When he visits, my grandpa brings second-hand gifts he finds at garage sales and flea markets. The last time I saw him he gave me two-dozen Johnny Cash records. But more often he comes bearing mementos of the team that binds much of my family together: the Cubs.
I grew up in Bourbonnais, Illinois, which is about the size of Kalispell and located an hour and a half south of Chicago. My mother was born in Freeport, Illinois, where my grandfather still lives, an old industrial town known as “Pretzel City” — seriously, Germanic settlers opened the Billerbeck Bakery pretzel company there in 1869 and the high school mascot is the Pretzels.
My dad, originally from Iowa, raised us to root for the Cubs. The games aired on WGN-TV Chicago most days in the humid Midwest summer. When I was a kid, the legendary Harry Caray would announce contests featuring second baseman Ryne Sandberg and outfielder Andre Dawson. The teams lost more often than not. We cheered anyway.
The family moved West when I was still a pre-teen. We took the Cubs with us (like most fans do) and continued to watch them lose. And lose some more. I never really thought the team was cursed, mostly just bad.
Grandpa would visit nearly every year. He hates flying, but he and grandma still drive for two days to Spokane, Wash., where the rest of my family lives. Now, along with his grandchildren, his great-grandchildren get many of the treasures he finds “at a garage sale for a quarter.” Cubs banners, T-shirts and posters — many of them well-worn, gathering dust for decades in a stranger’s attic.
“Here’s a Cubbie hat,” he tells us. “I found it in Rockford.”
All of us appreciate the gifts, even if some are the wrong size or include a picture of a player we’ve never heard of. These are the Cubbies, a common thread that weaves through our family and tangles up those around it.
Two years ago, for a Christmas present, I gave my girlfriend two tickets to Wrigley Field. Friends joked that the gift was more for me than for her. Maybe, but she needed to know that the team is part of the package. We went to the game the following June. The Cubs lost that game and ended up being swept by the Mets in the pennant later that year. I wasn’t surprised by either outcome.
This year was supposed to be different. Our team was considered the best in baseball. We talked about their potential over the last seven months as they continued to win. And we talked about it some more when grandpa visited in July with a box full of used Cubbie items.
Then we fell behind two games to one, then three games to one, and in conversations with my dad and brother we succumbed to just hoping the Cubs would make the World Series competitive. Instead, we won the whole thing.
For fans of many teams in many sports, these games are about family. They’re stories you’re familiar with and easily dished up over Thanksgiving dinner. They’re an introduction when you can’t think of anything else to talk about: “How about those Cubs?”
Rooting for the Cubs is also about loyalty — sticking with something or someone you love no matter how bad it gets and no matter for how long. For more than 80 years my grandfather stuck with this team. And I can’t wait to see what he brings me the next time I see him.