I did a lot of stupid stuff in college.
There was the time I had 19 drinks in a three-hour span on Spring Break (not proud of that). And the time a group of us stole a stretch of road hazard fencing and wrapped up one of our friends in his bed while he was sleeping (kind of proud of that). I once got in a fight with a guy twice my size, and then spent the better part of an hour crying – not because he’d kicked my ass (he had), but because I lost my earring. (Yes, I had an earring in college. And bleached blond hair. With too much gel. If I wore shirts with collars at the time, I’m sure I would have popped them. You’re getting the picture of a guy who would cry about losing an earring.) Then there was the time I peed on the wall outside the police station. Lord.
That’s not to say my experience was altogether different from most, but sometimes I look back in wonder that I wasn’t seriously hurt, sick, or arrested (more than once, that is). Such is the life of a 20-year-old without a job, kids, or a wife with which to concern himself. I knew a lot of guys like me.
I did the intramural sports thing. I did the bar thing. I did the frat thing. I met a pretty girl. I made lifelong friends. I changed. Oh, and I took in a class or two while I was there.
In other words, while I loved that time in my life, even the shenanigans, I’m fairly certain my college experience was relatively standard. And that includes the headspace one takes on in his first time away from home, living on his own. I repeatedly lived into a common belief of young men like me, which leads us to do the ridiculous, embarrassing, and unsafe things that we do:
I was invincible.
I had the luxury of not thinking about my “future,” which was, at best, a tiny dot on the horizon. Ten minutes was too far in front of me to see, let alone ten years.
Invincibility contemplates not only a belief that nothing bad will ever happen to you, but also a belief that you’ve got all the time in the world for everything good to happen to you. It is intoxicating, and, in the bubble of college, very easy.
It is also, of course, completely false.
I was between my junior and senior years in 2003 when I ended up staying at college for the Summer, working three days a week doing clerical tasks in the physics department, and doing a whole lot of “hanging out.” My college, Miami University, lives in one of those profoundly remote towns (Oxford, Ohio) that absolutely shuts down when school breaks for the Summer. So, “hanging out” (those air quotes necessarily include “drinking” and “doing a great many of the stupid things referenced at the outset of this article”) is pretty much all you’ve got. When my arduous five-hour work day would let up, I would rush back to the frat house to hang with the handful of friends who also stuck around that Summer, to play absurd amounts of ping pong (just try me: I will dominate you), and, of course, to watch baseball.
It was in college that my Chicago Cubs fandom went from “sincere” to “obsessed”; I suspect that the 2003 season did that to a lot of people around my age. I’d always followed the Cubs as closely as I could on TV, and reviewed the box scores in the paper the next morning. But, with an increasing wealth of Cubs-related content on the Internet, I was able to fill a much larger chunk of my day thinking about, reading about, dreaming about, and talking about the Cubs.
I sought out rumor sites, message boards, blogs (most were barely out of the womb in those days), and quickly learned how little I actually knew about the team that I claimed to love and follow. The extent to which my knowledge of the game of baseball, together with my passion for the Cubs, grew in 2003 cannot be understated.
That the Cubs turned out to be a surprisingly competitive team that year probably accelerated that process.
There’s no better way to surprise in a given baseball season than to have young pitching step up, and, naturally, the 2003 Cubs had it. Mark Prior and Carlos Zambrano were my age, and Kerry Wood wasn’t much older. Each wound up throwing over 210 innings with ERAs 3.20 or lower. That’ll win you some games.
Almost every player on that year’s team outperformed preseason expectations, and the team as a whole, therefore, dramatically outperformed them. When then-GM Jim Hendry added Aramis Ramirez and Kenny Lofton mid-season (the kind of trade which was preceded by the kind of rumors that I so desperately learned to search out that year online), it felt like this was really a team that could do something. Like I said: optimism came easy to a young man with all the time in the world for everything good to happen to him.
So, you’ll excuse me for believing, when the Cubs faced the Marlins in the NLCS after taking down the mighty Braves, that “this was the year.”
I remember the feeling as I watched Moises Alou screaming, slapping his glove, and stomping around in Game Six. I’m not unique – too many of us were feeling the same thing. Indeed, looking back, I believe now that Alou was feeling it, too: the series was slipping away. And it all started with a foul ball.
It was a completely irrational reaction (of course, as Cubs fans, we may be more prone to acts of irrationality than any other fan base) to feel – to know – that the Marlins were about to stage a comeback. It was just a foul ball. The Cubs still led the game and the series. Mark Prior was still on the mound. But when Alex Gonzalez booted a tailor-made double-play ball, the presence of God looming over us with a magnifying glass under a hot sun was too palpable to chalk up to irrationality. At Wrigley, the Lord only taketh away.
