You can, if you stand at the end of my street and turn your ear to the south and east, catch the roar of the crowd more than a mile away from Wrigley. It’s a gathering force, a collective sound, equal parts ecstasy, anguish, relief, and longing. Team sport, biologist E.O. Wilson says, is tribalism, “the profound identity we can feel with the group as it competes with another group.” Are the Cubs my tribe? “Exclusion makes us suffer,” Wilson says. “Inclusion makes us thrive.”
I manifest certain behaviors. Sweet-talking—You go, we go, I murmur just like Joe Maddon does to Dexter Fowler as he leads off. Furious desk pounding, apprehension when Pedro Strop takes the mound, surreptitious peeks at MLB.com when I’m teaching, repeat views of the by-now-fabled “Schwarbomb,” obsessive box-score checking, double-clicking on a YouTube video of Kris Bryant and his girlfriend singing “Love Is an Open Door” from Frozen, heedless blathering to friends.
But I don’t #FlyTheW. My ardency is provisional. Our affiliations are bequeathed to us or grafted on or we assign them to ourselves. Who are we, really? My first baseball memory is geographic, located in the den, in front of the TV console. The light is dim. 1959, October in delirium. The White Sox. Early Wynn, Sherm Lollar, Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio. Those names entered my bloodstream and have been swimming around ever since. It is an American story: my father’s sport, my father’s team, and I am my father’s daughter.
But we rarely went to Comiskey. It was a schlep. We were north-siders, straining toward the suburbs but not quite there. My father was a refugee from Albany Park. We went to Wrigley because it was closer. Was that the reason? I seemed to know even then that our city was divided and our teams too, and Comiskey bordered the predominantly black south side (with the Robert Taylor Homes just across the Dan Ryan), while Wrigley was firmly anchored in the white (and then working-class) north. Occasionally we crossed over, but mostly we stayed on our side of the divide.
The Cubs were our default team, but what a default. We arrived three hours early, for batting practice. Usually we sat in the sparsely populated seats down the right-field line, in order to spread out. We started the whole thing off with peanuts. We brought pastrami sandwiches (no turnstile inspections then)—two to three apiece, because going to the ballpark was all about gorging—pickles, sour green tomatoes, potato salad, coleslaw, peaches, plums, nectarines. Then there was pop, frosty malts, and for my father, one beer, pro forma. The games were mostly irrelevant. I kept score for the first three innings or so, with the short eraserless pencil that came with the program book, and then grew tired of it. The players? Williams, yes; Banks, of course; Jenkins, Santo. The Cubs won. They lost. They lost. Who cared? Winning was a bonus, but it wasn’t necessary. My father, spread out over a couple of seats, read the newspaper and listened to the Sox on his transistor. Bob Elson, Milo Hamilton. That was half the point of the outing, wasn’t it? To follow the White Sox, in a park. We clambered home, sunburned and spent.
“A home, a secure nest, a group. We humans create tribes and cultures to give ourselves a feeling of belonging.” But belonging is so conditional. Our notions of family, home, race, class, gender—all kinds of group affinity—are subject to the arbitrary alchemies of personal experience, historical context, and cultural change. I’m a Jew, a lesbian, a white middle-class daughter of a working-class-turned-middle-class man who owned a laundromat. A Chicagoan, lifelong. (I wanted to leave once but now I would never be so fickle. Call me a starry-eyed booster.) A Sox fan. A Cubs fan. To those who ask, and everyone does during this rarefied season, I like to say that I’m ambidextrous. 55-45, maybe.
What are the limits of my fandom? Doesn’t every fan have to ask herself this? Or maybe not, or not too piercingly, if she wants to continue being a fan. On the one hand, Todd Ricketts, one of the Cubs’s owners, gave big money to Scott Walker’s now defunct presidential bid, and on the other, Laura Ricketts, another owner, sits on the National Leadership Council of Lambda Legal. Bad, good. OK, so don’t buy any Cubs merchandise, as someone I know recently concluded, before admitting, ruefully, that she wouldn’t have anyway. And closer to the field of play, Starlin Castro once faced sexual assault allegations, which were eventually and, unsurprisingly, dropped. (Castro’s not alone in this regard among local high-profile athletes. Witness the current allegations against Patrick Kane and Derrick Rose.) And closer still, why have I, second-wave feminist, ignored the WNBA’s Chicago Sky, our one professional women’s sports team, and been largely indifferent to women’s sports overall? How to account for our idiosyncratic and often unexamined alliances?
I know and I don’t know. Maybe it comes down to how much or little we know ourselves. How much we love our town, our fathers or mothers, and baseball itself, a game of ups and downs, slow and furious, like a symphony. I don’t know the details of the curse and haven’t seen Back to the Future, but after I stood at the end of my street a few weeks ago, when it still felt like summer—neon dousing the corner, the DirecTV blimp circling overhead like a space ship, the rusty moon in full eclipse parting the clouds, the sound of the crowd a low surging rumble—and I couldn’t look up any longer, I went back in to watch Arrieta, who was perfect into the seventh, pitch the rest of the game.
Peggy Shinner teaches in the MFA in creative writing program at Northwestern University and is the author of You Feel So Mortal: Essays on the Body.