The score was New York Mets 17, Chicago Cubs 5 going into the bottom of the sixth. That’s the setting–or, as it is more commonly referred to in the analysis of humor, the setup–for the joke. The joke’s background, its reference point, is that back in the days when Jack Brickhouse was broadcasting for the Cubs, he would commonly say, in the bottom of the 9th, 10th, or 11th inning, or whenever the situation applied, when the score was tied and the Cubs were coming to bat, that “any old kind of a run will do it,” meaning, of course, that any old kind of a run would win the game. The joke–which happens to be of the “one-liner” variety, or genre–therefore, reflects a certain history, or knowledge of the Cubs’ history, upon the person telling the joke, who, in fact, was a man of middle age, blond and slightly balding, paunchy but of firm build, who was sitting along with his two sons–the resemblance was noticeable–a couple of rows behind us last Sunday at Wrigley Field. The boys, aged about 8 and 12, were clearly Cubs fans–dressed in Cubs hats and Cubs T-shirts–and they were also clearly being properly raised as Cubs fans. The family sat through the sixth, and then the seventh, long after most fans had gone, and decided to wait and watch the Cubs bat in the eighth before heading home, even though the Mets had by this time expanded their lead to 23-9; they were alert throughout their stay at the game, and the eldest boy had a sharp, piercing whistle that continued to ring out even as the score grew worse than its 17-5 state of the middle of the sixth inning. In any case, that is the setting we return to for the retelling of the joke, with the Cubs coming to bat in the sixth and trailing 17-5, at which point the father said–to no one in particular and certainly not to the boys, who were too young to understand the joke’s reference point, and this too is part of the charm of the joke, it’s off-the-cuff delivery for the enjoyment of the few nearby who will overhear and understand, but mostly for the enjoyment of the teller and creator himself–the man said, “Any old kind of a 12 runs’ll do it.”

When the game and the season are going down the drain, fans of the Cubs turn to humor to help them endure, and this means that August is usually a pretty funny month at Wrigley Field. Cubs fans have turned to humor earlier in the season (the call of “Wait till next year” on opening day) and in rare years have held on to their sobriety until later in the season, but even when they have held on until almost the very end of the season the humor has, in the end, come out, and the later the better usually (as in 1984’s “Did you hear Leon Durham tried to commit suicide? He threw himself in front of a bus”–pause for effect–“and it went between his legs”). Cubs fans will always endure whatever the Cubs throw at them, because Cubs fans take the game seriously but also humorously. It was pleasant to see this sort of attitude being passed on, from generation to generation, while the joke itself was good enough that–even after the family had left–we kept repeating it to ourselves in the bottom of the ninth, chuckling, “Any old kind of a 15 runs will do it.”

The distant thunder of faraway pennant races rolled into town last week along with the rough weather, as the Cubs found themselves not battling the Philadelphia Phillies for fourth place but cast instead as spoilers in the more important and serious events of the season, as the Mets came to town in pursuit of the Saint Louis Cardinals. The series was hard-fought and energetic, with remarkably few mental blunders on either side, which was especially remarkable for the Cubs, who have not been playing well lately, losing a series in Philadelphia earlier last week to fall into fifth place, at the .500 mark. The pivotal game of the series was, oddly enough, the first, as the Cubs came from a 5-0 deficit to beat their old nemesis, Dwight Gooden, 7-5. It was the second straight time the Cubs had defeated Gooden–who had been unbeaten against them since his rookie year of 1984–and the third in a row over the Mets, going back to their salvaging a split in a four-game series in New York by winning the last two games. Gooden was throwing on three days’ rest and tired early, which served the Mets right. I had turned down seats behind home plate to sit in the bleachers, thinking Gooden wouldn’t be starting until Friday, and missed seeing both Gooden and the Mets’ bull-pen phenom, Randy Myers, at close range. Obviously, on the weekend of the harmonic convergence, the Mets were picking a poor time to start toying with their karma, and they lost. (On a more serious and strategic note, the Mets tried to run their rotation on three days’ rest early in the season, and got nothing out of it but sore arms for Rick Aguilera and David Cone and what appears to be early exhaustion for Sid Fernandez, who hasn’t pitched consistently since May. They are headed for disaster if they try throwing Gooden and Ron Darling on three days’ rest in August and September.)

