Scott Simon’s My Cubs

The night the Chicago Cubs won the World Series, I knew, then and there, that there was only one book on the Chicago Cubs and the 2016 season that I wanted to read — David Ross’s. One hadn’t been been announced yet, but it was inevitable, just as it was inevitable that there would be a dozen (or two!) books on the season within a year. I expected books from most every player, Cubs beat writers, fringe fandom figures. A book from Wrigley’s janitorial staff on the 2016 season wouldn’t have surprised me.

My Cubs coverWhen Scott Simon’s My Cubs: A Love Story was announced, the number of books I wanted to read increased to two.

Simon, the host of NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday, has been a part of my life for the better part of the last twenty years. His voice — rich, distinguished, measured and warm — has the assurance of the radio men of old, the latest in a line that stretches back through Robert Siegel and Bob Edwards back to Edward R. Murrow and the Golden Age of Radio. Simon invites listeners into his world, makes them feel at home, and tells them stories, painting pictures with his voice, whether he’s reporting on the death of four Boy Scouts in Iowa or interviewing one of my favorite bands.

A Chicagoan, one of Simon’s favorite topics is the Chicago Cubs. Simon wears his Cubs fandom like a battered yet beloved baseball cap, part of his identity and something that shaped him into the person he is. Whether he’s offering a paean to Wrigley Field or telling the story of his uncle, 1940s Cubs manager Charlie Grimm, and a famous Norman Rockwell painting, Simon’s love for the Cubs — the team, the culture, the history, the city of Chicago itself — shines through, and in My Cubs: A Love Story Simon pulls a lifetime of memories together to tell the story of his love affair with the Cubs.

As I read My Cubs, I could “hear” Simon’s voice — so warm, so familiar — in my mind, as though I were listening to him on the radio on a Saturday morning, a mug of coffee in my hand, sunlight streaming through my apartment’s windows. Yet at times there was another voice I heard in the background, that of Frank Delaney, the Irish journalist and writer who passed away suddenly in February. Delaney was an occasional guest on Simon’s Weekend Edition Saturday, and their conversations ranged from James Joyce to diving at the World Cup. Scott and Delaney had a warm rapport, two erudite and eloquent moen, bonding over a shared love of words and ideas — and life itself. Though they never discussed the Cubs on Weekend Edition, I imagine their conversation would have gone something like this, something like a running commentary on My Cubs:

Delaney: You know, Scott, in Kildaire in the tenth century the King’s personal retinue of knights were named in the Irish Chronicles the ‘Little Bears,’ or, as you would say in your home town of Chicago, the ‘Cubbies.’

Simon: And these ‘Little Bears,’ how victorious were they in battle?

Delaney: They were reputedly cursed by goats and a black cat as well, and when they were overrun by the invading Vikings in the eleventh century, no more was written of them.

Simon: Fortunate for my Cubs, then, that today’s Vikings play an entirely different sport.

The stories Simon tells — playing baseball in Chicago’s alleys in his youth, sitting with Jack Brickhouse in the reporters’ lounge at Wrigley in his high school years, sharing his love of the Cubs with his daughters and practicing to throw out a first pitch at Wrigley, weighing whether or not he even wanted to attend a World Series game in case he was the Cubs’ jinx… and then making friends in the stands — may be specific to Simon’s life yet the feelings of passion for the Cubs and of the community of fandom are universal: the Cubs are a shared language that transcends time, bonding generations into a family bound by love, triumph, heartbreak, and hope.

In the opening pages of My Cubs, Simon recounts a dream of pitching in the World Series alongside Cubs legends from the distant past (Mordecai Brown), the remote past (Ernie Banks), the recent past (Ryne Sandberg), and the present (Kris Bryant), showing that even history that exists only in still photographs and dry newspaper accounts, history that has fallen out of living memory, lives on today, shaping and informing the present, still making its influence felt. As Delaney would note, stories bear within them an innate power of their own, and the more people who share those stories, invest themselves in those stories, and carry those stories with them the more power, the more reality those stories have. Simon himself noted in an essay for the Wall Street Journal that a single baseball game has all the tension and twists of a classic literature. Baseball, more than any other sport, celebrates and embraces its past as living history, part of an ongoing conversation that stretches back a hundred and seventy years to Eylsian Fields, and My Cubs is Simon’s own conversation with the Cubs and their history, a history that intertwines with Simon’s own history yet also one that, like Mordecai Brown, pre-dates Simon’s lifetime yet still lives on and influences Simon’s life today.

