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This one goofy picture made me a Cubs fan for life

March 28, 2018
Random: Old Family Pics - 03

See this ridiculous picture? This one picture right here is why I’m a Cubs fan, because of this moment, because of Harry, the ghost of an afternoon in Chicago and what is, conservatively estimating, 1983’s largest ball cap. (Seriously, it’s like my parents didn’t know hats came in sizes.) Chance and geography, a happy accident that led to four decades of living, which, it’s nice to remember on Opening Day, is how it goes for all of us.

Great and irrational value is ascribed to being a Cubs fan, because being a Cubs fan announces yourself as a stone-souled viking with the power to weather mythic proportions of loss. It’s a proof of worth, a declaration to other, flimsier folks that you’re made of stronger stuff than they are, that you’re morally superior, trophy or no trophy, to the pink-bellied chumps in Yankees hats. It broadcasts not just fanship but something approaching a complete psychological profile. It’s something so honest and sincere that Eddie Vedder wrote an acoustic song about it, for God’s sake. (Obviously this has all changed since 2016, which many of us are still figuring out how to process — it’s both gratifying and frustrating to think that my boys are growing up on a planet where the Cubs are reliably and sustainably good. Certainly life is sweeter now, but even a fresh-ish trophy doesn’t just scrub away 108 years of burned-in fatalism.)

But I didn’t become a fan for mythology, or to project the presumed worth that comes with loss, or because I liked their players, or their stripes, or their park, or because I was taken with their early-1900s spell of dominance. I became a Cubs fan for one reason: This goofball picture of me and Harry, with him flashing one of baseball’s most iconic smiles and me terrified and thrilled and wearing a hat that would indicate I was heading out after the game to drive my train.

I don’t remember much about that day, because I was eight, but I know it was 1983. I know Ryne Sandberg led off because he was my favorite player, stoic and richly reliable. I know Bill Buckner was playing first, because I remember feeling terrible for him three years later. I remember going for a frosty malt or something and happening upon an impromptu gathering on a concourse ramp on the third-base side, the sort of mass that organically forms around famous people. At some point my dad hustled me up for a picture, and I remember Harry’s large and friendly hand on my arm, thinking, jeez, look at the size of those glasses. My smile is real —I knew that this guy was a big deal. I also knew his smile was real, that his enthusiasm for this sort of thing was genuine, and I liked that.

But it’s not like I was in the concourse, at that game, in Chicago, by myself. My grandmother will be 94 in July; last fall I got to call and tell her they did it, they’d won it. “You’re kiiiiiiiiding,” she exhaled, happy despite how I’d clearly woken her up. Gabby was enough of a fan that she skipped out of her job in the South Loop for Opening Day games, but she didn’t invent that either. She was a fan because her mother was a fan — Nana took to listening to Cubs broadcasts through a radio on the kitchen window at their Iowa farm. If that radio faltered, they’d open the windows and blast the car radio. She’s not sure why Nana liked the Cubs, but she suspects it was because there was not much else to do. My grandparents on Dad’s side used to tape games. It goes on like this. In large part, I’m a Cubs fan because of a restless Iowa farmer.

This is how it goes — for the bulk of us, sports fanship isn’t anywhere close to a personal decision but inherited, handed over, subconsciously drilled in. It’s a function of geography and genealogy, fathers and mothers and sons and daughters and great-grandmothers, the metro area nearest your birth hospital, which distant college you fled to, which distant college accepted you. For the amount of treasure and energy we pour into our teams, for the amount of identity we give over to our heroes and goats, it usually boils down to things like this, the ghost of an ancestor we never knew, a chance encounter in the concourse, a picture in a goofy hat when you were eight. We rally around rich strangers, scream and grease down lightposts and draft fantasy bullpens and whine about competitive disadvantages and wave W flags thanks to a sea of factors that have nothing to do with us. It’s not worth less because of it, it’s worth more. There are no better reasons to love something than family, place and accidental snapshots.