*editor’s note: This is a shift from regular On Point posts – although we do teach storytelling in a professional context – this is part of my story, and a fun, light-hearted and personal example. Enjoy.
On the morning of November 2, 2016, I was talking to my 4 kids in the car on the way to school. They ranged in age from 7 to 13. We were pretty giddy, and rightfully so.
“So guys, it’s Game 7 tonight right? Well there’s a tradition that after sports teams win it all, they go back to the locker room and spray champagne all over the place and celebrate like mad. There’s actually a crew that goes into the locker rooms to cover everything with thick plastic sheets to protect it. It’s game 7. Someone’s going to win tonight. They have to put plastic sheets in both locker rooms – the Cubs and the Indians – because either team could win. I wonder what that’s like. To be one of those crew members. To feel the anticipation. And I wonder what they do when the losing team retreats? Does someone race in and remove it all as if it wasn’t there? Do you guys think the Cubs will be that celebrating team?”
Could they? Could it really happen?
I looked in the rear-view mirror of my mini-van. Some were daydreaming out the window as they listened to me. Some were smiling wide at the idea of them winning. We rode quietly for a few minutes with that thought, just letting it play out.
When the Cubs won the World Series that night, I was a crazy person for at least a week. Yes, I had been crazy for the entire month of October while the playoffs were unfolding, but when they actually won, I lost all sense of reality for a time. I know it sounds … well crazy … but it’s true.
The first couple of days I cried a lot (and yes, I know how that sounds). I walked around smiling so much my face hurt. I couldn’t stop watching the recap videos. I went about my day running errands, wondering why other people weren’t freaking out right along with me, skipping down the sidewalks and high-fiving each other. Didn’t they know? Well they probably knew – everyone with a TV watched Game 7 – but didn’t they care?
It was just so much to take in.
After noticing my reaction and the time I was spending to re-live the moments on YouTube, I became aware of the perceived irrationality of my emotions. I mean, I was crying about baseball. If you’ve watched A League of their Own, you know that’s exactly what Tom Hanks said not to do. I started to reflect intensely about the whole thing. The whole big thing – Cub fandom. The curse of the Billy Goat. Professional sports. Idolizing athletes.
I was split. Part of me felt stupid that I was so affected by a baseball team made up of men who make millions of dollars– many millions of dollars – to … play baseball. A sport. One I played and loved all throughout my youth, in fact. Surely there are more important things in life. It sounds ridiculous!
The other part of me didn’t care. I eschewed the aforementioned thoughts and feelings entirely. I was so excited that I didn’t even care about any of that – I freely and willingly rejected all rational thought. Forget the whole “there are starving people in the world” argument. The Chicago Cubs just won the World Series. The Cubs.
I know, it doesn’t add up.
I can’t explain it.
What gave me the most pause was watching those YouTube recap videos. I watched them a lot. Some were montages of the winning moment itself and the reactions around the city. Others were orchestrated to songs like Eddie Vedder’s All the Way or Harry Carey’s voice as he ‘ghost-wrote’ the last play of Game 7. But in those videos, I saw something remarkable. Unmistakable. Desirable. So very…curious. I kept thinking about it. What was it?
I saw unapologetic, unbelievable, unimaginable and in some ways unprecedented…
Joy on a massive, united, unconscionable
– and LOUD – scale.
I mean it was sheer pandemonium. The moment the ball hit Rizzo’s mitt, people everywhere absolutely exploded with joy. Cheers and “Go Cubs Go” singing could be heard within a 1-mile radius of Wrigley Field. Think about that.
This sounds like a bad comparison but here it comes. I was ecstatic when I got engaged. I was really happy on my wedding day. Like, really happy! I cried when my son was born. I have laughed with friends until I’m in a heap of tears – on each occasion I was filled with authentic joy. I’ve felt joy a lot in my life, and for that I’m sincerely grateful – to know what joy feels like. Some people, for a variety of reasons, don’t.
But this was different. It was the all-encompassing, transcendent nature of it. I watched total strangers of all walks of life completely. Lose. Their. Minds. Ninety-four year-old men jumped – indeed leaped – out of cushy Lazy Boy recliners that were almost as old as they were. Retired men (one generation below the 94 year-olds) collapsed to the floor and began to weep. Some stared at the television in shock. But the tears came. College kids went completely berserk and screamed uncontrollably. People watched in jam-packed bars, hotel rooms while they traveled for work, classrooms, with their children, or their grandparents, or just one friend and their dog. They found a way to watch. And I love that so many people thought to film these authentic reactions.
