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Confessions of a Cubs fan

The writer, second from right, with his family -- brother-in-law Jim, from left, father Will and brother Brian, at the 2013 Chicago Cubs home opener.
The writer, second from right, with his family -- brother-in-law Jim, from left, father Will and brother Brian, at the 2013 Chicago Cubs home opener.
(Courtesy of Todd Martens)

“It’s just baseball.”

So I’ve been told. So I have told myself.

The Chicago Cubs are in the World Series for the first time since 1945, and it is not “just baseball.”

I was nervous when the Cubs played the Dodgers, concerned about living in enemy territory. I visited Dodger Stadium last week, but did so in neutral colors and sat quietly. I didn’t want to miss the Cubs during a potentially historic year, but I didn’t want to draw attention to myself.

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I know it’s not just baseball. Let’s put that myth to rest.

Baseball is family.

Baseball is wearing a Cubs jersey to work as if it’s an uniform and seeing the eyes of fellow fans light up and run over to greet you. Baseball is flying to my home town of Chicago for a World Series game I can’t afford but, like a wedding or a funeral, I saw no choice.

For baseball is three hours sitting next to my dad at Chicago’s Wrigley Field talking about whatever — school, work, my dating life, all the stuff that doesn’t come up at home. Baseball is missing my grandmother, a roller-derby-stud-turned-baker badass who let me sit in her late husband’s chair while Harry Caray turned a sport into a comedy routine.

Win or lose, we bonded, and if the Cubs were on the road — Wrigley didn’t have lights in those days — she let me stay up late. I don’t, for instance, remember the outcome of any of the Chicago Cubs games when she babysat me. They probably lost. After all, there’s a lot of losing in Chicago baseball. I just remember the need to stay playful, to stay passionate, to keep believing.

Baseball is my old elementary school friends, the people with whom I connected with for the first time. Like Jeff, a gawky good-looking dude in a Cubs hat who grew up down the street from me and who I have known since I was 5. Baseball is still our connecting thread, the excuse — if not the reason — I have had a best friend for 30 years, and the impetus behind a random text message that turns into a two-hour conversation about life’s other distractions (divorces, sick relatives, etc.).

Baseball is also hugging a stranger in a bar when a backup catcher hits a grand slam. Or the unexpected high fives, even here on the streets of downtown Los Angeles, from other long-suffering Cubs fans. Baseball is familiarity, knowing you have friends you probably haven’t met yet.

Baseball is the belief that something, if it can go wrong, will go wrong. A mis-swing on a cutting fastball, for instance, can result in a weakly tapped infield hit that scores a run.

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This scenario essentially happened in Game 1 of the World Series when Cleveland bested the mighty Jon Lester. There’s a lesson in there. Layoffs, deaths, breakups, a ball popping out of a left fielder’s glove — baseball can be an eight-month slog that’s derailed by an instant tragedy, only to suddenly turn to elation when a long-injured outfielder hits a double off the wall.

Baseball is forgiving. You can be a little pudgy and succeed at baseball. You don’t have to overpower people to succeed at baseball. In an era when we ooh and aah over 104 mph fastballs, at a time when social media has prepped us all for instant gratification, along comes the unassuming Kyle Hendricks, showing us that apparent normalcy can be pretty dang special too.

Baseball is also cruel, so inexplicable that Cubs fans for decades have needed to blame a goat for losses — or, more recently, a fan whose only crime was to react to a foul ball. Baseball is so spontaneous that Red Sox fans pointed to a Babe Ruth trade for their woes.

Nonsense, all of it, but baseball isn’t sensible. If I could understand baseball I wouldn’t love it like I do.

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Every year in which the Cubs have fallen, I’ve sworn off baseball. Like a bad breakup — I’m never dating again! — but then the pitchers and catchers report to spring training and so do I. Baseball. To summarize Chicago’s great journalist Mike Royko, “It builds character.”

I do not know Cubs stars like Anthony Rizzo or Kris Bryant, and I hope to God I never meet Aroldis Chapman. These people are not close to me. They are symbols, the latest to wear a cap, to represent a city, to represent a lifestyle, to be there alongside every up and down.

I think back to when I was a freshman in high school and I was a target for bullies. Not every morning, but a few per month, kids fired spitballs at me.

Friends encouraged me to laugh it off. I didn’t — I focused my energy on punk rock and the Chicago Cubs.

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These are two polar opposites. One is rebel music, and one is “America’s team.” In the early ’90s, jocks and punks were warring worlds, and yet the Cubs were generally approved by the crowd at the Fireside Bowl, Chicago’s once punk rock club and my high school hangout.

The Cubs, after all, were misfits. They lost. Boy, they lost. We’re talking 90-games losing. Ground balls went through their legs in crucial moments. A Hall of Fame second baseman went cold in October. A Gold Glove-winning shortstop dropped a ball with five outs to go to a World Series (see, it wasn’t the fan who lost Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS after all).

But I fell hard. Not because of sports. I fell for the narrative, the idea that it was OK to stink, to fail, often repeatedly, but to ultimately believe that you’ll get there in the end.

Someday, even if it takes a lifetime — or 108 years.

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I haven’t missed a Cubs home opener with my dad since the ’80s. Almost everything I know about my dad has come from these games — his stubbornness, his anger at things out of his control, his sudden joy at success and, most important, his desire to a spoil a son. I don’t think we bonded over the futility of the Chicago Cubs. Instead I think it was the belief that most of us are good hard-working people and deserve something decent in life.

Just like the Cubs do.

I’ll try to remind myself of all of this during the series. When I watch them race on to Wrigley Field, I’ll most likely hug my dad, tear up at something I never thought I’d see and think about how happy I know my grandmother would be if she were still here.

The outcome won’t be all that matters. After all, there’s no “just” before baseball. Baseball is life.

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Todd.Martens@latimes.com

Follow me on Twitter: @toddmartens


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