Posted by: Mark Nielsen | November 8, 2016

Citizen Cub – On Baseball, Politics and American Values

Kris Bryant, after making the last put-out of the World Series. He smiled from the moment the ball was hit to him.

Kris Bryant, after making the last put-out of the World Series. He smiled from the moment the ball was hit to him.


Cubs win.

Everyone wants to feel like a winner in this life. Even by association. So yes, this is big.

Cubs win. The Chicago Cubs are World Series Champions.

Say it again. And again tomorrow. The Chicago Cubs are World Series Champions!

(I am putting this out there for the record… inscribed here proudly as a permanent, non-Facebookian personal place-holder… on Election Day in the USA… at 9:25am… in case somebody –maybe one of my descendants– is reading this in a post-apocalyptic, nightmarish future world and wondering just when things started getting REALLY weird. Or in case I get Alzheimer’s disease and forget.)

This did not happen in some alternate universe –as I suspected last Thursday morning when I woke up– but in our universe.

All the dark mythology –including goats and black Santo cats and September slides and Miracle Mets and Broglio/Brock trades and Bartman boners and Baker’s b.s. and Durham’s 1984 error and Garvey the Goon’s  gutting (a walk-off homer to win the NLCS,  in that same game in ’84) and all the rest– ALL of that can now take a back seat to a lighter, finally “freed up” New Reality.

Cubs win.

In answer to all the decades of the weirdest “blame game” in all of sports, THIS is the Cubs’ rebuttal –and dang, is it SATISFYING! Second City is finally first. All former scapegoats can now be released, all superstitions put in the trash where they belong.

But this –what you’re reading now– is not just a fanboy shout-out. Yes, it’s about the Cubs, but hopefully a whole lot more.

For me, it’s about History– the “story” of it as we all live it each day (and now a bit more joyfully). Human history occasionally has a decent pay-off and a “happy ending”. A noble struggle is worth it, in this case at least.

If you ever wondered why documentarian Ken Burns once spent ten episodes looking at America through the webbing of a baseball glove (more than for The Civil War, or WWII, or Jazz, or any of his other subjects, I think), it’s because of moments like this. [By the way, next up for Burns: Vietnam, in Sept. 2017. Brace yourself. ] The history of baseball is the history of modern America in a nutshell, if not modern life in the West overall. Race and class and unions and government and broadcasting and advertising and alcohol and drugs and sex and spectacle and heartbreak and entertainment and poverty and wealth and controversy and fear and hope. It’s all there. George W. Bush was once a part owner of the Texas Rangers… what more proof do we need that MLB still matters?

So this victory should feel slightly gratifying not only to my hometown, but hopefully it can buoy the spirits of the entire nation. It’s a whole lot of NICE, in a nasty election year that has left us all feeling more battered, bruised and disillusioned than ever before. [Full disclosure, I’m a Democrat, even verging on socialist, but all bets are off when things get as desperate as they feel in the whole world right now… we’re falling apart, not coming together.]

= == ! == =

The individual player stories here are phenomenal, first of all. The stuff of Hollywood movies:

  • Kyle Schwarber missed the entire season due to injury, then came back to make an impact in the WS, both emotionally and with his bat.
  • Anthony Rizzo, who was drafted by Theo Epstein’s Boston team while still in his teens, who beat Hodgkins lymphoma in 2008, and who met fellow cancer survivor and current teammate John Lester at that time, …before he was even in the major leagues. Rizzo is the spiritual leader of this team, at the ripe old age of …27!
  • Series MVP Ben Zobrist, a local guy from Eureka, IL –who was under the radar with scouts and experts all his life, who considered going to seminary instead – and who has just appeared in his third World Series… and won his second. Always in the right place at the right time, that guy. Let’s keep him around.
  • Jason Heyward, who struggled all season himself, yet he was the one veteran with enough selflessness, respect among his peers, and presence of mind to use the short 17-minute fluke rain delay to call a players’ meeting and get them to regroup. Then they came out of that break with a roar. Heyward deserves some credit for showing leadership and persistence when it counted. He’s under contract for several more seasons, and whether he makes a comeback or not, just that speech (and his great defense and baserunning in the Series) is worth all that money the Cubs paid him. That he’s African American, in the era of #BlackLivesMatter– this is relevant as well. On October 25, 2016, Heyward, along with teammates Addison Russell, Dexter Fowler, and Carl Edwards, Jr. became the first African-Americans to play for the Cubs in a World Series game.
  • Kris Bryant… well, we all know a bit about him.
    The moment Bryant--and everyone else-- finally knew things are never as dark as they seem.

