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Bronx Banter Interview: Rich Cohen

Rich Cohen’s new book, Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football is a keeper. I’ve been a fan of Cohen’s writing ever since my pal Steinski hipped me to Tough Jews. A few weeks ago I talked to Rich about his career and the new book.

Dig in and enjoy.

(Be sure to check out this excerpt on Dough Plank over at Deadspin and this one on Jim McMahon at SI.com)

 

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AB: Not counting the book you wrote with Jerry Weintraub and the children’s book, this is your eighth book. Let’s start with your family memoir, Sweet and Low. Was that the book you always wanted to write?

RC: It’s hard to say exactly because usually when I’m doing a book I feel like that’s the book I always wanted to write and I genuinely feel that way, it’s not just something I’m saying. I think maybe you have to get yourself into that state of mind to do it. Sweet and Low was kind of the thing that I look back at and I say, “I can’t believe I did that, that was an insane thing to do.”

AB: You mean just to be so candid about your family history?

RC: Yeah and about my uncle. I could have got sued in a million ways, horrible things could’ve happened. It was just crazy.

AB: But you were driven a little bit by your mom being screwed out of her inheritance.

RC: Definitely, but it’s like when you get older and you have kids, you just play a little more safe, I think. Sweet and Low really worked well. Everything went really well with it and I’m really glad I did it, but if it went wrong, it could have gone really wrong. You always take that risk with a book, but usually you’re talking like it could go artistically wrong, you could not sell any copies, but it’s not like you could like never talk to your parents again kind of wrong.

AB: Right, or have these horrible lawsuits from family.

RC: Or worse, completely wrecking your family relationships. The most important relationships.

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AB: Did you show your parents portions of the book before you finished it?

RC: No.

AB: Really? So you really were taking a risk.

RC: I couldn’t show it to them, especially my father, who would’ve attempted to re-write i. It’s like his story too. I knew I had to finish it and not only finish it, kind of get it almost perfect into my mind at that time and be so it was like unassailable in my mind. I felt really strongly about it.

AB: That’s one thing I always get from reading it. You have a very strong and sure voice narration. Sometimes that can even be when you’re being funny, you’re confident. There’s an authorial confidence that I always get reading your stuff. Did that grow after you did Sweet and Low?

RC: I think the big breakthrough book for me was The Record Men, the book right before Sweet and Low. Something in my head changed, I realized something.

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AB:  I haven’t read all of your books, but in those two, everything just seems so sound. The tone is really fluid throughout.

RC: Something just happened.

AB: Is writing hard for you?

RC: Of course, it’s impossible for me. Hardest fucking thing in the world.

AB: Good. I know that that’s the case for pretty much every writer that I’ve ever admired. Yet there are some writers that you read and love so much that it is easy to buy into the fantasy that they just wake up and do it with ease. That’s sort of the effect that your books have, there’s an ease to the way that everything flows.

RC: I don’t think it’s true for anybody. It feels that way maybe when you’re writing it, but then you go back and read it again and realize it’s a piece of shit basically. I start with what I call the vomit draft. You sort of put every single thing into it the first time, but I never believe when I’m writing that I’m writing a finished book.

AB: Well one thing that you say in this book which I thought was great–you said that as you’ve gotten older you’ve said that one thing you’ve really come to believe is true is that, I don’t remember exactly how you phrased it, but something like hard work and determination is a talent.

RC: And it’s connected to my own thing because sometimes those qualities of persistence and trying again and again, they’re dismissed because they’re not genius. Then there’s this idea that there’s genius and then there’s the other stuff, but the other stuff – it’s just that the hard work is it’s own kind of genius. That was my point about Walter Payton. You write a book like this and you think about yourself and the people you know in the best possible way. When I came out of a college, I was suddenly in an environment where everybody went to a much, much better school.

AB: When you were aware of wanting to become a writer did you say, “Yeah I want to write books one day?” Was that your ambition?

RC: When I was a little kid, my dad wrote a book, sold a lot of copies. Not really a writer, but he wrote a really big deal book. It was exciting, I was around for it and we’ve always, in my family, held books in the highest esteem. We had a library in our house that you could actually add to that library something with your name on it that you wrote was the greatest kind of achievement. It was just held as the greatest achievement to actually write a book  so I had in my head that it was almost impossible to do. My father was in his way, for a guy that had to work all the time, he really liked good writers and he really liked good writing. I always had this idea of really excellent writing and wanting to do that. What happened was I came out of college and I got a job at the New Yorker and I always said I wanted to be a fiction writer.  ThenI realized that the stuff I liked at the New Yorker, not just when I was there, but the old stuff, was non-fiction. The stuff I didn’t like about fiction – the whole idea about plot I found maddening and boring.

AB: You were a pop culture junkie as a kid. You’re a huge music fan, you’re into movies, so were you naturally drawn to non fiction just as a way of acquiring information about things?

RC: I really was a big fiction reader but I think what happened was, in high school and in college, and I don’t know if it’s different if you go to a different kind of college, but I would take English classes and you’d read great writers and you’d take history classes and you’d read bad books. I never read the great non-fiction books. So there was this idea that real writing was fiction and the history was writing like the history teachers.

AB: Did you read Pauline Kael and movie criticism or Hunter Thompson or Rolling Stone and Creem or any of that kind of stuff?

RC: I definitely read Rolling Stone and I read Hunter Thompson and P.J. O’Rourke and I didn’t really get into Pauline Kael until I go out of college which is too bad because I love Pauline Kael so much.

AB: I sent her a post card once when I was in high school actually and she wrote back to me.

RC: I knew her when I was a kid briefly because I was a messenger at the New Yorker and she was still there. She was like the kind of person that if you’re a messenger, she still treated you like you actually might be a person.

AB: Oh nice. Well so Monsters. The Bears. How did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?

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AB: So how did this book come up? Was this something you wanted to do for a while?

RC: The really good stories to me are like Sweet and Low. They’re so close to you and important to you. You don’t even recognize them as stories, you don’t even think about it. It doesn’t occur to you and that’s how this was to me because this team was completely essential growing up. You completely thought about this team all day for many years and these guys.

AB: Is this just the ’85 Bears or is this the ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 Bears that culminate with ’85?

RC: Absolutely, I would say probably like really ’79 to ’89 or maybe even ’79 to ’90 or ’91. I was supposed to write a story for Harper’s about my father, but I just couldn’t do it. I was talking to an editor there and she said, “Okay well what else do you want to write about, why don’t you write about sports?” Because I’ve written a bunch of sports stories for them, as you know, because you’ve excerpted that one thing and I said, “I don’t know.” And she said, “Do you want to write about the Knicks?” I said, “Why the fuck do I want to write about the Knicks? I hate the Knicks.” And she goes, “Well I like the Knicks,” so I said, “Then you write about the Knicks.” She said, “Do you have any sports team that you really love?” I said, “The ’85 bears.” I thought maybe I’d write about the ’85 Bears. One of the problems you run into with sports stories is the guys aren’t that interesting when you talk to them. I’ve written a lot of stories about guys playing now. I decided the first person I’d talk to would be Doug Plank. You’d think he’d be this because he was such a ferocious player and kind of a borderline player, and I called him up and it was like, it was the greatest interview I’d ever done. He had been so thoughtful about his career, what it meant, that time in his life, the game, what the game meant, what it means to succeed, what it means to fail, what it’s like to have to leave the game and your friends continue on without you, what’s it like to barely not win the Super Bowl because he retired too early. All these things about fame and what’s the Gay Talese book–Fame and Obscurity? All the big things not just about football, but about like being a human being and being alive and getting old.

