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What can top the devotion of the Cubs fans, especially those in San Diego? Perhaps better said, what causes such devotion? The team’s last pennant was in 1945, years before most of their local fans could have been born.
Still they’re loud, colorful and all over the ballpark when their beloved heroes make their annual visit – this, despite that in 1984, San Diego was the site of their most ignominious and heartbreaking defeat. Well, one of their ignominious and heartbreaking defeats. There have been so many.
Perhaps it’s the adorable name: Cubbies. Would they sound so adorable if they were still called the “Orphans,” the franchise name from 1898 to 1901.
Still, I can understand the devotion to a team that seems destined to always blow it when they have a shot at winning the pennant. I was a longtime fan, growing up in Sevastopol, Ind., in the 1930s and 40s. The big passion of us Hoosiers was the Cubs who had won more pennants than any team in the National League and had won the series as recently as 1908.
I even played for them, sort of. Melvin Kern, my oldest friend, had some old baseballs and a couple of gloves. If we couldn’t scrape up enough kids for some sort of game (a difficult job in a town of 32 people) we would stand in the middle of one of Sevastopol’s two roads and play catch.
Generally, we made it a pretend Cub game. Mel, a gifted athlete, would be Lennie Merullo, the shortstop. I, much taller and immensely clumsier, would be first baseman Phil Cavarretta. I’d throw a ground ball off to one side or the other. “Lennie” would scoop it up and fire it right into the center of my mitt.
My greatest, possibly only, athletic accomplishment might have been the Cavarretta stretch. It was great for taking a base hit away from Marty Marion or Enos Slaughter, players on the archrival Cardinals.
Melvin never gave up on his beloved Cubs. I wasn’t quite as devoted, especially after the 1984 playoffs. So many people jumped on their bandwagon there was no longer any room for me. Sports Illustrateddevoted several thousand words to them, their “long- suffering” fans, and the billy goat curse, but managed just one sentence about the Padres.
That did it. I knew an affront when I saw it. My wife and I went to Game 4 of the playoffs and the Garv hit that famous homer. I actually stood and cheered for a Republican! My team was going to the series, and it wasn’t the Cubs.
Then, last month, I got word Melvin had died. He was the oldest friend I had and I had to do something for his memory. I wrote a eulogy for him and sent it to the funeral home. Naturally, it was about baseball and our Cubs. I promised, in my friend’s honor, I’d go watch them when they came to San Diego and cheer for them. I also promised Mel’s kids I’d keep a special eye on the shortstop to make sure he did things right.
His son, Michael, read the eulogy and wrote me saying he would watch the series on TV, and he too would make sure the shortstop lived up to his heritage.
That’s why I was sitting in the upper deck last Monday night with my own son, Michael, in tow. That’s also why I was standing at the top, not the bottom, of the seventh. It wasn’t easy, but I owed it to Melvin.
The game went as usual for the Chicago guys. Their pitcher, the winningest in baseball, faltered in the first inning and collapsed in the fourth. In true Cubs fashion, he even gave up four runs after two outs. Like a true Cubbies fan, I faithfully cheered them on. After all, there’s always next inning, or next year, or maybe next decade. Or perhaps not, Chicago’s Clark and Addison is stuck in the 1940s.
Still the shortstop, ours, put on a great show. He must have knocked a brick loose in left field with his home run and he started a tremendous double play in the eighth. Khalil may be the best shortstop to play in San Diego since Ozzie and the best anywhere since Lennie Merullo – either version of him.