30 Years Ago At Wrigley, The Day I Fell For Chicago

The famous definition of insanity, credited to Albert Einstein, is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” A cynic might say that’s also the very best definition of a Chicago Cubs fan. Every spring, there is that eternal optimism that this year will be THE year. Except it hasn’t been for an epic 104 years.

But I’d like to offer what may be the second-best definition of baseball insanity: a lifelong baseball fanatic who decided well into middle age to become a devoted Cubs fan. Even though he was more than old enough to know the tragi-comic history that has unfolded on Chicago’s North Side.

Wait, there’s more. Although this fellow long regarded Chicago as his second hometown — because his wife grew up nearby — and has followed the Cubs as a fan since the 1990s, he only moved to the Windy City last July.

Allow me to introduce myself. Because I am that guy.

Here it is. Ballpark. Cathedral of Baseball. Beloved House of Horrors for five generations of Cubs fans. The reason, defying all reason, that I became a middle-aged fan of baseball's most star-crossed team. And the place where I first fell in love with Chicago.

So how did this happen to a reasonably responsible person who committed political journalism in Washington, D.C.,  for 30 years before relocating here?

Part of it almost certainly has to do with the fact that I developed an attachment to the underdog early on, probably when I realized that my devotion to watching sports was way greater than my ability to play them. I became old enough to appreciate baseball growing up in New York in the early 1960s, and could have opted into the dynastic Yankees of Mantle, Ford, Berra and Maris. Instead, I fell madly in love with the New York Mets, the expansion 1962 Mets, with their historically bad 40-120 record.

Yes, I was a Mets fan for a good part of my life. Don’t judge me. And, during my years living in D.C., I rooted for the Baltimore Orioles and the Washington Nationals. So you can see where I’m going with this.

But the bigger part was this: Blame it on Wrigley. Chicago ultimately became my favorite city and a place where I wanted to live out my days. But that old ballpark, with the ivy-covered brick walls and hand-operated scoreboard, tucked tightly into the surrounding residential neighborhood, was the first thing I loved about Chicago.

Last Sunday, June 3, 2012, marked the 30th anniversary of the day that my wife Barb (then my girlfriend) and I attended our first game at Wrigley Field. I had, of course, seen the park many times on TV. Yet when I, at age 26, walked up the ramp and caught my first glimpse of the field and its urban backdrop, I had the same kind of epiphany I’d had at age 5 when my parents took me to my first game ever, between the New York Yankees and Kansas City Athletics at Yankee Stadium in 1961. The old-school charms of Wrigley had me hooked, instantly.

The game itself stuck in my mind because San Diego pitcher Juan Eichelberger, who otherwise had a rather brief and undistinguished MLB career, almost pitched a no-hitter against the Cubs, coming within a bad call by the home-team official scorer from a place in baseball’s history books. A second-inning grounder, which easily could have been called an error on the second baseman, instead was ruled a hit. It turned out to be the only one the Cubs got that day (though they later scored a run on a three-base error and a sacrifice fly).

The Padres won the game, 3-1, and how they won would be called “foreshadowing” in literature. In the top of the 6th, with the teams tied at zero, the Padres loaded the bases with two out. Batter Joe Lefevbre then lofted a long fly ball that slugging center fielder Leon Durham reached near the wall… then dropped, allowing all three runners to score.

Two years later, the Cubs and Padres would meet in the National League Championship Series, then best of five. The Cubs, after winning the first two games and losing the next two, held a 3-2 lead in the bottom of the seventh inning in the decisive Game 5 when Durham, then playing first base, allowed an easy grounder to go between his legs, allowing the tying run to score and sparking a four-run rally that sent the Padres, not the Cubs, to the 1984 World Series.

Fast forward to July 17, 2011. Barb and I had just moved a couple of weeks earlier to an apartment on Lake Shore Drive in Lakeview, among street names with which I first became familiar years earlier because we used to hunt for parking there when we came in for Cubs games. The game that day was a typically dreary affair, a 7-5 loss to the Florida Marlins, in a season already lost. But I will always remember that day as the first time I got to walk HOME from Wrigley Field. (The Cubs ended up 3-3 with me in the stands last year. Not much, but considering the fact that they were 71-91 overall and 39-42 at home, it practically made me a good luck charm.)

In between were many other memories, including these:

* A game on June 8, 1987, in which the Cubs beat the Mets, 4-2, on a two-run, two-out walk-off 9th inning homer by infielder Manny Trillo, who had a long and effective career but was no one’s idea of a slugger. (I then was still a Mets diehard and would remain so until the early ‘90s, when potential Hall of Famers Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden dissipated their careers through hard living while the team dumped spark plugs like Wally Backman and Len Dykstra and replaced them with clubhouse head-cases like Bobby Bonilla, Vince Coleman and Bret Saberhagen.)

* The Aug. 13, 1993 game, a 4-1 win for San Francisco, in which I sat right behind home plate in seats I’d gotten from a friend of a friend and watched Giants’ star Will Clark slam a foul ball off his knee so hard that he was sidelined for a week.

* The Cubs’ surprise 12-0 skunking of the World Series-bound Atlanta Braves on Aug. 30, 1996, which I attended after covering the 1996 Democratic National Convention at the United Center.

* Sammy Sosa, fresh off his record-setting “home run derby” with the Cardinals’ Mark McGwire in 1998 and still a hometown hero, belting an eighth-inning homer off St. Louis reliever Heathcliff Slocumb to help the Cubs score a 6-3 victory on May 28, 1999. That was, to my recollection, the only time I saw the Cubs play the arch-rival Cards live at Wrigley until I caught an early-season game this year that produced one of the team’s extremely rare come-from-behind 9th inning victories.

* An early-season game on April 11, 2005 — before the Cubs jacked up the ticket prices — when a friend and I walked up prior to the game and got reasonably priced seats three rows behind home plate. I remarked during the game, which the Cubs lost, 1-0, that it was the first time I’d ever felt compelled to say “Down in front” to the batter standing in the on-deck circle.

* And a mild summer day on Aug. 22, 2010, when I had time on my hands, bought a nose-bleed seat in the upper reserved… and ended up watching Lou Piniella’s last game as Cubs manager.

That game, a 16-5 Braves clubbing of the Cubbies, was one of several I’ve attended — including a couple already this year — that challenged the motto I’ve had about Wrigley Field for many years: It is the only stadium I’ve been to where I can watch a really bad game and still feel like it was one of the best days I had that year.

To steal a line from late blues singer Albert King, this Cubs season was born under a bad sign. The Opening Day loss to the Washington Nationals was the first of five Cubs games I've seen this year. They have lost four of them. Here, the crosstown rival Chicago White Sox celebrate a 6-0 win on May 20 that completed a three-game sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

It very quickly became apparent that this was going to be another one of those years for the Cubs. Their 2-1 loss to the Washington Nationals on windy, cold April 5 — my first Opening Day game at Wrigley Field — sent the home team off to a 4-12 start. For a couple of weeks, they appeared to turn it around, playing better than .500 baseball. And then… the deluge, a gruesome 12-game losing streak that included a three-game sweep at home by the rival Chicago White Sox.

Yet Cubs fans are holding out an unusual amount of hope for the future. The team’s new president, Theo Epstein, has two World Series championship rings from his recent stint as general manager of another team that long lived under a baseball curse, the Boston Red Sox. If Theo manages to build a winner at 1060 West Addison Street, he will deservedly be hailed as one of Chicago all-time sports legends.

But I’m prepared to grab some of the credit too. After all, the Cubs never went to the World Series when I didn’t live here.

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