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AB: And how reflective the guy is. He talks about–who is the guy, you end that one chapter with him talking about a guy who tore his cartilage?

RC: He never told me the player’s name. He’s obviously protecting the guy and he’s talking about hitting a guy low.

AB: Yeah and he just says that you live with these things for a long time and you kind of–it’s real powerful stuff there.

RC: I thought so and his whole thing about Roger Goodell coming up to him and saying, “You’re a great player.” It’s sort of like that’s what everybody wants–to just really be great at one thing, I think.

AB: What’s interesting to me about that quote is the idea than an authority figure’s compliment would validate him so much, there’s still that adolescent need in Plank.

RC: It’s interesting too because Goodell didn’t play.

AB: That took me back actually because of all the things he said, and this guy’s pretty deep, yet he still craves that Dad kind of approval.

RC: But there’s another way to look at it too. That’s definitely true, but there’s also the idea of how you’re remembered. It’s like what Ditka said. I mean, I read it, I still sort of break up and cry over Ditka’s eulogy of Payton about how he played. It’s like how did they play, that’s just like life. How did you play the game? Did you play hard? Did you play clean? Did you obey the rules of the game you were playing? And all these things and there’s that too in Plank, I mean yeah it’s Goodell so that’s totally true what you’re saying, but it’s also here’s somebody remembering so many years later, you were a great player. It’s so long ago and he wasn’t on the ’85 Bears.

AB: And talk about fame and obscurity—say for instance they didn’t win in ’85 then really who would have remembered him? What I remember most about the Bears that year was that they were like the bad guys in The Road Warrior. They were just terrorists. They’d knock guys out, they didn’t just beat guys, it was ridiculous and they reveled in it too, that was the thing.

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RC: Absolutely man. I tried to put that in the book because I was a Joe Ferguson fan for whatever reason because I used to love to watch him run all around. Remember how great he was? I remember him on the Bills. He was also the subject of the greatest, funniest referee’s call ever. Remember that? The guy giving him the business. That was Ferguson, “giving him the business.” Which shows people like to pound on Ferguson for some reason, he’s always getting “giving him the business.” It’s one of those guys who you associate him with one team. Always with the Bills. When Wilber Marshall just laid him out and it was the most vicious hit that I’ve ever seen and they say that the game has gotten so much quicker and so much more violent, I don’t believe it when I see that hit. That’s as violent as any hit you’ll ever see ever. You look at even the size of a guy like Ditka. Ditka could still be a great tight end now, he’s the same size as those guys. When he was playing, if you look at how big he was, now they work out more, but they were big fucking guys. Just to see him like–to watch him kill Joe Ferguson I just suddenly got, “Oh, this is what it must be like for every other team in the league.” To understand the greater context of it, the Cowboys have been beating the shit out of the Bears my entire life. Every now and then we’d get a Cowboy player and he wouldn’t be good anymore. Like Golden Richards came to the Bears, I was like “Oh we got one of these guys!”

AB: Well it’s like you said, it’s like who cares what happened with the rest of the season, win this game. At the time of that game, it’s like a poor man’s version of when the Red Sox beat the Yankees in ’04.

RC: It’s how I used to feel when I was a kid, I was a big Michigan fan and watched Michigan play Ohio State. It didn’t really matter what happened in the Rose Bowl, the main thing was that Michigan beat Ohio State. Woody Hays went psychotic, punched out a cameraman.

AB: I remember the Monday night game vividly. What I didn’t realize was that it wasn’t just Marino, it was Shula and it was maybe the fact that the Bears were a little cocky and that that loss proved to actually be a really good thing for them.

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RC: Yeah like if the Patriots maybe a couple years ago had not had a perfect record. Maybe it would have been good for them. Sometimes you go in kind of arrogant and it’s like the Bears were rigid. They were rigid because Buddy Ryan had this idea, which was right that year, but look at what happened to him later. He was a rigid guy. He would draw up his plan and he wasn’t a pragmatic person, he was an ideologue. Rex is a little bit like that. Ditka, that’s why they were really complimentary, Ditka is the ultimate pragmatist, he doesn’t give a shit, if he goes to a team that has a great running back, he’ll run the ball every play. If he goes to a team that’s got a great receiver, he’ll throw, whatever he can do to win, he’ll do it. The 46, Shula figured out how to beat the 46 for one half, that’s all he had to do because the Bears didn’t score a lot of points and McMahon was hurt and the Bears had this idea that Marino was immobile and he just couldn’t move and they designed roll-outs and they suddenly had Wilber Marshall having to cover Nat Moore down the field and he just couldn’t do it and Marino was one of the best quarterbacks ever and that was it. If Buddy Ryan had switch to the nickel, which he finally did in the second half, they could’ve probably stopped him because not only did he have 46, but they also had great players, four hall of famers, three on defense I guess. Some of those guys could have been like Wilber Marshall.

AB: Well it’s like the Big Red Machine. It’s like the guys who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are still pretty fucking awesome.

RC: Right and they’re not in the hall of fame and they’re the reason why the other guys are in the hall of fame.

AB: They can’t put the whole damn squad in the hall of fame.

RC: Exactly so you have McMichael who is borderline and even a guy like Fencik who I guess is nowhere close, but if you look at the amount of interceptions he had and the amount of tackles he had.

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AB: Now Fencik sounds like a great interview too.

RC: Well Fencik is a really smart, kind of regular kind of guy. Plank would always joke and Fencik would say the same thing and say, “Hey it’s Gary Plank.” They played side by side for a whole bunch of years. They were kind of like mirror images of each other. They’re both these like little, not very fast, hard-hitting white guys who would run around and completely crush people. I was watching a game the other night and they were trying to use the safety like that. It just wasn’t good enough. They would pick him up and he would suddenly be trying to get by a guy who was 100 pounds heavier than him and they just didn’t and as a result there was somebody open down field. It was a disaster. But just to see when you’d see Fencik come creeping up just before the snap and suddenly he’s the extra guy coming through on the safety. In that game against the Rams, the first tackle is made by Fencik of Dickerson in the Rams backfield. That’s crazy.

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AB: Absolutely. The only drag to me about the way that that season ended, well there’s two drags and you go into it in the book. I was pissed they didn’t give the ball to Walter Payton to score a touchdown, but I actually understood it a little bit more, reading your book that he was a perfect decoy.

RC: When you go back and watch the game–I didn’t really write about this too much because I didn’t want to and I basically agree with you, but he did get the ball a lot by the goal and he didn’t score. He didn’t have a good game. He just didn’t have a good game and if you look at it, I counted at one point, there were five or six times he was given the ball inside the three. You know what I mean? Even one time when he was throwing the ball and he like dropped it in the end zone. Basically he was pissed at himself I think because he knew he had a shitty game and one of the reasons he had a shitty game was because he was triple teamed every time he touched the ball.

AB: That’s the one thing they could do.

RC: Right, the one thing they said, “Okay, we’re going to stop Payton, we’re not going to let Payton beat us. We’re going to make McMahon beat us” or whatever.

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AB: What’s interesting was the way that Payton handled it, which wasn’t graceful. Finally he won the Super Bowl and he was kind of pissed in the aftermath, but also that Ditka was so swept up in the moment that it didn’t even occur to him to let Payton score a touchdown.