Cubs fandom is a shared dream that lives on in the hearts over everyone who has loved the Chicago Cubs, felt hope on Opening Day, felt heartbreak at a crushing loss, felt sorrow when a loved one died without seeing their Cubs win it all, shed tears that November night when the Cubs finally did. Stretching back through time, all the way to Cap Anson and the Chicago White Stockings, there have been perhaps a hundred million Cubs fans and a hundred million different reasons for loving the Cubs. My Cubs: A Love Story tells the story of Scott Simon’s reason for loving the Cubs. Personal and intimate, funny and melancholic, Simon’s stories should strike a familiar chord in the heart of every Cubs fan, even those, like me, who are long-distance fans for whom a trip to Wrigley (as I took this year) is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Simon paints a picture with his words and takes his readers on a journey into Chicago, into his life, into his love for the Cubs with that familiar voice and his lyrical prose, making his Cubs our Cubs, too. My Cubs is a book that only Scott Simon could write, and I savored every word.

The Sights and Sounds of Wrigley Field

Diamond Comic Distributor‘s 2017 Retailer Summit was held last week in Chicago, in conjunction with the C2E2 convention. I had long been asking to go on some sort of work trip like this — I wanted to see a different side of the industry and meet the retailers — and this year the production schedules on the catalog aligned in such a way that I could attend a Diamond retailer event.

Before the Summit began, some of us from the Marketing Department made a pilgrimage to Wrigley Field to see the Chicago Cubs play the Milwaukee Brewers. I’ve been a Cubs fan for a very long time, and while I’ve seen the Cubs in person at Nationals Park, this was the first time I had ever been to Wrigley. Continue reading “The Sights and Sounds of Wrigley Field”

Joe Buck, a Jeremiad

Last night, I reached my limit with Joe Buck.

I’ve never really minded Buck. As broadcasters go, he’s wallpaper to me. I think I even felt a little sympathy toward him because he so often had to share a booth with Tim McCarver and then Harold Reynolds, either of whom was prone to incoherent babble. Listening to McCarver or Reynolds call a baseball game, I knew what it was like to be tormented for all eternity by the Elder Gods.

This World Series, partnered with John Smoltz, he hasn’t been bad. If I had a criticism of his work through the first five games, it was his tendency to push the “narrative” of the game, as though it were a novel with a linear plot, and his singling out of certain players and showering them with man-crushes (cf. Kyle Schwarber, Corey Kluber) whether appropriate to the situation or not. (Buck’s man-crush on Schwarber is so out of hand that someone has set up a joke wedding registry for Buck and Schwarber on Bed, Bath, and Beyond’s website. Seriously.) But I overlooked these things, as they brought Buck out of his wallpaperish, droning monotone.

Last night, because the game was out of reach of the Indians by the start of the second inning, Buck had nothing to do but yammer incessantly.

And yammer he did!

Buck was like listening to Vogon poetry.

It was as though he felt a need to be the star of the show because the show itself — the World Series, Game Six — wasn’t going to hold people as the outcome was never in doubt. (And, to be fair, I wasn’t watching intensenly after the fourth; I sketched out some WordPress ideas and wrote out my to-do list for work.) Did a lightbulb go off in Buck’s head? Did he think to himself, “I have to hold the audience on my own, with the Power of My Voice!” Because that’s really what it felt like.

Joe Buck is not Sir Christopher Lee. He can not hold, has never held, anyone with the power of his voice.

The pictures can tell the story. Silence has its place, and it’s a powerful narrative tool.

Game Seven Buck is going to be a monster, isn’t he? If it’s close, if there are lead changes and two-out rallies, he’s going to be like a wind-up monkey toy. And if it’s out of reach, he’s going to spend his time talking about the historical import of the inevitable victor.

