Perhaps you heard. If you were anywhere near an Internet-connected device Saturday night, you probably couldn’t have avoided the news when social media exploded with excitement/relief/shock as the Cubs ended 71 years of painful failure.
The Cubs had won the pennant.
The Cubs were going to the World Series.
NLCS ✔️ pic.twitter.com/2thTGltZRC
— Chicago Cubs (@Cubs) October 23, 2016
Many think baseball is on its way out. In our Internet age focused on instant gratification, games that last four hours due to pitching changes, walks to the mound, and instant replay reviews seem particularly antiquated. What’s more, the regular season has 162 games, twice as many as the NBA and ten times as many as the NFL.
But even as its popularity has faded in comparison to the NFL and other rising sports, baseball is still a uniquely American cultural institution. And October baseball has a way of making fans out of many folks who can’t pay attention during the 162-game regular season slog.Baseball is part of our collective human longing for meaning and transcendence.
Doesn’t a 162-game season mean individual games don’t matter? In a sense, yes. But one thing that helps baseball maintain its cultural resonance is its history. In a country that has a short history, the Cubs have been playing a sport that’s been around since the Civil War. Or to put it another way, the last time the Cubs made it to the World Series, the NBA didn’t even exist.
More important, the baseball season is built differently than other sports. It’s sort of like a church service that doesn’t so much wow you with an anthemic praise band and motivational speaker. Rather, it plods along offering the same liturgy week after week, with repeated words and sacraments.
Perhaps that’s the best analogy, that baseball is a liturgy with patterns that shape our very experience of time. Just as the Church calendar has its seasons, so too does baseball. Also, baseball’s patterns—from off-season meetings to spring training, from opening day to the dog days of summer, and all of them culminating in October baseball—come with corresponding emotions. There’s hope, excitement, anxiety, fear, disappointment, and for one team, jubilation. Baseball’s regularity gives it a subtle power to shape our habits, our rituals, and our emotions.
What I’m trying to say is that baseball is a religion. Or more accurately: it’s religious. Baseball is part of our collective human longing for meaning and transcendence. How else can you explain the scenes of grown men crying in the stands that night?
— Josh Jordan (@NumbersMuncher) October 23, 2016
The congregation was gathered that night at one of the most sacred sites in all of sports: Wrigley Field. Young and old alike shared a common experience: no living Cubs fan has ever seen the Cubs win the World Series. The failures of the past needed absolution and redemption through the requisite saviors. Jon Lester had carried them halfway there with two starts worthy of any ace. Javy Baez played like he could be at the Sandlot, stealing home like The Jet. The Professor, Kyle Hendricks, gave his most captivating lesson to date.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Cubs’ victory was how it led people to recall their connectedness to previous generations. Consider the sentiments in these tweets:
Thinking of Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Harry Caray, my grandmother, and so many Cubs fans who never saw this day. Holy Cow.
— John Green (@johngreen) October 23, 2016
My grandpa was a lifelong Cubs fan. He died a few weeks ago at 91, never seeing the North Siders win it all. I’m a Cubs fan this fall.
— Kevin DeYoung (@RevKevDeYoung) October 23, 2016
I think of my own grandmother, who has been watching and listening to the Cubs since they last won the pennant. When we went over to her house as kids, the game was always on, heard from either WGN on the living room TV or Ron Santo’s voice, echoing from the kitchen radio while my grandma cooked. Grandma Keating is now 86 years young, and I’m sure she was glued to the TV just like me on Saturday night. The collective memory of failure that Cubs fans share has bound them together, leaving them eagerly anticipating the far-off-yet-perpetual-hope that “there’s always next year.” Finally, this is “next year.”
This communal experience has spanned generations and on Saturday night, the collective memory of shared suffering united people from all different ages, races, and walks of life. It was a moment that contained decades of moments within itself. It gathered all the stories of waiting, suffering, and failure—1984, 2003, billy goats, foul balls—and absolved them all at once (not unlike a sacrament).
Somehow, winning the pennant felt more important than merely winning the pennant. People lingered in the stands for over an hour, many with tear-stained cheeks. The celebrations in Wrigleyville lasted well into the night. I stayed up for hours after the game ended, sitting on my couch checking social media just to remain connected to the moment.
“The world changed Saturday night at Wrigley” read an ESPN headline. Surely that’s overstating things, right? Surely that’s a quintessential example of our culture’s idolatry of sport, right? Maybe it is. But our sports idols tell us something important about ourselves.
We long for the ecstasy of transcendence. We long to collectively participate in stories of redemption because they bind us together as fellow humans. Sports are great at providing a visceral sense of both the agony and ecstasy of being human, even if for just a few weeks in October.
In one sense the Cubs win didn’t really change the world; more important things happened twelve hours later as another congregation gathered at its sacred place to worship its Savior. But when both are capable of making grown men cry, perhaps they are not as disconnected as they seem.