RC: Here’s the thing for me. I was at the game and I was a kid, so I didn’t even notice any of that. It’s amazing when you’re at the game–I mean, I noticed that Payton didn’t score, I noticed that bothered me, but I didn’t notice that Payton wasn’t handling it well because I couldn’t see his face. I realized it later and then I read the Jeff Pearlman book a couple years ago and he really went into it, but the thing is when I interviewed McMahon, McMahon who remembered every single tiny detail, McMahon like Ditka said, “I didn’t even realize until after the game. I didn’t even get it.” He was so focused on winning the Super Bowl and he said that the play that he scored that his first touch down was designed for Payton. He looked up and Payton was completely covered and there was a big hole so he just ran into the end zone and that’s the football play.

AB: Absolutely. The other part that I remember about that season being disappointed with was that the Dolphins didn’t make it to the Super Bowl.

RC: I didn’t really write about that in the book because it was a shame. The Dolphins were probably going to lose, but you had a sense that–

AB: Right. Well the Dolphins, I just remember when they lost in the playoffs it was like: the season’s over. They were the best chance to put up a fight against the Bears. That would have been a sort of worthy -

RC: Not only that. As a Bears fan, there was a blemish on the season and there is a blemish and the blemish could have been removed. That’s why it was a bummer. The Bears had a chance–that would have been the perfect Hollywood ending, if the Bears beat the Dolphins. Even looking back on it though, it was so thrilling and it was so fitting that they completely trounced New England, if it had been a close game against the Dolphins. I was listening to The FAN in New York around Super Bowl time and they were just talking about the greatest Super Bowl teams and they didn’t even bring up the Bears. How could that be? Then realized, oh, because all the teams they’re talking about are teams that won in great games, that’s why they remember them. The Catch, the Ice Bowl, the Steelers and Cowboys going back and forth, your team, your era, my era too, Bradshaw, Staubach, and all that great stuff and the Bears game was never close.

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AB: If I had to name one of the best teams of all time, I would certainly think of the ’85 Bears. Their offense I think is kind of underrated, but forget their offense. Their defense was an offense.

RC: Absolutely, the defense scored more points than the offense. It was Mike Francesa, I think it was his show. It was just an oversight. I know if you were to talk to him because he was just naming–when you started listening to the teams he was naming, they were all teams involved in great games. He was remembering great games. I heard him recently, somebody was saying the Jets have a great defense right now. This was a couple days ago, somebody was saying that, and he was saying, “Oh, they’re not a great defense, a great defense is the ’85 Bears, a great defense is the ’77 Steelers.” He clearly, on his ranking, has the Bears at the top of all time best defenses, as they should be. I think they’re the best ever. I was thinking about the fact that–If it had been the Dolphins and the Bears in the Super Bowl, and not a team that seemed like they just got hot for a couple of games, under weird conditions and if they had an actual game, then it just would have been the perfect ending. It’s sort of like when you get something you wanted to happen very easily and at first you’re really happy that it wasn’t as much work and then later you’re like you wish it was a little more of a struggle. That’s a little bit what it was like.

AB: After they won it’s almost like, what now? Okay, you’ve climbed a mountain. Now what?

RC: Right. It’s really especially cute, I think and maybe I’m wrong. For Chicago, there had never been a winning team in Chicago my whole life. In my entire life.

AB: That’s another thing. This is all before Michael the Bulls run.

RC: You had to go back to ’63 Bears which was five years before I was born and at that point, football was much less of a big deal than it became. One team did win and the media tried to blow it up into a big deal, but nobody cared, and it was the Chicago Kings in the indoor soccer championship and they tried to make it a big deal and the press went to the airport and there was nobody waiting for the team. There was like one guy waiting for the players like, “Hey you’re the soccer guys man, you won something, congratulations, good job!” Iit always seems like it’s going to happen and it doesn’t. Just the year before that in ’84, the Cubs were 2-0 one game away from the World Series, they lost three games in a row. That was just crushing and the year before that, even though I wasn’t a White Sox fan, I sort of rooted for the Chicago teams, but I got kind of into it when the White Sox won their division by like 20 games. Then they maybe won one game against the Orioles.

AB: I got WGN so when I was in middle school I watched the Cubs all the time just because they were on after school so I was kind of familiar with those Cubs teams in a way that I wouldn’t have been with a lot of other teams.

RC: They’re real fun. There’s that Steve Goodman song, “The Cubs Fan’s Request.” First of all, Chicago has variations, just like every city of accents, so the one they do on Saturday Night Live, like the Super Fans, that’s a real accent, it’s like a South Side accent. Where I grew up is sort of like the North Shore and it’s like heading towards Wisconsin and then ultimately to Minnesota and it starts to be almost like a Minnesota accent, but it’s very particular to like a few towns and Steve Goodman has that accent, so it always makes me feel very warm to hear it. He’s talking about his funeral, what he wants for his funeral, it’s just really great. But he’s listing the things that he wants it to be, Wrigley Field, day, no lights, and he wants of all things, he wants Keith Moreland to drop a routine fly. He just dates it exactly. I think Keith Moreland has a son now and he plays baseball.

AB: So when you, you said that this started with something at Harper’s. Did it start as a magazine piece or did you think this could actually be a book?

RC: It started as me saying I was going to write a magazine piece about the ’85 Bears and then calling Doug Plank and then talking to him for three hours and Brian Baschnagel too, Baschnagel was another great guy. Then deciding, this a book, this is a book I’ve always wanted to write. Then I just talked to my editor and told him I want to write this book and he basically said go, do it.

AB: How long did it take you to do it?

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RC: I have to think about exactly when I started. I probably spent about six months or a little more just going around and tracking down and interviewing players and hanging out with Brian McCaskey who is one of Halas’s grandsons. Then I probably spent like another year or whatever writing it, or something like that. Then it’s actually been published, from when I turned it in to when I published it, it was a really short period of time. I just turned it in in the spring, I never had that experience. That’s became if we didn’t make this spring, I would’ve had to wait until next football season which I really didn’t want to do. Plus it’s not really, but things happen, things become dated really, really quickly.

AB: Did the McMahon story in Sports Illustrated, that had come out, but before you finished it?

RC: The weird thing about McMahon is he’s alright. When you talk and when you hang out with him.

AB: I was a little surprised actually because having read that piece, I was expecting it to be worse. I didn’t know what your approach was going to be, but you ended up handling that subject dead on. That was like the subject you couldn’t avoid, right?

RC: As a fan, you can’t avoid it either, the more stuff you read about it. You think about it, you have kids, you think about it, but when you go deal with McMahon, you’re dealing with McMahon and how he is and he seemed like he always seemed. He remembers everything, that’s a short term memory thing, the fact is every now and then I get in touch with him and he always e-mails me right back and seems to know who I am.

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AB: The other interesting thing about McMahon is that he plays the part of such a hick but actually did well with his money.

RC: He did a really smart thing, which is, all these guys were getting sports agents and he met Steve Zucker who just lived where I grew up basically and he said, well you represent me, he’s not an agent, he’s a really smart guy. The guy said I’m not an agent. He ended up being an agent because he did so well from McMahon and he ended up representing a bunch of Bears, but he said I’m not an agent and he said I don’t care it’s just that you’re smart and you know the people in Chicago. He said okay because he thought his kids would think it was really cool that he represented Jim McMahon. Steve Zucker was such a smart guy and McMahon told him what he wanted, which was when he stopped playing, he didn’t want to have to work ever again. He invested his money, took care of his money, told him what to do in such a way that–it wasn’t just that McMahon was pulling an investor, but he found a guy he could trust and trusted him. That’s like the same kind of thing we’re talking about, about like hard work. Don’t discount how rare that is. That he knew not to go with the biggest deal, biggest name agent. That didn’t mean shit to him. He just wanted somebody who was local in Chicago and somebody who was smart and seemed to have his shit together.

