The Longest Season That Went Nowhere and Everywhere

By JCB on Monday, October 10, 2005
Baseball seasons take a long time, but the beginning of 2005 seems especially long ago to me. So much has happened and Iíve changed my life so drastically that the beginning of April feels distant, more like years ago than months. 2005 was a summer Iíll always remember, a summer where I cut strings and found myself more free than a person has a right to expect. This is an exhilarating thing to do, among other adjectives, and as you look back after a few months and a few thousand miles, you recognize a distance thatís much greater even than that, when you consider what sort of life youíd be living had you not gone through with it.

Was it just this season that LaTroy Hawkins pitched for the Chicago Cubs? It feels like ages ago. Well, I suppose that it must have been this season, because the Cubsí awful year was his fault, after all. His, and Dusty Bakerís, and Nomar Garciaparraís groin, and Kerry Woodís shoulder, and Neifi Perezís playing time, and Jim Hendryís failure to conjure an RBI-man from thin air, and also everybodyísÖ and therefore, kind of, nobodyís.

Long before I left Chicago, I went to the Cubs first home game on April 8th, and watched Hawkins blow a save in a game the Cubs lost in 12 innings. It was a harbinger, a portent, and a signal. Hawkins would soon enough be gone, but the season calibrated that day at a record of 1-3, two games under .500, and it never strayed too far. I donít understand why some people try to distill the matter of the failed season to one singular reason, why we must simplify, except that this is a habit our culture has adopted. The single biggest reason the Cubs finished under .500 does not exist as far as Iím concerned. The only point in talking about a single biggest reason is by corollary: if there was one thing that would have made the difference ñ if changing one thing about the season would have made the Cubs a winner. Whether itís Dustyís poor managing tactics or the injuries or the missing lineup pieces or whatever else, I donít know that thereís any one thing that could have gotten them in the playoffs, everything else being equal. That being the case, thereís no point getting all worked up about it.

This is baseball, after all, and storylines arrive slowly. There is no way to rush the tides. Sometimes a season has its own momentum, and for the Cubs in 2005, the pace started out at *plodding* and pretty much stayed there, like cruise control through mud.

Through the end of June, I went to 13 games, and I have never seen Cubs fans so bipolar as they were this season. Bipolar as in love/hate. Until 2003, it was pervasive optimism coupled with shoulder shrugging futility. To outsiders, it was ìlovable losers,î though no fan would wear this tag willingly: sure, we were having fun anyway, but it did not follow that we did not care about winning. We just didnít go overboard; we were optimistic realists. Then came 2003, soaring; and then the stumble, the lurch. Then came 2004 with the high expectations, higher than high; and then the late collapse. It turned many Cubs fans negative this year, at least in streaks. The thread of optimism was still there, but now fans braided it with disdain. I suppose thereís no going back. How do you un-taint an attitude, especially when part of you knows they kind of deserve the hostility, at least a little bit?

I think now about the summer of 2001, before my senior year of college. I wonít talk about an innocent age explicitly, innocent ages being a superlative, but thatís kind of what it feels like now. I lived near campus in Valparaiso, IN, worked loose hours, and drove to Chicago for a lot of Cub games. I watched almost all the rest on TV, or listened on the radio if I couldnít adjust my schedule around the game. The Cubs were not bad, and ended up 88-74, solidly in third place behind Houston and St. Louis, who each won 93. I was hopeful for a late run, but when it failed to materialize, it did not detract from the fun I had following the team all year. It was baseball, constant at a time in my life when I needed it, when everything else felt muddled. And it wasnít just me ñ lots of people were enjoying it.

I wonder if that was the last year of that collective shoulder shrugging, of saying ìOh well, it was still pretty fun. Weíll get ëem next year.î The Cubs sank like an anchor in 2002 to a paltry 67 wins, and so the stage was set for the shaping of fans duality, the competing instincts of supporter and detractor, of faithful and cynic, love and hate, over the next three turbulent seasons. Such a low made possible such a high, which made possible another deep fall. There we are. Itís felt a lot longer than 4 seasons, just as this year felt a lot longer than just 1.

So, in the next era, how will we remember this season, 2005? Itís tough to classify. I suppose it might take a few years before we know. From here, it could go either direction. Last year was easy: high expectations, big disappointment at the end. This year isnít so simple. No big low, and certainly no big high. At least in í04 they tried and came up short; in í05, they went through the motions an awful lot. As far as blame goes, in this respect it goes on everyone. Theyíre kind of right back where they started, except that now everyone feels cheated in some sense.

