I’m not the biggest baseball fan in the world, admittedly. I generally cheer for the New York Yankees, since Derek Jeter is from Michigan and during my teenage years is when I truly started paying attention to baseball. Growing up in Saginaw, MI, I recall going to a few Tigers games with my father and grandfather at the old Tigers Stadium, so naturally the homer in me (no pun intended) has a place in my heart for those guys as well. But even as a child, I had a particular curiosity with the Chicago Cubs. Was I a fan? Not at all. But there was a curiosity that drew me to the team, mainly because of “The Curse”. To eight-year-old Christopher, the Chicago Cubs were no different than any other fairy tale that you learned as a kid. I was impressed, saddened and captivated even then at the fact that no matter what they did, no matter how hard they tried, they always lost. As a black man living in America, I know firsthand what it feels like to be an underdog. So, as far as my sports heart is concerned (or at least the little of it attached to baseball), the Cubs were always that team I revered the same way most people admire Charlie Brown: the “loveable losers”, as some would say.
I have ALWAYS loved movies growing up, particularly sports movies. I always considered it a litmus test of how horrible teams were; when you saw them in films, that was society’s way of subconsciously admitting no one could realistically conceive that team winning anything. To be honest, I’m still waiting on someone to release a movie where the Lions win the Super Bowl. Two of my favorite sports films of all-time are “Rookie of the Year”, in which a 12-year old pitcher has a freak accident that leaves him with a fastball that rivals Aldonis Chapman and leads the lowly Cubs to World Series victory, and “Major League”, in which a patchwork team of rag-tag individuals, ex-cons and over-the-hill veterans designed to fail actually finds the way to win the pennant. By the time I entered my adult years, I had come to the conclusion that this would be the closest any of us would ever see these franchises achieve any notable level of success in our lifetimes.
Then came 2016.
Not only are the proverbial laughing stocks of major league baseball winning, they are the best teams in their respective divisions. I kept tabs on the teams, starting after the All-Star Game, and would periodically watch a game (by “watch a game”, I mean look up the scores on the ESPN app, after I finished my grad school work). Plus, I had bigger things to worry about…like the possibility of a racist, chauvinistic, tangerine-colored walking embodiment of white privilege becoming president of the free world with access to nuclear weapons. Add to that a candidate that is trusted by many about as much as a three card monte dealer who happens to be in a position to become the first woman president, and I’ve witnessed a presidential race even nastier than the previous two. This year has given me a front row seat to the ugliness that still exists in this country many choose to ignore simply because it doesn’t affect them. This ugliness has come from both sides, and by September, if not sooner, many people including myself were left feeling emotionally exhausted from this election (not to mention the several deaths of family and friends that I endured in just the couple months prior). Throughout all of this, the impossible dream for both the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland baseball team (I choose not to call them by their racist nickname) continued to inch closer to becoming reality. Suddenly, October 19th happened. Cleveland, who hasn’t hoisted the World Series trophy since 1948, punched their ticket to their first World Series in nearly two decades by pretty much destroying every team they faced in the American League playoffs. By this time, I’m actually watching the games, witnessing what I hoped would be the first half of an historic matchup. Three days later, at Wrigley Field, the Cubs punched their ticket to the World Series for the first time in my parent’s lifetimes. It was finally set. 1908 vs. 1948. The Curse of the Goat meets The Mistake by the Lake. Either way it ended, one of those curses was coming to an end.
Before the series began, I predicted to a few people the series was going seven games. Even with the Cubs down three games to one, I wasn’t convinced the series would end in Chicago. I thought there’s no way in the world THIS team, who dominated the majors all season long and won 100+ games, would let the city down in Game 5. I’m not saying religion plays a part in sports, but I was convinced God wouldn’t let Cubs fans suffer like that. No way do they get into the big series for the first time since the Jim Crow era and they not win at least one game at home. Boy, did they prove me right. As I watched Game 5 with Lauren (a Chicago native herself whose grandfather was a lifelong Cubs fan) what would be the last game played at Wrigley this year, listening to the crowd belt out “Go Cubs Go”, I immediately became overcome with emotion for a team that wasn’t my own. I was certain that the electricity shooting through my spine, pulsing like a heartbeat, wouldn’t be topped from the standpoint of a sports fan. I never could have been more wrong in my life.