AB: How did you decide how to weave in the memoir stuff with the interviewing of the players and then include a general history of the Bears?

RC: I think that the structure, I hate to give it away because hopefully people can’t even see it, but underneath it all, all the structure is super, super simple, which is what I always like to have, a really simple structure. The structure is just–it’s almost like the history of the Bears from the time they were started until they won the ’85 Super Bowl. That’s really the underlying structure of the book. Then it’s really in thirds. The first third of it is the history of the Bears, then the history of the league because the history of the Bears and the history of the league are intertwined. So it’s the history of the Bears and it’s also a biography of Halas because it’s all intertwined. That’s the first third. Then the second third is the ’85 season and the last third is what happened after.

AB: How did you have to condense the team’s rich history to fit this story?

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RC: That’s like the vomit draft . I don’t know how many words the book is. I knew at one point, it’s probably about 85,000 words or something and the first draft was probably 200,000 words. I completely freak out, lose my mind, think it’s a piece of you know – go through everything and then you keep cutting and cutting and the first cutting is easy because it’s obvious, but then it gets harder and harder so like I said, I had this whole chunk on Red Grange. It was just–Red Grange’s story was so much like Sid Luckman’s story I thought you only get one of those and Sid Luckman was more interesting because he was so important to the history of the way the modern offense evolved and Grange wasn’t. Also, Luckman was still around in ’85, he was still there and those guys knew him and he taught Ditka how to catch. He’s completely intertwined. He’s still in a conversation in a way that Grange is almost like Babe Ruth. He’s so distant from such a different era. Then you look at it and I wrote the Butkus and I wrote the Sayers and you sort of say, this book isn’t the whole encyclopedic history like you said, but at the same point it is a history of the Bears and can you really have a history of the Bears without Butkus and Sayers. I kind of thought–I always need a title, I always want a title to be Monsters–and you sort of thought as long as they’re one of the monsters, they belong in the book. That was true Sayers and that was true Butkus, they both belonged in the book. Also, they were the guys, the Bears from before I was born until they started getting good in the early ’80′s went through this long fallow period, that was my entire childhood and the last two great Bears, who never won because they played in that period were Butkus and Sayers. I’m just justifying this in my head but it all fits within and I wanted it to be–the memoir stuff was sort of like it just fits where it fits, the beginning scene with the Super Bowl and the end story, that’s like a bookend, it’s outside the structure, but it’s like a bookend and it’s a really funny way. It’s what really happened, but I thought it was a really funny story about getting on that crazy plane.

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AB: I loved that. It begins the story in such such high spirits. That’s the thing for me that ends up being interesting about the story. I learned about a city that I don’t know a lot about. Great story when, after a loss, the cop yells at you guys and he says, “Pick your fucking head up, it’s another fucking day.” That was like okay that’s the city’s ethos or whatever it is.

RC: Absolutely and also, I didn’t want it to be like, it’s not like even though I love these books, it’s not like David Halberstam’s Summer of ’49 or whatever–

AB: Well you wanted it to be–In your previous books, your sense of human, you definitely descend from Buddy Hackett’s blue shows. I always get the sense that you like some good vulgarity in your humor.

RC: Yeah I know and I constantly–you should see how many, those are the letters I get from people I sent the book to, “You probably want to take this out.”

AB: I’m glad you didn’t because that’s the fun part.

RC: I know, it’s just getting back to what it really is and what really makes it great, which isn’t–that’s how I felt about it–which isn’t just the statistics and the numbers and the fantasy football and all that shit and all the graphics, it’s a guy running for his life. It’s such a crazy game. This guy trying to through the ball 30 yards down the field as five guys are coming to kill him. What it takes to stand up in the middle of that and know you’re going to get completely flattened and still do it.

AB: The Bears are a great team because again, there was something so primal and awful and they were almost like a comic book. But there are two cases in your book, Tony Easton and Ferguson. … These are guys that you want to talk to who had particularly embarrassing incidents with the Bears. The Ferguson hit and Easton’s poor performance in the Super Bowl. You even mention Joe Morris too, who got the mystery migraine in the playoff game, but you couldn’t find these fucking guys and I wonder, do you think that there is something about football defeat that’s worse than being a goat in a different sport? Bill Buckner comes to mind.

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RC: It’s public humiliation for anybody and if you’ve ever had it at all, it’s an awful thing. You never ever get over it. It’s like getting burned. For these guys who are masters, I mean, every one of them is an unbelievable athlete, the greatest athlete at every level just about. That’s what is interesting about Plank and Fencik, they were not. They were never. Like Tom Brady, they just were not and then they kept getting better but most of these guys like Buckner, he was an incredible player from the moment he came into the league and to sort of have this act of being–and he’s a graceful guy and to be in public in the biggest moment in his life and it’s a clumsy thing. I don’t think it’s just football, I think it’s everything and I think sports is just a magnet. That’s why good sports completely resonate because it should be what you live in a confined area in a really heightened way. You do mention Saul Bellow—I’m a big Saul Bellow fan. He had a line about explaining his books and he said it’s just heightened autobiography. It’s kind of like sports are when they’re working. There was a great hockey player even before my time, but legendary guy, Eric Nesterenko.

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He was in the movie Young Blood, he actually teaches Rob Lowe how to fight in that movie and when I was at the New Yorker, somebody there, Adam Gopnik, he’s from Canada, he gave me this story which I’ve never heard of, called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and it was about how at the end of his career, Nesterenko got in a fight with, now I’m spacing out on his name, but sort of the enforcer of the Canadiens who later became a coach for the Devils. Nesterenko got the shit beat out of him and it was on national hockey net in Canada and Nesterenko was like 42. The guy he was fighting was like 24. The story is all about–the writer’s a big Blackhawks fan and the guy who beats Nesterenko up is on the Canadiens and it’s like he feels as if his own father is beating him up and he has this realization about his dad and his feelings about his dad and his life gets better at this point because he realizes and all this stuff. A friend and I went skiing in Vail in 1993 and we’d heard that Eric Nesterenko was a ski instructor in Vail and we hired him for a lesson and we spent the whole day skiing with him, talking to him about the NHL. We invited him out to dinner and we went out to dinner with him and at the end of dinner, we’d all been drinking a little bit, I asked him if he’d ever heard of the story called “The Drubbing of Nesterenko” and he lwent fucking berzerk. He’s like, “I fucking heard of it, some fucking candy-ass writer, some fucking asshole, I get my ass beat up, I get humiliated on TV, my kids watch that, my family watches that, and this guy has an epiphany about how he doesn’t like his dad? Fuck him.”

AB: You can’t undo that. What happened to him was a big deal for him, but you take that and you put Tony Easton in the Super Bowl–

RC: And for Nesterenko even though it was a nationally televised game, it wasn’t the biggest game in the world.

AB: You’re not surprised that a guy like Easton would just say, screw it?

RC: Right, I don’t want to talk about it again, you know? Same with Ferguson and I tried to phrase it as somewhat probably dishonestly, which is I want to talk about your entire career and then maybe we could talk about the ’85 Bears. And by the way, I really was a Joe Ferguson fan, so I probably would want to talk about him in Buffalo and if he had talked to me, maybe that would have been part of the book, more about Ferguson. He at first, he called back and he said he would talk to me and then he just blew me off, then I told Fencik about it and he said, “He’s never talking to ya.”

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AB: Well Fencik and Plank are great because they are like anchors for the book.

