Fly-out to left, and for the Chicago Cubs, it's "Wait' til next year" once again. But while I don't like the Cubs, I know damned well how watching your team lose a Game Seven hurts, especially after your team had a 3-1 series lead and was only six outs away from winning the pennant in Game Six. I watched my Pirates lose consecutive seven-game NLCS's in 1991 and 1992. And in football, everyone knows what happened to my beloved Bills in four consecutive Super Bowls. And I know what it's like to watch other teams' fans, like the California Angels fans, or the Denver Bronco fans in 1997 or the New England Patriots fans in 2001, and think: "I wonder what that feels like."
When the Cubs advanced to the NLCS last week, I wondered how Cubs fans would adjust if their boys won the World Series to the end of the "Cubs Cult", when years of "Wait 'til next year" had ended and the Cubs became just another team that's won a recent Series. It didn't work out that way, of course, so the Cubs' mystique keeps going. But this wasn't just watching the Cubs flirt with first place only to finish out of the pack; this wasn't watching them get bounced in the first round. This was as painful as it gets.
My favorite Cubs fan (whom I goad for liking the Cubs, but I know that he's followed them at least as long as I've known him, which is longer than anyone in my life outside my immediate family) wrote yesterday about the feeling that "It's just a game", but he felt physically sick after watching the Marlins explode for eight runs in the eighth inning in Game Six. It does sound trite, to a certain way of thinking, but I don't think that way. Rooting for sports teams is something that gives continuity to our lives, and it's something that helps forge bonds across generations and across wide spaces of geography.
The Buffalo Bills' run of four straight Super Bowl appearances took place while I was in college (the first three, anyway), and I went to school 800 miles away from Western New York where people thought Buffalo was close to New York City, if not one of its actual boroughs. I was usually pretty good at avoiding homesickness, but still, it came up every once in a while, and for half the year at least there were the Bills. They were a tie to my home, something I could point to with pride. That's what sports teams give us, even if we're fans of a team that plays in a city we've never been to: a sense of belonging and commiseration. Even when our teams lose, we are secure in the knowledge that there are thousands of people across the country who are feeling the same damn way we are. And when they win, it's almost like we've joined some secret society of people who know, because they went through all the crappiness too.
I didn't root for the Cubs, but I know damned well how their fans feel. I see shots on TV of old people sitting in the stands at Wrigley, wiping their eyes while the visitors pile upon each other on the mound in celebration. I see Dusty Baker walking off the field with that little boy of his in tow, after yet another Game Seven loss. And I remember the unforgettable words of Terence Mann, in Field of Dreams:
"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers; it has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and raised again. Baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again. Oh, people will come Ray. People will most definitely come."
Think about that: Baseball has marked the time. That's why we root for sports teams: to have some way of marking the time other than the day-to-day, year-to-year minutiae of our own lives. Baseball marks the time, and though I am not in their number, I know damn well that Cubs fans have marked the time more than any others.
And the Red Sox fans.