Before Game Seven began, my life was the same chaotic clusterfuck it had been for the previous months. Social media feeds and actual social interactions remained full of individuals expressing their views on the election, vilifying those who believed differently than they, and even going as far as verbally or physically attacking others. I even had to go off on someone who attempted to justify the shooting of unarmed blacks by police by using meaningless statistics unrelated to the discussion topic. (Side note: white people, do NOT attempt to explain away the oppression black people deal with and the pain we feel if you have no reference point to draw from. If you’re not black, you don’t have a reference point in these particular regards. It is what it is. So listen for once instead of assuming you have all the answers from whatever political pundit or website you chose to visit. Also, eliminate the term “black-on-black crime” from your vocabulary forever. Thanks.) The stress of school deadlines and the death of my grandmother a few days’ prior were weighing on me, but I had a couple bright sides: I was flying to Michigan to see my family, and what I considered to be the dream World Series, with two traditional underdogs looking to break outlandishly long droughts between titles, was actually happening. Just one problem: Game seven would be happening during my flight, and I wasn’t sure if Wi-Fi would be available.
I was guaranteed to see the first few innings, if I were lucky. Things got off to a quick start, with Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler squeaking a line drive shot a few feet over the center field wall against Cleveland pitcher Corey Kluber, a pitcher most analysts on ESPN figured would silence the bats of the Cubbies daunting lineup. By the time I left for the airport, the Cubs seemed to be in control of things, leading 3 to 1. While waiting to board my flight, I stood at a bar with a group: some Cleveland fans, some Cubs fans, but the majority of people merely sports fans fascinated with witnessing history, regardless of the outcome. The groans were just as audible as the cheers as the Cubs extended their lead to four runs, leading 5-1 in the top of the 5th inning. When the time arrived to board the plane, I was greeted by one of the flight attendants, an elderly gentleman named George whose smile shone as bright as his silver hair. “Hello sir,” he said. “Welcome!”
I wasted no time telling him where my interests lie. With a grin, I replied.
“Please tell me that either this plane has Wi-Fi or that the pilot will give announcements after each half inning.”
He laughed. “Well, I can guarantee you that we at least have Wi-Fi!” We patted each other on the shoulder and I proceeded to my seat, anxious for takeoff. I noticed many members of the airport bar congregation were in fact passengers on my flight to Detroit. Each passed by and recognized me, asking, “Do you know what the score is now?” Naturally, I smiled, updating the score as needed and sharing with everyone that our flight had Wi-Fi, just in case George hadn’t informed them. Every one of us, whether or not we had a team in the battle, had an authentic excitement as the plane was abuzz prior to takeoff. That’s when it hit me: because the plane had to close its doors, taxi, takeoff, and climb to a particular altitude, there would be time where I wouldn’t be able to receive ANY information on the game. That 20 to 30-minute window became a sports purgatory for everyone aboard the plane. Our suffering ended as the pilot’s voice filled the plane through the intercom: “Good evening, folks, and welcome aboard American Airlines flight 430 from Phoenix to Detroit; we’re expecting a bit of turbulence on the way, but we will do our best to accommodate you and ensure your ride to Michigan is as smooth as possible. Also, for those of you that may be interested, the Cubs are beating the (Cleveland team) 6 to 3 in the top of the 7th.”
The plane erupted with a mix of cheers and groans.
By the time we reached our necessary altitude, I connected online (don’t you just love technology when it works?) to find a way to watch or listen to the game. The best site I was able to find was ESPN’s GameCast. It wasn’t live video, but it gave an animated and comprehensive pitch-by-pitch update of the game. I soon became a popular man on the plane, with nearby passengers peeking at my screen and asking permission to follow along, despite the pilot announcing the scores between each half inning as I had previously asked. Conversations unrelated to baseball ensued, and before you know it, we were all buddies watching a game together. Of the six of us seated nearby, only one of us was a fan of either team, a gentleman whose name I didn’t catch who had been a Cubs fan since his father took him to his first game at Wrigley Field. During the bottom of the 8th inning, the turbulence became a little more violent than I would have preferred (mind you, anything greater than “no turbulence” is more violent than I prefer). I found myself gripping the handles of my armrests, but it wasn’t because of the turbulence. I was enthralled with the game, as were my fellow passengers, reading the updates onscreen the way fans of Scott Turow read his legal thrillers. The ninth inning came and went, my knuckles reddening from my grip on the armrests despite the fact that the turbulence had been long gone. I didn’t recognize it. Neither did my new compatriots.