RC: I felt like especially Plank because Fencik—I went and I interviewed and I talked to him and stuff, but Plank I spent a lot of time with. He’s the first guy I talked to and he’s the guy I still talk to. I really felt like he became the moral voice of the book because he’s the underachiever who becomes the most ferocious Bear who creates this spirit of the defense who makes the team what it is. He wears the number, he gives it a name, he doesn’t get to the big game himself, but he doesn’t hold any–there’s no pity.

AB: That’s genuine, that’s not like an act, right?

RC: No, that’s completely genuine, that’s who he is, he’s like one of the greatest guys I’ve ever met. He’s like truly a great guy, just like you’d want him to be. In an early version of the book, I drew the diagrams of the single wing, the T formations, sort of the kind of alignment the Bears had when I was a kid, and a spread, and then most importantly the 46 for the book. I’m like, shit, man, I’m a fan, I’ve read everything, I’ve really thought a lot about it, but I’m not a football coach and this is the kind of thing I could’ve had these things wrong. I’m just going to get a lot of grief over it even if it’s a tiny bit wrong and I can have all these people check it, but who can I have check it. I’m like, fuck I’ll have Plank check it. What better source to check that shit than Plank, who is not only a great player, but who is a coach? And was a coach on the Jets and all this stuff. I sent it to him and he was really, really great and then he actually drew the 46 for me and that’s what’s in the book. Plank’s rendering of the 46 and a long description which I ran, I don’t know if it’s in what you saw, but the caption is Plank’s description of the 46. It’s just so great that I have that, it’s almost like a historical document.

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AB: Were there any of Bears that were either difficult to deal with?

RC: Well a bunch of guys just didn’t want to talk to me, they don’t give a shit, they don’t want to talk about it anymore. One of the guys who was sort of difficult although he was okay, was McMichael who I talked to on the phone, but he wouldn’t sit down for an interview because he was so pissed off about the Jeff Pearlman book. He’s like, “Look all we have is our reputations basically and that’s it because we don’t play football anymore and we know and I don’t trust you fucking guys anymore.” They were like really hurt so everybody I talked to was sort of–and I’m like, “Hey man, I’m a Bears fan.” I was there in ’85.

AB: And that didn’t matter?

RC: It mattered to some of them. I’ll tell you what, what’s cool about the Bears is that they are a bunch of guys from Chicago and they completely get who I am. So like Kurt Becker who was McMahon’s roommate and the right tackle I think, right guard, he’s from the West Side of Chicago, he’s knows who I am, he knows where I’m from. He knows I’m a Bears fan. Same with Fencik, who grew up in Barrington.

AB: You pull off kind of a neat trick in that it’s not a puff piece because you have to be, there’s unsavory things about some of the guys, Ditka, Buddy Ryan, whatever. I always though that Buddy Ryan what an asshole without knowing anything about him, but the way you describe him is kind of sympathetic but not soft.

RC: He is what he is, which he’s a product of an older America that really doesn’t exist much anymore.

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AB: When you talk about he would check out guys to see who was wasting water when they were shaving, that tells me what kind of guy this guy is, or calling Singletary names.

RC: “Fat Jap.”

AB: “Fat Jap,” right. So just that.

RC: And by the way Singletary is not in any part Japanese, which I sort of assumed he was because I think he’s part Cherokee, I think that’s what it is.

AB: Was he interesting at all?

RC: I didn’t talk to Singletary, here’s the other problem. A bunch of the guys are coaches, like full-time head coaches, so you could get to them in a press conference about you know, so that’s in a testament to the team, so Singletary was because he was coaching San Francisco, then in Minnesota, and Ron Rivera is head coach, and Jeff Fisher is a head coach, and Leslie Frazier is a head coach, and then those other guys I spoke to, like Dent I spoke to and Otis Wilson was really great actually. He was a great one.

AB: He was from Brooklyn right?

RC: Brownsville. He’s one of my favorite players. Very charismatic guy when he was a player. Some guys are just great talkers, even a guy like Jim Morrissey, who is really from Michigan, but half of his grandparents lived basically where I lived, where I grew up, and he used to spend every summer where I grew up so he kind of was a Chicago guy really in a lot of ways. It’s just like a guy working for some brokerage firm making trades on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange now and he played like 11 years in the NFL as a linebacker, as a starting linebacker, which is a big deal. He was just a rookie on that team and he was just one of those guys who was really observant, watching everything, and could explain it really well. So you had the guys who were the great players, but they might not be a good interview. Like Dent who was a hall of fame player, but he’s not going to remember exactly–you know what I mean? Whereas Otis Wilson did, and Otis Wilson has a big complaint against Ditka, he was kind of angry. Morrissey did, and Brian Baschnagel, who was really one of the great players on the team when they were bad and was still with them in ’86, and he was just really interested in what was going on.

AB: And Ditka was pretty good with you too, wasn’t he?

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RC: Yeah Ditka’s great. I mean, Ditka’s Ditka though. He’s like, “Why do you want to talk about ’85, why not about ’63? We had a pretty good team in ’63, why doesn’t anybody want to talk about the ’63 team?” Just stuff like that.

AB: I won’t keep you too much longer Rich, but there are two other things I wanted to touch on. Was Kahn’s The Boys of Summer a template?

RC: Yeah, Boys of Summer. As far as football books, and I’m not a completist, you know what I mean? I thought Paper Lion was a great book and one of the things that’s great about it is that Plimpton was a really excellent writer. He got this firsthand experience of catching a punt kicked by an NFL punter, and especially before ESPN and Hard Knocks and all that stuff, he went inside a place no one could go. I think it’s a great book and I think, though it’s a novel, North Dallas Forty, I think is a really great book, funny book. As far as football goes, I think the Michael Lewis book is really good about describing the offensive line.

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AB: The one football book that I really was moved by was by John Ed Bradley who played at LSU and then was a writer for the Washington Post and then for Esquire and GQ for a bunch of years and SI, but he dropped out and became a novelist. It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium is a memoir about John Ed growing up in Louisiana, his daddy was a high school football coach, and playing at LSU. He could have played in the NFL, but decided he wanted to be a writer. The book is about how for 20 some odd years, he couldn’t go back to LSU. He couldn’t talk to the people he played with because it was such a good time, it was such an elevated time, that he would never be able to get there again and it’s really a melancholy book, but I thought of that, his whole book is summed up into one sentence by Plank where he says, “If you’re lucky enough to experience something that intense when you’re young, you pay for it with the rest of your life.” That’s John Ed’s book. That’s fascinating to me that for some guys they can’t–and Plank seems to have gone on with his life and he was able to see that and sort of articulate that was really powerful.

RC: Well that’s why he was so great as a resource because he was both. He wasn’t a guy on the sideline, a guy on the periphery, he wasn’t a mediocre player, he was a great player, he really was. He was a heartbeat of the defense before he got hurt and he thought a lot about it. It’s just his description to me of when he got cut or basically got cut because he’s never going to be the same and he’s leaving the locker room and he sees Jeff Fisher and he tells Jeff Fisher and the whole look on Jeff Fisher face just changes like alright.

AB: You’re a civilian now.

RC: Yeah we’re not teammates and it’s over and how that registers is so sad for Plank, he just registers it.

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AB: There’s a lot of sadness in sort of the idea, it’s not depressing really–

RC: It’s melancholy man, it’s melancholy.