    The moment Bryant–and everyone else– finally knew things are never as dark as they seem.

    The play here – a shot taken just before that top photo — tells us plenty about Bryant. Probably the next Ted Williams, that kid. But even Ted never won The Big One. On the other hand, if Bryant becomes the next Barry Bonds (Oh God, I hope not!), we will still have this.

  • The starters: like a Murderers Row of fierce competitors… Lester, Hendricks, Arrieta, Lackey, …and Jason Hammel, who didn’t even play in the World Series (and became a free agent right afterward), but was better than most teams’ #2 or 3 starters during the season.
  • Not to neglect all the less-discussed rookies and second-year guys, either (who are only slightly overshadowed by Schwarber and Bryant). Willson Contreras, Javier Baez, Addison Russell and pitchers Carl Edwards, Jr. and Mike Montgomery are leading the pack. And more to come. The future of the Cub youth movement and minor league development system bodes very well.

= == ! == =

I hope I’m not sounding overblown in suggesting this particular World Series wasn’t just business as usual. This is news. Hard news. Good news.

There is no ISIS, no al Qaeda , no Taliban, no Iran, no Axis of Evil, no Russia, no neo-Nazis or alt-right misogynists, no embassy attack or bankrupt casino, not even a wealthy, cheating Yankee team crassly buying their championship — there is nothing to be spoken bitterly of here, except by the envious, or by natually bitter and overly smug fans of other teams (hello, St. Louis, you listening?).

This is a triumph of training, athleticism, planning, creativity, flexibility, kindness, effective teamwork, and common sense. Finally. It was not perfect. It didn’t have to be. It was simply GOOD ENOUGH.

For millions– even for non-Cub fans who care very little about baseball—THIS YEAR things seemed to work out the way they are supposed to work out, for once. Planning, pain, talent and money go in, and then out comes victory and profit and restored hope at the end of it all. And a little more dignity than before, dignity to be shared and multiplied for everybody, even shared with people who didn’t pay a nickel to see a game, nor experience the decades of agony that their forefathers (and mothers) felt in the first place.

Furthermore, that victory (with dignity, honor and decency) means we don’t HAVE to sell our souls just to win. Not a baseball game. The same is true with a successful marketing campaign, a presidential campaign, or even a war. Those who sell out their fellow man do it because they want to, not because they have no choice. We don’t have to hate. Or rub it in. None of that, either.

Play hard, play fair, no one gets hurt… just like the slogan says. (Dang corporations sometimes stumble on good ideas despite themselves…) Maybe it stings for the Cleveland Indians and their fans, but we all know they’re tough. They’re also Browns’ fans, scraping together a lving in a post-industrial city that once boasted a river actually catching fire. And their team will get its turn, soon enough. Meanwhile, as a city, Cleveland has much bigger problems, causing more real pain, than the wins or losses of any sports team can solve. The Cavs won their first last year, but nothing much changed after that for regular folks in Cleveland, did it? It never does, and it won’t change much for down-on-their-luck Cubs fans, either. But at least we had our day.

Yes, personally I’m down-on-my-luck these days, too. At least in terms of career. But I sincerely believe I’ll be back somewhere in the middle, winning a few small victories of my own, soon enough. I never stopped hoping… not in the Cubs, not in grace (no, not Mark Grace, silly), not in myself, not in the people I personally love and can count on, and not in a benevolent nation, either… no matter who is elected the so-called “Leader of the Free World”.

It has already begun, in fact. Dread is trying to win out, but Hope always survives. We are a civilized nation, in a world that has moved well beyond the Stone Age. The Big Picture is still being painted. So this is my Walt Whitman-esque “prodigious yawp”.

I win.

I’ve lost some battles, and will likely lose some more. I probably started some battles I never even needed to start. So what. Moving on. I’ll buy my enemies a hot dog at a baseball game next year, no matter what their nationality, political party, or what they ever did to me personally in the past.

