Standing Room Only

Fans celebrate at the Chicago Cubs World Series rally in Grant Park, Friday morning, Nov. 4, 2016, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Fans celebrate at the Chicago Cubs World Series rally in Grant Park, Friday morning, Nov. 4, 2016, 2016. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Before Tuesday’s election results, I was thinking about how five million Chicago-area fans celebrating the Cubs’ World Series victory boded well for the future of this country. I started this piece after witnessing the Cubs’ historic win, and it made me re-examine the role the team played in my as yet unpublished second novel, You Can See More From Up Here. 

One theme in my book is revealed by how an automobile executive’s love for the Chicago Cubs clashes with his son’s increasing ambivalence toward the team. My protagonist, a college student whose father gets him a summer job at the auto plant, wears a Cubs t-shirt on his first day of work. While a foreman leads him to the receiving dock where he’ll unload parts from boxcars, he hears over the rumbling assembly line a ballgame broadcast on boom boxes and transistor radios throughout the plant. But it’s not the posh, north-side Cubbies these employees listen to. It’s the team of Chicago’s south side working class, the White Sox. That t-shirt brands the kid as an outsider, illustrating how clueless he is about his co-workers—and them about him.

My novel is based on my own summer job, my education during those months, and on my dad, a medical doctor at an automobile factory and a lifelong Cubs fan. The fact is, allegiances to the Cubs or White Sox are frequently defined along class lines. Both teams stank in those days, and at the plant, the White Sox were the heroes of the working class—and an invaluable distraction, filling hours of mind-numbing work. At home, my dad binge-watched the Cubbies to forget his daily dilemmas over how to handle employee’s requests for worker’s comp while management pressured him to keep down the company’s health care costs. In my book, these tensions explode into a violent conflict that risks the jobs and even the lives of people on both sides of these issues, and baseball loyalties helped me to illustrate this conflict.

For me, the World Series this year elicited a variety of mixed feelings. Because my dad was no longer alive to see it. Because I’ve lived in Boston for thirty years, became a Red Sox fan, and found it hard to watch so many former Sox on both the Cubs and the Indians. Because these games were played against the backdrop of an election that threatened to undermine so many of the good values represented by baseball—a game everyone plays by the same rules on a level field, that doesn’t allow for liars or cheats, that’s so rich in ethnic diversity anyone can play and any team can win, no matter where they come from.

As this year’s World Series progressed, it took me back. To the ivy covered walls of Wrigley Field, located blocks from the apartment I lived in straight out of college. To the Cubbies I watched probably thousands of times on TV with my father back when I was a kid in a northern Illinois factory town. Last week’s heart-pounding seventh game took me back forty-seven years to a day in 1969 I drove eighty miles with my dad and sister so I could finally see the Cubs in the flesh. That great team lead the league for most of that season, only to lose the last 17 out of 25 games to come in second to the Mets. But that August day, they were still in first place playing those Mets, and though our tickets were standing-room-only, I couldn’t have been more thrilled, standing on tip-toe behind the last row of seats, glimpsing Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins and Billy Williams. We were rewarded for aching backs with a raucous, jam-packed ball park and a two-hit nail-biter the Cubs won by one run.

Since that day, I’ve always looked on the Cubs fondly from afar, hoping that, like my new home-town team, the Cubbies might finally break through and justify my dad’s years of patience and loyalty. When they did win—and with this election looming—it struck me that those five million fans in Grant Park didn’t stand there all those hours just to salute one ball club. They stood there to honor a game that models the values our fathers and fore-fathers have always stood for, values of fair play, hard work, perseverance and honorable behavior, values Americans share that allow us not only to rise above our allegiances but also to stand together, shoulder to shoulder.

I’d like to think that is still true, but after Tuesday’s election, I’m not so sure. Instead of being included, many of us may end up standing on the outside, looking in.


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