AB: It really is, it’s sort of life moves on and you did this 25 years ago and sometimes even the idea of–I could almost imagine myself being a player and being like–

RC: Well, that’s the thing, like the shit about Walter Payton and what a hard time he had retiring, like it’s a surprise, how could you not? You put any human being in that situation where you give him that much adulation and control your life to that extent and it just ends and the fact that so many of these guys do so well is amazing. It just shows how strong they are. The fact that Doug Plank then while the Bears are in the Super Bowl, he’s running a Burger King, and he’s not screaming his head off. You know what I mean? And everyone’s talking about the 46 defense on TV and they don’t know it’s Doug Plank is in the Burger King.

AB: Well that’s one thing I think you do successfully in your book, I didn’t know what to expect. You touch on the big Vikings game in the ’85 season, the Cowboy game, you talk about games, but it’s like “and then in week two”–

RC: That’s what I’m saying, if people are expecting that, they’re going to be disappointed.

AB: To me that’s what’s so horrible even about baseball writing. “And then he hit the 2-2 pitch and laced it for a double,” even the language is horrible. How do you write interesting and lively prose about stuff that has been so clichéd over time?

RC: It’s really been a challenge and that’s what I mean when I say that there’s been books–every book I’ve read about a football season, they’re all like that. It’s like a blow–by-blow-by-blow of something that happened long ago that only means something and is only interesting if you’re a complete fanatic or it resonates in some bigger cultural way. That’s why Boys of Summer still resonates to people. Even if they haven’t read it, they know about it. Have you read it?

AB: I have, but to me it’s–I have mixed feelings about it but I’m still taken by Kahn’s ambition to write a great book. It’s melodramatic in parts but still powerful.

RC: That’s what’s good about it, like for me. It’s an imperfect book with a lot of flaws. You know what it’s like, when you read certain magazine writing and it’s so slick, you’re like I could never write that, but then you read something like Ian Frazier, who’s like a–I love him, you could tell a person made it, it’s like made by hand.

AB: What’s amazing reading it now is that Kahn had access to his subject that doesn’t exist anymore. The relationships that he had with these guys and the fact that he’s writing about the ’50s just as the whole ’50s craze, the whole Brooklyn thing was starting and it’s the last major thing ever written about Jackie Robinson before he dies. It set a standard that kind of book.

RC: You can’t sell what he’s selling anymore because for all the reasons you say, no one has that kind of access and what’s more, cameras are everywhere so people have seen, and also the fact that the guy made no money and you didn’t know what happened to them after they retired, they vanished. A guy working in the World Trade Center and putting in the elevators. The reason why–I agree with everything you’re saying, that’s why it was helpful for me because first of all it was totally imperfect and all kind of fucked up, yet so great. So you could sort of see how he put it together so obviously. Underneath it’s an incredibly simple structure, when you’re reading it you kind of forget that. For him, you’re always aware. It’s divided into thirds, it’s the history of the Dodgers up until when he was kid then it’s his own memoir, then it’s his season, culminating in his season with the team, which is not the season they want. So his season with the team, where the manager was Charlie Dressen, who was the first quarterback of the Bears technically. Then the ’55 season, like you expected, and then the last third—it’s not even integrated, it’s like separate chapters, separate essays about where are they now, about whatever it is, five or six guys culminating with Robinson, and that’s it, and it’s so simple, and it completely works. So that’s why it was–it’s not that it was the great be all and end all; it’s that he did something really really interesting, really really great and it’s very simple to see–to me–the structure of it is very plain. It’s like seeing a building and being able to see how it was put together. If you look at the sports books that had bigger culture resonance, Friday Night Lights does too. I thought that was actually a great book, there’s another book that’s sort of like not perfect, but it’s like Dreiser or something; it’s like the whole magnitude of it and the ambition is really interesting.

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AB: So lastly, you write about the mixed emotions about the violence in the game. You love big hits but you love Dave Duerson more. Do you find that you don’t like football as much as you used to? You have three kids right?

RC: Yeah, but you know what though, I go back and forth about it because as a product as watching it, it’s just about as good as it’s even been, I believe. Part of me thinks there’s too much scoring because it becomes inflationary. I love hockey because there’s so much tension, who’s going to score? That’s kind of–some of these games seem like the Nerf football games you play as a kid and you say okay whoever scores next wins, but you don’t keep fucking score, everybody scores every time, so whoever is able to stop the team once is going to win. It seems like, as a Bears fan, you love defense and the defense had been so disadvantaged by the rules, partly to protect these guys and partly because people love to see goals, I mean people love to see points. When you see a guy, I remember when I was a kid, that Darryl Stingley had happened and it just really freaked me out, scared the shit out of me and then he came back and he was a paraplegic, it was just so awful. It is, it’s a tough thing.

AB: Now, when you did this book, you’re describing these guys walking around. You always talk about Plank’s titanium shoulders.

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RC: The idea that Jim McMahon can’t play catch with me because he can’t fucking throw his keys—he’s all fucked up. So they made these decisions themselves. They had a choice and they made these decisions. A lot of them even knew because it wasn’t like if you were a player on the Bears and you were a rookie in ’85, all you had to do was look at Ditka, he was a fucking mess. He was a very physical player. He played for a very long time. But the fact is when you’re 22, you can’t make a decision like that. That’s why you need other people to protect you than yourself because you’ll do stupid shit, you’ll drink and drive, you’ll take drugs. You’ll do everything you’ll pay for later because you’re an idiot, you’re a kid. You’re just thinking about the next 10 minutes and you’re not thinking that other things–you haven’t lived long enough to realize that other thing is going to come around before you know it and you’re gonna have, you know. It’s just like what’s going to look good in the next. If you watched how a guy like McMahon played, he played like a guy who believed that it didn’t matter what happened in three years.. He’d dive head first. He would do it all the time and he loved it and he obviously was a guy who loved getting hit. There’s guys like that. We all grew up with them. He’s like sort of–

AB: He’s like Mel Gibson in Lethal Weapon. He’s nuts.

RC: Yeah and that’s his whole thing and and especially now, it’s the coach’s job and the owner’s job and the GM’s. They have to protect that guy from himself. You’re using that quality he has to make your team great and to make this game exciting, but you also at the same time have a kind of responsibility to protect them from his own stupidity, that he can’t see what’s coming but you know because you’re 20 years older than him. Ditka would say, “Well I couldn’t change him—it would have ruined him.” That’s probably true to some degree. Now though it’s like watching a game, it’s like willing suspension of disbelief and you don’t think about it because you get into it, but when a guy gets really–when you see a bad hit, the kind you used to see 10 times in an ’85 Bears game you sort of have this moment of, what the fuck am I doing here. That’s what the league has to protect itself from because that’s what’s going to hurt the league.

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You can buy Monsters here. And slide on over to Rich’s site while you’re at it.

BGS: Down and Out at Wrigley Field

More baseball. Dig this piece by the most-talented Rich Cohen. It originally appeared in Harper’s (August, 2001), and is featured here with the author’s permission.

“Down and Out at Wrigley Field”

By Rich Cohen

When the Chicago Cubs last won a World Series, the automobile was still a new and untrusted invention and the electric light was not yet twenty years old. In the years since the fifth game of that series, most of the European monarchies have collapsed, two world wars have been fought, Communism has risen and fallen, and disco has come and gone and come again. Losing year after year, sometimes in the last weeks of the season, more often in the middle of August, the Cubs have become a symbol of futility, the blind, never-ending hope of a hopeless people. Before his death, Jack Brickhouse, the great Cubs play-by-play man, excused the team by saying, “Everyone is entitled to a bad century.”

