February 13, 2011 / Praxis
An interview between TOJ Editor-in-Chief Chris Keller and the author of GENERATION EX-CHRISTIAN, Drew Dyck.
February 18, 2016
It may be that the comparisons made by various writers over the years, likening baseball stadiums to cathedrals, have been sacrilegious. Or that they understood something of what Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was getting at when he called the Sabbath a cathedral built of time. Unlike every other sport, baseball does not hate time or find itself in fatal conflict with it. Baseball elides hard time—the deadly ticking of second hands and shot clocks—instead celebrating its essence by proving it can be suspended and manipulated. Like the Sabbath, baseball allows us to taste eternity. As Roger Angell put it, “Within the ballpark, time moves differently, marked by no clock except the events of the game. . . . Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”
In the summer of 1969, my father was thirteen years old. Born and raised in a rural corner of Ashland County, Ohio, where Amish buggies sailed county roads past barns dating to the Civil War, he didn’t have the opportunity to watch much baseball on TV. But invisible vibrations were at work that summer in the form of WGN Chicago’s flamethrower of a radio signal, which roared across Lake Michigan and northern Indiana before dropping down past Cleveland and finally threading the needle of my grandmother’s kitchen window, straight into Dad’s black AM Steepletone.
The signal had always been there, broadcasting since before he was born, but it wasn’t until that June that he began tuning in. Every afternoon through the hot, muggy summer, Dad listened, entranced, as Vince Lloyd embroidered the Cubs’ magical run toward the playoffs with descriptions of Ernie Banks’s sparkling defense and shouts of “Holy Mackerel!” each time Ron Santo smoked a home run onto Sheffield Avenue. The Cubbies had already gone sixty years since winning the World Series. This only sounds like a long time because it is. In 1908, when they last sipped from the Chalice of Immortal Glory, the NHL, NBA, and NFL did not yet exist. But the Cubs were looking like winners in ’69. As Dad lay on the living room carpet listening to them play, there was no way for him to know that a web of mystically doomed fandom was being quietly woven around him.
If you know the Cubs, you know what happened next. In fact, even if you don’t know the Cubs, you can probably guess. The team is that infamous, their heritage that star-crossed. As the end of the season approached, the 1969 Chicago Cubs went on one of the most notorious losing streaks in baseball history, surrendering a seventeen-game lead to the New York Mets over the final month of the season. “I can only imagine what it was like for long-time Cubs fans,” Dad recently told me.
His enthusiasm for the North Siders was somehow unfazed. The next summer, on a trip to Chicago, his second cousin took him to see the Cubs in person. They rode the L to Wrigley Field, where Dad fell under the spell of the ivy, the manually updated scoreboard, and the flags whipping in the wind coming off the lake. He still remembers that game. “The lead-off man hit a single, then the next guy singled too. The third batter walked. And then Joe Pepitone hit a grand slam. I went absolutely crazy.”
It’s been forty-six years since the collapse of ‘69, and the Cubs still haven’t won the World Series. They’ve added two more epic implosions to their lore—1984 and 2003—and suffered countless other indignities. Dad has remained loyal through it all, intoning at the end of every season along with all the Cubs faithful, “Next year is our year.”
Usually that’s been wishful thinking, but things got unfamiliar this past season, in the best way possible. A series of shrewd off-season moves by team management and a blossoming crop of young talent positioned the Cubs as real contenders in 2015. Halfway through July, I realized we had a legitimate shot at making the playoffs. Winning it all would make the ultimate Cubs memory for Dad, and for me too. But to understand why I only sort of cared, you’ll again have to travel with me back through time.
In October of 1991, as the crisp evening air of my hometown of Akron, Ohio, filled with the comforting smell of chimney smoke, the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins took to the diamond to contest that most American of championships, the World Series. That year’s installment has been called one of the greatest of all time, featuring legendary performances by Kirby Puckett, John Smoltz, Tom Glavine, and the Twins’ mustachioed ace, Jack Morris, who led Minnesota to victory in Game 7 by pitching a complete-game ten-inning shutout. Most of the history and hype was lost on me. I was eight years old.
All I knew was that shortly after my mother tucked me in each night during the week of the Series, Dad came upstairs and helped me sneak out of bed. I would slide down the ladder from my top bunk, careful not to wake my younger brother, and creep down the staircase to our family room. Dad would make me peanut butter toast and then stretch out on the couch to watch the game while I curled up on a nearby plaid armchair, my skinny frame tented inside one of his old sweatshirts.
I could not fully appreciate all the nuances of baseball. I knew strikes from home runs. I could differentiate between infield and outfield. But I could barely name any players, let alone articulate anything about the history of the game. I didn’t care who won that World Series. All that mattered to me was the fact that I was spending clandestine time with Dad.
Two years later we moved to Santa Cruz, California. I remember cruising down Morrissey Boulevard’s arcade of palm trees the day we arrived in town. It was like landing on the moon. Numerous marvels awaited us—hippies, Democrats, organic produce, an entire ocean. I loved every second of it and my life was changed forever. If Dad hadn’t taken the job that led us to Santa Cruz, I would not have become enamored with skateboarding and punk rock. I would not have met any of my closest friends. I would never have met my wife.
