Seventh-Inning Spliff or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cubs by John J. Staughton
THE CHICAGO CUBS EARNED their place in the NLCS by knocking out San Francisco fifteen minutes ago, and as the Giant’s last hope swung through empty air, tens of millions around the world temporarily lost their minds.
Beers dropped, bars erupted, screams deafened, high-fives slammed, strangers embraced and countless fists shook madly in the October sky.
The Cubs – “lovable losers” and the punch line of 20th century baseball – have one of the most passionate and loyal fan bases in the sporting world. This point is not up for debate. As a native Chicagoan, the city’s endless love for the team feels instinctual, a known variable, but within a modern society that so often resembles a meritocracy, it seems impossible that a team can fail so often, yet win the hearts of so many.
As any Cubs fan knows, there is a certain pleasure that comes from supporting the perennial underdog, a hedonistic dopamine drop urging us to lean into the pain – like biting off an irritating hangnail, taking that last lucky tequila shot, or meeting the one that got away for coffee, despite knowing that she’s been happily dating her perfect guy for months. There is a sick pleasure in betting big on the outsider and pushing the envelope, even if the outcome is so often disappointment – or disaster.
We tell ourselves stories about what might be, betraying our most fragile hopes.
This is one of those stories, a marriage of rabid fandom and perpetual hedonism, for better or for worse.
An hour before Game 4 began, nerves raw and thoroughly rubbed from a day of stagnant fingers and endless distraction, I popped a pill, seeking a ride to end the night, a spark to push me past what I could normally achieve. The sort of heart-fire adrenaline that spins out 2,000 words more than one’s brain typically allows, and spits sentences faster than most ears care to hear. There are things far stronger than coffee, and a shocking amount of them are legal. I found myself sitting anxiously on a couch in San Diego, far from the streets of Chicago where I knew millions of people would be writhing in ancient stress, jacked on years of adoration, like unrequited lovers finally getting a glimpse of their favorite team’s petticoat.
After days of jittery cross-country travel and the difficulties of sudden suburban domesticity, I was determined to force the tide back and seize a moment for myself. It took a little over an hour for my toes to start tapping, just as the opposing team’s lineups were being announced. The flush of a temperature rise was next, and the gnawing desire for a cigarette. I felt like a college student pre-gaming a frat party, nervous and hungry for a night to remember.
Eagerness for a victory was balanced by a lifetime of disappointment; memory plays a mean Devil’s advocate. My mind was fighting against my instincts, as a game show host might goad a contestant to answer just one more question, despite the very real risk of losing it all. When the stakes are even higher, just think how much better the pay-off will be!
This addiction to risk, our universal attraction to the extremes, is a part of our baser nature. However, this is not some remnant of evolution; it is solely a human trait. In fact, the process of natural selection rewards those who survive as a result of minimizing their risky behavior, whereas human beings seem to get off on it. No, mutation is not to blame; hedonism is one of humanity’s finest and oldest creations, even though it feels programmed into our bones.
It can be found in the countless, customized niches in each life, the releases of tension, the guilty pleasures, the inane tidying, the secret cigarettes blown out bathroom windows, femme fatale fantasies and coupon cravings. Hedonism is fundamentally defined as pleasure seeking or self-gratification, an embrace of anything that makes us feel good, but that isn’t necessarily true. It is simply the embrace of anything that makes us feel. A person with a three-latte-a-day habit can’t look down their nose at a pack-a-day smoker. If you have four maxed-out credit cards, judging someone who goes to the track every weekend is wrong, pure and simple. Our addictions come in many forms, just like our avenues for pleasure.
Remnants of this sensation-seeking can be seen in the bags under our eyes, the yellow of our teeth, or the emptiness of our pockets. Hedonism is just as easily witnessed in the freshness of pores, the brightness of fluoride-whitened teeth, or the weight of fat paychecks.
And some people, Cubs fans included, proudly wear their addiction on their sleeve.
Before that historic 9th inning, 4-run comeback, which is already frozen in the annals of Cubs fans’ shared nostalgia, just for a moment… I hoped that they would lose.