For the Cubs, the current season has thus far played out like a dream. The team collected twelve straight victories in May and early June, a feat it had not accomplished since 1936—a year in which, incidentally, the Cubs did not reach the World Series. Despite the fact that such stretches come along once every five or six years in the manner of a remission that, for a time, masks the true direction of the disease, even the most cynical of fans clings, in a secret place hidden beneath the heckles and beer, to the belief in eventual victory. But if 2001 is indeed the breakthrough year, if the new century indeed ushers in a rebirth of the franchise, these rooters will lose a treasure more valuable than any World Series ring: they will lose an enduring, dependable, neatly mystical relationship with loss.

 

Last August, hoping to discover the secret of this relationship, I checked into a hotel just off Michigan Avenue on the North Side of Chicago and prepared to “cover” the Cubs. The team had just come off a winning streak that had left them a few games below .500 and a half dozen games behind the division leading St. Louis Cardinals, whom, in a few days, they would face at Wrigley Field. In other words, I had arrived at that most heartbreaking moment of any Cubs year: the false spring.

I went for walks along Rush Street, in and out of the bars. At Harry Caray’s on Kinzie and Dearborn, watching the Cubs on television, I heard a big guy in a SHUT UP AND DRINK YOUR BEER T-shirt refer to a towering Sammy Sosa home run as a “God Ball.” He then picked a fight with an old man in a Brewers hat, saying, “Look at your boys! In last place! We are in a solid third! All we got to do is sweep this series, sweep the next series, and go from there.”

On State Street, I ran into a friend who had just returned from New York, where he had made his first visit to Yankee Stadium. The Yankees were great, of course, but he thought the stadium a disgrace. No one familiar with Cub fans would find this judgment at all unusual: the prevailing aesthetic is, of necessity, beauty above victory. Anyone else might argue that Yankee Stadium, no matter how monstrous, is a treasure. Why? Because winning has made it beautiful. On the other hand, Wrigley Field, no matter how picturesque, might be considered an eyesore, because losing has made it ugly. The true Cub fan believes the opposite. My friend said, ”I’ll tell you what, kid, that stadium, it sure made me appreciate what we got right here at Wrigley Field.”

Wrigley Field is a trim configuration of red brick and steel. Built in 1914, it was first home to the Chicago Whales of the old Federal League. By the time the Cubs moved here in 1916, they had already won their last World Series. Over the years, with the destruction of most other early twentieth century ballparks, Wrigley has emerged as a lone witness to the glorious dead ball era. After generations of artificial turf and multipurpose stadiums, a new generation of architects has come to emulate Wrigley, building snug downtown parks in Baltimore, Cleveland, and Houston. For the most part, though, these stadiums are mere approximations, with none of the mood, or feeling, or grime, of the real thing, none of that terrible history. Wrigley Field is, after all, where, in the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth supposedly called his shot, pointing two fingers at center field, then hitting a home run into those very seats.

When I went to the games as a kid, I sat in the bleachers, home of the sport’s most rabid fans. For a bleacher bum, it was a signal achievement to so incense an enemy outfielder that he climbed the wall in an attempt to get at you. I was at a game in which Omar Moreno of the Pirates started that climb only to be pummeled and covered in beer. Of course, such a climb was made possible by that most famous feature of Wrigley: the ivy, the lush green ivy, which softens all that red brick.

Now, here is the disturbing part: that ivy, that beloved, ticket-selling ivy, is a direct outgrowth of management’s realization that the Cubs might never again win a World Series. In 1931, when chewing gum magnate William Wrigley died, he left the team to his son, P. K Wrigley, who refused to waste company resources on baseball; he decided that fans must instead be given a reason other than player competence to go to the park. “The fun … the sunshine, the relaxation. Our idea is to get the public to go see a ball game, win or lose,” said P.K., who then told a young Bill Veeck, who would later become one of the greatest impresarios in the history of baseball, to plant the ivy. It was his way of selling the fans the sunshine.

I grew up in the Chicago suburbs, about fifteen miles up Lake Michigan from Wrigley Field. In the summers, if I was not at the beach, or shopping for records at one of the stores uptown, or scanning the radio for my all-time favorite song, “Rhinestone Cowboy,” I was riding the public bus to Evanston, where I caught the elevated train, which threaded its way through a private world of red brick and fire escapes down to the ballpark. On the way I often read the sports section of the Chicago Tribune, or else a book about Cubs history. In school we studied the heroes and gods of antiquity, but for me the Cubs supplied a far handier mythology: the great teams of the eighties (the 1880s), The Cubs, a chatter member of professional baseball, known first as the White Stockings, and then, in succession, as the Orphans, the Colts, and the Cubs, played in the Congress Street Grounds, the “nicest park in America,” with 2,000 grandstand seats and velvet-curtained luxury boxes. Championships were won in 1880, 1881, 1882, 1885, and 1886. These were the teams of the legendary Cap Anson, who first devised the strategy wherein players run out of position to back up other players and, in another first, called for the banning of black athletes from the game.

In his autobiography, Anson wrote of an early minority hire:

Clarence was a little darkey that I had met sometime before while in Philadelphia. . . . I had togged him out in a suit of navy blue with brass burtons, at my own expense, and had engaged him as a mascot. He was an ungrateful little rascal…

There was Mike Kelly, a hard-drinking Irishman from the West Side, the first catcher to communicate with the pitcher in a secret code of often comical hand signals. There was Billy “The Evangelist” Sunday, who, before scaring sinners with his fiery prophecies of hell, was a speedy, base-stealing outfielder. In 1906, behind the awesome double-play combination of Tinkers to Evers to Chance, the team posted the best record in major league history, winning 116 games. After each victory, the players went drinking at Biggio Brothers Saloon on Polk and Lincoln Streets. In later years came Grover Cleveland Alexander, a once great pitcher who came back from the First World War shell-shocked. When Alexander fell into seizures on the mound, the infielders would shield him from view. In the biopic, Alexander was played by Ronald Reagan, who himself, as a young man, had called play-by-play for the Cubs.

William Wrigley took control of the Cubs in 1921 and fielded pennant-winning teams in ’32, ’35, and ’38. These teams boasted such superstars as Kiki Cuyler, Hack Wilson, Billy Jurges, Babe Herman, and Rogers Hornsby. In 1932, ]urges was shot in a hotel room by a jilted lover in a black veil, an episode borrowed by Bernard Malamud for his novel The Natural.

In 1929, Hornsby batted for a .380 average with 149 RBIs. Hack Wilson, a squat alcoholic of a power hitter, still holds the record for most runs batted in (190) during a single season. After retirement, Hack became a drifter. In 1948, when he died, his body went unclaimed for three days. Nineteen years earlier, in 1929, when the Cubs had lost the World Series, Wilson told a train of badgering reporters, “Let me alone now, fellows. I haven’t anything to say except that I am heartbroken and that we did get some awful breaks.”

In 1953 the club signed its first black superstar, Ernie Banks, a Hall of Famer who encouraged hope in the fans, beginning each season with a little poem, such as, “The Cubs will come alive in sixty-five,” or, ‘The Cubs will be heavenly in sixty-sevenly.” In my own childhood there were the Reuschel brothers, fat, mustachioed, glasses-wearing screwballers who, to me, looked like the newspaper’s photos of John Wayne Gacy.

On my baseball card, the Reuschels, Rick and Paul, are pictured over the words BIG LEAGUE BROTHERS. In this era, due to years of futility—the team had not even been in the postseason since 1945—a certain ugliness grew up between fans and management, peaking in 1983, when, during a postgame press conference, skipper Lee Elia attacked the bleacher bums, saying:

Eighty-five percent of the people in this country work The other fifteen percent come here and boo my players. They oughta go out and get a fucking job and find out what it’s like to go out and earn a fucking living. Eighty-five percent of the fucking world is working. The other fifteen percent come out here. A fucking playground for the cocksuckers.

