When I got to Chicago on Thursday, I felt disoriented.
As I did my book tour appearances, there was definitely something off. It took me a couple days to figure out what it was. I had covered a year and a half of a presidential campaign that was so dyspeptic and vulgar and ugly that I had lost the sense of what it was like to be surrounded by a sea of people who were rooting for something rather than against.
Americans are not feeling inspired as they watch the latest bizarre jolts with the F.B.I. in the most sour race in modern history with the two least popular candidates since polling was invented.
When he announced his run for the White House in Springfield, Ill., in 2007, Barack Obama promised to sweep away cynicism and the “smallness of our politics.” On the trail, he said he would make government “cool” again. Now a quarter of the country doesn’t care if the government shuts down, according to an Economist poll. A Washington Post headline summed it up succinctly: “Once the hope candidate, Obama in his final days faces a hopeless electorate.”
So when I found myself in Chicago, awash in positive emotions at the miracle of baseball in October, I couldn’t get enough. I knew nothing about the Cubs, the underdog’s underdog, but I signed up immediately as a fan. I didn’t have anything blue in my suitcase. I have avoided the color my whole life, since I had to wear it for 12 years in Catholic schools. For me, blue was redolent of strict nuns.
But I bought a blue hat with a bear cub on it and began signing books, as everyone here signs emails, “Go Cubs!” Every third person had on a Cubs T-shirt or blue nail polish or a hat or sweatshirt, and everybody was giving thumbs-up to strangers and murmuring “Go Cubs” like a prayer. The lions in front of the Art Institute of Chicago proudly sported their Cubs hats, and somebody in a bear cub outfit roamed State Street. Except for the hardest of hard-core White Sox fans, the love cuts across all swaths of the city — rich, working class, political, cultural. At performances of “Hamilton” in Chicago, the audience is bedecked in Cubs jerseys and discreetly checks the score on their phones during songs.
The Cubs, who play in the beautiful, ivied Wrigley Field, are snakebit, the lovable losers of baseball, emanating frustration and stewing in their curses: the Billy Goat Curse, the Black Cat Curse and the Bartman Curse. The team hasn’t been in a World Series since 1945 or won one since 1908, the year my mom was born, Wilbur Wright got an offer of $100,000 for his flying machine, and President Teddy Roosevelt jousted with Panama over the canal.
“The Cubs’ stellar season is a metaphor for everything that isn’t crass and cruel this year,” said a Chicago friend, Tracy Weisman, a speechwriter and Cubs fan since 1984. “The collective ebullience oozing out of every pore of my city-on-tenterhooks shows us that, despite what divides us, we still have it in us to come together and experience joy. We can be a better country, with better leaders. Trump could take a page out of Cubs manager Joe Maddon’s playbook and hear the kind of talk that should be taking place in our national locker room, because this campaign has demonstrated that the veneer of unity holding our diverse republic together is much thinner and more fragile than we ever allowed ourselves to admit.”
Bill Marovitz, a Chicago businessman and former state senator, agreed: “Most people are going to the polls holding their nose. But people are in love with this team top to bottom — management to players. There’s no ambivalence.”
The mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel, says that the innocence and joy connected with the Cubs’ quest is a sweet contrast with the coarseness and anger of our politics.
“This is the youngest team to win a league championship,” said the mayor, who has faithfully attended all the playoff and World Series games at Wrigley. “They’ve captured the imagination because their innocence — just playing the game for the love of the game — harks back to a less cynical time. They’re a great reprieve.”
At the game on Sunday night, Emanuel was sitting three rows away from the Chicago archbishop, Blase Cupich, who was wearing a Cubs hat. Cupich is one of three archbishops selected by Pope Francis to become cardinals later this month in Rome — not St. Louis Cardinals, the Cubbies’ hated rivals — and Emanuel will be part of the mayoral delegation to the Vatican.
The mayor importuned the archbishop, “Your Eminence, aren’t your prayers getting answered? What’s going on here?”