I wanted it to go to Game 5. On the cusp of witnessing baseball history, minutes before I would fall to my knees, pounding the carpet, shouting loud enough to wake up my infant nephew upstairs, the rush simply wasn’t enough. I was already looking forward to an even greater high, a more extreme emotional peak – the gut-churning tension of a finale rubber match that would inevitably end in heartbreak or ecstasy for an entire metropolis.
However, thanks to cognitive dissonance and a chemically altered mind, throughout that final inning, from the very first pitch, I also sincerely believed that the comeback could happen. Odds be damned. The team had been magic all year. Something was in the water.
In those final moments, I took faith in the only religion I’d followed in over a decade – the cult of October Outcasts.
However, as any man of the Northside Cloth knows, faith comes at a cost.
Chain-smoking on the porch after midnight, shaking out the final spurts of stimulant in my system, my mind was already on tomorrow. Eyes twitching at the faint stars of Southern California, thoughts darted to the next leg of the journey, the next series, the next score, the unknown future that might, impossibly, match the blood-bubbled joy of the present.
With the image of a W still emblazoned on my irises, I stumbled onto the 9am train to Los Angeles on Friday morning, found myself in the breakfast car, and promptly swallowed a coffee and a beer while racing through a menial flurry of emails from clients all too easily forgotten in California.
Bearded and bounding with excitement, my west coast partner in crime scooped me from Union Station and dragged me into an afternoon of jazzed-up brainstorming and the riffing madness of business partners, creating something out of nothing, as we’ve done so many times before. Whipping around the streets of Los Angeles, swapping ideas faster than either could hear or comprehend, we fell into the old rhythm, the mad one that had started all of this more than two years ago, in a similarly madcap dash through Hollywood.
Effortless afternoons bleed into celebratory nights, despite the lack of quantifiable progress. An indefinable weight is always shed in the midst of joyful pursuits. The petty moments of conflict tend to disappear, and one is reminded why we travel, write and work. Writers do not choose their lives for security, only freedom.
The plan had been to return to San Diego the next morning, following a night of foggy final pints and the quiet love of brotherhood, but the lure of watching the Cubs’ NLCS debut in LA was too great – the invasion of enemy territory with jerseys on and fingers up.
Ticket change fees and lost hours of work immediately seemed irrelevant in the face of Game 1. Putting a price on spontaneity is something best left for the morning, once it’s too late to back out. In a tit-for-tat world of dollars and cents, pleasure-seekers still operate on a bartering system that ignores dollars and sense completely – wampum for wins and heartaches for hedonism.
It is difficult for Cubs fans to feel completely alone in the world, since we can be found in dive bars and tourist traps from New England to East Timor. However, walking through Los Angeles in the hours before Game 1 of the NLCS, wearing a Cubs jersey that hadn’t been washed since the San Francisco clincher, there was a cloud of isolation hanging on my brow. Beside me was my business partner – born in Chicago, fermented in LA – who had donned his own Cubs gear to proudly betray his present stomping grounds with me.
Dodgers fans are notoriously savage in their own right, just as Cubs supporters are, and I had been half-jokingly warned by a few people not to get into any trouble while wearing my out-of-town jersey. I had dismissed those cautions with the casual confidence of so many Chicagoans who had been forged in the fires of vicious barroom debates with White Sox fans.
The catcalls and booing started within a few seconds of entering the bar we’d landed in for the game, and I bristled, thinking that I’d underestimated the mean streets of LA. Not one to back down, however, I turned to the crowd and shrugged, a half-high grin splashed across my face, “I guess we’ll see.”
The air crackled when the game began, and by then, a dozen other Cubs fans had sheepishly trickled in, some with jackets covering their jerseys, excusing them from the brief gauntlet of heckling from the locals.
The Cubs started hot, doubles on top of doubles, and were up by 3 after 2. The Dodgers fans had quieted, and our small table had been bolstered by more North Siders. Unexpected college reunions and an assortment of shots were had, toasting the eternal impossibility of this season, of this game, of simply all being there together.
