Welcome Back, Baseball

I’ve written here before about the odd but special place baseball has played in my life. This time around, my intention is to dig into the game more specifically, especially putting into focus my newfound affection for one of the oldest teams in the sport, the Chicago Cubs.

I married into the Chicago connection, and my first time visiting the group of my wife’s family still living in Illinois coincided with the Cubbies’ first trip to the World Series in 71 years. Evenings revolved around games 3, 4 & 5 at Wrigley Field just an hour or so away from Sycamore, which saw the Cubs fall behind the Cleveland Indians 3-2 before storming back and winning the final two games in Cleveland to give the franchise its first championship since 1908.

My history is such that I never really felt emotionally tied to a baseball team. Football, sure, basketball, definitely, and eventually soccer, absolutely, but I never expected to care that much about what a baseball team–especially one located over 700 miles from where I live–did with their season. But the Fall of 2016 was a perfect storm of budding fandom, as being surrounded by a room full of people who really cared about what happened to this lovable team, who lived and breathed the atmosphere that was Cubs baseball, well I immediately bought into that because I knew what that felt like for other teams. And before I knew it, the butterflies that tied up my stomach during George Mason’s Final Four run in 2006, or prior to each of the final four plays of Super Bowl XLVII or Everton’s nearly knocking off heavily favored Manchester United in the 2016 FA Cup semifinal, found their way into my stomach as the Cubs and Indians slugged out two close games in Chicago (games 3 & 5, game 4 was a 7-2 stomping by Cleveland).

There was something, too, about getting into the fray at that moment in history. The Cubs were long known as lovable losers, but the arrival of President of Baseball Operations Theo Epstein–who had GM’ed the Red Sox to breaking their own long-suffering World Series drought–in 2011 proved to be a turn towards contention for the organization, as Epstein was instrumental in drafting current Cubs stars like Kris Bryant, Anthony Rizzo and others, along with orchestrating moves to bring in big time veterans such as Dexter Fowler, Jon Lester, John Lackey and others who were major cogs in the World Series run, as well as the NL Wild Card team that came prior to the championship win and the NLCS trip the year after. Going into the 2018-19 season, expectations remain high for a Cubs team that is led mostly by its young core. Watching history unfold in front of my eyes really helped to connect me to the bunch from the Northside of Chicago.

But what finally solidified my adoration for the club was when E and I took a day trip into Chicago when we visited the Illinois family in late May 2017. We took an hour-long train ride into the city and visited a few sights, but the day revolved around a night game at Wrigley, where we saw the Cubs beat the San Francisco Giants 5-4 on an exceptionally chilly Chicago night. The stadium is clearly old architecture, but its design is beautiful and pretty much every seat in the house feels right on top of the field. And Cubs fans are incredible, even at that point in the year where the team was in the middle of a poor stretch. Being there, though, made me appreciate the history of the team, and has cemented my Cubs fandom, but also ensures that visiting the Friendly Confines will be an important piece of any trip to Illinois from here on out.

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I may never make it to Santa Clara to see the 49ers play at Levi’s Stadium and it’s even less likely I’ll see Everton at Goodison Park, mostly because both stadium trips also require airline flights, making them much less cost-effective, even if I’d say each is its own piece of a sports-focused bucket list. I do make it to regular Hornets games, but seeing as they’re close to home, they don’t feel as much of an event as the trips, both past and future, to Wrigley did/will. With Opening Day 2018 coming up this week, I’m looking forward to seeing how well the Cubs fair this year, and to being back at Wrigley Field this July, seeing a game that will end in a rousing rendition of “Go, Cubs, Go.”

National Pastime

I have a strange, long-running relationship with the game of baseball.

As a professional sports viewer, it is likely the United State Big 4 sport (NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB) I pay the least attention to (tied with hockey, although that’s debatable), and soccer honestly falls several rungs above it.