One small group of senior citizens caught my attention on a montage video. They must have been married Cub fan couples, fans forever. They probably gathered at one of their houses to endure game 7 together. You know, for support. Perhaps not the fittest of folk, when Rizzo caught the 3rd out in the 10th inning, they ran around the circle in that house multiple times as fast as they possibly could, throwing hats, whooping and hollering, like … well like I don’t know what. Like absolute crazy people who had… who had… what?
Who had seen the impossible happen.
They had seen something no one else alive on the planet had seen before – truly.
They had seen the Chicago Cubs win its first World Series in 108 years.
Because there were no televisions in 1908, one would have had to attend the game in person to have seen them win it all. Someone would have had to be at least 108 years old, and an infant at that, so to say they “watched” is more than a stretch. The media scouted. No one was found to have been at the 1908 World Series who was still alive on November 2, 2016.
The noise outside the Friendly Confines was so incomprehensibly loud I cannot describe it, and I was watching it on TV. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be there. (My oldest brother, a reporter for the Daily Herald in Chicago, was at Wrigley for a post-season Grand Slam and said it was the loudest noise he’d ever heard in his life, which I believe). The only adequate word that comes to mind, is “explosive.” It was an explosion of a sound that had been waiting to be sounded for a century. People ran around the streets crying. Complete strangers hugged like long lost friends. Husbands and wives kissed intimately. No one worried about pick pockets or looting. No one cared about race or gender, politics or sexual orientation. Children wondered what in the world could make their parents this. nuts.
My children were excited too. Really excited! But I had to set the record straight with them. “Guys.” I said.
“Let me tell you when you can appreciate what this is really like: Let’s just say, that when you are a grandparent (I think I lost them right there) and the Cubs haven’t won a World Series in your generation, your child’s generation, nor your grandchild’s generation – then maybe you’ll see what this win meant. You’ll know how long we’ve waited.”
I stopped. I gathered my thoughts. I continued:
“But wait. In 108 years you’ll be dead. And you have seen the Cubs win a World Series. No one else had until today. So that settles it. Forget what I said. You’ll never really know.”
They just stared at me blankly. As if it was their fault. It wasn’t of course, but what could they say? I wasn’t trying to be mean. But I grew up knowing that Cub fandom was far from an assured road to victory. They were lucky to see this, and they will never know what the rest of us lived through, all the losing, horrible, good-for-nothing seasons.
I became a Cubs fan in 1988 when my best friends (they were sisters) down the street did. Call me a follower, but that was pretty much it. They became huge fans, and because they were my best friends, I did too. We were Die Hards in a hurry. We watched or listened to almost every game in the summer of 1989. That was the team that won the NLDS; Mark Grace (our absolute fave), Sandberg, Sutcliffe, Girardi, Dunston, Dawson. I still remember Dunston’s 31 game hitting streak that year and the fans in center field. They kept a posterboard “Shawon-o-Meter” to count how many games in a row he’d hit.
We went down to games a lot it seems. Those were the days you could wait outside the player’s parking lot and try to get their autographs on a baseball. We waited at the chain link fence for the stars to step out of their red Camaros and yellow Porsches. We watched. We took pictures – the old-fashioned Kodak kind – hoping one would turn out. That it wouldn’t be blurry or show a finger in the corner of the lens.
In 1990 I was invited by a high school friend, Susan Smith, to a Drury Lane breakfast event where Mark Grace would speak and be honored. I couldn’t contain my excitement! I dressed for the occasion: a Cubby blue turtleneck, bright red sweater, matching red lipstick, blue Wet n’ Wild eyeliner, and a huge round Cubs logo pin – right over my heart. I got to sit at the table directly in front of Grace. He donned a brown suit, multi-colored tie, golden hair and that melt-your-heart smile. I was starry-eyed. I have no idea what he said. None. But I took photos with him after the breakfast, just 14-year old me and 28-year old him. I was on Cloud Nine. I still have that Drury Lane breakfast program in a scrapbook.
That Christmas I was 15. My parents hit it out of the park. They got me four tickets in an envelope and put them under the tree. I’d have to wait a few months, but it was well worth that wait…
In the spring of 1991, with those 4 tickets, my mom took me and those down-the-street best friends to an event that was a little like that Drury Lane breakfast but on steroids: She took us to Chicago to The Annual Cubs Convention. Only completely nutty Cub fans attended such an event. Nearly all the players were there. Their beloved manager, Don Zimmer, was there. The infamous Harry Caray was there. We wore our Cubs hair bows, Cubs t-shirts, and I had this awesome Cubs “letter” jacket – pinstripes and all. We stayed up late in a fancy hotel, bouncing on the double beds. It was an amazing, thrilling weekend.