As the rain delay began, all of us began to catch our collective breaths, forced to take a break from what had been a roller coaster of unpredictability in the game. Most everything the analysts predicted was proven wrong: players who had been in slumps during the series were becoming heroes, and pitchers considered as dependable as sunrises were getting smacked around on the mound. After nine anxiety-filled innings, there was more baseball to be played. And we wanted more. Everyone wanted more. I even joked on the plane that the rain delay was God’s way of showing even He didn’t want the game to end. I sunk back in my seat for a moment and exhaled slowly. That’s when it hit me: I realized that not only was this the greatest Game 7 that I had seen, but ever since the game had started, but every single person that I interacted with actually spoke to me, something I don’t always get when in mixed company. Sure, every time I see another black man on the street and we lock eyes, we do the “brotha head nod” and keep it moving. But many times when I speak to non-melanin individuals, I am either ignored or looked at as if I have a plague. But not now. That element is part of the beauty that sports generally has: regardless of which team people were pulling for, or what political beliefs they may have had, or how they may have treated me had we met under different circumstances, everyone that I had interacted treated me like “Christopher” and nothing else. I always wished that part of sports was a part of our everyday society.
I also remembered that I had promised Lauren that we would watch Game Seven together and witness history together, regardless of who won. By this point, as you probably have already deduced, I was pulling for the Cubs. I decided to see if I was able to use FaceTime from 35,000+ feet in the air, and was pleasantly surprised to discover that I could. My computer screen became a gateway to a television on the ground, and I was able to fulfill my promise as Lauren and we watched the Cubbies stave of the Cleveland team in dramatic fashion, 8 to 7. Shortly after, the pilot announced the final score, and many people, Cubs fans or not, began to cheer. The impossible became possible. The goat was forever eviscerated, and the agony that had been bestowed upon Cubs fans for over a century had been washed away in a sea of tears, beers, and saliva-filled screams that reached every corner of the globe, even seven miles above the surface.
Every once in a while, if we are lucky, we are able to witness history in a way where race, gender, and whatever other petty differences we have no longer matter. One such moment for me was witnessing President Barack Obama being sworn in in person during January 2009. I remember getting on the train downtown and seeing the railcar filled beyond its maximum capacity, with people of all ages and races singing the national anthem with smiles like children on the last day of school. The manner in which my heart swelled that afternoon is exactly how I felt last night during Game Seven.
No, this isn’t the point where I turn this into some “let’s hold hands and change the world” narrative, but in a world and in a year where we have seen more overt hatred, bitterness, racism, and division in our nation, last night was a welcome escape. Never mind the fact that the Cubs became the first baseball team in my lifetime to come back from a three games to one deficit, winning the final two games on the road to end a mind-boggling, angst-filled drought of nearly 108 years. Never mind the fact that the Cleveland baseball team was arguably a pitch away from breaking their own drought of nearly seventy years. Forget the fact that last night’s game will be talked about for decades to come. Last night, for four hours and forty-five minutes, I lived in the America that I’ve always wanted to live in: one where I was treated like everyone else. I even had that unnamed Cubs fan buy me a drink to celebrate, which quite possibly wouldn’t have happened under any other circumstance. It gives me hope in a time where hope and positivity are desperately needed in a country that, whether you choose to admit it or not, is at war with itself in many instances. It’s a reminder that if we for the majority can treat each other like decent human beings for almost five hours, maybe we can do that from now on, when the stadium lights are off, the roaring cheers finally settle into only our memories, and the cameras are turned off. All of those elements, the game, the history, and the sense of humanity that we were all able to show each other last night, make this the greatest Game Seven that I have ever witnessed with my own eyes.
Thank you, Chicago. Thank you, Cleveland. Because of you, there were no losers last night, even if only for a few hours.
And to all Cubs fans, from all Yankees fans: Congrats. You finally got your overdue happy ending. And you’re welcome for Chapman.