(SIDE BAR

Ranking of emotional commitment to pro sports teams: San Francisco 49ers, Everton, Charlotte Hornets and then any national team in those three sports from the United States)

All that said, the relationship has been an odd one. Growing up, I tried my hand at playing most sports that kids in the US grow up playing; first soccer, than predominantly basketball and baseball, then tried my hand at football, before ending my “playing career,” ironically, as a 9th grade first baseman/pitcher on my rec league team. Baseball, then, was the sport I played the longest and–although this is relative–the best. I wasn’t very tall or particularly fast, so if I had entertained any thoughts of playing sports through high school and into college, baseball would have been my thing. Then I ditched out on baseball tryouts my freshman year after two days of conditioning (my athletic experience up to that point had been largely void of such things), and that was the end of it.

So it’s exceedingly strange that of all the sporting events I’ve ever attended, I’d gather baseball tops the list in terms of games seen. I paid some attention to the MLB in middle and high school, but generally couldn’t give you a list of the current top teams (the Cubs are still the best right?) or more than a cursory stab at the game’s top players (I know Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are good, and then there’s that one guy for the Cubs…). You can blame it on a lot of things: the MLB season is too long to keep up with, the games themselves are also very long and some of the worst to watch on television, and the fact that other than my brief stints in the San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington, DC areas, I’ve never lived in a geographic location that lived and breathed baseball (and that even those cities listed above are more basketball, football or even hockey towns).

Yet again, I’ve attended more baseball games and visited more stadiums than all other sports combined; and the reason for that is simple: there are a lot more baseball teams than all sports, save for maybe soccer, especially in the United States. While I haven’t lived around a MLB team for much of my life, I have almost always lived near a minor league team, which meant that baseball was a relatively inexpensive way to spend a late Spring/early summer evening, an event that could be shared by people of all ages and interests-in-sports levels. As a kid, we used to go to Norfolk Tides games all the time. I can remember half a dozen trips to Harbor Park just to celebrate my birthday–which is in mid-May–alone, let alone the other trips centered around family outings or church youth group trips. And while my time in the DC area took away cheap baseball as an option, my current locale offers yet another Triple-A baseball team (and a brand new stadium, to boot) in the Charlotte Knights.

But here’s the weirdest part: I go to these games and I enjoy going to the stadium and all that entails (peanuts, Cracker Jacks, etc), but I honestly don’t care much about the outcome of the game. The tricky part about minor league baseball is how often things change–players get called up or down, get traded or released all the time, making it difficult to really know who is on the team from year-to-year, and frankly the success of the team doesn’t move me much, nor would it impact the city of Charlotte if they were good or bad. People attend these games because they are relatively cheap to attend and provide a family friendly way to spend a summer afternoon or evening. And while I am usually the most interested in the outcome out of all the people I generally attend the games with, I find my attention waxing and waning throughout the course of any given contest.

Yet I keep going to these games. I get excited about the start of baseball season because it means something to do that costs less than a movie and technically counts as being outside. I don’t think it has much to do with baseball, so much as it does the distraction of something to do. If I had the money I’d much prefer to attend more Hornets games than I do Knights games, just because I find myself caring more about the way Charlotte’s NBA team performs than does its White Sox Triple-A affiliate. Yet baseball continues to be something I come back to time and time again.

I’m not trying to divulge some deeper meaning out of this, by the way. It’s just strange to me that I spend so much time and money integrating myself into something that doesn’t matter that much to me. This also isn’t intended as a knock on professional baseball, especially of the minor league variety. It’s merely a curiosity of my life, and these peculiarities are fascinating to me.

In either respect, I imagine this will continue to be a part of my life experience. E isn’t a huge sports fan, but she enjoys a trip to the ballpark, and as we get married and add to our little family, I imagine us packing up our car and taking our brood out to the ball game quite often throughout those long summer nights. And whether the outcome matters or not, I believe the experience of nights will be the point.

And that–in or lose–is why the game is played.