In 1992 I was 16. One of those down-the-street best friends, the younger sister and my best friend for 13 years at that time, was tragically killed. She was 15 and a half.
The Barretts had made the Cubs part of their family’s fabric. They had traveled to Arizona on a few spring breaks to watch them play at Spring Training games. They listened to WGN radio – every day. It was habit. They kept doing that after Elizabeth died. It’s 2018 now and her parents are 82 and 76. They and Elizabeth’s older sister Jenny, my other best friend, still follow every game. It’s a way to remember her, feel close to her, keep her memory alive, keep the collective family’s memory alive. To that family, the Cubs mean something extra-special. It’s more than just a baseball game.
Life got in the way for me though as I went off to college, then left Chicago for graduate school in Georgia. In 1998, I was cued into the Sammy Sosa Mark McGuire home run battle. I was suspicious, rightfully we all learned. Later, I watched the Bartman catastrophe from afar, feeling so very disappointed in Cubs fans. As Kerry Wood pitched against Atlanta I was by no means glued to the TV watching every pitch, knowing every player as I once did.
When I married a Notre Dame alum – and after being a fan of the Fighting Irish since I can remember – that was the flag we flew. Those were the games we went to. The alma mater we sang. We had small kids. We had a small business. We didn’t have cable TV. We didn’t have time. One Saturday a week? Sure. Every day for 160 games? Not practical. There are Notre Dame clubs in every city around the globe that host gamewatches. There aren’t Cubs clubs. There are too many games to have gamewatches.
I don’t know the day it happened, my return to the Cubs. It was at the end of September in 2016, the very end; I was in London until September 28. When I came back, I got a text from either my mom or my childhood friend, Jenny. “Have you seen the Cubs this year? They’re on fire. This could be the year.” I’d seen those texts occasionally over the previous 5 years thinking “uh huh, sure. Next text…” But for whatever reason, that time I took notice.
So I started watching them. They were good. Exciting-to-watch good. Full-of-surprises good. Even the bullpen was good. I got to know the players. Their names, their strengths, their positions and their records. They were in the NLDS at the time, against the Giants in early October. My brother and I texted furiously back and forth during tense moments, to the tune of up to 200 texts a night. It became a thing.
I got my kids involved. We started watching them dominate. Boy were their bats hot! Pitchers weren’t just giving stellar performances from the mound with record-setting velocity, they were hitting home runs to save the game. In the post-season. Pitchers!
It was so easy to get sucked in and fall in love with that 2016 team. The really were on fire. Baez. Rizzo. Bryant. Schwarber’s post-injury comeback. Russell. Montero. Almora Jr. Grandpa Ross. Teddy Bear Fowler. And who can leave out Chapman’s 100 mph plus pitches. Lackey. Arrietta. Montgomery. Hendricks. Of course Maddon, the Rickets family, and Theo Epstein.
I began to re-order my October days. That is not my normal M.O. Our schedule revolved around when the next game was. Lunchmaking, homework, dinner recipes, even which holy day of obligation mass time we’d attend (November 1st is All Saints Day, that was World Series Game 6. Yawning and bleary-eyed, we willingly went to mass at 6:30a.m.). I found the Cubs Rally Album from my youth on You Tube and started playing it on my phone when I took the kids to school. I played it again when I picked them up. They memorized the lyrics, and when we had to clean the house, we queued up this 19-minute album to put us in a good mood. They learned who Eddie Vedder was, who Harry Carey was, who Awesome Dawson was, who the Boyz of Zimmer were. You know, important history lessons.
But I’m glossing over the real point here. Why do we love this team the way we do? Do others love their teams this much? (Surely.) Do I care? (No.) Why for a time did my heart actually swell when I watched those videos, when I heard the songs, when I saw grown men and women sobbing and racing around like they’d just won the lottery?
I have a theory.
It’s about Joy and Belonging.
There are only a few places we can go in the world where all divides melt away. Where there’s no judgment. Political divides, racial and ethnic divides, cultural divides, all of it. Age doesn’t matter. Education level doesn’t matter. Jobs, number of children, military service, religious views, and your voter registration card –they don’t matter. They become instantly invisible. Not forever, but for a time.
I’ve experienced the “melt-away” effect at funerals and memorials. No one cares about any of these labels. All they are doing is focusing on the soul who is no longer with us and the grieving family left behind. They are likely thinking about their own lives and how they are doing on their own journey. As a collective, everyone there is focused on comforting the family. Everyone and anyone belongs.