One of my fraternity brothers came in to my room soon after the 8th inning ended to ask if I’d “just seen that,” as if he didn’t know that I was certain already to be fuming and saying things like “of f**king course.” I think the look I gave him communicated everything he needed to know about what I’d seen. Well, the look, and the littered remains of my remote control splayed on the floor to his right.
There remained the formality of Game Seven, but, for all intents and purposes, the series was over. I got drunk, and started talking about next year in a completely non-ironic way.
Was I sad about the unfortunate end to the 2003 season? Sure. Disappointed? Sure. But I was convinced there would be plenty of chances for this roster. Prior? Wood? Zambrano? I would put those three against any front three in baseball. Sammy was no spring chicken, but, like, he was Sammy. Aramis Ramirez was just 25, and Corey Patterson was just 24. Over the next few years, they were sure to get a handful of cracks in the playoffs. All good things come to those who wait. I was certain there was plenty of time.
As it turned out, at least as far as the next decade was concerned, there wasn’t.
This, of course, is one of the beautiful and fictional underlying assumptions of college and of youth: there is plenty of time.
Youth – and, perhaps, particularly time in college – is better spent under the misapprehension of invincibility. Would college really have been as fulfilling if every decision was safely guarded by thoughts of the future? Sure, I wouldn’t have had to explain certain indiscretions on my Bar Exam application, but maybe I wouldn’t have ended up sitting for that exam in the first place (and, incidentally, I can say with confidence that, if my mind were wholly preoccupied with “security” and “the future,” I probably wouldn’t now be writing meandering musings vaguely related to baseball for a “job”).
None of this is to say that recognizing the folly of invincibility – or suffering through the times that make that folly clear – is a bad thing. College, like so many short experiences, is made wonderful only by virtue of its fleeting nature.
Don’t believe me? I can prove it with a Cubs allusion. Just imagine the Cubs finally winning it all in 2012. Put yourself in that place. Feels pretty amazing, right? Now imagine that the Cubs had won every single World Series since 1908. Sure, it would have made the last 100 (and three) years far more tolerable, but how special and enjoyable would that 2012 championship really be? Think Yankee fans have any idea how good it’s going to feel for us when the Cubs finally win it all? This inherent contrast in the experience of life (without the low, the high isn’t as high; the fruit doesn’t taste as sweet until you’ve chewed on sand, and all that) is something I could only appreciate having experienced the relative shortness that was college, but is something I never could have fully appreciated while in college – no matter how many times grizzled vets might have tried to explain it to me. Youth isn’t wasted on the young; it simply isn’t meant for the aged.
In other words, I couldn’t have appreciated the brightest moments in my life until I’d experienced, and rejected, invincibility. Until I’d embraced the knowledge that my time, like yours, is fleeting. Until I’d recognized the value in discarding youthful assumptions. Until I’d aimed, at all times, to be present. Until I’d seen that ball glance off Steve Bartman’s hands.
The Earth turns beneath our feet, indifferent to our weight.
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* * *
My dad died in his early 40s when I was 11.
Dad was a pitcher, upon whom life thrust circumstances that scuttled his baseball dreams before they began. The Detroit Tigers scouted him in high school, and it was easy to understand why. Dad was a big, strong athlete – 6’2”, 220lbs – with a great deal of talent, and a heck of a strong arm, to boot. (Unfortunately, I took after Mom’s side of the family (indeed, her father was a long-time sportswriter), and, at 5’8” and 150lbs, I never had a choice but to shoot for “scrappy.”) But, the responsibilities and requirements of a “normal” life called, and Dad satisfied his passion for baseball by teaching his sons the game, and coaching their little league teams.
Dad was an Orioles fan – I suppose, as a talented, lefty hurler in his high school days, the tremendous pitching staffs of the late 1960s/early 1970s Orioles appealed to him. But he never begrudged my Cubs fandom, which developed, as it did for many my age, over a daily ritual of racing home from school to catch afternoon baseball on WGN. I can only assume that, if he’d had more time, he would have come to love the Cubs like I do. I would have made sure of it.
Until recently, I always viewed his passing through the lens of a kid who grew up without his father. When I made the baseball team in high school, he wasn’t there to watch me play. When I married my wife, he wasn’t there to dance at our wedding. When I graduated from law school, he wasn’t there to shake my hand.