I wonder if there’s a radio station carrying the game locally, because I don’t know that I can handle any more of Buck’s Vogon poetry…

An Ancient Rivalry Resumed

If you were to ask a Chicago Cubs fan who the Cubs’ rival is, most Cubs fans would say it’s the St. Louis Cardinals. There’s some truth to that, especially in the last fifteen years or so with the division realignments and the unbalanced schedule, but that wasn’t always true.

If you go back into the dim mists of time, baseball’s greatest rivalry was between the Chicago Cubs and the New York Giants. From about 1905 to about 1920, the Giants and the Cubs were the kind of rivalry we’d today liken to Yankees-Red Sox.

Tomorrow, that ancient rivalry is rekindled. The Cubs and the Giants will play for postseason glory. They met in the postseason once before, in 1989’s National League playoffs, but this year’s National League Division Series will have a pitching match-up to rival the glory days of the Cubs-Giants rivalry when Jake Arrieta matches with Madison Bumgarner in game 3 in San Francisco. My mind drifts immediately to the great match-ups between the Cubs’ Mordecai Peter Centennial Brown, popularly known as Three-Finger Brown, and the Giants’ Christian Gentleman himself, Christy Mathewson.

We’re talking about an era of wooden ballparks, insane dimensions, expansive foul ground, and standing room only crowds in the outfield depths. We’re talking about Baseball’s Sad Lexicon (“Tinker to Evers to Chance”) and Merkle’s Boner. Ring Lardner was a sportswriter in Chicago in those days; he wouldn’t begin to write baseball fiction for a few years yet.

cubs-west-side-park

The Cubs played in West Side Park; what would become Wrigley Field wouldn’t be built until 1914 for the Chicago Whales of the short-lived Federal League. West Side Park had a double-decked wooden grandstand and sat about 16,000 fans. Its foul lines were’t terrible — about 340 to left and 315 to right — but its center field depth was an eye-popping 560 feet from home plate.

cubs-west-side-park-postcard

The Cubs played the White Sox here in the 1906 World Series, the first time that the World Series was held in a single city and the only time this happened in Chicago. The Cubs lost that World Series, perhaps the greatest World Series upset of all-time — the Cubs had major league baseball’s best ever record, while the White Sox were the “hitless wonders” who couldn’t hit for shite — but then won the next two World Series, beating the Detroit Tigers in 1907 and 1908 for their only two World Series titles.

cubs-west-side-park-1908

The New York Giants in 1908 played in the Polo Grounds, in Coogan’s Bluff in Harlem. But it wasn’t the Polo Grounds that we usually think of.

giants-polo-grounds-postcard

The Polo Grounds of 1908 was, like West Side Park, a wooden ballpark. It was similarly shaped as the Polo Grounds of the 1920s through the 1960s, but without the familiar horseshoe shape with its double-decked grandstand that went all the way out to center field and enclosed the playing field.

giants-polo-grounds-panorama

This Polo Grounds was the site of the famous Merkle’s Boner game between the Cubs and the Giants. With the National League pennant on the line, Fred Merkle of the Giants made a baserunning blunder when he failed to touch second on what appeared to be a walk-off hit and was subsequently forced out, negating the winning run. The Cubs and the Giants then ended the season tied, necessitating a make-up game (as the Merkle game was unfinished due to rioting) as, essentially, the first play-off game in major league baseball. The Cubs won that game, 4-2, and went on to defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

As sports commentators no doubt will mention in the coming weeks, the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. If you ask me, if there’s a curse on the Cubs, it’s because of Giants manager John McGraw. McGraw was, to be charitable, an asshole, and he didn’t consider the Cubs the legitimate champions. He had medallions made for his Giants that proclaimed them the real world champions (McGraw wasn’t a fan of the American League, either, which is why he refused to play in the World Series of 1904 when the Giants won the National League pennant that year), and if there was a curse placed on the Cubs, it was placed on them in 1908 by McGraw.

giants-polo-grounds-1909

This Polo Grounds burned to the ground in 1911. Part of the stadium survived, mainly the outfield bleachers, and those were retained when the grandstand was rebuilt as a concrete and steel ballpark. While the construction was ongoing in the spring of that year, the Giants moved temporarily into Hilltop Park, home of the New York Highlanders (better known today as the Yankees).

giants-polo-grounds-world-series-1913

The Polo Grounds would be home to the Giants and, for a time, the Yankees, and when the Yankees moved out to Yankee Stadium across the Harlem River in the Bronx from the Polo Grounds, the Polo Grounds were expanded, with the double decked horseshoe completed.