Moving to California right before middle school also made for a clear demarcation between childhood and the first tremors of adolescence. Every memory and experience prior to getting in our Dodge Caravan and starting the long drive west is forever secured in a secret garden in my heart. My boyhood was safe and innocent, full of BMX rides and family dinners and Bible stories and screenings of The Princess Bride. And baseball.
It’s been nearly twenty-five years now, and because of the memories I forged playing Little League and watching the Cubs with Dad during those idyllic years, the game still has the power to transport me back to childhood. Every time I turn on a radio broadcast, or watch Sunday Night Baseball, or pass a high school game during my evening commute, I’m suddenly back in the front yard with Dad playing catch, or sitting next to him in the upper deck on a chilly night at Candlestick while the Cubs are in town, or curled up on that plaid armchair, watching the World Series, eating my toast, knowing everything is as it should be and I am safe from all harm.
The move to California also served as a turning point in my relationship to the Cubs. As a kid, I’d been aware of the Reds and Indians, Ohio’s two professional teams, but I hadn’t internalized any oddity around Dad’s affiliation with a Chicago club. Now I started thinking about all the Cubs mugs and Cubs T-shirts and Cubs hats and framed pictures of Wrigley and other paraphernalia Dad kept in his study. Dad had never lived in Illinois. So why was he so committed to a Chicago team? He had told me his Cubs origin story, but I hadn’t appreciated its nuances. At the same time, I was beginning to lose interest in professional sports and becoming fascinated with music. Bands, shows, guitars, albums; I dove headfirst down the rabbit hole of rock and roll. Baseball seemed slow and repetitive and boring in comparison.
Years went by. My father and I had always been close and we remained so through all my meanderings and periods of depression, self-discovery, angst, and reinvention. I moved out, lived by the beach, moved again, finished college, and started a new band. I went to graduate school. I got married. And somewhere along the way, I became reenchanted with baseball. It was the idea of the game as much as the game itself that I found compelling—its continuity over generations, its deep history, its rhythms and strategy and pageantry and power to summon nostalgia. I marveled at the exacting demands it makes of players, that they marry power with grace, patience with explosiveness, studied craft with primal impulses. Most of all, I became intoxicated by the memories the game brought back.
So it came to be that sometime in my twenties I finally joined my father in his folly and began identifying myself as a Cubs fan. No longer just a birthright, it was now a conscious choice. More than anything, I wanted to share in Dad’s passion. There was something about his love for the Cubs. The long-sufferingness of it all. The decades of futility. The faithfulness, even to something as silly as a team of grown men who are paid millions of dollars to swing sticks and throw a little ball. I wanted to join him. To associate myself with him. To broadcast to the world that I too was part of his strange tribe.
It would disrespect our relationship to say that baseball is a cornerstone of it. I’m grateful Dad and I can and do discuss things far more vital than the state of the NL Central. That being said, baseball has become a comforting thread in the tapestry of our year. People say the 162-game season is too long, and it can certainly seem like you’re wading through an endless bog of futility when the Cubs are yet again eleven games out of first by late May. But one benefit of the long season is that it creates a special current of electricity that hums in the background of life for eight months. Regardless of how the Cubs are doing, Dad and I exchange a couple texts or a call every week during the season, just to catch up on the latest hapless Jon Lester start or miraculous Javier Baez home run.
This past year we had so many reasons to believe. The Cubs surged along through late summer, borne atop an ebullient wave of rookies, including Kyle Schwarber, Addison Russell, and Kris Bryant, who set a new Cubs rookie-season home run record. They compiled one of the best records in baseball and made it into the Wild Card game, where Schwarber blasted a towering home run into the Allegheny River. A few days later he helped the team win their first-ever postseason series–clinching game at Wrigley Field, which is astonishing given that they’ve been playing in that stadium for more than a hundred years. I called Dad a few minutes after the game.
“I’m in shock,” he said. “I truly do not know what to say.”
Neither did I when a few days later the Cubs’ 2015 hopes were cut down one step short of the World Series by—who else—the New York Mets. I’d wanted so badly to be able to watch the Fall Classic with Dad that I almost cried. He texted me a few minutes after the last out.
Next year is our year.
I’d found myself wondering over the last few weeks of the season what would have happened if the Cubs actually had gone all the way. Would Dad have discovered that the bittersweet, seemingly never-ending postponement of glory that had defined his lifetime of fandom had actually been some kind of sustaining force? That hope deferred was actually a source of identity?
I don’t think so. When I try to imagine his face on the day the Cubs win it all, I can’t picture anything but a gigantic smile.
Next year is our year. In moments of defeat, that mantra can feel like torture. But really, it’s a privilege. Because, win or lose, every year is full of new memories made, traditions upheld, and opportunities to simply be together. Last year, this year, next year. I’ve finally realized what Dad must have known all along. Every year is our year.
 Angell, The Summer Game (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1962), 295.
Ben Bishop is the author of Canowic. He lives in Portland, Oregon, which lost its minor league baseball team the year he moved to town.