This year, I was ready. I had a plan. Come hell or high water, I was not going to be crushed by the Chicago Cubs.
I knew it wouldn't be easy. After all, I had been living and dying with the Lovable Losers for as long as I could remember. I grew up in Wrigley Field in the 1970s, watching "players" like George Mitterwald, Pete LaCock and Dennis Lamp make a mockery of the great game of baseball. I watched in horror in 1984...and 1989...and 1998 as postseason dreams were transformed into jagged scars.
In 2003 I went to every home playoff game. My first reward? Looking as if I had been hit by a bus following The Bartman Incident in Game 6 of the NLCS. My final reward? Looking as if I had been hit by a bus and beaten repeatedly with a tire iron following the Cubs' exit from the postseason the following night.
The next year, I went over the edge. Barking mad, you might say. For reasons known only to God, I decided to write a book chronicling the Cubs' 2004 season. The book ended as you'd imagine: with an epic collapse in the final week of the season. The title of my tome? Wrigley Blues.
Still, I hadn't learned my lesson. I was there every step of the way as the Cubs won the National League Central title in 2007. And I was in the right-field bleachers with my 10-year-old son Cole on the day the Cubs were swept out of the playoffs by the Diamondbacks. It was young Cole's first trip to a Cubs playoff game. As for tired, old me? I vowed sometime during the Diamondbacks debacle that it would be my last heartbreak.
Yes, the 2008 season would be something completely different. This time I would outsmart these diabolical Cubs. The premise was simple: I might not be able to control what the Cubs do, but I could damn sure control myself. In other words, I wasn't going to allow myself to be sucked in. Never again would I be that schlub in the Wrigley grandstands who looked as if he had been hit by a bus, beaten with a tire iron and kicked in the stomach for good measure.
The Cubs quickly established themselves as the best team in the National League this season, and Wrigley Field was rocking. The wins piled up -- en route to a league-high 97, their best regular season since 1945 (the last time they appeared in a World Series) -- and everyone on the North Side was drinking the Kool-Aid: This was going to be the year that Lou Piniella's boys would bring home the Cubbies' first world championship since 1908.
But I knew better. I didn't go anywhere near the place. OK, I hung out in the surrounding Wrigleyville neighborhood during a couple games -- old habits die hard -- but let the record show that I never set foot in the Unfriendly Confines. During one stretch when I was out of town I instituted a Cubs blackout and went several days without even checking the box scores.
As my ultimate act of defiance I even cheated on Wrigley Field, taking Cole to New York City in August to pay homage to another shrine, Yankee Stadium, before it receded into history. Cole and I watched the Yankees play the Royals, but it wasn't the escape I had hoped for. The once-mighty Yanks seemed about ready to roll over and die -- in fact they looked suspiciously like so many of the Cubs teams I had suffered with over the years.
Through the ups and downs of recent seasons I had done much of my venting via an e-mail group that was comprised of eight friends. We called it the Party Line. Most of us had worked together for the magazine Inside Sports before it tanked in the late 1990s. Since then we had been furiously exchanging e-mails on all of life's important topics: sports, music, politics, beer and women.
We're all Cubs fans. Except for Brett. His allegiance is to that team on the South Side, the White Sox. When Brett and I worked together, I'd bring people by his cubicle, point at him, and say, "Have you ever seen one of these? It's a White Sox fan. We have one in captivity."
The White Sox, of course, had ended a sizable World Series drought of their own in 2005, and they crowded in on the Cubs' spotlight this year by winning the American League Central title. Out of principle, I exchanged some Party Line barbs with Brett before the two Chicago teams began their respective postseasons.
Me:Think the TV ratings of the Cubs' playoff games will be double those of the Sox? Triple?
Brett:Most of the 1.75 million fans at the White Sox parade [in '05] shouted themselves hoarse; most of the fans at the Cubbies' last parade were horses.
