Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On Wrigley's 100th, A Lesson in What Really Matters by R. Lincoln Harris

As a society, we like round numbers. The 40th anniversary of Hank Aaron's 715th home run was duly celebrated this year, but don't look for anything similar to it until the 50th anniversary in 2024. The same thing goes for any significant events from 1974, 1984, 1989, 1994 (20th anniversary of the players' strike, anyone?) and 2004. Those events will be dusted off and remembered this year, and will then go back into mothballs to make room for next year's anniversaries.

But 100 years is a big deal. For starters, it virtually guarantees that nobody is alive with any memory of the event taking place to begin with. People might live to be 100, but their memories don't usually kick in until the age of five or six, and by the time they make it to 105 or 106, well, let's say nature will assert itself first.

But the second reason why 100 years is a big deal is that it won't be commemorated again until year 125 or maybe year 150. So enjoy the commemoration, certainly, but realize that anniversaries number 101 through 124, at least, will be summarily ignored.

With the 100-year anniversary of Wrigley Field—even if the Cubs didn't yet play there and the park had a different name—it was the second time in three years that a ballpark reached the century mark, as Fenway Park did so back in 2012. But another ballpark centennial won't happen until Dodger Stadium in 2062, which is nearly a half-century away. So chances are that we won't see another such celebration in our lifetimes, and this one had better count.

Day games in the middle of the week are a rare treat at Wrigley Field. Night games once happened in a very haphazard manner, but recently it has broken down into night games on Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, and day games on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. With that in mind, it's rare that I get to listen to a Cubs game on the radio as I'm driving home from work. But the centennial day was an exception—a day game on a Wednesday—and I felt very good as I left the office in the afternoon.

The Cubs had opened up a 5-2 lead over the Arizona Diamondbacks, who had reverted to calling themselves the "Packers" to honor the visiting team for the 1914 opener at Weeghman Park in Chicago. The game was played in the new Federal League, and Chicago's entry was known as the Chi-Feds. The Cubs sported throwback uniforms with "Feds" on them, to get more into the 1914 groove. So from this moment on, the action will be between the Feds (Cubs) and Packers (D-Backs).

When I got into my car to begin the commute home, the Feds still held a 5-4 lead, but their closer, Pedro Strop, was struggling. What I did not know was that their setup man—a concept that would have been utterly nonsensical to the actual Chi-Feds—had pitched a supremely efficient eighth inning, needing only six pitches to retire the side. After taking over for Feds starter Jeff Samardzija. But this is still the Tony LaRussa era of bullpen management, which means that the designated closer gets to start the ninth inning with a fresh slate.

A leadoff walk is usually a bad sign, and the Feds got one in the ninth inning. Throw in a fielding error and another walk, and the home team found itself in a spot that it could not escape from. The Feds' closer did not get a called strike on a two-strike pitch, and the Packers were able to tie the game up with a single, and then push the eventual winning runs across on what the announcer described (and I'm not kidding) as a "pop-fly triple" to right field. Only the Feds could lose in such stunning fashion.

By the time the home team had lost, my mind was numb. On a day loaded with historical significance, the second century of the old ballpark had been launched in the most horrific way imaginable. I picked up my phone, and was intending to post a Facebook message saying "Painful. There's no other word for it." I had the message in mind, and it was only a matter of a few keystrokes to share my grief with others of a similar disposition.

But what I saw upon opening my Facebook account stopped me cold. A student of mine, from the days when I taught Social Studies in the Chicago Public Schools in the late 1990s, had died suddenly. He was in his early 30s, and I had not seen or heard from him since he walked across the stage at graduation back in the summer of 2000. But still, I have friended a number of his former classmates in the years since then, and the news of his passing was so much of a shock that the result of a baseball game seemed terribly unimportant.

Instead of typing out my disappointment with the Feds, I offered words of encouragement to his family and friends on Facebook, and vowed to hug my own family even tighter than usual when I saw them that evening. To do anything else would have felt disrespectful.

Some people claim that they "live and die" with their team, but that clearly is not true. People "live and live" with their team, instead. If their team wins, that's great, but the sun will still come up the next morning. And when their team loses it sucks and it's disappointing, but the sun is still going to come up the next morning, all the same.

The truth is that it's only a game, folks. It's not actually life and death, what happens out there on a baseball field. The unfortunate thing is that it took an actual incidence of life and death to make this clear to me. And it's a lesson that I'll hopefully carry with me for the rest of my days.

This piece is dedicated to the memory of Adonis Jones (1982-2014).

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