Beyond baseball, nowadays we have many more scapegoats in America (and the Middle East, and pretty much everywhere) than we do meaningful ways to choose unity again. We’ve given in to our worst, most immature instincts. We’ve tolerated or indulged in a whole lot of nasty, and it’s been toxic. We are extremely disillusioned in most areas of public life, and it’s our own fault. Optimism, which was an American hallmark for hundreds of years, has been on life support since the early days of the Culture Wars (which ramped up just as the Cold War was supposedly winding down). We have let our perceived enemies –enemies within and without– define us, …while the planet crumbles under our feet.

Since we needed a life-preserver this badly, therefore yes, one ballgame IS rather important and helpful –at least for me and millions of others. Not even a majority in America. I’m not that naïve. Nevertheless, this is enough of a sample size that one sporting event matters a great deal (the 5-million-strong Cub rally in Chicago Friday was the #1 biggest single gathering of humans in the U.S., ever!… and 7th all-time on the worldwide list).

It’s helpful to keep believing in something bigger than myself. There’s God –who I do recommend, being Christian myself, …but of course you can take Him/Her/Etc, or leave Them, it’s your choice, this is a democracy after all. That’s the fallacy which conservative Christians and Muslims have bought into, that a theocracy is even possible, let alone a good idea.

Or you can go a bit smaller, and more concretely. Do you still believe in Love? Or in democracy, or  American business (getting hard, I know…), or improved race relations, the youth of tomorrow (I do, if this classy young Cub team is any indication), or authentic compassionate conservatism (as represented by the Cubs’ Republican owners), and/or the power of a community unified by a common cause– even if the estranged and legitimately angry community members agree to peacefully disagree on some of the particular Culture War battleground territories and borders.

I still believe in all of that. Mostly. Enough to get theough the day, anyway. My damaged, flailing faith is slightly restored by this World Series –faith in humanity, in sport, in America, even in God.

And although I know people will quibble with me on whether God should even be mentioned, or cares about the winner of any game… I don’t care what those cynics think anyway: what God does care about is hope, and suffering, and community, and cooperation, and compassion, and generosity, and gratitude. The Cubs represent all that very well. So much fan and citizen faith has been given a huge dose of good, clean, necessary medicine by this team.

Redemption happened, or at least it has begun.

Game 7 of the 2016 World Series was also the most watched single baseball game in the past 25 years. The public has voted: this is big. The NFL may have eclipsed MLB in popularity and profit, Super Sunday will likely continue to be the biggest dog-and-pony show, but MLB is not down and out just yet. A great American institution lives on.

= == ! == =

Former Cub manager Leo Durocher was finally proven wrong:

Nice guys don’t always finish last.

It takes quirky players to play the games, though. Flawed human beings. Yet all the maddening but important “personal character” discussions about athletes (not to mention politicians, bankers, CEOs, national leaders, etc.) can now perhaps have a new high-minded tone to them, if we want to have that new tone. The good guys finally won a BIG one.

When, for example, the retiring Cub catcher David Ross can redeem himself from a costly error earlier in the game –and redeems old war horses everywhere– with a crucial homer in his final MLB game, then anyone who doesn’t recognize that as a universally good moment is just cold and heartless.

Americans discuss, every year, our fascination with overpaid train-wreck athletes who are personally dysfunctional, or spoiled, or cheaters (hello, I’m talking to you, Sammy Sosa, not to mention two of Fox TV network’s skeevy blowhard postgame commentators in this series: Alex Rodriguez and Pete Rose).

Yet with a couple of obvious exceptions (like Aroldis Chapman, see below), taken in aggregate, these 2016 Cubs are rife with character. They’re great citizens, apparently decent fair-minded employees, probably good dads and husbands, too. All of that is very meaningful to me. We tend to like our heroes humble, thoughtful and authentic here in the Midwest. We do not suffer fools, or at least not as much as they do on either of the pretentious coasts, or in the backwater towns where long-outdated thinking is still trying to drag too, too many of the next generation back down into some awful un-civilized swamp again.

[Or am I just kidding myself about Chicago being above such shallowness? Come to think of it, Mike Ditka became a caricature of himself eventually, and he still has plenty of fans in the region. And Michael Jordan was always known to be pretty jerky. Michael has lost some lustre, but no one has literally turned on him. So… do I contradict myself? Yes, I suppose so.]