And so on. But before things could get out of hand, I took a step back and demonstrated that I finally had my priorities in order. I fired this shot across the Party Line bow:
Here's the way I've got it figured: If the most people can say about me after I kick the can is that I was the biggest Cubs fan they knew, then I will have lived a pretty b.s. life.
I was appropriately detached by Game 1 of the Division Series -- and, most important, I was nowhere near Wrigley Field. When James Loney hit a grand slam to give the Dodgers a 4-2 lead and set the stage for a 7-2 Cubs loss, I was on my couch at home. As cameras panned the Wrigley grandstands, I was almost amused by the poor fools who looked as if they had been hit by a bus, beaten repeatedly with a tire iron, kicked in the stomach and doused with beer for good measure.
The Cubs were down 1-0 in the series, but I wasn't worried. I was far enough removed from the action to be objective. The next morning I was the voice of reason on the Party Line:
Things will look a lot different tomorrow morning if Carlos Zambrano comes up big tonight.
I thought about it. Minutes passed. My fingers started tapping out another Party Line dispatch:
Who are we fooling? It's over.
I was beginning to crack.
Desperate times called for desperate measures: I decided I would watch the Joe Biden-Sarah Palin vice presidential debate that night instead of the start of Game 2. It was the responsible thing to do.
But as Biden and Palin traded verbal jabs, my trigger finger got itchy. It took everything I had not to click the remote and find out what the hell was going in the game. When the debate ended, I frantically changed the channel: Zambrano hadn't come up big -- the Cubs were down 5-0. A couple hours later they had lost 10-3.
I didn't sleep well that night. I was feeling edgy. The next morning I tried my hardest to maintain my veneer on the Party Line:
I'm not letting this Cubs collapse bring me down, fellas. Life's way too short. I mean, what if they had gone all the way? Would that have changed my life in any way? They're a baseball team. [Bleep] the Chicago Cubs. [Bleep] Wrigley Field. And [bleep] Sammy Sosa.
A few seconds past. My fingers tapped out a follow-up:
Also, [bleep] Dick Stockton.
The level-headed approach wasn't working particularly well -- I was cracking again. Luckily, it was a travel day for the Cubs, so I had some time to pull myself together. That night I went to a bar to watch my old pal Bennett's band play, and I probably had one too many.
My head felt a bit cloudy when I awoke the next morning, but my resolve to not care about the Cubs was clearer and stronger than ever. Rather than watch the game that night, I would attend my 25th high school reunion. I just had to convince Bennett to do the same. Bennett and I had been friends since the seventh grade; we had watched more Cubs games together than I could count. He still cared. Nevertheless, he caved under my pressure and picked me up at around 7 p.m. for the reunion.
The shindig was at a suburban monstrosity called Pinstripes, a reception hall/bowling alley/restaurant. Bennett and I mingled with people we hadn't seen in years. We smiled bravely. We acted like we were into the whole thing.
But at 9 p.m. -- first pitch of Game 3 -- we couldn't resist. We sidled up to the bar to catch a glimpse of the Cubs fighting for their lives. The fight was, as usual, futile. In the bottom of the first inning the hated Loney gave L.A. a 2-0 lead with a clutch double.
"It's over," Bennett said, staring at the TV in disbelief.
I nodded grimly. "Let's go," I said.
Bennett and I returned to the business of mingling with people we hadn't seen in years. We smiled bravely. We acted like we were into the whole thing.
But as the bell tolled for the Cubbies -- as they entered the top of the ninth inning losing 3-1 -- we couldn't resist. We sidled back up to the bar and watched Ryan Theriot, KosukeFukudome and Alfonso Soriano go down in order. Just like that, the Cubs were done. Nine straight playoff losses. Yet another season had ended in disgrace.
"That's it," Bennett said. "I can't take it anymore. I'm breaking up with the Cubs."
"I already have," I said.
My words, however, didn't ring true. As I slumped over the bar with one eye on the TV and the other on my drink, I surely looked as if I had been hit by a bus, beaten repeatedly with a tire iron, kicked in the stomach, doused with beer and punched in the teeth for good measure.