“I need to pray a little harder,” the archbishop agreed.
Emanuel warned the archbishop to hurry up and show that he had the heavenly juice or “that Cardinal thing” might not happen. As fans nearby laughed, Emanuel and the cleric high-fived — a celebratory gesture that is endlessly repeated for every good play in the Wrigley stands.
But my friend Dick Babcock, whose father took him to his first game in 1954, was dubious. “You learn at a very young age that, with the Cubs, prayer is ineffectual,” he said. “It gets you nowhere.”
The passion for the Cubbies starts young. Center fielder Dexter Fowler tweeted last night that he was out trick-or-treating and complimented a kid on his Cubs costume and the kid responded that his favorite player was first baseman Anthony Rizzo.
Many of my friends who grew up in Chicago recall that thrilling burst of green the first time they came into the century-old Wrigley Field. The experience echoes Dorothy entering the Emerald City, a skyline that L. Frank Baum, who lived in the city, conjured based on a Chicago amusement park.
In this Midwest baseball face-off, the Cleveland Indians have also been known as appealing underdogs — and Cleveland is trying to build on the positive reviews it got for hosting the strange, makeshift Trump convention.
But when I mention this to Dick Babcock, a Northwestern writing professor who was the longtime editor of Chicago magazine, he reacts the same way he reacts when his lovely wife, Gioia, tries to talk about the World Series: with a sigh. Gioia and I haven’t earned the right, as latecomers to the party who haven’t loved the Cubbies enough or suffered for them enough, to analyze his beloved team.
“You are so deeply, deeply misguided,” he told me. “The Cleveland drought, and before that, the Red Sox losing streak, and even the long wait for the White Sox — like blinks of time, compared to the Cubs century-plus in the wilderness. And those teams all had their moments in the World Series in years before they won. Cleveland was there in 1997. The Cubs waited 71 years just to get back onstage.
“We’re not talking about underdogs — both teams are strong. We are talking about qualities of suffering. Besides, how could a Chicagoan feel empathy with Cleveland — a city in a state that may go for Trump?”
Gioia told me to go easy on Dick. “He’s a gentle, civilized person who turns into a crazed monster about the Cubs,” she explained.
But Dick is not as obsessed as his brother John, a 59-year-old golf pro who lives in a Chicago suburb and recently got written up in The Wall Street Journal for his inability to watch the Cubs bungle their pennant chances over and over.
John watches golf videos during Cubs games shutting off his phone so that friends and relatives are not able to text or call to tell him the score. He goes to bed, happy in his ignorance, and his neighbor puts a blue “W” sign out the next morning if the Cubs win.
The Journal reproduced John’s letter to Ron Santo in 1964 asking the Cubs third baseman to come to his eighth-birthday “pardy,” with its priceless p.s.: “My Dad still says Stan Hack was better. But I don’t BELIEVE him.”
“I humbled John into watching the third game on TV with me Friday night — a tight game down to the last pitch, but the Cubs lost,” Dick told me. “John immediately reverted to his former tactic and has cocooned himself from all external media through the night for all subsequent games. On his behalf, I should point out that he has slept much better than I.”
My Times colleague Carl Hulse, an Ottawa, Illinois, native who rose to become the Times’ chief Washington correspondent, began going to Cubs games when he was 8 years old and watching on TV with his “maiden aunt” with their meals on trays, back in the day when Jack Brickhouse was the beloved Cubs announcer known for his “Hey-Hey!” exclamation for home runs.
Carl scored tickets for Saturday night and agreed to take me along, although he was leery of my startling ignorance of the team’s history of futility and said he could get $20,000 for my ticket. At least he didn’t make me take a sports quiz, à la Ellen Barkin in the movie “Diner.”
Carl had been there Friday night when the Cubs lost a shutout to the Indians, 1-0, and like any spooked fan, had changed his outfit for Saturday — from a Cubs hoodie to his “sacred hat” with Ernie Banks’s signature on the brim.
