The Perils of Being a Cubs Fan


The “W” flag means a win at Wrigley Field

Late this past Tuesday evening, a turning point came in a long and hard-fought campaign, a turning point that may well force a permanent redefinition of what it means to belong to a distinctive group of adherents.

No, nothing as trivial as the current presidential campaign, whose significance pales in comparison with what truly matters — being a fan of the Chicago Cubs. And what that means may be about to undergo a drastic revision.

It is well known that the Cubs are unique in futility among Major League Baseball teams. They haven’t won a World Series since 1908; they haven’t even made it to the Series since 1945.

Admittedly, it’s harder now to get to the World Series. It used to be just having the best season record in the league. Nowadays, even if you have the best record, as this year’s Cubs do, you have to make your way through two rounds of playoffs to qualify for the Series.

And here’s where the Cubs fan comes in. Fan is a word introduced in the 1880s by professional sportswriters writing about professional baseball. It’s an appropriate abbreviation of fanatic, a word much too serious and dangerous as a label for somebody who merely identifies with a sports team. Like fanatic, fan implies devotion, but not of a dangerous kind.

Different teams acquire different kinds of fandom. Winning teams attract those who want to be associated with winners, most notably the New York Yankees (at least in the 20th century). But with the Cubs it’s more complicated.

Lacking a successful Series since before they were born, Cubs fans are free to imagine a Golden Age of the past that might never occur again. Or might. But they also recognize that the Iron Age (or Ironic Age?) of the present may never revert to gold. They recognize that for the Cubs, even amid great success there is the possibility of failure — abject, embarrassing failure. This year, despite their 103-58 overall record, they went 6-15 in a three-week midseason stretch, including losses as extreme as 2-10 and 3-14.

And so it came down to this. The Cubs had made it to the playoffs, and with home-field advantage had won the first two games against the San Francisco Giants. But in San Francisco the Cubs went into a tailspin. The fourth game, on Tuesday, seemed to be a Cubs collapse for the first eight innings. Letting the Giants win would have forced a deciding game back in Chicago, and perhaps another meltdown ending another year’s hope for the World Series.

But then, un-Cublike, they came back with four runs in the top of the ninth and went on to win the divisional series.

So for Cubs fans there is now a real existential crisis. What if the Cubs should go all the way for the first time since 1908? Would winning the National League championship and then the Series really usher in a Golden Age? Or would victory be a disappointment?

“Success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed,” wrote Emily Dickinson. The vision of greatness might turn out to be nothing close to gold. I hope we get the opportunity to experience the disillusion.

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