The West Side Park, of course, was abandoned by the Cubs in 1916 for Weeghman Park in Chicago’s north side, to be renamed Wrigley Field. I believe a hospital stands now where West Side Park once stood.

The Giants abandoned the Polo Grounds in 1957 for the West Coast, and the expansion New York Mets abandoned the Polo Grounds for Shea Stadium. Apartment towers stand now where the Polo Grounds stood. The Giants have moved twice more in the last sixty years, almost thrice more — first, from Seals Stadium to Candlestick Park, then nearly to Florida in the 1980s, and finally to AT&T Park.

The Cubs and the Giants still play, six or seven times a year, but the games between the two teams don’t have quite the import and drama that they did back in the early 1900s. The coming week’s games will be as momentous and weighty as they were back in 1908.

Tomorrow, the ancient rivalry between these ancient clubs resumes. May their clash be as momentous as it was in those long ago days.

Why I Didn’t Stand for “God Bless America”

Yesterday morning, I attended the Cubs/Nationals game at Nationals Park. It was a lovely day for baseball — not too hot, not especially humid, sunny and bright, a stiff breeze blowing in from the direction of centerfield toward the Anacostia.

The Cubs won, 7-2.

Being July 4th, the game had a particular patriotic flavor, with a special display of the American flag on field before the game, a salute to the men and women of the armed forces after the fourth inning, the teams in patriotic hats (and, for the Nationals, in their alternate patriotic blue jerseys), and, during the seventh inning stretch, a performance of “God Bless America.”

People throughtout the stadium stood and removed their caps.

I stayed in my seat.

That was, I admit, a risky move on my part. There are documented cases of fans being assaulted and ejected at other ballparks, like Yankee Stadium, for failing to show “proper respect” to “God Bless America.” Yet there is no such thing as “proper respect” for the song. It’s not the national anthem.

Then, when the last notes faded away, the stadium (or, at least the second deck in the outfield where I was) erupted in a chant — “USA! USA! USA!”

Moments later, Dan Kolko of MASN tweeted out this:

The Marine Corps singer, whose name escapes me, performed the song well indeed. But I won’t say the song was “done right.” As far as I’m concerned, the song shouldn’t have been done at all.

I have a real problem with “God Bless America.” Like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “God Bless America” is inappropriate for a country with a sizeable non-Christian population. And like “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” “God Bless America” expresses an unfortunate sense of Christian triumphalism that crosses the line into the jingoistic, especially with the way that “God Bless America” become omnipresent and co-opted for political reasons after 9-11. The song is exclusionary and nationalistic. That’s my problem.

The exclusion problem is obvious from the song’s title. Listen to the lyrics of the song. The song is a prayer to god from Americans, imploring him to bestow blessings upon the nation. But not all Americans are religious, and the song doesn’t convey any sentiment whatsoever that the non-religious, like myself, an atheist, would express.

Just as importantly, the song expresses a sentiment of American exceptionalism. It says that American is exceptional because of god’s blessing.

The United States is not an exceptional country. We are, at best, a fortunate country in that we in a very defensible geographic position and, thus, wars we engage in are things that happen over there and not here.

In terms of quality of life, the United States is a middle-of-the-pack country. Other countries have better eduction systems and better health systems. Other countries have better infrastructure. Other countries have better measures of social mobility and income equality.

The place where the United States is exceptional? We spend more per annum on our military than the rest of the world combined.

Given a choice between making our country exceptional at home and making our country exceptional at bombing the ever-living-fuck out of some Third World hellhole, our society, from the grassroots to our leaders, made the choice to bomb the ever-living-fuck out of those Third World hellholes.

Really?

