"When the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play in their ivy-covered burial ground?"

On baseball and existentialism

I love baseball. I love the quiet tension between pitches. I love the occasional bursts of roaring cheers. Most of all, I love that it’s a brief low-stakes escape from the dreariness of reality. At least that’s why I’m a baseball fan today. I’ve been a baseball fan since I was 5 years old, and my reasons for loving the game have shifted in the three decades since.

I loved the game because it was a fun game to play. I loved the game because it was a fun game to watch. I loved the game because it provided things like trading cards and jerseys for me to collect. I loved the game because figuring out things like batting averages and earned run averages made math fun. In college, I loved the game because it was a cheap activity that I could enjoy, walking down from my tiny studio apartment on Addison St. and Lake Shore Dr., picking up a $5 ticket from a Wrigley ticket broker looking to unload inventory two innings in.

Last Thursday I went to my first Cubs game since early in the 2019 season. It was the day before the trade deadline, and rumor had it that the team was shopping around its three biggest stars: first baseman Anthony Rizzo, shortstop Javy Báez, and third baseman Kris Bryant. Figuring that it may be my last chance to see the players who helped the team win the 2016 World Series, I settled in for an emotional game.

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Bryant and Rizzo didn’t play that day. Unbeknownst to both the players and fans, their final appearances with the team had already taken place the night before. Báez played, and I managed to catch both his final Cubs hit and final Cubs at bat on video. Before Friday was over, Rizzo would be a member of the New York Yankees, Báez would be a member of the New York Mets, and Bryant would be on the San Francisco Giants. Additionally, the team’s all-star closer, Craig Kimbrel, would be traded across town to the White Sox. With their departures, the Cubs would return to being the hapless team I’ve known for most of my life. The star power and excitement of the 2015 and 2016 seasons weren’t a new normal for a long-struggling team, but rather just blips on the path back to mediocrity.

Mediocrity can be fine. Hell, it can even be charming. Steve Goodman’s song, “A Dying Cubs Fan’s Last Request” is a great example of this. In one of the only videos I can find of Goodman playing the song, he’s sitting on a rooftop across the street from Wrigley, smiling as he sings lyrics like, “Do they still play the blues in Chicago / When baseball season rolls around? / When the snow melts away, do the Cubbies still play / In their ivy-covered burial ground? / When I was a boy, they were my pride and joy / But now they only bring fatigue / To the home of the brave, the land of the free / And the doormat of the National League

But looking around at what’s become of Wrigleyville over the past decade or so since the Ricketts family bought the team (as well as the surrounding rooftops, retail spaces, restaurants, and so on), there’s no charm left. It was only the team’s success that obscured how depressingly and cartoonishly corporate the area had become. No longer could you stroll up to the ballpark with loose cash you found around your apartment and feel confident that you’d land yourself a seat. No longer could you watch the game from atop a neighboring apartment without indirectly paying the Rickettses. The charm was gone. I’ve written about this before in more detail at The Guardian, if you’d like to check that out.

I like both the White Sox and the Cubs, but as someone who lives on Chicago’s north side, I’ve always been much more of a Cubs fan. In the end, though, it’s a game, and whether or not the Cubs are the best team in all of baseball or the worst, it doesn’t affect me much. But it’s just… such a bummer to see that neighborhood, where so many of my early-20s memories took place… just vanish under the weight of renovations and replacements.

The horrors of reality, the nothing-to-do-with-baseball reality, have been really difficult to deal with on a personal level.

Every day my phone blasts me with notifications about some coming tragedy. Maybe it’s climate change… or some new pandemic horror show… or political chaos… There’s always something. At the same time, I see the people I know become the people I knew; the places I go become the places I went. I’ve lived in and around Chicago (grew up in the southwest suburbs with my parents before moving to the city 15 years ago) my entire life. With the exception of 3 semesters of school in central Illinois (Decatur, to be specific), the Chicago area has been my whole life.

This is Wrigley Field as it was for so much of my childhood. No video boards, few in-ballpark advertisements, views from surrounding apartments. This photo was taken in 1999 by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

So as bits and pieces of the city that once held so much importance to me are torn down and replaced — for instance, an apartment I lived in from 2008 to 2009 was torn down just months after I moved out, which just feels odd whenever I pass by where the building used to be, especially since I can’t actually recall what it looked like — I guess it makes me think about just how temporary everything is, how fleeting our lives are.

Wrigley Field now has a number of video scoreboards, the bullpens have been moved off of the field to make room for additional seating, giant ads for Nuveen, Wintrust, and Budweiser join the classic manual scoreboard as defining marks. It’s very clearly the same stadium, but the changes remind me of my own changing state of being in this world. This photo was taken in 2019 by Alex Trautwit/MLB via Getty Images.

“What’s the meaning of anything?” I often ask myself, knowing that I’ll never land on an answer that actually satisfies the question. “What should any of us be doing with our time here?” I don’t know. All of us, even the most famous and influential of all, will eventually be forgotten by the universe — some far sooner than others, to be sure. These are the thoughts that race through my head all day and every day. I’d like to adopt a cheerier philosophy than this sort of existential nihilism, but I haven’t been able to just yet.

In the meantime, I find what comforts I can in family and familiarity. In a strange way, baseball — and more specifically, the Chicago Cubs — have served that purpose to me, though like all things, only temporarily. Thanks, baseball.