The newcomers previously had little affection or allegiance for the Cubs, a fact which would never have been held against them. However, after entering that electrified bubble of pride and tension, it took them less than an inning before they were cursing the umpire’s unborn children with the best of us after his blown Strike 3 call. There was simply no way to be in that bar and not feel energized, one way or another. Those old friends didn’t need to know the names of the batters or their fucking OBP; they could feel the passion of their companions, and that was enough. Becoming rabid fans, even just for the night, was as natural and effortless as a baseball smacking into a well-oiled glove.
Pride may come before the fall, but when it comes to sports, alcohol comes before pride. By the end of the 7th, we were only up by 2 runs, but our table had swelled with fans, fair-weather, newly found and otherwise, and we were getting bolder.
One table over, 6 rabid LA fans decked in baggy blue jerseys, flipped caps and a revolving door of beers had grown dangerously quiet, their simmering frustrations lying just below the surface. Each out brought the Cubs closer to a W, and was a cause for celebration at our table. The cracking of our high-fives was the perfect pairing for the grinding of their teeth.
The emotional roller coaster of that game began minutes later. Jeering fingers from the nearby table followed an LA comeback that tied it in the 8th, but that was instantly countered by an unlikely grand slam that destroyed their west coast joy. 5 runs crossed the plate in the Cubs’ half of the inning, and victory was tickling the tips of our numb fingers clasped around yet another pint – 8… 9?
With the room now erupting with every called ball and strike, the final out was ump-grunted and I leaped into the arms of a complete stranger, ecstatic and drunk on shock, fueled by distant pride and local beer, united by sewn-on symbols and memory and the proximity of our shared passion.
The table of temporary teammates tipped big, like all good joyous drunks, and tumbled out into the muggy summer night like a conquering band of Third Coast hooligans, determined to find brothers-in-arms, more drinks, dimmer lights and further reasons for the night to never end.
The rush of a postseason Cubs victory is like downing a dram of something strong and expensive – a one-finger pour of 108-year-old scotch – with the arousing promise of a few more that will almost certainly push you over the edge.
Our ragtag gang of fans grew and transformed, blending business and pleasure in the later hours of the evening, swapping words and tales of old wins. I danced with forgotten friends from my past and dove into discussions with brand-new literary peers. Praise humbled me from gracious talents and I drowned in the ecstasy of a victorious night in Tinseltown.
Cubs fans juked through the crushing crowd, bouncing and grinding off Dodgers-clad groups, trading hugs and jibes, never losing the beat, hip-hopping until the lights finally blinked on. Young faces from the past had grown older and smiled at me from around that rare circle, and my legs time-traveled to stickier bar floors and youthful glee. The edges and reasons for pleasure ran over one another, and the joy of the day melted into the nostalgia of night.
I knew that my train was leaving a handful of hours later, but that concrete reality was easily buried beneath a pile of midnight priorities. I was not driven by the thirst of a drunk, but by the appetite of an artist, sinking my teeth into a mosaic of revelers with a dozen different reasons to laugh.
Our one-night clan eventually said goodbye with sloppy hugs and the promise to reunite again in the undecided future. The pleasure of the night was too great to spoil with the reality of distance and home. I knew that this same group would never find each other in quite this way again, but sincerely wishing that it would happen was enough. We all knew that we were lying, but intentions were stronger than words.
Four hours later, after an acrobatic collapse on a cat-haired couch, I unsteadily retraced my steps to the train station, and maneuvered my way, exhausted tail between my adventurous legs, back to San Diego.
With little more than a bleary-eyed pit stop to kiss my nephew goodbye, I left my family behind and caught a 4am taxi to the airport, and was bound for the mountains to the east, leaving the west coast to its own dangerous devices.
The pale morning sky during that final cigarette – the one after check-in, but before security – shifted my brain, as did the lonely traveler who befriended me on the journey. Terrified of heights, let alone flying, she tapped my shoulder in the ticket line and explained her predicament.
She had only been on one other flight in her life, the one that had brought her out to California, where she had sought out love and adventure, but seen both recently collapsed. Now, she was retreating back home to lick wounds and make plans, but was on the first leg of a horrendous three-flight journey that would eventually land her squarely back in Four Gotten, Arkansas.