I’ve written and edited and re-edited this reflection. And I get stuck at this part, the ending. What am I trying to say? Something profound or unique, groundbreaking or life-changing? Maybe. Maybe not. In part it was just fun to record these thoughts and allow it all to percolate. To chronicle my love of the Cubs since I was a kid. But it’s also about that word at the beginning of this story: “Joy.”
There is something unique about the collective nature of emotions. “Collective Joy” is joy that has been multiplied because hundreds or thousands of people are experiencing the same emotion. Your joy – my joy – it actually increases by watching other people react to the same event. “Collective Joy” is also something amazingly fun to behold. We all love watching people be extremely happy! Leap from their chairs! Watch them go bonkers! This is especially true if we agree with what they’re happy about! That’s why I kept watching the videos of people going berserk. When we engage in these activities, we feel what others feel; we feel connected on a larger scale, even validated for having, in this case, such over-the-top reactions to Major League Baseball.
In these moments people’s guards come down. We see authentic emotion. The veil of composure is removed, and we see something real. That’s rare these days. Those veils are thicker now, especially with the advent of social media and the “cover pages” we make for ourselves (myself included). But when we watch authentic joy and experience it on a collective scale, even if though strangers, somehow we all belong. Just think of the parade in Chicago to welcome the Cubs home as World Series Champions. Attendance was estimated at 5 million people. The 7th largest gathering in human history. In human history. That was “Collective Joy.”
We cannot ignore the unlikelihood of this World Series win, either. The Cubs were down 3-1 going into game 5. They’d have to win 3 in a row to pull this off. The odds were crazy slim. Cub fans had just watched 2 losses in a row at Wrigley Field (which were the only World Series games played at Wrigley since 1945). They all came back for game 5, many feeling like they might be attending a funeral or memorial. The death of a World Series run. More mourning. “Well, at least we’ll commiserate together,” may very well have been thought. So for them to win that night in Chicago, win again in Cleveland, and win AGAIN after a rain delay, several lead-changes, and extra innings in Cleveland for The Win? It was too much to handle. As conditioned Cub fans with “here we go again” looping in our brains, we truly had seen the impossible happen. For them to win the way they did was nothing short of a miracle. And that made the Collective Joy that much better.
Professional sports – and now Cubs Baseball (finally!) – have the capacity to do inspire Collective Joy. And I think if we push the envelope, there’s an opportunity. We can put action behind it. We can seek out more joy for ourselves. The real, authentic joy that lifts our minds and hearts. We can bring that joy to others. Through service to others, using our gifts, whatever your “way” is. So maybe that’s the simplest message. Pay it forward. Seek Joy. Experience Joy. And bring Joy.
The post season of 2016 is one no Cub fan can or will ever forget. And I am one of them. Even if they win it again this year, in 10 years, in my lifetime – it just won’t compare. There’s a bizarre frustration and sadness that the feeling and experience I had – that longtime Cub fans everywhere had – can never be duplicated. Lightning doesn’t strike twice. You can’t behold your newborn baby for the first time, twice. You can’t repeat that kind of experience or feeling. But it is what it is. And it was amazing.
I’m more involved in the Cubs now than I’ve been in decades. And you know what, it makes me happy. It brings me joy in a world that tries to wear me down, beat me up. Following them on my mlb app is fun. It’s a welcome distraction. It keeps me from taking life too seriously. It takes me back to my childhood. It keeps my memories of Elizabeth closer-in.It’s how I connect and bond with my kids, especially my son. I throw random texts at my brother and bust out laughing at his response while I wait for the bell to ring at the kids’ school. And my kids know: “What, Mom? What did Uncle Matt say?” Sometimes I tell them, sometimes I say, “I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
At this writing, we’re at 89 wins in 2018 and the magic number to clinch is 8. October ball is likely (to the tune of 99%). This is Go Time. Baseball is a long season. It takes so very long to know if you’re going to be an October-ball contender. The fact that we are – again – is remarkable. It’s so not normal if you’ve followed the Cubs at all pre-2000. And even though we can’t re-live that 2016 post season “live”, I still wouldn’t have it any other way – of course – than to still be winning now. To still have great Cubs baseball to watch. We’ve waited all year for October ball. And it brings me joy to be able to say to my kids,
“Hey guys, this could be another winning year!” And then to say during the off season – with anticipation and legitimate optimism – “Wait til Next Year!”