At the park we ran into David Axelrod, the mustard-smeared head of the University of Chicago Institute of Politics and a lifelong Cubs fan who had also changed it up from the luckless Friday night.
“I wasn’t sitting in my own seats last night,” he had told me that morning when I saw him at the Chicago Humanities Festival in Evanston. “I wasn’t wearing the hat I wore when the Cubs clinched the pennant. I wasn’t wearing the sweatshirt I wore when the Cubs clinched the pennant. I told my son on the way home, we are sitting in the right seats and putting our old outfits together on Saturday night. But I’m not in the least superstitious.”
He agreed that the Cubs team was “a tonic for a dispiriting year” and “a more pleasing campaign” and said it was a flashback to his magical 2008 ride with Obama.
“They’re this very coherent, upbeat group, and they support each other and are really committed to doing things in new and innovative ways, using data and neuroscience to get ahead,” he said. “Even though they’re the best team in baseball, the Cubs winning the World Series is only slightly less improbable than a man being elected president of the United States who is the ultimate underdog. Baseball seasons are very much like presidential campaigns in that they have big emotional peaks and valleys, all played out under the watchful eye of millions of people who all know better than you what you should be doing.
“Winning teams handle peaks and valleys and have a plan to keep focused even when you’re being told you’re doing the wrong thing. And as we’re grumbling down to the homestretch in this particularly depressing campaign, to have something as exhilarating and wholesome as the Cubs’ march for the championship has been a light amid the darkness. I know a lot of people up in years who have been Cub fans all their lives who have been literally living to see this moment.”
Carl and I enjoyed delicious Chicago-made Vienna beef hot dogs, tasty Italian beef sandwiches and beer, and sat next to two middle-aged teachers who had been to every game. They were decked out in their Cubs World Series sweatshirts, Cubs earrings and Cubs sneakers, and recorded every move on their scorecards. When Indians outfielder and switch-hitter Coco Crisp set off a fateful three-run rally in the seventh inning, the teacher next to me murmured: “I don’t like that guy. He should be a cereal.”
Awhile later, a worried young man behind me called out to the lackluster hitters: “Hit a dinger, hit a parker, hit my car!”
When I looked around, I saw loyal celebrity fans — Bill Murray, Vince Vaughn, Eddie Vedder, Jeff Garlin — and generations of Chicagoans sharing the moment. A young woman with her arm around her grandmother, a grandfather explaining the game to a small boy, baby boomer guys clutching their childhood mitts, whole families yelling in concert with symphonic hand motions, trying to distract the Cleveland pitching ace, “KLU-BER!” I looked for the local hero Dorothy Farrell, a 90-year-old superfan who survived her father and brothers to see this moment and drinks Jagermeister shots to celebrate Cubs wins.
“To most of the people here,” Carl said, “this is one of the defining events of their life.” And, he noted, Wrigley Field is the only place in the country where you can hear “Jumping Jack Flash” played on an organ.
Carl worried that the fans were taking too many selfies and not focusing on sending good juju to the players. (The next night, the fans would stand throughout the game.) On that night, the young Cubs players were overanxious and Cleveland prevailed, leaving the crowd dejected and frustrated.
“Well, at least you saw a real Cubs moment,” Carl said as we moped back onto the L. “This is what being a Cubs fan is all about. At the end, you’re always disappointed. Your soul is crushed. But that just sets us up for a comeback, and it’ll be sweeter celebrating on the pitcher’s mound in Cleveland.” Fans began rewriting their Saturday signs saying, “It’s Gonna Happen!” for Sunday, changing the message to “It’s Still Gonna Happen!”
At 3-1 Saturday night, FiveThirtyEight gave the Cubs less of a chance to win the World Series than Trump had to win the White House. But then the Cubs won Sunday night and the odds got better.
What will happen if things don’t go well in Cleveland, I asked David Axelrod.
“If they lose,” he replied, “we’ll know that it was rigged.”