David Hoppe

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:: The Cubs and crocuses   

Hope springs eternal  

By David Hoppe

It's March, and although they're still shuddering on El platforms in Chicago and expecting a late blizzard in Minneapolis, here in Indy, crocuses are blooming.

Whatever else you might say about this town, our Spring starts on time.

There's a fundamental rightness about the fact that our first flowers begin appearing when baseball players start playing practice games in Florida and Arizona. For me, these things go together like a rhyming couplet about how hope springs eternal.

This is especially true if, like me, you have lived your life following one baseball team in particular: the Chicago Cubs.

I was hooked not long after I learned to walk. Amazingly enough, I have a vivid memory of the very moment my fate was sealed. My Dad was just returned from the drugstore where he'd gone to get a Sunday paper. This time, in addition to the newspaper, he'd also purchased a pack of baseball cards. I remember standing by our front door as Dad peeled open the waxy paper that contained the cards and the knowledgeable, man-to-man way he murmured about the pros and cons of the players who were ritualistically pictured gripping bats or extending their mitts.

We were almost to the bottom of this little deck when Dad's tone suddenly brightened. In my pint-size fist was a picture of a young player with his arms held up over his head in a Kabuki-like approximation of a wind-up. He wore a blue cap with a red C on the front and, across his chest, was a code I would soon learn to unscramble: C-H-I-C-A-G-O.

"You got a Cub!" Dad exclaimed. "That's great!"

Apart from certain virulent strains of influenza, it's hard to think of anything in life so infectious as enthusiasm. At this moment, that baseball card was like a conductor carrying a charge of enthusiasm straight from my Dad to me.

The player's name was Don Kaiser. He turned out to be an undistinguished pitcher on a terrible team. But on that Sunday morning in our livingroom, he was a star. Dad briefly perused the back of Don Kaiser's baseball card to see what, if anything, might recommend him. Finding little to go on, Dad resorted to the default mode I would learn was a refuge for Cubs fans going back to1908: "He's a good guy," said Dad. "The Cubs are good guys."

1908 was the last time the Cubs won the World Series. That's 102 years without winning the big one, the longest running exercise in futility - or quest, as some of us prefer to think of it - in American professional sports.

Needless to say, Dad was a lifelong Cubs fan. He caught the bug from his Dad. They lived in Sauganash, a residential neighborhood on Chicago's northside. In those days, professional baseball players walked among we mortals. A Cubs pitcher lived across the street and, on occasion, the players partied there. Dad still remembers "Jolly Cholly" Grimm, the first baseman and manager, reclining on the hood of a parked car, playing the banjo and singing for the kids.

That was the 1930s. The Cubs fielded good teams in those years, just not good enough to win the World Series. And they haven't made it that far since 1945. If you'd asked my Dad - or any other Cubs fan - in 1945 if they thought it would be over 60 years and counting before they'd see the Cubs back on top of the National League, they would have said something like, "Sure, and someday a B-movie actor like Ronald Reagan will be President!"

Cub fans have had to find ways to cope with this ongoing drought that tap deep into our psyches. There's something existential about it. Bill Murray said it best after the team imploded during the 2003 playoffs. According to Murray, Cubs fans had lived through losing before and knew how to deal with it. "We are not like the others," he said.

So the biggest news coming out of spring training this year has revolved around a former Cub, the perpetually disgruntled Milton Bradley. After being signed to a three-year, $30 million deal, Bradley proceeded to have an awful season for the Cubs in 2009. He responded to his inability to perform by blaming Cubs fans, the team, even the city itself. He said he was the target of racial slurs. The team suspended Bradley at the end of the season and dumped him over the winter.

The Cubs apparently thought signing Bradley would bring the team some missing "attitude." This backfired, to say the least.

Bradley only reinforced what we've known all along: to be a Cub, like my Dad said, you must be a good guy. Not, in other words, like the others.

In Arizona, where the Cubs are training, everyone, even the cynics who cover the team for a living, talk about how loose and good-natured the clubhouse is now that Bradley's gone.

And in Indianapolis, the crocuses are in bloom.