By Randy Richardson
Regular Wrigleyville Nation contributor Brian R. Johnston is not your typical Cubs fan. He’s lived in Michigan his whole life, his father was a Tigers fan, and he himself started out a Tigers fan. But at the age of nine, he began to gravitate to the Cubs and hasn’t looked back since.
Johnston, now 31, has been a Cubs fan for 22 years. He has endured his share of losing, including suffering through the painful ending to the 2003 season and the barren rebuilding years from 2010 to 2014. But he recognizes that he can’t possibly fully understand and appreciate the level of suffering that the older die-hards have withstood.
It is within this context that Johnston wrote, The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, his book chronicling the Cubs’ surprising 2015season.The book is an introspective meditation of sorts on what it means to be a baseball fan – not just a Cubs fan – as told through the ups and downs of that memorable Cubs’ season.
The Art of Being a Baseball Fan is a treasure for Cubs fans looking to relive all those great moments of that 97-win season – Kris Bryant’s walk-off home runs, the four-game sweep of the defending champion Giants, Jake Arrieta’s no-hitter. But more than a pleasant walk down memory lane, Johnston’s book is a valuable reminder that we – the fans – all share a common bond, one that unites us when we win and even when we lose.
Read our interview with the author of The Art of Being a Baseball Fan, Brian Johnston, where he explains how he became a Cubs fan, what he hopes fans will get out of reading his book, and what he learned about himself in writing the book.
WN: You live in Michigan and yet you root for the Chicago Cubs. How did you become a Cubs fan and not a Tigers fan?
Brian: I was a Tigers fan very early in my life. When I was a young child back in the late 1980s – early 1990s, my dad had the Tigers on all the time. But his interest started to fade when the team wasn’t very good in the early to mid-1990s. I think to this day he’s still disgruntled by their loss to the heavy underdog Twins in the 1987 ALCS. Anyway, on Opening Day of 1994, as a nine-year-old, I stumbled upon the Cubs game on WGN. That was the day that the otherwise unknown Tuffy Rhodes hit three home runs off Dwight Gooden of the Mets. The Cubs lost the game, but I continued watching Cubs games that year up until the strike ended the season early.
I honestly don’t remember what other reasons I had for continuing to watch them and abandoning the Tigers. I think it’s also because I liked Harry Caray and Steve Stone. It certainly wasn’t because the Cubs were much better than the Tigers. At least no one can accuse me of being a bandwagon fan. Sometimes, even decisions we make as a child will impact us for the rest of our lives. At nine years old, I didn’t know what I was getting into by joining the Cubs fan base. I suppose I could have chosen another team somewhere along the line, but despite all the losing over the years and all the jabs I’ve had to endure from fans of other teams, I enjoy being a Cubs fan. I don’t regret my decision.
WN: In the opening pages of your book, you write that it is “more than a book about baseball. It’s about how to be a baseball fan.” Explain what you mean by that.
Brian: I’ve read a lot of baseball books that dealt with game strategy, or that provided insider access by famous celebrities or journalists on what happens behind the scenes. But I’ve never run across a book that dealt with the ups and downs of average fans who just like to follow the game in their spare time. I wanted the book to be an opportunity to share my thoughts on what it means to be a fan: How we can still enjoy the game despite the fact that it’s become a big business. How we can be a fan of a team that plays for three hours every day and not let it take over our lives. How we can accept the fact that our team isn’t going to win a championship most years. These are things I believe we need to reflect on and try to understand in order to enjoy this game to its fullest. Because that’s what baseball is: a game, and nothing more.
WN: You also write that being a Cubs fan “carries a stigma that is unlike anything in the sports world.” Does that stigma stem solely from the team’s epic futility – its more than century-long World Series drought? Or are there other factors that contribute to it? Would winning the World Series erase that stigma?
Brian: I’m sure almost every Cubs fan reading this has had to deal with lame jokes and even ridicule from family and friends for their dedication to their team. Obviously, going over 100 years without a championship is a big reason why it’s so easy to pick on the Cubs, but there have to be other reasons. After all, other teams, such as the Red Sox, White Sox, Indians, Phillies, and Giants, have also had a stretch of several decades without a championship. But I think there are other factors at work – the Billy Goat incident in 1945, the black cat incident in 1969, the Lee Elia rant, and the Bartman play all come to mind – that make this franchise look like a bunch of bumbling losers who can’t do anything right. Besides that, I think the stereotype that fans of other teams hold of Cubs supporters just sitting in the bleachers on a warm summer day, drinking beer and not caring whether the team wins or loses, is a factor too. Although, I think this image has been fading over the past generation and that fans at Wrigley Field these days care more about winning than they ever have before.
