Chicago Cubs fans and the underrated virtue of hope

Growing up in Central New Jersey as a Yankee fan, I was very, very spoiled.

The Bombers won the World Series when I was 10 -- prime Little League age and the perfect time to cement lifelong fandom -- and then again when I was 12. And then when I was 13. Then also the year after that. That’s four championships before I could drive, plus another in 2009. (My dad has seen 11 titles in his lifetime. His mom, who watched Lou Gehrig play at the stadium before games were on TV, has seen 26.) Posters of my favorite players cut from newspapers still cover my childhood bedroom wall: Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Bernie Williams, Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, Tino Martinez.

Then, as a college student in the Midwest, I met Chicago Cubs fans for the first time in my life. They confounded me. The Cubs have only won the World Series twice, and not since 1908. 1908! They haven’t even made it to the World Series since 1945. Over a century of utter futility. Why bother caring? Yet my classmates wore Cubs shirts and caps around campus, talked about how next year would be their year (it wasn’t), and road-tripped to the north side of Chicago for games.

My best Cubs-fan friend, Justin, introduced me to two songs about the team, both written by the late folk singer Steve Goodman. The first is a corny, celebratory tune called “Go Cubs Go,” which they play over the loudspeakers at Wrigley Field after victories. The second and much more honest song is “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request.” As the song’s narrator nears his death, he looks back at his rather disappointing life. He says:

The Cubs made me a criminal

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Sent me down a wayward path

They stole my youth from me. …

But what do you expect,

When you raise up a young boy’s hopes

And then just crush ’em like so many paper beer cups?

He goes on to describe the elaborate funeral he’d like for himself at the stadium. The song represents the best in a long tradition of fans of bad teams teasing themselves. It’s a funny, sad song for a historically sad franchise.

But “Go Cubs Go” has been playing more than usual at Wrigley this fall, as a core of young talent, a couple of dominant veteran pitchers, and a quirky savant of a manager named Joe Maddon have led the Cubs to the National League Championship Series -- just four wins away from their first trip to the Fall Classic in 70 years. Every game in Chicago during this playoff run has been absolutely electric, the crowd’s newfound optimism mingling with the familiar dread. “Outside of Wrigley Field, a Hasidic Jew tried to wrap me in tefillin,” journalist Jeff Passan tweeted Tuesday, referring to the small boxes with Torah verses inside that certain observant Jews wear. “‘It’s for the Cubs!’ he said. ‘They need every blessing they can get.’”

All this attention on the Cubs has me thinking about hope, the most underappreciated Christian virtue. Sandwiched between those all-time favorites faith and love in St. Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, hope often gets forgotten. A search through the first ten pages of the “Quotes About Hope” category on GoodReads unearthed zero interesting insights.

Like the dozens of luminaries with quotes in this collection, I can’t describe hope easily. It’s deeper than optimism, and it clearly has some overlap with faith’s belief in the unseen. There’s an interior commitment involved. But we Catholics are a sacramental people who like visible signs that point to bigger realities. And for my money, there’s no better tangible sign of hope than Cubs fans at Wrigley Field. Not just in this rare year of on-field success, when the bleachers are full, but especially during those 72-win, 90-loss seasons -- when, despite the uniquely grim history and the standings and the Chicago weather, thousands of people still put on team apparel, buy a ticket, and show up.

This type of hope -- showing up when things are hard -- might be exactly the virtue the Church most needs right now. We need people who keep coming despite their wounds and frustrations, people who can imagine something beyond the current challenges we face. As a Yankee fan, it pains me to say it, but we need some Cubs fan-style hope.

[Mike Jordan Laskey is the director of Life & Justice Ministries for the diocese of Camden, N.J. He blogs for the Camden diocese at camdenlifejustice.wordpress.com.]

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