Now is the time that tries the souls of Chicago Cubs fans everywhere. But rather than suffer openly, I prefer to indulge in superstition—superstition that, naturally, is intended to help the Cubs win the National League pennant.
Over and over, I’ve told my friends and family that I don’t care if my team wins or loses the World Series because all I want is for them to get into the World Series. My ambitions are limited, I say.
Never again will I succumb to the hubris I experienced in 1969, when manager Leo Durocher’s squad of overachievers, hampered by a thin pitching staff, led the Mets in the old Eastern Division by 9.5 games on Aug. 13, only to lose the pennant. I won’t make reference to the insane giddiness I felt when I attended the first game of the 1984 playoffs against the San Diego Padres at Wrigley Field, when the Cubs won 13–0 without seeming to break a sweat (at the time, I thought third baseman Ron Cey was the second coming of Christ). I won’t mention the moment of quasi-religious communion I enjoyed with Randy Hundley, who was the Cubs catcher during their 1969 collapse, in a bar after that 13–0 victory. In short, I won’t do anything that might provoke the gods—Greek gods, I presume—to hurl the Cubs to earth from their remarkable ascent this year.
I confess I’ve been unfaithful recently. So insulated had I become from the pain of Cubs fandom—and from major league baseball in general—that I didn’t even understand the wild-card rules. For most of this season, I kept a healthy distance. Then, one day, I couldn’t help myself anymore. I began to peek at the standings, the box scores and the next day’s pitching form.
In early September, I called a childhood friend, like me transplanted to New York from Winnetka, Illinois, and asked him if he might like to go to Philadelphia to watch Cubs president Theo Epstein’s remarkable assemblage of talent play the Phillies.
That is, if they were still in the wild-card race. This is a friend with whom I attended the famous game at Wrigley, in the heat of the 1970 pennant race, when Matty Alou of the Pirates dropped a routine fly ball in center field in the bottom of the ninth, leading to a rally and heart-stopping come-from-behind Cubs triumph. There was standing room only—40,000 people stuffed into a park designed for 35,000—and we watched the game literally perched above the crowd, strapped with our belts to a steel girder in the back of the lower-deck grandstand. You would think from the stupendous amount of noise that we had won the World Series.
“Rick,” he told me with concern. “They’re already in—they’re practically guaranteed a wild-card spot, even if they finish third behind the Cardinals and Pirates.” I sneaked a glance online at the final score of the Cubs game that day, which had been going well as we talked on the phone. But the Cubs had failed to hold their lead and lost the game. “My God, I’ve jinxed them already,” I told him. We decided not to travel to Philly.
You can say that things are different this year. That the Cubs, especially the younger players, are playing “unconscious,” evidenced by Addison Russell’s great play on Jhonny Peralta’s smash in the hole during the second inning of the second game of the Cardinal series. This is how we used to talk about great athletic performances when I was a kid. But unconscious here also refers to the Cubs players performing as if they were completely unaware of Cubs history. Which is what I wish I could do but can’t.
The first Cubs game I ever saw in person was on Aug. 15, 1964. My mother, who is French and understood nothing about baseball, took me on the “L” train to Ernie Banks Day, back when all home games were day games. I didn’t want to remember the final score of that game, and I don’t dare think about the Cubs’ next game—it might jinx the outcome.