Would the Cubs winning a World Series change the narrative? I suppose that for guidance we can look at what happened to the Red Sox when they broke their championship drought that was almost as long as that of the Cubs. Much like the Cubs, the Red Sox were also believed to be cursed before they won their first championship in ’86 years in 2004. Though, they were known more for having good teams who fell just short or endured bad luck at the worst times than for just being awful year after year like the Cubs are notorious for.
I’m afraid that when the Cubs finally do win it all, the narrative, at least among non-Cubs fans, will be that Hell froze over and that all the stars aligned perfectly so that these hapless guys on the North Side of Chicago could defy all the laws of the universe and win their championship. The Red Sox have won three World Series since 2004 and seem to have overcome whatever stigma they had, but I don’t believe that one championship will change the narrative much for the Cubs. I believe it will take several championships and maybe a few decades of at least being contenders before the Cubs can shed their label as constant losers. I hope I live to see the day when they become a respected model franchise and we forget the days that they were the butt of everyone’s jokes.
WN: You don’t like the image of the Cubs as “lovable losers.” Explain why.
Brian: I hate it. I hate telling someone I’m a Cubs fan and them coming back with some stupid joke or saying, “I’m sorry” or something patronizing like that. I almost find it humorous that some fans of other teams ridicule Cubs fans as if rooting for them makes me a bad person or something. Just because I like a team that – last year and this year notwithstanding – isn’t very good doesn’t mean I’m stupid or that I don’t care about winning. Whenever I watch the Cubs lose, I don’t say, “Oh well, they don’t win but I love ‘em anyway!” I get just as upset as fans of any other team would if their team loses. And I long to win a championship as much as anyone else does. I enjoy meeting new Cubs fans because they like to talk about what’s going on with the team and know that I’m capable of being a serious fan. If the team loses, it’s not my fault. I’m not a player and I don’t work for the team in any way. I just watch the games.
WN: You became a Cubs fan in 1994, at the age of 9. So, your history with the team doesn’t go back as far as many of the old die-hards. You weren’t even around for 1969 or 1984. Do you feel that you are able to fully understand and appreciate the level of suffering that those truly long-time Cubs fans have endured?
I don’t understand it, and I never will. In fact, the Cubs’ streak of 107 years without a title means little to me personally because I’ve only been a fan for about one-quarter of that time. More than half the teams in the league have not won a championship since I started following the Cubs in 1994. The only reason I talk about the long title drought so much is because it’s unavoidable when discussing what it means to be a Cubs fan. It’s not a pleasant thing to talk about, but it’s reality so I might as well come to terms with it. Any Cubs fan who is less than 107 years old, unfortunately, has to carry the weight of all those decades that came before us.
That being said, just because I will never know what it was like to watch the Cubs fall apart in 1969 or 1984 doesn’t mean I can’t at least try to understand. When I’m bored, one of my favorite things to do is to get on YouTube and watch old baseball games from years ago. I’ve gone back and watched clips from the 1984 and 1989 playoffs quite a few times and tried to pretend that I was actually watching those games live. I can’t get the full experience, but I can at least learn about what the Cubs fans who came before me witnessed and how we got to where we are today.
I really wish I could have been around for 1969 or 1984 so I could have a better sense of what it means to be a Cubs supporter. But I was born in 1985, so I can’t do anything about it. And I don’t think that makes me any less of a Cubs fan than anyone else. My experiences are just different. My generation is continuing the story of the previous one and the one before that. I’ll never have the anger towards the Mets that Cubs fans who were alive in 1969 still have today. But there are fans currently being born who will never know what it’s like to hate the Marlins for what happened in 2003. And that’s ok. I’ll never look down on them for that. We’re all Cubs fans with the same dream.
WN: What does losing do to you as a fan?
Brian: We’re often told that players can’t truly appreciate winning unless they’ve experienced losing first. I think the same applies to fans. The Yankees haven’t had a losing season since 1992. There are Yankees fans just a few years younger than I am who have no idea what it’s like to go through a bad season. I imagine many of them are getting impatient because they haven’t won the World Series in seven years. That’s not a knock on them; they can’t help it that their team has been so good for so long.
But losing, as unpleasant as it is, teaches patience and makes winning more enjoyable. There are 30 teams and only one can win it all each year. Winning the World Series is a difficult and rare achievement; that’s why the winning team puts on such a big celebration each year. If you grew up cheering on the Yankees and saw them win year after year, you don’t understand that.