Maybe the Hindu astrologers were on to something, with their dragon that became two shadow planets. (Bear with me.) As they might explain it, Cub fans gave in to the one half of the cloven dragon, Rahu, by intensifying expectations for 2004. Inevitably came Ketu, the other shadow planet whose existence is proven only through its effects, bringing expanded loss and detachment, which is what happens when you give in too far to Rahu. As Pyarelal Kaul explains in Salman Rushdieís new novel Shalimar the Clown:

ìThere are six instincts,î he added parenthetically, ìwhich keep us attached to the material purposes of life. These are called Kaam the Passion, Krodh the Anger, Madh the Intoxicant, e.g. alcohol, drug et cetera, Moh the Attachment, Lobh the Greed and Matsaya the Jealousy. To live a good life we must control them or else they will control us. The shadow planets act upon us from a distance and focus our minds upon our instincts. Rahu is the exaggerator the intensifier! Ketu is the blocker the suppressor! The dance of the shadow planets is the dance of the struggle within us, the inner struggle of moral and social choice.î

I suppose I shouldnít speak for other Cub fans (let alone for mystics), given the very real probability that Iím way off, here in my armchair. Iím sure there were some fans who were always critical, and some who are still cheerfully optimistic, and maybe even a few that were appropriately balanced between over-intensity and detachment. I get the impression that for some, though, the game has changed, and at least for me achieving that balance has been a struggle. The last couple of seasons, we went overboard on Passion, Anger, Intoxication, Attachment, Greed and Jealousy. It kind of reads like a checklist.

I mean, look at the absurdity of the ticket sales on the very first day they opened. Did we honestly neglect to consider the possibility that ramping up our enthusiasm might also amplify our resentment if they did not win enough games? And in that context, what would have been enough? Would we have enjoyed it as much this time around as we did in 2003, when the team surprised us and caught fire at the right time? What if they had pulled another Wile E. Coyote and ran over the edge again?

These are the things I think about now, as I reflect in an October that finds the Cubs and 21 other teams forgotten. Itís a luxury to have time to reflect like this, and too much reflection is not entirely healthy, I suppose. Still, I think about it, and I decide that if the Cubs had finally won a World Series in 2005, it would have been great ñ spectacular even ñ but not at the level it would have been in 2003. We were burned, and now there was that wound of doubt and skepticism, not yet a scar, and this year most people werenít ready to move past that yet. A World Series would have still felt a little like revenge, because the memory was still so near. It would have been making-up-for-2003, not a great season enjoyed for its own sake.

I hope that next year finds me closer to that balance, intense with support but detached from expectations and an abstract need for vengeance. In short, I hope I care but that I donít get mean about it. That way, it will be that much better when we win next year. Call me wacky or delusional or nonsensical or worse, but thatís how I have it figured right now. Whatever the reasons, the Cubs got screwed by Destiny and themselves in 2003 and it has taken until now for me to reach the point where I can put that all the way behind me. The lukewarm season made it clear that there was to be no vengeance for 2003, and thatís that. Time to get over it. There, Iím over it. Now I can start next season on more of an even keel, ready for a great season but allowing the possibility of another bad one, and I might thereby avoid banging my head into the wall when the relief pitchers walk, balk and otherwise throw tee-balls in April. Donít get me wrong: Iíll still be upset; I always will be. I just wonít be piling it onto a grudge.

Of course, the entire summer for me was about regaining my sense of balance. I quit my job and moved to Austin, Texas without knowing anyone, without any solid plans, and with only a vague timetable. I wanted to adventure. One does not need to be old to decide that itís now or never. Itís a matter of being willing to ask what sort of life youíre willing to accept, and then ponying up if you happen to be lucky enough to be able to make a change. I picked Austin for its climate and cultural scene, and so far I love it.

