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The World Series, Cubs Anxiety, and Baseball's Lessons

Tuesday, November 01, 2016 Rob Samuelson

The Chicago Cubs have their backs against the wall in the World Series, their first since 1945, as Fox Sports play-by-play man Joe Buck won’t stop talking about. Tonight they head back to Cleveland to take on an Indians team that has had their number through five games of the series. For only the second time all year (Sunday’s Game 5 was the first), the Cubs are in “win or go home” mode and it is tense enough to give a relatively healthy 27-year-old film critic an ulcer.

Photo credit: Chicago Cubs/Facebook

To be a Cubs fan is to have a preoccupation with death. It’s not your fault. When it’s been more than a century since the team last won a championship, you can’t help but see the aged faces in the stands and start thinking about ticking clocks. You begin pondering the big questions, wondering if this silly game is worth the increases in blood pressure and if your entire life will pass before that confounding and often infuriating North Side team finally celebrates a World Series victory. There’s the elderly woman who has sat along the visitors’ dugout during the Cubs’ first World Series games at Wrigley Field since the end of World War II. There’s Game 3 “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” singer Bill Murray, who long ago transitioned to “depressed old clown” roles -- Rushmore would be old enough to vote if it were a person.

The annual march toward setting a record for championship-free seasons is not about a batter’s failure at the plate or an inability of a typically dominant pitcher to paint the corner of the plate. It is about knowing that you will die disappointed in one or more ways. Hopefully the Cubs’ inability to win a World Series will be your life’s greatest regret, but I think we all know that it won’t be. That 108-year drought is instructive for us because it teaches us to manage our feelings when the really important bad stuff happens. Baseball is just a stand-in for the sometimes cruel, sometimes transcendent randomness of life, and that’s what makes it the best American sport.

If the Cubs don’t complete a three-game winning streak to win this series (Sunday’s Game 5 win was a vomit-inducing first step toward achieving that now statistically unlikely goal), the 2016 edition of the Cubs may become the most heartbreaking squad in the franchise’s history. If they do march their way back to win it all in a nail-biting Game 7 against Cleveland’s ace pitcher Corey Kluber, who has made the usually formidable Cubs offense look like a beer league softball team through two starts in the series, then the randomness will finally go in Cubs fans’ favor. And it will be nice. I’ll weep openly in public. I’ll get tattooed with the only image I’ve ever considered I’d want to have permanently on my body: The Cubs’ C logo on my shoulder.

On the downside of possible World Series outcomes is one we Cubs fans have long had nightmares about. We could watch a team that rampaged through Major League Baseball in the regular -- they were the best team in baseball by far and they were still unlucky, with their underlying performance suggesting they should have won around 109 games instead of the “measly” 103 they actually got -- be dispatched by a Cleveland team that limped into the playoffs. Slumps happen at very bad times and it appears it is one of those times for utility man Javier Baez, catcher-leftfielder Willson Contreras, and the rest of the team’s hitters. Once you’re already slumping, you tense up and try to do too much, which compounds the poor results. When we fans watch that happen, we are reminded of our own faults and failures. It’s not pretty and it’s not fun. It makes you wonder if you’ve wasted your life so far and whether you will continue to waste your life in the vain hope of achieving something, of contributing something before you turn into a skeleton. It is, of course, “just a game,” but when you look at it as a life lesson or a piece of storytelling, it becomes so much more, painfully so.

But you keep doing whatever it is you do. The Cubs show up to spring training every February whether they have won 100 games or lost 100 (which they did only a few short years ago) the season before. They trust in the process of competing. It’s what they do because they like doing it. Even if it turns out poorly, there is fun to be had along the way. Kris Bryant’s five-hit games and the team clinching their first National League pennant in 71 years, to name a couple highlights, are not so far off from remembering a great road trip with a partner in the middle of a relationship that ended badly. My mom may have a bad back and she may be mourning the death of her sister (with whom she worked at the ballpark when they were teenagers) less than a year ago, but I got to take in Game 3 with her from a rooftop across from Wrigley Field -- I haven't seen her that happy in a long time. My sister may be suffering from the debilitating effects of a still-undiagnosed autoimmune disease, but she flew in with her husband from Tampa Bay, Florida, to attend Game 4 in the same seats my mom and I had the night before -- my brother-in-law pushed her a mile in her wheelchair to the ballpark so they could take in the atmosphere. My oldest friend flew in from Seattle and I got to see the engagement ring he had recently placed on his fiancee's finger -- and I was asked to be the best man at their wedding in a couple years. These moments are special because they are a mixture of good and bad, exuberance and pain. And these new memories revolve around this stupid team.

Those of us who are not genetic freaks, who can’t play games for a living, get to look at those wealthy game players as both a distraction from our own lives -- my day job is writing about politics during what may go down in history as the ugliest, most profane, and disgusting election in American history, so you can understand why I have needed the 2016 Cubs to take me out of that drudgery -- and as a lesson: Just do whatever it is you do, and do it to the best of your ability, then maybe it’ll work out in the end.

Photo credit: Chicago Cubs/Facebook

That’s what reigning National League Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta will try to do tonight as he takes the ball for the Cubs in Game 6. If that pressing offense relaxes a bit and strings together some hits against Josh Tomlin, a Cleveland starter who has been extremely hittable throughout his career, the dream will live on for one more day. A decisive Game 7 would then be set for Wednesday evening and anything can happen then. Maybe when you wake up on Thursday, you won’t have to worry about dying without seeing a Cubs championship. More importantly, maybe you will see that sometimes your own failures will turn around even if it feels like it takes a century (plus eight years (my lord, this has taken forever (parentheses))).

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