Baseball and I have a tortured history. I found something like redemption and hope in the game as a child. Then time eroded the childlike perception that miracles were possible. Efforts to rekindle the romance with the game fluttered and died in adulthood.
But I was born in Chicago, you see, in the mid-1950s. My first love was, therefore, the Chicago Cubs, a team that seemed jinxed, forever destined to something less than success. It’s been more than a century since the Cubs won the World Series; more than the length of my lifetime since the team even appeared in one.
Can it be they are playing now, this very moment, in the second game of the best-of-seven event? (As I write this, the Cubs are in the second inning of the second game, playing in a city that even God seems to have forgotten, Cleveland. And they’re winning, by a score of 1-0, having lost the first game.)
I tumbled in a warren of memories when the Cubs clinched the National League Championship.
It was 1962. Ernie Banks played first base; Billy Williams and Lou Brock were in the outfield; Ron Santo played third base. And on a blessed number of Saturdays I sat in the rightfield bleachers of Wrigley Field. The sea of green, and bright blue hats and trim on the Cubs uniforms, were pure delight.
I recall little of any of the individual games, except for the sight of a baseball rocketing over the wall and into the street running alongside the stadium. We’d watch as balls landed in the street during batting practice, rooting for one of them to smash the windshield of a parked car. I was seven, and the fact that something like that could happen as a result of an adult’s conduct delighted me.
We lived within walking distance of Wrigley Field the year after my father disappeared. My mother and I returned to the apartment building she and my father lived in when they first married. My godparents, Mable and Percy lived there, sharing a studio with a Murphy bed that descended from a closet. Our studio was just like theirs — I got the bed, my mother took the couch.
We’d eat leg of lamb with mint jelly some Sundays with Mabel and Percy. They were ancient, and childless.
I’m not sure who got the idea to send me to the ballpark, but I was sent there, and I sat in the bleachers. Money was tight then. I’d be given just enough money to get into the game. I brought a peanut butter sandwich in a paper sack to the game, waiting as long as I could to eat it.
Memory is fickle, and I can’t say how many games I actually attended. I want to say dozens, but I suspect it was far fewer. The Cubs management was good to local kids. If you stayed after a game and helped pick up trash in the bleachers you’d be given a ticket for the next Saturday’s home game. The stadium seemed awfully big while walking a row picking up discarded beer and popcorn containers.
We didn’t read newspapers in my house, so I learned what I could at the ballpark. I loved watching scores for other games being posted on the scoreboard. It seemed like magic, watching these numbers appear reporting events in faraway places like New York, or Detroit, where my grandparents lived.
I always brought my baseball mitt to the games, against the off chance a homerun would head my way. I’d spend hours working linseed oil into the glove, just as I had read about in a baseball magazine.
A classmate from the Lemoyne Elementary School, located a few short blocks from Wrigley Field, lived in an apartment building overlooking the field. One day we went to his roof and we could actually see onto the field. He told me he’d go up there to watch games. I was already an elitist; I preferred my seat in the bleachers.
One day as the teams warmed up before the game, Billy Williams stood in the outfield, catching fly balls. I called out to him. He turned, and nodded in my direction. It was at this moment I think I first believed that God might answer prayer.
I prayed a lot that year — for the Cubs to win, for my father to return home from wherever it was to where he had fled, and for my mother to change her mind, when she announced that she was sending me to Detroit to live with her parents as she tried to rebound from the mysterious disappearance of a man she dearly loved.
We didn’t own a car, and would not own one for many years. So I was sent via train from Chicago to Detroit. I wore a Cubs uniform on the train. When my mother handed me over to the conductor and asked him to keep an eye on me, as I was traveling alone, I imagined I was being sent to one of the cities on the scoreboard, to play baseball.
Being a Cub made me feel brave.
In truth, I was never brave, and I was never any good at baseball. When I arrived in Detroit, no one was amused by my costume, and I soon forgot the Cubs. Detroit, you see, had no National League team. The Tigers, whom I came to adore, were in the American League.
But the sight of a Cubs uniform always thrills me, and seeing a Cubs hat always makes me smile. My mother would buy me one at the beginning of the baseball season, and I’d wear it daily, the sweatband disintegrating in the Midwestern heat. I never owned a Tiger’s hat.
All this and more came flooding into mind when I learned the Cubs were at last to play in the World Series. I even researched the cost of a ticket in Section 103 of the bleachers at Wrigley Field, my own venue on this particular field of dreams. The cost is beyond my reach.
Maybe it is true. You can never go home again. But I swear I can smell the hotdogs, the beer, the sweat of all those people crowded into the stadium. I see a sea of green, and men in bright white uniforms with blue trim running with purpose. I am at once returned to a place of great joy amid a childhood of trouble, and I once again believe in miracles.