Thursday September 29th, 2016

Rosanna Goodman was seven years old when her mommy told her that daddy had died. She knew she was supposed to be sad, so she made a sad face. But she didn’t really understand. Her father traveled a lot for his job as a musician. She thought he would come back.

Steve Goodman had made jokes at death’s expense since he was diagnosed with leukemia at age 20. He called himself Cool Hand Leuk, and when his doorbell rang, he’d tell his family, “If it’s a guy with a sickle and a hood, tell him I’m not here.” Predictably, he did not want a funeral. At his request his wife, Nancy, threw a party instead. But that only added to young Rosanna’s confusion.

Three years later, after the Goodman family moved to New York City, Rosanna dreamed she saw her father behind gates in front of a big house, and she woke up crying. That is when it finally hit her: He’s gone forever.

The next three decades dried the tears and smoothed the memories. Sometimes, Rosanna cannot be sure if a recollection of her father is truly hers, or if she heard a story repeated so many times that her brain has adopted it as her own. But she is sure she remembers the oranges. Her father had read that citrus fruits might help him beat cancer, and he would sit with bags of oranges and his daughters at his side, and he would eat the oranges and watch baseball.

Man, did Steve Goodman love baseball. He was a Cubs fan, and he said that he scheduled his tours “around chemotherapy and the baseball season.” He memorized statistics like a kid collecting baseball cards.

“It was insane,” says his widow, Nancy Goodman Tenney.  “He was just an encyclopedia of baseball.”

He even wrote three songs about the Cubs: “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request,” “The Cubs Go Marching In,” and the one they still sing at Wrigley Field after every home win:

Go, Cubs, go!

Go, Cubs, go!

Hey, Chicago, what do you say?

The Cubs are gonna win today

Goodman wrote many better songs than “Go, Cubs, Go.” He wrote “City of New Orleans,” which was a hit for Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Arlo Guthrie. Jimmy Buffett has sung Goodman’s “Banana Republics” so often that most people assume it is a Buffett original. Goodman won two Grammys, both posthumously, one in 1985 for Best Country Song ("City of New Orleans") and the other two years later for Best Contemporary Folk Album, Unfinished Business.

Yet “Go, Cubs, Go” may be the song that Chicagoans most associate with Goodman, which is fitting. Steve loved the Cubs so much that when he and his wife Nancy looked for an apartment in Chicago, they found one three blocks from Wrigley Field.

Sometimes, if he and the Cubs were both in town for a week, he would attend games every day. He liked to sit in the bleachers. He often brought a daughter but he rarely bought a ticket. A friend who worked as an usher would let him in for free. You could do that then. The Cubs rarely sold out. Baseball was a business, but it was not yet big business.

When Steve was sick and the family moved to Seal Beach, Calif. in 1980, he took his baseball obsession with him. He kept cheering for the Cubs, he was thrilled when his daughters played Little League ball, and he would take his family to Angels games to get his live baseball fix.

He was acutely aware that his time on Earth was finite, yet he spent a lot of it obsessing about baseball. Some people would call that a waste of time. Thirty-two years later, with the Cubs eyeing their first championship since 1908, we can say with certainty: It was not.

Jessie, Sara and Rosanna at a recording studio; Sara's shirt shows the album art for their father's album, "Somebody Else's Troubles."
Courtesy of Rosanna Goodman

Sarah Goodman Voyer was nine years old when her father died. She knew he had been sick, and that he had been in a coma. She understood he had died but convinced herself he had not.

“It was easy for me to have a fantasy for a very long time,” she says. “It was something I would allow myself to think.”

Her father had long blurred the line between here and gone. When he was touring, as he often was, he would write stories on postcards and send them to Nancy to read to their daughters at bedtime. One of the characters was called “I Don’t Know Jones.” Another was called Penny and was the size of a penny.

Having him around was so much fun, his daughters did not want to let go. He once took the girls to see Superman in the theater, and as soon as they got out, he said, “Do you want to see it again?” Of course they did, so they went right back in.

He would call friends late at night just to tell them a joke. It did not have to be a good joke. Many of his jokes were not good, or new. But he enjoyed telling them so much that his friends laughed anyway.

Sarah remembers watching The Benny Hill Show, one of her father’s favorites: “It was only funny when I watched it with dad. I would crack up hysterically when I watched it with him. I tried to watch it without him, and I was sort of not amused. There was something about his presence, that if he thought it was funny, it was funny to me.”

Steve had a sense of comedic mischief that permeated everything he did. One of his songs, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” attempted to combine every lyric in every country song ever. When he went bald from chemotherapy, he named his next album Artistic Hair.

He had that quality off stage, too. When the Goodmans vacationed on Catalina Island in California, which he called Poor Man’s Hawaii, he showed his girls where the Cubs had held spring training from 1921 to '51. He told his daughters “the ghosts of the Cubs” were there. It was a personal trip, even though he was three when the Cubs played their last game on Catalina Island. Baseball has a way of forming memories where none exist.

When Steve was a boy, he would skip school so his grandfather could take him to Wrigley. As with most Cubs fans, his misery was both earned and inherited.

If you hear that there is a song called “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” but haven’t actually heard the song, you might assume it ends with the Cubs winning the World Series. It does not. Goodman was much too funny for that, and far too into baseball.