Thursday night and Friday morning, of course, the rains came, subsiding in time for the three o’clock game Friday afternoon, but not in time for about half the fans, who failed to show up. They missed (or perhaps saw, as I did, on television) a fine performance by the Cubs’ pitching staff, which kicked the Mets while they were down. Scott Sanderson started and went five fine innings before retiring with his usual groin injury, and the bull pen–especially impressive was the herky-jerky newcomer, Drew Hall–held on to preserve the win. Andre Dawson and Jerry Mumphrey, meanwhile, hit back-to-back homers off John Mitchell, the Mets’ Greg Maddux, a young and very promising pitcher who has not yet discovered how to win. The Cubs were making the Mets look bad, not by embarrassing them, but simply by beating them, fair and square.

Saturday, the Mets sent their mojo out to the mound in the person of Terry Leach, a fringe major-leaguer who has almost single-handedly kept them in the race by winning ten straight games without a loss. Leach is a side-winding right-hander who gets by on junk–curves, sliders, and change-ups. The Cubs responded with Jamie Moyer, who surrendered a homer to Keith Hernandez in the first and another run in the third before settling down in the middle innings. Leach struggled through the first three, allowing a home run to Dave Martinez, but failed to steady himself in the middle innings. He gave up two in the fourth and another in the fifth, and although Cubs were being inefficient–squeezing runs across the plate the way toothpaste is squeezed up from the bottom of the tube–they kept padding the lead, one or two at a time, even as they left 12 men on base for the game. Moyer, meanwhile, had great control of his change-up, which he dangled just out of reach of the Mets’ hitters all afternoon, peaking when he struck out the side in the sixth. In the seventh, he tired, but Frank DiPino came on to finish the game, striking out the side himself in the eighth, and the Cubs were set up for the sweep and had dirtied the Mets’ Terry Leach with his first loss of the year.

What can be said about Sunday’s game, except that the sweep never happened? In our dreams, we saw Greg Maddux returning from Iowa (a victim of the infamous “Sports Section” curse, he was sent to the minors shortly after being praised in the last column) and reestablishing himself as a major-league pitcher with a fine performance against the Mets. Instead, we saw Maddux revisit his usual first-inning difficulties–the Cubs were down three runs before they came to bat–only this time he failed to steady himself and was gone in the fourth, having given up the first 7 of what would be 23 runs by the Mets. Down 7-0 and with the rain beginning to fall, the Cubs trudged their way into the fourth, hoping for a rain delay before the end of the fifth, but when Jody Davis hit a grand slam and Rafael Palmeiro followed with a home run to close the gap to 7-5, we were back in the game and feeling the weightless, giddy feeling of the harmonic convergence. Drew Hall, however, was not feeling that feeling, and he ruined his previous good impression by allowing ten runs, all of them earned. His ERA went from 2.38 to 9.00. His karma must be very bad indeed.

It was one of those games that are such laughers that even the fans of the losing team can join in, and we stuck around, all the way to the final out, thinking any old kind of a 14 runs would do it, cheering for that two-out rally in the ninth that would put us over the top. I recalled how when Bill Murray was Harry Caray for a day earlier in the season, he said he was glad the Cubs had won because when he was a kid he had hated hearing the sad, mournful echo of beer cups being stepped on after a loss, popping here and there throughout the ballpark. I remembered that sound from my childhood too, watching on television, but had never popped a cup myself at Wrigley Field–by the time I got to be a regular, I was too adult to do such things–and so I did, relieving my grief in the same manner as our ancestors, Cubs fans of generations past. After missing the first two for practice (slightly off center) I finally stepped cleanly on one and felt–more than heard–the crisp pock of escaping air as it popped in my ears, the pock with which we Cubs fans laugh away our burst hopes and scattered dreams, the final rupture before we heal over the wound with the familiar refrain, “Wait until tomorrow, wait till next year.”