She never left my side after our encounter in line; I had a strong coffee at the timeless airport bar, and wished it were a beer, but they wouldn’t serve alcohol before 6am, a strangely arbitrary starting point, in my opinion. She pushed her head into my shoulder as we took off, and fell asleep within minutes.
I wanted to tell her about my past few days, or the thoughts rushing through my head about family and city pride and sports and nostalgia and the week that lay ahead, but there was no time for that. This was not a situation for me to unload, expound or wax poetic; it was an opportunity to listen and react, to connect and care for someone that had asked for help without pretense – a rare act.
Had she not been resting on my shoulder, I would have written down what was rushing around in my head, but I was overwhelmed by the young woman who had seemingly become my ward. I was in no condition to be guiding anyone through a traumatic event, yet that was the place I had taken in line, and there was no turning back from it.
She was 20 or 21 – I had vaguely done the math of her story, and the timeline seemed to place her around that age – and it struck me how rarely I interact with anyone from that generation anymore, save in a passing conversation or a short-term introduction.
Once I had firmly become her safety blanket for the flight, I leaned into the unexpected role. I negotiated switching seats with another couple, because the young woman was genuinely worried about having a panic attack. It had happened on her first flight, and she went ghostly pale when she was told she couldn’t sit next to me. After we bumped through the rocky updrafts of the mountains and landed safely, the marks of her fingers pressed into my arm, I walked her to the connecting gate for the second leg of her trip, urging her to find a new travel buddy, hoping that she would take my advice.
I had gone from taking care of a 1-year-old to a 20-year-old in a matter of days, but both had needed me somehow, for very specific and innocent reasons. The intensity of that feeling was overwhelming, but the thin Colorado air addled my brain soon after, and I was thrown forward into my long-awaited tomorrow.
Each new city is a blank page in the life of a traveler. The journal begins to fill up, but there are always more sheets, and new spider-webbed connections appear, tying every journey together like the veins of that leaf pressed between the pages. Seeking fresh roads is an addiction, as most travelers will attest, and not one that is easily shaken.
After two days of padding the pavement of Colorado’s capital with my lovelier half in hand, eyes filled with our future potential for adventure, it was due time for another playoff barstool session, but breweries had already been penciled onto the evening menu.
As smiling pints were poured across the mile-high city, I felt at complete ease, despite the minute hand ticking closer to the first pitch of Game 4. My soles had been worn down and my mouth was dry, but pulling back the layers of a city ranks high in my heart, and the pressing need to stare at a screen for three hours of a game had somewhat faded. Looking back, this sounds like sacrilege, but by that point – somewhere between the sixty-seven shades of autumn leaves and the endless decadence of food and drink – baseball had slid into second place.
Instead, we picked bartenders’ brains, struck up chats with smoke-ringed barflies and dove into the pleasure of possibility, the “What If?” coyness of a wander. Only in the back of my mind did the crack of a bat echo from time to time.
The hours and beers added up, and my thoughts inevitably drifted back to Chicago.
By the time we reached a screen – an iPad generously lent from a brewer at Spangalang – the Cubs were handily in charge of the game, stomping back from a Game 3 loss to even the series with authority. Smacking the bar with my hand as the Cubs scored their 8th run, I looked around in embarrassment, but all I saw were smiles. The people near me understood, even 1,000 miles from either city that technically had a horse in the NLCS race. It was a scene of communal support, a shy belief that perhaps some great curse was being cracked.
Eyes rolling in disbelief, we made it back to the hotel home we’d chosen for the night, feeling the magic of the city coursing through the stone beneath our feet, along with the distinctly hushed hope that this could be it.
We knew what faced us in the coming days – an epic retracing of steps back to Chicago, a straight shot through the beige boredom of middle America – but for that night, with the crowd cheering around us and the bartender treating us like family, it almost felt like home.
With caffeinated souls and coffee-saucer eyes, my star-struck co-pilot and I pulled into the heart of Central Illinois less than 20 hours after leaving Denver’s mile-high plateau. The car was an archaeological dig of our travels – overflowing with sleeping bags, discarded water bottles, chunks of liberated stone and a thousand miles of smoke.