Regarding character, I noted this year that reputed domestic abuser Aroldis Chapman (the mercenary Cub closer, and likely a “rented” free agent, soon to move on to another payday) had written onto his cap the initials of a coked-up and recently deceased former teammate, Jose Fernandez. Fernandez died a few months back, in a boating accident, while under the influence. A tribute by a friend? Ok. But neither guy will ever be celebrated for their moral fiber.

My more discerning (or cynical) attitude is this: the Cubs admittedly did  sell out by acquiring Chapman in the first place. It was a “business decision”. Oh well. Can’t win ’em all.

So, no surprise, some schmucks will still go on being schmucks, and even still get paid despite their personal bad behavior. But there don’t seem to be many such shady characters on this Cub team, and hopefully that reality will set a different standard for all teams everywhere, and for player behavior at every age. I hope they haven’t pulled the wool over my eyes. I want to believe these Cubs are actually decent.

Don’t let us down, guys. Don’t become primadonnas. Don’t let the swift-coming paydays deceive you: you still need to keep your eye on the ball, as human beings.

Don’t let the pleasure make you crack under pressure. 

= == ! == =

Speaking more positively, of character, the businessmen and women who built this team have a lot of character and wisdom, too. The Ricketts/Epstein business plan, and the Maddon Bro-gram, actually worked, from 2009 all the way up through today.

Their philosophy: Find and hire people who are good at their job, then get out of their way and let them do it. Right? Completely reasonable, yet such wisdom has been undervalued in baseball and in business for far too long. But not here, not anymore. This is a less dysfunctional organization than it used to be, and the arrow is pointing up, with good evidence that the Cubs’ internal culture has been updated and improved, forever. Despite all the bad past business decisions, bad on-field management decisions for decades; despite all the supposedly good young Cub prospect players that never panned out, even despite Maddon’s own weirdly uncharacteristic and risky choices in the last two games of the Series, THESE Cubs still got over the hump.

Plus when it came down to playing the actual games, the objectively best team won. That does not always happen in this life. Those other Cubs, in other years, were sometimes (though not often) also the statistically  best team– but they could not go all the way. That mysterious Something was missing. According to season record, statistics, most measurable evidence, the present Cubs should have had an easier time throughout this postseason. But, as they say: That’s why they play the games! Stats and strict science do not carry the day. Psychology, history, unpredictability and in-the-moment player and coach behavior are why sports are so exciting in the first place, even to those who never picked up a bat, threw a football or kicked a soccer goal in their lives.

= == ! == =

Cubs win.

Chicago Cubs are the World Series Champions. I will say it again, to keep convincing myself that the world is maybe, possibly, despite much evidence to the contrary, MAYBE getting BETTER instead of WORSE. I will say it again, on the eve of the most controversial political election of my lifetime.

The Chicago Cubs are World Series Champions.

Sure, other things matter more than baseball. But at least a whole lot of us have this World Series to hold onto, for decades to come. American life doesn’t HAVE to be as ridiculous as the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago again– or the 2000 debacle of an election, or the present campaign that ends on Tues. Nov 8, 2016 .

What the Cub win meant to me, in part, is this:


We have to. We humans, we can overcome our faults, our foes, our past failings (or of those with whom we are associated).

Despite this present team’s actual underwhelming performance, numerous times, throughout the playoffs, …Cubs win.

Despite being down 3-1 in the World Series, which made the staunchest fans doubt them, becuase we’d seen it all fall apart too many times before …Cubs win.

America’s last great Lovable Losers, finally, did not disappoint. Everest has been surmounted.

So instead of crowing, I’m simply grateful. 3333 words worth of grateful! (or so says my computer here… Thanks for staying, anyone who’s still with me…)

The heroes of my youth came through in the clutch. Just in time.

Yet I also think of friends who didn’t live to see this (including my recently departed best friend during adolescence, Chris, who I met playing little league). As I think of my father and my grandparents, at whose knee I learned to suffer over these same Cubs (and over jobs, and illness, and all the tiny dramas of everyday life), I am grateful for the Cub bond I shared with them, too.

Now let’s get back to work on the more important stuff of life, only now with a little spring in our step and a smile on our face.

Cubs win!


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