40 years a Cubs fan

Most people might not be able to put their finger on when they started to follow a particular sport, or a team in general. But in the case of baseball and the Cubs, I can do both.

It goes without saying that 1975 was a long time ago. Forty long years, to be exact. And yet it feels like it was only a year or two ago, sometimes. Little things that didn’t seem too important at the time have made their way into my head and taken root. It began back to the summer of 1975, around a pool table in the garage of my family’s house near Springfield, Illinois.

My dad’s younger brother, my Uncle Mike, would come over and shoot pool with my dad out in the garage. My guess is it was too big to fit through the door of our house. One day, I remember they were scrutinizing a sheet of paper and throwing around names I had never heard before. I asked what it was about, and they told me they were trying to figure out who would be pitching for the cardinals over the next few days. Pocket schedules were once the only way to know what can easily be discovered online these days. But as I said, this was a long time ago.

They found a game in St. Louis–a doubleheader, actually–in late July, and determined that Tom Seaver would be pitching for the Mets. None of this meant anything to me, who had just turned seven and didn’t have the foggiest idea what baseball was. But my dad decided that he was going to make the 100 mile drive down Interstate 55, to watch Tom Seaver pitch against the Cardinals. And for reasons I don’t understand but will be forever grateful for, he took me along with him.

That ballgame was my very first one, and the sights and smells and sounds of the crowd were far beyond anything I had ever experienced before. I remember seeing Ted Simmons hit a double off the wall, and the crowd yelling “Simba!” to show their approval. I remember paging through a program and seeing pictures of Bake McBride, the National League’s reigning Rookie of the Year. And I remember the mound theatrics of Al Hrabosky, “the Mad Hungarian.” The Cardinals won game 1, with Cardinals pitcher Lynn McGlothen actually outdueling the great Seaver.

In between games, a runway or a catwalk rose up from the artificial turf, and some sort of a show took place on it. The second game was memorable only for the fact that Lou Brock made a pinch-hitting appearance (he hadn’t played at all in Game 1), and I mistook the crowd’s chants of “Louuuuuuuu” for booing. My dad explained what was actually going on, and I felt a lot better about it. I fortunately didn’t yet know a thing about the Cubs or their horribly ill-advised trade of Brock from a decade earlier.

I came back from the game, filled with the desire to learn more about baseball. And for the month of August, 1975 I suppose I was a Cardinals fan. It was all that I knew about baseball, so they had my loyalties by default. But fate would step in and change all that soon enough.

One day in September, after I had started second grade in Mrs. McGinness’ class at Christ the King elementary school, I was outside playing with some other kids from the neighborhood. In the days before video games and social media and arranged playdates, kids went outside when the weather was nice and played games with each other. Today’s kids would think it’s lame, but that’s their problem.

We were playing hide-and-go-seek on a beautiful sunny afternoon, as I turned around on a dead run to make sure nobody was chasing after me. I didn’t look where I was going, and ran right into the rear bumper of my parents’ powder-blue Volkswagen Beetle. I thus broke my leg and had to have a plaster cast put on it. My outdoor running around days were over, at least until my leg healed up.

On the day after it happened, I found myself in my family’s living room after school, feeling sorry for myself that I couldn’t go outside and play. I decided there was nothing else to do but turn on the TV and see if I could find something to watch. So I hobbled over to the console TV (no remote control in those days!) and began turning the dial.

If I had gone over to the TV ten minutes earlier, or ten minutes later, than I did, I probably would have missed what I saw on Channel 49, the CBS affiliate in Champaign-Urbana. And life would probably be completely different for me if I had.

What I saw was a baseball player pulling into third base. I knew it was baseball because it was like the game I had gone to in St. Louis. The voice of the announcer–and I had literally never heard a baseball announcer’s voice before–told the audience that history had just been made, since no player had ever gone 7-for-7 in a nine inning game before.

To underscore the importance of the moment, a graphic reading “Rennie Stennett” in yellow letters on the top line, and “7-for-7′ on the lower line, appeared on the screen and flashed a few times. I imagine this was high-tech stuff for its time, because it sure drew me in.

The game was almost over, which I didn’t know at the time, and the home team–the Chicago Cubs, whoever they were–were on the losing end of a 22-0 score. It was the worst shutout loss of the 20th century, but I didn’t yet know enough about the game to process that nugget of trivia.

What I remember quite clearly from that day was the folksy nature of the announcer, a guy named Jack Brickhouse. Since I had never met one of my grandfathers–my dad’s father had died years before I was born–I decided that day that Jack Brickhouse was going to be the grandpa I didn’t have. I liked the way he described a baseball game as it was unfolding. Grandpa Jack then became a fixture in my life, at least during baseball season, until he retired in 1981.

But the other thing I remember from that day–in the final innings of a historic blowout–was the stark contrast between the symmetry and the astroturf of Busch Stadium, and the quirky place with the ivy on the walls and the houses outside the ballpark in Chicago. Wrigley Field appealed to me, from the very first time I saw it on TV.

Wrigley Field and Jack Brickhouse–together with some assistance from Rennie Stennett and a flashing TV graphic–grabbed me on the afternoon of September 16, 1975. The 40 years following that day have been happy in a few instances, and crushingly disappointing far more often than not.

As this birthday–of a sort–approaches, I hope there isn’t a little kid out there signing himself or herself up for decades upon decades of disappointment, as I once did. I love the game, and I probably came to Chicago for college because that’s where the Cubs play, but sometimes you just want to see a winner. There’s nothing wrong with that, either.

Since 1975, I’ve seen every pro sports team in Chicago besides the Cubs win at least one championship. I’ve seen every other baseball team that was around in 1975–save for the Montreal Expos/Washington Nationals–play in the World Series at least one time. I’ve also seen teams that came along well after 1975 make it to the Series, and even win the whole thing. And yet here I am four decades later, wondering when–as Led Zeppelin once put it–my time is gonna come.

I’m ready to believe that this long run of losing and disappointments for the Cubs is going to end THIS YEAR. And why not, because the harsh winter of these past three seasons has truly been difficult to endure.

Losing by incompetence (as was usually the case) or bad luck (as in 1984, 2003 and perhaps a couple of other years) is one thing, but losing by design was especially hard to bear. And now, there’s only one way that my 40-year-itch will ever get scratched.

Here’s to an October unlike anything we’ve ever seen before.

Photo: Wrigley Field, Chicago / Keith Cooper / CC BY 2.0 / Alteration: Cropped