Austin is known as the live music capital of the world, which to Texans is the same thing as being the live music capital of Texas. Either way, it lives up to that reputation. Music permeates wherever I go, which suits me just fine. The strange thing is that as I hear all sorts of new music, I find myself spending more time going backward in my tastes ñ going back to albums by the Cure and Leonard Cohen and C,S,N, & Y, and spending an obsessive amount of time on the new Van Morrison CD, which feels like a throwback in the best sense ñ exploring the roots of the music I hear, rather than its contemporaries or whatnot. Austinís music scene, from what Iíve seen, does not have any of the pretentiousness of a scene that thinks itís cutting edge, or wants to be. Musicians seem more concerned with being good than being fresh, and as a result, a lot of it does sound kind of fresh. Or, if thatís not quite right, what I guess I mean is that the sense of what feels contemporary and relevant expands to include decades, rather than months; thereís much less concern for having to sound innovative to sound authentic. All of that suits me perfectly right now.

I wanted to unwind and write, and I have. Iíve been more productive since I moved than Iíve ever been, in that respect. Iím inspired, and I see a wide field of possibility. Whatever happens next, I am glad to have regained that mindset this summer. You never know whether youíre up for something until you get the chance to find out, and then you know.

At times, though, I missed my friends and family, I missed my apartment in Wicker Park, and I missed Wrigley Field. Chicago in the summer is probably the most fun city in the world, and sometimes I wished I could be two places at once, living two lives. I knew it would be that way when I thought everything through and decided to move. I think I could have been happy had I stayed, but Iím happy here too, and so I have no regrets, and a great story to tell for the rest of my life. But that doesnít make the feeling of missing it go away. The feeling is not overpowering, but itís there.

I wonder if I would have been kicking myself for moving if the Cubs had suddenly turned it on in August. Actually, I know I would have been. But that doesnít mean Iím glad they never did; quite the contrary. As I begin my first offseason in the south, I think Iím starting to figure out how to get past the desire to have it both ways. Well, as much as I can, anyway, since everyone wants everything both ways, this being the nature of desire. We all want everything to be new and exciting, just as we all want everything good to last, and life is never either for long enough.

Thinking about if the Cubs had turned it on in August, there is this: in 2005, we saw Derrek Lee have the best season ever played by a Cubs first baseman. This is something to remember about the season for decades. Despite all the negative press, there actually seems to be a lot of great guys in baseball, and Derrek Lee is not only one of them, but heís the one who hit better than everyone else.

Most of us saw the change in his hitting early on, by May, and realized we were in for something special. Looking back, maybe this is what bothers me most about the 2005 season: that such a good season by Lee was wasted on a team under .500. I donít just mean wasted in the sense that they lost games even while he was doing so well. I mean wasted in the sense that if the team had focused on how well he was doing, they might have lost less games. Iím trying this idea on for size: what if Dusty Baker had asked when filling out the lineup card every day, starting in late April, How will this lineup help Derrek Lee? Might another lineup help him more? Other mega-stars get this consideration all the time, but Lee never did. He was never regarded as a super-slugger would have been, and so despite hitting the crap out of the ball he barely cleared 100 RBIs and only scored 74 times when he didnít score himself with a homerun. They never focused the lineup around him, other than by eventually locking him in the third spot. Itís not about ego or star status; itís about tactics. On-base percentage in front, protection behind. Itís not just Bakerís lineups, either ñ it was also the approaches of the batters in front of and behind him. A whole lot of people missed a golden opportunity to ride his bat to some extra wins, and who knows what might have happened then.

But there I go, doing what I said I wasnít going to do. Iíll just take a deep breath and continue. I take back the question, the what-if. Itís time to step back to a different perspective, and do some meandering. (Bear with me again.)

There was a girl named Jessica who lived in the apartment below mine in Wicker Park. She had just graduated from the Art Institute, and was trying to make her way into a career as a photographer. In the meantime, she was a cocktail waitress at a hotel bar near Millennium Park, having the sort of attributes that lend themselves to tips from traveling businessmen. Some of her photographs were quite good, and some were a bit obsessed with food ñ vegetable-art installations, and things like that, not to mention a curious fascination with jello.

I got to know her the night of the first fire in our neighborhood. There was a second fire a few months later, and that one was a lot closer to my building ñ literally, right across the alley ñ but she had moved out by then. The night of the first fire, I was at the bar down the street and heard news of a fire, so I went back to see if my apartment was going to burn down. I recognized Jessica from the times we had passed outside our building. She was outside watching it as well, several houses away. I invited her to join me as I returned to the bar, realizing our apartments were fine. We hit it off. She was good-looking, funny, creative and smart. I did my best to be charming.