Instead, he sings of “a doubleheader funeral in Wrigley Field on some summer weekend day,” when defense-challenged outfielder Keith Moreland drops “a routine fly.”

The song is not about the Cubs winning, because being a Cubs fan has never really been about the Cubs winning. It’s about a community knowing the Cubs probably won’t win, but pulling for them anyway. Goodman was born in 1948, three years after the Cubs last played in the World Series. When he sang the song, the Cubs had not made the playoffs in his lifetime.

“Give everybody two bags of peanuts and a frosty malt,” Goodman says in the song, “and I’ll be ready to die.”

He died Sept. 20, 1984. Four days later, the Cubs clinched the National League East. He missed seeing them in the postseason by two weeks. It was the last joke that the Cubs played on Steve Goodman.

He once recorded a video of “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” in the seats of Wrigley while Sarah ran the bases. He said later that she was living his childhood dream. But she was young. She did not realize what it meant—not yet.

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Jessie Goodman was 12 when her father died—old enough to understand death, but not quite old enough to deal with it. She had already had a hard life. Steve and Nancy adopted her after doctors said Steve would not be able to reproduce (the doctors were wrong; Sarah and Rosanna are his biological kids), and she battled mental-health issues from a young age.

As an adult, Jessie held jobs as a pet groomer, but she struggled mentally and physically, and eventually Rosanna oversaw her care. She died suddenly in 2012, just after her 40th birthday, of a brain hemorrhage, after having ulcerative colitis.

Hers was not an easy life. But there were bright moments, and some of the brightest involved her two great loves: animals and baseball. Whenever Jessie visited Chicago in her adult years, she wanted to go to a Cubs game with her grandmother.

Rosanna (left), wearing her dad's Cubs jacket, and Sara escort their grandmother, Minnette, to the mound to throw the first pitch before a game at Wrigley in 2008.
Courtesy of Rosanna Goodman

How do you keep a beloved parent from receding into the past? Rosanna and Sarah can tell stories, but stories get old and repetitive; when a man has been dead for 32 years, there aren’t many new stories. They can close their eyes and remember jumping on their father’s chest in the morning, before he put his catheter in. But that’s just a memory.

Baseball helps Steve Goodman’s daughters connect with their father. The game keeps him in their present lives. They say that whenever they see a game, especially if the Cubs are involved, they feel like he is there with them. Baseball is a gift he gave them, whether he meant to or not—a candle that never goes out.

The girls spent most of their childhood in California and New York, and they have rarely lived in Chicago. But they feel at home there. Sarah says, “Chicago was magical and still is. It’s one of my favorite cities. There is a quality to it, a smell and a feel—there is something very homey and comforting about that city.”

Last year, as theplayoffs unfolded, Rosanna thought: Oh, no. After spending most of her childhood in New York, she became a Mets fan. But the Cubs were her father’s team. She asked friends: What do I do here? Who do I cheer for?

She settled on the Cubs. She wants them to win a World Series, for her father and for all the people singing his song when the Cubs win.

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Steve Goodman’s ashes were spread in two places. His brother threw some of them over the leftfield wall at Wrigley. The family spread the rest at Doubleday Field in Cooperstown. Yet the daughters swear their father never completely left. His friends look out for them. His songwriting royalties have helped support them. His career inspires them. Rosanna says she decided to become an independent filmmaker in her 30s because of the example her father set with his music career; she now lives in Phoenix and works as a music video and film producer.

“If this person could do it, fighting cancer with three kids, why can’t you just start now and do that?” she says. “That’s part of what pushes me to succeed. There is no question who he was, and his influence on the people who loved him, have all been a part of our life and helped raise us. He has just been very present. The qualities about him, and how he connected to people, his sense of humor ... those are things that kind of guide me in how I deal with people in my life.”

Sarah is a social worker in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband and two children. “Knowing you were loved in that way, and cared for, is something that stays with you," she says. "It continues to be something I draw comfort from. It is important. You need that experience.”

They swear that sometimes he drops in on them, just to say hello. They talk about it all the time. Rosanna remembers taking a trip to Florida with a boyfriend, going to a mini-golf course and immediately fighting with him. Then she made a hole-in-one, and at the moment the ball dropped in the hole, “Banana Republics” came on the speakers—her dad’s version, not Buffett’s. The song, about going to the tropics "hopin' to find some fun," reminded her she did not go on spring break to argue.

When Rosanna was in her 20s, she was flat broke, and she read an article about unclaimed funds. She did a search and there was $500 in Illinois in the names of her and her father.

And when the girls took Steve’s mom to Paris, they checked into their hotel, turned on the TV, and a French version of “City of New Orleans” came on. They think it was their dad thanking them for taking his mom to Paris.

That may sounds crazy to you, the way that the Curse of the Billy Goat probably sounds crazy to you. You’ve heard that story: Supposedly a Chicago bar-owner named Billy Sianis was told to leave Wrigley Field during the 1945 World Series because his pet goat smelled, so he cursed the Cubs, and they haven’t been back to the World Series since.

Silly stuff. But the point is not that a billy goat (or its owner) cursed the Cubs. The point is that the Cubs were so inept, so bewildering, for so long, that they could make an otherwise rational person believe that their team was sentenced to an eternity of doom by a farm animal.

Baseball takes you as far as your imagination will go. So do fathers.

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