If there were a god, and if this god really did bless America, I imagine he would be sitting on his heavenly throne saying, “Really, America? What the fuck. I gave you this great country, I gave you these resources, I gave you all of these opportunities. And rather than use these opportunities for good, you’ve decided to squander them by becoming the world’s biggest asshole.”

Don’t think god gets off the hook, either; at the very least, he’s an accessory, if not a co-conspirator, to America’s raging assholery.

When I hear “God Bless America,” that’s what I think. I think about George Bush saying that religion is the hallmark of civilization, by implication castigating the non-religious as uncivilized. I think of Dick Cheney and Ari Fleischer and Donald Rumsfeld attacking those who dissented during the Bush years as being unpatriotic and un-American. “God Bless America” became a cudgel, one that was used to make me and others feel unwelcome in their own country and one that, frankly, came very close to driving me back into the atheist closet.

And when people use “God Bless America” to say, “We’re godly and we’re the best,” like they have post-9-11, I get pissed off because first, you’re telling me and every other atheist that we don’t belong in our own country; and second, you don’t understand how, in the grand scheme of things, the United States isn’t really anything special.

That’s why I didn’t stand for “God Bless America.” Standing for the song would have been tacit approval for things that I disagree with fundamentally and that I believe are wrong. Once, I liked the song. I would gladly sing it, despite my atheism, the same way I gladly sing Christmas carols today. But now all I hear in “God Bless America” is the nationalism and the triumphalism, and in multicultural 21st-century America, I don’t think that’s appropriate.

On Opening Day 2012

Baseball.

For the Chicago Cubs, opening day is today. In the hallowed halls of Wrigley Field, the Cubs of Chicago and the Nationals of Washington will meet, Ryan Dempster on the mound for the Cubs, the flamethrower Stephen Strasburg on the mound for the Nationals.

I have been a Cubs fan for much of my life. The Cubs have taught me the enduring power of hope.

And Opening Day is the most hopeful day of all. It’s like Christmas, only with baseball.

Opening Day is the day when fate has yet to be written, when anything is possible, when your beloved team really can “go all the way.”

In that spirit, Eddie Vedder’s paeon to the Cubs, “All The Way” —

Go Cubs Go. :cubs:

On My Independence Day Plans

July 4th.

Two epochal, world-changing events have fallen on July 4th.

The first comes on July 4, 1776. In Kent that day, Horatio Hornblower was born, and he would become one of the Royal Navy’s greatest heroes, distinguishing himself at an early age and playing a significant role in the defeat of Napoleon.

The second epochal, world-changing event on July 4th came fifteen years ago. On July 4, 1996, President Thomas Whitmore and a ragtag group of pilots, some Air Force, some civilian, fought in a last-ditch attempt against the alien invaders that had come from the stars in their giant saucers. Ever since that day, July 4th has been known as Independence Day.

I’m going to spend this Independence Day in Washington, DC, which has recovered well from the alien attack of 1996. I’ll take in a baseball game at Nationals Park (the Nationals are taking on the Cubs :cubs: ), and then I’ll attend a concert of patriotic music on the capitol lawn.

I’ll spare a thought for Hornblower, and I’ll think of the lives tragically lost in the war fifteen years ago.

That’s how I’ll spend my Independence Day. :spock:

On Baseball’s Sad Lexicon

Exactly one hundred years ago today — July 12, 1910 — one of the most famous poems about the Chicago Cubs :cubs: was published in the New York Evening Mail — Franklin P. Adams’ “Baseball’s Sad Lexicon”:

These are the saddest of possible words:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”
Trio of bear cubs, and fleeter than birds,
Tinker and Evers and Chance.
Ruthlessly pricking our gonfalon bubble,
Making a Giant hit into a double—
Words that are heavy with nothing but trouble:
“Tinker to Evers to Chance.”

Al Yellon talks about the poem more on Bleed Cubbie Blue, perhaps the best Chicago Cubs :cubs: blog.

Now I wonder if there’s any poetry about, say, Peter Mordecai Centennial “Three-Finger” Brown…

“Baseball’s Sad Lexicon” (also known as “Gotham’s Woe”) stands up there with “Casey at the Bat.”

