Rooting for the Underdog

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This year’s NCAA basketball tournament results were a mixed bag for fans of the underdog. While reigning women’s behemoth UConn was dethroned by Mississippi State, the perennial top seeded North Carolina Tar Heels once again won the men’s championship title.

Unless my or my husband’s alma mater is involved, I am almost always for the underdog in sports. I love to see a scrappy team without much prestige or many resources fight its way to victory. Some recent triumphs of the underdog include the 2014 Dayton Flyers upset of Ohio State and the little known University of South Florida Bulls making it all the way to the third round in the 2012 NCAA tournament.

As a perennial champion of the underdog, I am well placed living in Chicago, the home of shattered hopes and dreams. Whether it be our post-Michael Jordan Bulls or the ever-disappointing Bears, I can commiserate with my fellow Chicagoans and pray for the demise of the hated New England Patriots or Miami Heat.

Which brings me to my dilemma: how to handle the World Series champion Chicago Cubs? The “lovable losers” finally won it all, so where does that leave this fan of underdogs? As baseball season begins, the Cubs have some pretty high expectations riding on their shoulders. Record-breaking crowds watched them warm up at spring training camp in Phoenix, Arizona, last month. No doubt Wrigley Field will be sold out for every home game this season.

I must confess that last fall, when it looked as though the Cubs were going to lose the World Series to the Cleveland Indians, I consoled myself with the fact that the Indians are also underdogs who have not won a title since 1948. Notwithstanding their terribly racist logo, Chief Wahoo, I would not mind seeing the Indians get another chance at the prize this year.

Meanwhile, I can enjoy seeing the young, talented, and entertaining Cubs players display their skills at the ballpark. I will certainly root for their victory, but if they don’t make it all the way to the World Series, I will cheerfully philosophize, “Wait ’til next year!”

Next Year Is Here!

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The reality has not quite sunk in. I saw that game, but I can’t quite believe that the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series. After decades of being the underdogs and the butt of jokes, the Cubs are bringing home the world championship trophy from Cleveland.

After seven games slugging it out against the Cleveland Indians, with game seven delayed by rain and forced into extra innings, I admit that I was getting poised to repeat that Cubs fan mantra, “Wait ’til next year.” That wistful saying has been part of my life since childhood, and along with it, the disappointment tinged with eternal hope that was the lot of fans who gave their hearts to the north side team.

Over the years, the Cubs’ status as permanent underdog has been blamed on the famous Billy Goat Curse and memorialized in music and theater. Steve Goodman’s song, “A Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request” was a sarcastic lament about the team’s certain failure year after year. It was made poignant only by the fact that Goodman wrote it while suffering from the leukemia which would take his life some years later. Meanwhile, Chicago theater luminary Joe Mantegna conceived a play titled Bleacher Bums about the less than well-mannered behavior of people in the cheap seats at Wrigley Field.

In the past two years, the excitement built for a young team loaded with talent and expertly led by Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. The “W” flags started appearing much more frequently over Wrigley Field and in the windows of Chicago homes. People jumped on the Cubbie bandwagon, and team merchandise popped up in stores all over Chicagoland. “Go Cubs, Go,” a much more hopeful song penned by Steve Goodman, became the unofficial anthem for our beloved baseball team.

I cried when the Cubs won the World Series. I was thinking of my father, a die hard Cubs fan like many of his generation, who never got to see the Cubs win a World Series. My dad took us to games at Wrigley Field, taught us how to fill out the scorecards, bought us Frosty Malts, and took us on marathon marches back to where our car was parked after the game let out. I’d like to think he’s smiling down on his favorite team right now and singing along with fans, “Go Cubs, go. Go Cubs, go. Hey, Chicago, what do you say? The Cubs are gonna win today.”

It may be hard for Cubs fans to adjust to cheering for the winning team. Our status as dejected losers is so ingrained. Oh, well. I guess there’s always the Bears to keep us humble.

 

Mets Get Our Goat Again

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Let me just say for starters that I’m not really a baseball fan anymore. The 1969 Cubs broke my heart, and I lost interest over the years. And let’s be honest. Watching baseball is like watching paint dry.

Yet this year I had caught a bit of the Cubs fever that infected Chicago fans. My friend Sal kept posting winning recaps of Cubs games throughout the summer. Cubs merchandise started popping up in stores around town. Even some White Sox fans grudgingly admitted that the Cubs were hot this year.

When we beat long-standing rival the St. Louis Cardinals in the first round of the playoffs, I had hope. Maybe this was our year. After all, the movie Back to the Future II predicted a Cubs victory in the World Series. Might life imitate art?

But when I realized the Cubs would face the New York Mets for the pennant, my heart sank. It was the Mets, after all, who had won that coveted prize in ’69. Sure enough, in a four game sweep, the Mets trounced our Cubbies to win the title and go on to the World Series.

Looks like it wasn’t our year after all. Yet most Cubs fans I know are taking the loss in stride. Today’s Cubs have a roster of young, enthusiastic talent and a manager who actually seems to know what he is doing. Maybe it will be enough to break that legendary Billy Goat curse.

For the first time in a long time, there is real hope in the Cubs fan slogan, “Wait ’til next year.”

Wait ‘Til Next Year

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A recent retrospective article on the 1969 Chicago Cubs in the Chicago Tribune has me waxing nostalgic. I so clearly remember the pennant fever of that magical season that ended in tragedy.

Too melodramatic, you say? Then you’ve never been a Cubs fan. I imbibed Cubs fandom with mother’s milk. It was woven into the very fabric of our daily lives. The sound of my father and uncles arguing and cursing while watching a baseball game formed the background noise of my childhood.

In the summer of 1969, Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon. But that event paled in comparison to the excitement in our house that surrounded the Cubs’ successes. For most of the ’69 season, the Cubs held onto first place. The heroes of that season – among them Ron Santo, Fergie Jenkins, and Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks – became the stuff of legend and wound up in the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

My siblings and I memorized the Cubs lineup and fervently collected baseball cards. My sister even made a scrapbook of highlights from the dramatic season, which included an exciting no-hitter pitched by Ken Holtzman.

One of our favorite Sunday afternoon activities was going to O’Hare Airport to greet the team on their return from away games. Once my father, who was always dressed in a suit on Sundays, was asked for his autograph, and we realized that the fan thought he was part of the Cubs organization.

My dad chuckled and said to us later, “I should have signed it ‘Ernie Banks’.”

The Cubs fell out of first place in September, and our hopes were deflated. To this day I hold hatred in my heart for the New York Mets, who, in our words, “stole the pennant” from the Cubs. But as is usually the case with the sluggers of Wrigley Field, the Cubs lost that pennant all by themselves.

I no longer watch baseball. I am not much of a sports fan in general, and baseball in particular moves way too slowly for my taste. Yet I still claim allegiance to that North Side team that captured our hearts years ago.

And as the 2014 season winds down with the Cubs in last place, I echo the sentiment of many a loyal fan: “Wait until next year!”