Exhaustion and stubborn determination had battled viciously through the night, but there was never any doubt about reaching the destination. Teetering on the edge of highway hallucinations, razzed by stimulants of every shape, color and size, we emerged in the cornfields like lost pilgrims.
Within three hours, we were showered and shined, dolled up for a wedding on the lavish grounds of an alma mater mansion. I had been anticipating the day for so long that it hardly seemed real.
It was Saturday afternoon, two legendary humans were about to declare their love, and the Cubs were one win away from smashing through another layer of history. For a head that hadn’t been properly balanced in days, holding these two ecstatic events in my mind at once was damn near impossible.
The ceremony was unlike anything I’ve ever seen, the sort of amber-locked moment in a couple’s life that actually deserves the pomp and circumstance of roses and tears.
Champagne toasts were overlapped by laughter and the flushing excitement of concentrated love in a single room. There was a waning fuse on a city-sized powder keg two hours to the north, and periodic updates of the Cubs score interspersed heartfelt speeches and cross-salad chats. The handful of vocal fans on the guest list had made themselves known. We shared eager pats on the back and whispered like superstitious schoolchildren, sensing that out of sight, something magical was occurring. As the dinner ended and the innings rolled on, a final boost of energy surged through the already vibrating room.
I hurried outside for a quick spliff, pushing my mind just a bit closer to the stars, just as the unmistakable strains of Go Cubs Go rang out across the lawn. I stood for an extra moment, admiring the lake as it reflected the stars, deep and knowing, offering a silent wish that life would always feel like this.
My feet soon flew back to the dance floor and I uncorked the bottle of my week into the sea of wild energy. I could no longer hear my voice as it wailed along to the music, and I couldn’t feel my legs as they tumbled through steps I’d never learned. I moved without direction, unhinged and unharnessed, shaking out the anxiety of two decades, freed and floundering in joy.
The Cubs won.
The Chicago Cubs just won the fucking pennant.
I knew that in the distance, just across the stretch of Midwestern plains, people I loved were weeping with joy, and streets I knew by name and taste were pulsing with euphoric souls.
Being a Cubs fan is difficult to explain; you are a glutton for punishment, a willing defender of a proud tradition, a suffering saint of a strange religion, an easy target for ridicule, and a distant cousin, twice-removed of Bill Murray and Harry Caray. It is a peculiar fate, and one that many fail to understand.
On that dance floor, however, the bonds that had led each of us to that regal estate, miles from where we’d begun or belonged, were suddenly soldered by history and love. A crowd of onlookers huddled at the edges of the mob as we cheered and danced and whirled for the Cubs, Midwest witches celebrating a High Holy Feast. Those observers witnessed something unbridled and raw, a sight they may never fully understand, but one they will always remember.
I, for one, will never forget that day, that night, the drive, those mountains, that enemy territory, the dance floor, those tears, and vows, and the breathless moments before the 27th out. It is forever seared, happily, in the deepest part of my memory.
2 flights, 3 states, 4 wins, 5 cities, 8 days and a few thousand miles later, I find myself at a cozy bar on the fringes of Wrigleyville, less than 6 hours away from Game 1 of the World Series. It is 2pm, and I am tiptoeing the line between coffee cups and cold pints, trying to settle the postseason nerves that millions of other Cubs fans scattered around the world are surely feeling.
For many, this series, like all the others, will pass unnoticed – nothing more than a white noise annoyance of sports fans that they easily tune out every October. For others, this World Series is the culmination of lifetime loyalty, the long-game payout they’ve been hedging on since before they were born.
Personally, this postseason has encapsulated my philosophy, and the way I choose to live.
I have been reminded that everyone occasionally leans into the pleasure of pain, seeking inclusion, validation, newness or excitement. We leave people behind, hoping to be reunited sometime in the future; we pass up grounded opportunities on the promise of greater heights; we accept disappointment as the necessary counterbalance to glee. We are forever balanced on the edge of hedonism’s smirking blade.
Despite the tumble looming on either side, today, the risk seems worth the reward. Even now, from over a mile away, I can almost hear the churning roar of Wrigley’s faithful growing louder, praying to old heroes, cursing dead goats and preparing for the next hedonistic hit – for better or for worse.
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