At least, I think it does. :party:

On a Tale of Two Baseball Teams

As I write this, the Chicago Cubs :cubs: have a record of 35 wins, 46 losses. The Washington Nationals have a similar record — 36 wins, 46 losses. The Nats are 12 1/2 games back in the National League East, the Cubs :cubs: are 10 1/2 back in the National League Central.

And yet. And yet!

I would say that the Nationals are having a great season, while the Cubs are in the midth of an epic collapse.

(On a semi-related note, while I have Nationals t-shirts and a Nationals polo shirt, I don’t have a Nationals baseball cap. But I saw the 4th of July cap the Nats were wearing yesterday and I liked the looks of it, so I ordered one. I should have it in a few weeks.)

If the Nationals and the Cubs are in similar straits in their respective divisions, with near-identical records (which will likely stay near-identical, if today’s games play out as they look like they’re going to play out), why are the Nationals great and the Cubs abysmmal?

Perception. Past history. They both explain it.

And also, the likelihood of what can happen as the season rolls on.

The Cubs are bad. They have a good rotation, they have some solid pieces in the bullpen, but the Cubs can’t hit this year for a damn — and there’s nothing in the pipeline in the minors or on the disabled list who can bring some pop at the plate in the weeks to come. The twin hopes for the Cubs are for their position players to figure out how to hit again — because when they do hit, they can put serious runs on the board — and for the team to find their inner fire — and that will probably take canning Lou Pinella.

The Nationals? They’re inconsistent. Like the Cubs, they have good pitching. Unlike the Cubs, their position players aren’t quite there. However, the Nationals do have pieces in the pipeline and on the disabled list to be reactivated in the next month, and they are entirely capable of playing .500 ball — or even better than that.

The Cubs carry greater expectations from their fanbase. Yes, the Cubs taught many of us disappointment at early ages, but they Cubs also taught us the power of hope. The Cubs also carry the century-long championship drought. That’s what makes this year’s frustrating and disastrous season — and it is a frustrating disaster — so painful. Not only has this Cubs team tasted success, but they are carrying the weight of history itself upon their back.

The Nationals don’t have that history. (Yes, they were once the Expos, but the Nationals don’t claim the Expos’ history. Instead, they view themselves as the heir of all of Washington’s baseball past, from the Senators to the Homestead Grays.) The Nationals also don’t have the fanbase. There are no myths around the Nationals, but neither are their legions of fans. No one has grown up a Nationals fan. No one expects anything from them.

It’s entirely possible that neither the Cubs :cubs: nor the Nationals will break the .500 mark this season. If the Nationals come close to that .500 mark, Nationals fans will think they’ve achieved a miracle and future success is at hand, yet if the Cubs fall short, Cubs Nation will see 2010 as a year of abject failure with no positive signs for tomorrow.

For Cubs fans, this is now a season lost. Today’s drubbing at the hands of the Reds is just the latest nail in the coffin. For Nationals fans, this season is another step on the road to respectability.

It’s all in where you start from and what you expect.

On Baseball Excitement

Watching last night’s Cubs :cubs: game, this is how I felt:

Baseball excitement is contagious!

I’ve always said Charlie Brown was a Chicago Cubs fan, after all… ;)

It wasn’t just that Theodore Roosevelt Lilly (or as I saw him called on Bleed Cubbie Blue today, Maximus Tedimus Meridius) was back on the mound and threw shutout ball against the Brewers for his six innings of work.

It wasn’t that the Cubs got timely hitting, putting the game away in the top of the eighth with three insurance runs.

It wasn’t even that Carlos Zambrano, the Big Z himself, made his first relief appearance in nigh eight years and acquitted himself well, driving in exactly as many runs and he gave up.

It was that all of the pieces came together and the Cubs :cubs: played good baseball, putting them two games under .500 and only 2 1/2 games back of the hated St. Louis Cardinals and raising the team’s chances of making the post-season to 27%.

And today the Cubs stand the chance of making a sweep on the Brewers. The only thing I have to say to that is:

If the Noldor were baseball fans...

:)