Losing is difficult, even if you’re just a spectator like me. But I’ve found that it doesn’t diminish my passion for the game. For reasons that I don’t even understand, I keep coming back year after year. Will all the losing I’ve seen be worth watching the Cubs win one World Series? I don’t know. Of course, I hope to find out soon.
WN: In the book you chronicle the Cubs’ 2015 season. What inspired you to write book and why 2015, after having been a fan of the team for 21 years?
Brian: Before the season started, I just had a feeling that it was going to be a memorable year. I wasn’t expecting the Cubs to go as far as they did, but I somehow knew it was going to be interesting. The idea for the book was conceived in early January, when I had a day off work and it was really cold and snowy outside, so I was stuck in the house. I decided out of the blue to write an essay about my memories of the Steve Bartman play from 2003. Like most fans, I’ve exonerated Bartman from blame for the Cubs losing that game and the NLCS to the Marlins. But that one season, and that one night in particular, taught me so much and defined my two decades-plus as a fan.
So, I sat down and basically spent the whole day typing out my memories of that night and what I learned. I quickly decided that I had a lot more to say about being a fan and that I wanted to tie it into me following the team for a year. With a new manager, a new ace pitcher, lots of young talent about to arrive to the majors, and big changes to Wrigley Field, I knew there would be lots to talk about and reflect upon.
WN: Because you live in Michigan, you rarely get to Wrigley Field. Most of the season you chronicled by following it on TV, radio, or on your MLB.com At Bat app. The reality is that the vast majority of Cubs fans follow the team follow the team the same way. Not as spectators in the stands but through the filter of electronic media and the eyes of broadcasters. How does this shape your perspective as a fan?
Brian: I grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, which is in the south-central part of the state and unquestioned Tigers territory. About four years ago, I moved to St. Joseph, which is in the far southwest corner of the state and actually closer to Chicago than to Detroit. It’s pretty evenly split here between Tigers, Cubs, and White Sox fans, though Cubs fans have been a little more visible the past year or two.
Still, I don’t get to Wrigley Field more than maybe once or twice a year, largely because it’s so expensive to attend a game. I did make it to a game in April of this year, but I didn’t get to Wrigley Field last year. (I did go to a Cubs-White Sox game at U.S. Cellular Field in 2015.) You’re right that the average fan today experiences the game mostly through media such as TV or radio and not in person. I think this makes it much more difficult for fans to understand the human element of the game. When we see players on TV or in magazines, we think of them as superheroes. It’s hard not to think of a player as a set of stats instead of a human being that has feelings and emotions and sometimes fails, just like all of us. When I go to a game, the ballparks always seem a lot smaller than they do on TV, and seeing the players in person makes them seem much more human. Because the typical fan doesn’t get this much these days, I think it makes it more difficult for us to understand just how hard it is to play baseball at the major league level. Not just in terms of skill, but also the ability to block out all the fan and media scrutiny, especially the negative.
WN: The 2015 team surprised many if not most baseball experts by winning 97 games and making it all the way to the NLCS. What was it about that team that made it so special?
Brian: Of course, the Cubs had a very young team last year. For much of the year, they were playing as many as four rookies every day. They were really good and didn’t seem to really understand what they were doing – and I mean that in the best way possible. This team was forced to carry the weight of 100-plus years of losing in one of the game’s biggest media markets, and it didn’t seem to faze them at all. Compare that to the veteran-filled team of 2008 that also won 97 games and should have been able to at least win the pennant. Instead, they wilted under the pressure and got swept in the first round of the playoffs to an inferior Dodgers team. Just watching the playoffs on TV that year, I could tell that the pressure got to them.
Last year, the Cubs played like a cohesive unit all year, and while they certainly had (and I suppose still have) stars like Jake Arrieta, Anthony Rizzo, and Kris Bryant, it seemed like everyone was capable of coming through when the team needed it the most. Virtually every player had their big moment, which is what successful teams need. Last year, we watched this team grow up before our very eyes, and it was really exciting. They simply ran out of gas at the end against the Mets. I’ll admit, I was skeptical when they got rid of Rick Renteria after just one year and brought in Joe Maddon to manage the team, but I can see why. He did a brilliant job and I don’t think the Cubs get that far with anyone else at the helm.
WN: The 2015 season had many memorable moments. What are the best memories you have of that season?