Now, Iím cautious about dating girls that live so close to me. If things get awkward ñ mostly inevitable ñ then it doesnít do well to be stuck living next door. So, it wasnít like I was going after her when I started showing her some of my writing and giving her copies of CDs that I knew she would like. (Damien Rice, Radiohead, Faultline.) In return, a few times she baked me cookies from scratch. (Peanut Butter, Chocolate Chip, Oatmeal.) Harmless flirting, I guess.

Then came the announcement that she was moving out to Logan Square. Face it, she figured, you can get a bigger, nicer apartment than hers for less money out there. (For being in the same building, her apartment was quite a bit sketchier.) Two nights before she was set to move we went out for a drink at the Artful Dodger ñ my favorite bar in Chicago, which happened to shut down the weekend I moved away in a stroke of cosmic coincidence ñ and she said that she would still keep in touch with me. I told her I didnít think it would happen, and I told her that it would be up to her to let me know if she wanted to get together some time. Wicker Park and Logan Square are only about 2 miles apart along Milwaukee Ave., but they might as well be separate cities. A lot of Chicago neighborhoods are like this. We talked briefly a few times on the phone, but I had begun to casually date someone else a little bit, and it was getting to be winter, so I left it up to her to make a move, like I had said. She never did, like I had figured.

I donít regret not making a move, although I think if I had we might have gotten together for a while on some level or another. Thatís the vibe I felt, anyway. It wasnít that I was scared, or uninterested, or any of that, or at least not all of it. It was just easiest to let it slip off untested, unexplored. It was the path of least resistance, which is not necessarily the same thing as cowardice, and in this case it was more like slacking. (Iíll admit that it was partially the same thing as cowardice.) A lot of people spend a lot of time doing what amounts to waiting for something to happen to them, and this time I was one of them, albeit consciously. A tiny bit of me was hoping that she would make a move, but of course those are long odds, and I would have been surprised if she had. Occasionally I wondered if I missed an opportunity for something good, but not enough that I did anything about it. I called her right before I moved, many months later, just to let her know I was leaving for Texas, and we met up for another drink. By that point, the vibe was long gone.

Well, if youíll allow me a bit of creative license, the Cubs this year were an awful lot like how I was with Jessica. They flirted with winning, but for the most part they were waiting for winning to make the move and come to them, and it just doesnít happen that way. They never took a chance. They never played like they had something to lose. There was never any desperation, any anxiety, any of that now-or-never-ness. There was never that confidence of knowing what you want and going after it. They seemed content to bide their time to see what happened, until it became too late, except that it was actually too late once they got in that mindset in the first place early in the season. They receded into themselves and become observers, which is not what you should do if thereís something significant on the line.

Cub fans are nothing if not patient, or at least we used to be, and maybe we will be again. Wrigley Field helps with this, because itís timeless, almost outside of time. The fact that the Cubs market it this way doesnít change that; exploiting truth doesnít make it less true, just less authentic, and Wrigley Field still has authenticity to spare. So, we will continue to come back after losing seasons, and we will continue to support losing teams, biding our time. We have learned how to come back and we have built up tolerance, even if the last few seasons itís more like callousness than tolerance.

Yet, from a broad, season-long perspective, what bothered me about this season was that the Cubs were better than a .500 team who finished 4 games under. Patience is one thing, and I can support a bad team through a long season. Supporting a good team while they are underperforming is much tougher. You would have a tough time convincing me this team could have won a series in the postseason without a healthy Aramis Ramirez, but they had him most of the year. With everyone else they did have healthy, they should have finished over .500.

No matter how centered or balanced I try to be, I canít get past that. Every single person in the organization is responsible for approaching 2006 with that fire that winning teams have. If the fansí part is to let go of our grudge, this is the teamís part: to play like they desperately want to win every game. Knowing I wonít be any happier if they win while Iím still angry than if I get over it, Iíve gotten over it. Now itís their turn to find inspiration.

Although, if it took a lethargic 2005 to light a spark for 2006, maybe Iíll be able to say it was all worth it when Iím writing again a year from now. My last day at work, at the beginning of June, one of my clients gave me a going-away gift basket, and a card with a print of a watercolor painting of Wrigley Field by Carl Johnson. There is no one on the street in front of the famous red marquis, which reads: "JUST WAIT 'TIL NEXT YEAR." At the time I thought Johnsonís choice was quaint, something of a throwback, long overused. I didnít think that message could still be the axiom it once was. Now Iím hoping it can.
Posted Monday, October 10, 2005 by JCB

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