But now, I find myself thinking about his death through his eyes. Can you imagine dying in the prime of life, leaving behind a wife and young children? I choke myself up thinking about how difficult that must have been for him, not for me. He died knowing that, when I made the baseball team, he wouldn’t be there. He died knowing that, when my brother got married, he wouldn’t be there. He died knowing that he’d never meet the daughter he never even knew I had.
I turned 30 in November.
That’s certainly not “old,” but neither do I feel particularly young. Turning 30 shouldn’t have a great impact on my life – I’m fundamentally no different today than the day before I turned 30. It’s just that, the older you get, the more acutely you perceive the reality that time moves constantly, and in one direction.
And you find yourself thinking about all the things “they” say you think about at milestone ages. Have I done the right things? Am I where I’m supposed to be? Would my father be proud? If I, too, die at 42, will I have done enough with my life? Do I have enough time to do those things that, in college, I thought I’d have forever to do?
I’ve got a beautiful, healthy daughter, and a warm, supportive wife. And I am, for the moment, doing my dream job. The first two, alone, give me a feeling in my belly that I’m doing all right in this life. The third is just gravy.
Still, for all those rational reminders from my conscious mind, I’m wont to think about my life. To think about important moments. To think about what those moments mean. To think about how they’ve shaped me.
(On clichés: the older you get, the more you realize that clichés become clichés for a reason. We’ve got a lot in common, you and me – but, for some reason, folks throw around a buzz word to make us feel silly for wanting to share our connection.)
So, when I think about the heavy things we all ponder at these milestone ages, I’m reminded of that day eight and a half years ago. Game Six. Steve Bartman. Yes, that’s something I think about.
I know what that moment means to me as a Cubs fan. But what does it mean to me as a person? As a guy making his way through a life he hopes has meaning? As a guy wondering when his time will be up on this orb?
Obviously Steve didn’t reach for that foul ball in order to shape the contours of my life. But what if that moment, that reflex – that butterfly’s wings – shaped me nevertheless? Am I now where I would have been anyway if Steve had kept his hands in his pockets, Moises had caught the ball, the Cubs had won the NLCS, and then the Cubs had won the World Series?
Would I have done as much with the last eight and a half years? Would I have still thought myself invincible? How long might it have taken me to more fully appreciate that moments of true joy are both infrequent and earned? Am I … better for what happened?
I wonder what Dad would have thought about that game.
I can hear your thoughts. Don’t be so maudlin, you think. It’s just “sports.” There are greater tragedies in life.
And, there’s something to be said for the idea that many of us search for deeper meaning in the foibles of sports and fandom, when, sometimes, it’s just a game. But, here’s the thing: whatever deeper meaning I may or may not find in my ruminations about Bartman and the Cubs, I do know that being a loyal, heartfelt fan of a franchise like the Chicago Cubs says more about me than being an attorney ever did. So, there’s that.
I think it’s fair to wonder about the connection between Bartman’s hands and my life. To seek out the profound. To attach significance to things otherwise not grand – or to things not otherwise personally happening to me. That moment had an impact on my life. It had to.
And I think it’s fair to tie my fandom to my own mortality. It may seem, to some, grotesque to talk about my father’s death in the same breath as disappointment over Cubs playoff failures. I could see that. To me, it is grotesque to think that Dad – like thousands before and after him – lived and died without ever seeing the Cubs win it all.
It also seems quite natural to tie the deeper questions to the very moment we Cubs fans came so close to finally seeing something we’re desperate (dying?) to see. There are two hourglasses counting down for each of us: one marks the time we’ve got left, and one marks the time until the Cubs win it all. I hope the upper chamber of the former is more full of sand than the latter.
Cubs fandom and mortality are inextricably linked. And, each additional year the Cubs fail, I am reminded:
I am not invincible. I am not immortal. My time is limited.
* * *
* * *
‘Catching Hell’ was nominated for a Sports Emmy a couple weeks ago, and it could take home the award at the end of this month. Fitting that a film chronicling some of our lowest moments as Chicago Cubs fans might, itself, win the television documentary equivalent of a World Series title.
In case you didn’t know, and aren’t interested in sparing yourself the pain, ‘Catching Hell’ is a documentary by Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney (a Red Sox fan), focusing on Game Six of the 2003 NLCS, on the foul ball deflected by Steve Bartman, on the Bill Buckner error in Game Six of the 1986 World Series, and on the nature of scapegoating.
The film is enjoyable in a completely masochistic sense. There are genuine high points: Wayne Drehs self-consciously recounting the unenviable job of finding Steve Bartman a couple years after the 2003 NLCS. Matt Liston reacting live to each moment during Game Six. Eric Karros talking about that year with the Cubs. Watching the first seven innings of Game Six. The analysis of, and interviews with, the other folks who could have been “Bartman” if their arms had been just a bit longer, or seats just a bit closer.