Brian: There were so many memorable moments from 2015 that I’d have a hard time even narrowing it down to the top ten. In the book, I describe my emotions during the big four-game sweep of the Giants in August, the Jake Arrieta no-hitter, the victory over the Pirates in the Wild Card game, the defeat of the Cardinals in the NLDS, and many other moments.
But I think the best part of the 2015 season was how it fit into other areas of my life. When I think of 2003, I think about where I was in my life: just graduating from high school and trying to find my place in this world. I also remember talking about the team a lot with my parents and grandparents, who I think I converted into Cubs fans that year. My grandparents have since passed on, but I still talked about the team last year with my dad and also shared my passion for the game with my wife, who I married in 2013 and isn’t really a baseball fan. And though I’m now 31 years old, I still have a lot to learn about myself and life in general. When I think about the team winning in the context of everything else, I think that adds value to my memories.
Because I had to wait so long to see the Cubs win again, I tried very hard to enjoy every moment throughout the year because I didn’t know when would be the next chance I’d have to get this excited about the Cubs. I know they’re playing great here in 2016 so far, but even that was no guarantee at the time. With the Cubs playing so well right now, I encourage fans to not look ahead and to cherish every moment.
WN: One of my favorite stories from the book is the one about the video your wife took of you after the Cubs victory over the Pirates in the Wildcard game. Share with the readers what it is your wife captured in that video.
Brian: Before that game, the Cubs hadn’t won a postseason game in twelve years. After the 2003 season, though it ended in such devastating fashion, I was expecting many more great seasons to follow because of all the young talent on that team. I never imagined that they’d go eleven straight years without even winning one postseason game, much less a playoff series.
After the abrupt end to the 2008 season, the Cubs had several bad years in a row. Throughout that time, I played in my head over and over and over again how I would react if I ever got to see the Cubs win a postseason series again. I wasn’t even aiming for a World Series at that point; I just wanted to see them win a playoff game!
So, when the Cubs were about to beat the Pirates, I tried to be spontaneous, but it was hard. But that’s ok. My celebration was about more than just one win. It was about releasing twelve years of frustration and realizing that patience can pay off. The game ended late at night, and I have two young boys at home who were asleep. I didn’t want to wake them up, so as the Cubs made the final out I jumped up and raised my arms while letting out some muffled cheers. I thought it sounded kind of funny at first, but as I’ve gone back and watched that video again I saw lots of raw, childlike emotion in myself. And in a world where there are so many problems and so many stressful situations on a daily basis, I think we could all use a moment or two like that.
WN: What is it that you hope Cubs fans will get out of reading your book?
Brian: My hope is that fans will watch the game with a new perspective in the future after reading my book. I hope baseball fans in general will see the game in a new way and think about what baseball really means to them and how being a fan fits into their everyday lives.
For Cubs fans specifically, I think my main goal is to let them know that they’re not alone. Though most of us don’t know each other, we all share the same passion and therefore have a common bond. When I was watching postgame coverage of the Cubs’ series-clinching Game 4 win over the Cardinals in the NLDS, I watched one fan after another come on TV and share their excitement. It made me feel like I was a part of something big. I hope Cubs fans read this book and recall where they were during this and other big moments, smiling and remembering it fondly.
WN: What did you personally get out of writing the book? Did you learn anything about yourself?
Brian: I learned a lot about myself. I’m a very introverted person and am much more comfortable expressing myself through writing than I am through talking. I often need to sit at a computer and type out what I’m thinking to really work through and understand my thoughts. This book allowed me to do that, even though it’s about baseball and not a more serious topic like marriage or religion. Looking back, it’s amazing to me that I had about 200 pages worth of things to say about baseball. In fact, I probably could have written another 50-100 pages easily, but I wanted to keep the book at a manageable length.
Besides that, it was gratifying to me to document what I was thinking and feeling during such an incredible year. I believe that there will be a lot of value in me going back and reading my own writing years from now. My dad has been reading my book and told me he wishes he would have done this during the Tigers’ 1984 championship season.
WN: What’s next on tap for you? Will there be another book?
Brian: I’m currently kicking around the idea of writing a second book about being a stepparent, because I believe I have a lot to say about that as well. As far as baseball, I’m not sure yet. I hope that in, say, 10-20 years I can write a book about how being a Cubs fan has changed in my lifetime because they’ve gone from “Lovable Losers” to perennial winners. Of course, they’ll need to win at least one World Series first. Hopefully I’m not getting ahead of myself. In the meantime, I plan to continue to write online articles about the Cubs and about baseball. I appreciate everyone who’s looked at my writing to this point.