cubs’ loss, I saw folks encouraging others to take away some pleasure from the home run and to ignore the defeat, as it was only one of 162 games and there would be plenty more that the Cubs would win and surely they would still win the NL Central and maybe the pennant again. They’re right, of course. But we’re still baseball fans, and we’re still Cubs fans: There are going to be as many moments of defeat that deflate us and sadden us as there are moments of elation that ostensibly erase the former.
The Cubs won the World Series, and that has altered Cubs fandom for generations to come. But, if you squinted and let your mind wander for a few brief moments, Willson Contreras might have reminded you of the doldrums of 2012, or the not-yet-Sosa years of the early ‘90s, or, for those of a certain age, even the most barren of years over a half-century ago. That is to say, for a brief moment, these were your grandma’s Cubs. And, despite defending a World Series championship, they always will be.
Lead photo courtesy Jeff Curry—USA Today Sports