And, as is the point: you leave the doc feeling pretty crummy about what happened to the man, himself. To Steve Bartman, fellow human being. Whatever he did or didn’t do – whatever cosmic effect he did or didn’t have – he was just a 26-year-old guy who loved the Cubs. In an instant, his life changed profoundly, forever, and for the worse. What must he have been thinking in that moment? The minutes after as the significance of what he’d done sank in, as the chants of “asshole” filled Wrigley Field, as the first thrown beer hit him in the face? How about the years after as he started living a new life?
I wonder if Steve ever thought he was invincible.
Even after eight and a half years, I’m still not sure how I feel about the whole thing.
The truth is, people are just people. Should Steve have kept his hands to himself? Should Cubs fans in the area have kept their horrible words to themselves? Sure and sure. But am I certain that I wouldn’t have reached? Wouldn’t have cursed at him? I’m not. I’m just people, too.
The documentary spends an inordinate amount of time on Bill Buckner and the 1986 Red Sox, which, perhaps because of how the last 10 years have unfolded, rubbed me the wrong way. It draws a heavy-handed parallel between Buckner and Bartman, which isn’t particularly apt. Outside of the superficial similarities – curses, Game Sixes, scapegoats – it’s hard to make a comparison between, on the one hand, a foul ball touched by a fan that may or may not have been one of 27 outs along the way to part of an NLCS win and, on the other hand, an easy ground ball that leads to an error and a World Series loss.
The Alex Gonzalez error probably would have been the better analog, and even that wasn’t all that close. The Cubs weren’t an out away from “ending the curse,” they were five outs and an entire series away. And the “story” wasn’t Gonzalez. It was Bartman.
Lost in the overwrought Red Sox/Cubs parallels was a far more notable connection. That the Red Sox finally won the World Series, one year after the Cubs lost in the NLCS, was, perhaps, the single greatest cosmic middle finger to Cubs fans that I can remember. Well, at least until the White Sox – who hadn’t won a World Series since 1917 – won the World Series the very next year.
While there were some things to like about the doc, for the most part, it just left me depressed about the 2003 season. That was such an unexpected, magical run, and I miss that feeling. Now I remember: 2003 was when it was supposed to happen. The film recreated those joys just long enough to leave me appropriately miserable when Bartman reached.
Miserable, and angry. Still angry.
Not just at Bartman, mind you. There was Alex Gonzalez, as discussed. And Mark Prior. And Kyle Farnsworth. And Derrek Lee (back when he was “the enemy” – how quickly we forgave him, eh?). And Bernie Mac singing “the champs.” And, of course, Dusty Baker, not only for stubbornly refusing to remove Prior as he fell apart before our eyes, but also for leaving Prior in to throw an unthinkable 116 pitches in Game 2, which the Cubs were winning 11-0 through five innings.
My misery probably only deepens with each passing year, bringing with it more unfair anger. If I didn’t keep reminding myself about Steve Bartman, the person, I’d probably be over moon with anger at Steve Bartman, the concept.
I’ve watched ‘Catching Hell’ three times on my DVR for the purposes of writing this article. At the end of having my heart torn open for a fourth time (once live, and thrice re-lived), I did what any sensible Chicago Cubs fan would do.
I bought a copy of the damn thing on Amazon.
* * *
* * *
I suppose in some ways, I should thank Mr. Bartman. As a foolish young man, largely ignorant of the briefness and finality of time, I came perilously close to realizing a dream I hadn’t yet dreamed. With Steve’s help, that dream was deferred until a day when, now, I can celebrate it completely, as one tasting his first drink of water after a month in the desert.
At least now I’ll appreciate it when the Cubs finally win the World Series.
You know, if it, like, happens. Ever.
I would love to be able to end this in its logical place of conclusion – a nicely wrapped box where I say that I’ve forgiven Steve Bartman, I’ve learned not to assume I’ll see the Cubs win it all, and I’m ready to take on my 30s.
But I can’t. It wouldn’t be real. It sounds like something I would have written in college. The truth is my feelings about Bartman remain mixed. My heart secretly tells me the Cubs will definitely, eventually win the World Series. And I’m already terrified of turning 40.
So much for growth. So much for the profound.
Instead, I’ll simply live my life. I’ll go pick up my daughter from daycare and hug my wife when she gets home from work. I’ll sit down at my computer and keep writing about the Chicago Cubs, believing in my heart that, someday, we’ll go all the way.