CUBS 7, CARDINALS 3

Each day the Cubs lineup was posted, with slight variation, in the clubhouse. It was a collection of found parts, as is often the case: Damon Buford, a center fielder, who came in a trade from Boston; Joe Girardi, a born-again Christian from Peoria, Illinois, who started with the Cubs a decade ago and had returned to finish his career in Chicago; Mark Grace, the blond-haired, goateed first baseman, who before and after each game smoked a cigarette at his locker; Willie Greene, a third baseman from Milledgeville, Georgia, by way of the Toronto Blue Jays; Ricky Gutierrez, an edgy, error-prone shortstop, a free agent from the Houston Astros; Chad Meyers, a twenty-five-year-old infielder who looked like a sitcom sidekick on the WB (a Cubs fan from Nebraska, Meyers was, as a kid, certain the Cubs were always “just about to win it”); Brant Brown, an outfielder who, in 1998, had dropped a routine fly ball that almost kept the team out of that year’s postseason play.

At three o’clock, only the pitchers were in uniform, among them Kerry Wood, a lank, sullen-faced Texan who was once thought to be the savior of the team. In 1998, at twenty, in only his fifth start, Wood struck out twenty batters, tying a major-league record. A few months later he blew out his pitching arm; he was still recovering from the surgery. In his locker he had mounted a Big Mouth Billy Bass, the talking mechanical fish, which, on occasion, he let answer the press queries: “I run on batteries, don’t need no gas, I’m the Big Mouth Billy Bass.”

Sammy Sosa, the great star of the Cubs, showed up shouting, a man of entrances. Although the players in the clubhouse were listening to Pearl Jam, Sosa plugged in his radio and began playing salsa music, the sound of his native Dominican Republic. Someone turned up the Pearl Jam. Sosa turned up the salsa. For a moment, the sunny Caribbean faced off against the once grungy Pacific Northwest. Sosa closed his eyes and started to dance. Today, and each day, it ended with the Pearl Jam turned down and turned off. It was not hard to tell how Sosa’s teammates felt about this.

Standing in front of his locker, Sosa took several practice swings, which, like his body, were short and compact. In 1998 he had kept pace with Mark McGwire in a contest to break the single-season home-run record. Sosa had finished four homers behind McGwire. There are those who called Sosa a hot dog, error-prone, strikeout-prone, a one-way player who padded his statistics with meaningless late-game long balls. Earlier in the season, when the front office threatened to trade Sosa, there had been a tremendous uproar from the fans, who, in exchange for all that losing, expect at least one superstar. After a loss in which Sosa homered with the bases empty and struck out with the bases full, I asked him if he changed his approach depending on the situation—shortened his swing, stepped up in the box. He said, “I just hit the ball as hard as I can.”

By five o’clock the reporters had gathered in the clubhouse. They stood in a tight little knot like boys at a high school dance, waiting for some sign from a pretty girl across the floor. Now and then, one of these reporters would plunge in with his tape recorder; depending on whether he was welcomed or rebuffed, the reporter would return saying, “Wow, what a regular guy!” or, “Can you believe how much money those dumb fucks make?”

To reach the field we followed the clatter of cleats through a dank tunnel into the dugout. At eye level the grass, which in the middle of the season was already parched, stretched away to the power alleys. The bench was crowded with that gaggle of former players, broadcasters, and hangers-on that make up the courtier class of the national game. A few hundred fans had gathered for batting practice. They shouted, “Sammy! Sammy! Sammy!” I found myself in a conversation with Joe Girardi. In the clubhouse, I had seen Girardi, and everyone else, naked, and I was struck by his body, which seemed to me old-fashioned, a body from the Great Depression: thick torso and heavy arms, social realism, a WPA poster. He had spent the previous four seasons in New York, where he won three World Series. How could he now play for a team that never wins, has never won, and, it seems to many of us, never will win?

“When I was in third grade, I wrote an essay about how I would play for the Cubs,” Girardi said. “Ten times a summer, I drove with my father from Peoria just to see the games.” Back then, his favorite players were Ron Santo, a third baseman who, as a broadcaster, still travels with the team, and Jose Cardenal, remembered mostly for his vertiginous Afro, on top of which, the cherry on the ice cream sundae, perched his cap. Cardenal is credited with the worst excuse ever given for missing a game: he once told his manager he could not play because his eyelid was stuck open. “When I left the Cubs that first time, I was crushed,” said Girardi. “I had always wanted to be a Cubbie.”

I asked why the team never wins.

“The Yankees have a hundred-million-dollar payroll. Our club is sixty million. And there is also all the money spent on the minor leagues and free agents, signing kids from the Dominican, from Puerto Rico. But it’s more than that. In New York, you go into spring training expecting to get to the World Series. You feel it when you walk in the clubhouse—the pictures of all those Yankee greats, the monuments. There is something special about putting on the pinstripes. In Chicago, they hope for a good season, maybe the playoffs.”

“But they have pictures here at Wrigley Field,” I said. “The Cub greats, Hack Wilson, Kiki Cuyler.”

“Yeah, but just think about those pictures,” he said. “Still shots, each player by himself. In Yankee Stadium, it’s group shots, the team celebrating on the mound, in the clubhouse, the champagne, winning it all. Here you won’t see that.”

When Girardi went to take batting practice, I wandered out onto the field. The players chirped and fluttered around the cage like birds; players from the Cubs and players from the Cardinals met one another with backslaps and hugs. “In our day, there was no fraternizing,” Ron Santo told me. “You never saw one team up watching the other team hit. Never saw a guy hugging the other guy. You walked across the white lines, money was not the criteria. Winning was.” Sosa greeted every Latin player on the Cardinals, then wandered over to the seats, the crowd bubbling before him like surf. He spotted two friends from the Dominican and led them out onto the field. They were potbellied, sleepy-eyed, with slow, sad smiles; one wore a silk shirt decorated with naked girls, fast cars, tropical sunsets.

I walked over to a circle of beat reporters, three of them: a young banana-shaped one; a middle-aged, balding, red-haired one; and an old stately one with no hair at all. I said hello. Without a word, each turned his back on me. It took me some time to realize that these reporters, who after each game filed stories for the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and a third paper I had never heard of, were actually participants in the Cubs’ perpetual loss and naturally took a pride in the project that made it necessary to resent someone like myself, who had come aboard the Titanic to snap a few shots before shoving off. Of course, that ship was at least heading toward a conclusion, a climax. The Cubs, on the other hand, were and are forever adrift.

The only friend I made among the press was a kid entirely untouched by the stinking heartbreak of history. His name was Nick, and he was on summer break from Drake University in Iowa. He had landed a part-rime job writing about the Cubs for his hometown newspaper in Oak Park. A few times a week Nick went to the clubhouse and, without the least hesitation, pulled aside his favorite players. Before this game, he had talked to some of the Cardinals, even to Will Clark, rumored to be the crankiest man in the league.

Nick said, “Can I ask you some questions, Mr. Clark?”

Mr. Clark said, “Get the fuck away from me, kid.”

Nick told me that Mr. Clark had stunk of beer.

Nick led me up to the press box, high above home plate. As we talked, I could see the lake, blue and crowded with sailboats, beyond the apartment buildings. The game was a sellout, standing room only, men and women at the back of the bleachers in sketchy outline. To some, this remained the best explanation for the Cubs’ woes: if a team with a losing record sold 40,000 tickets on a Monday night and drew, win or lose, 2 million fans a year, while the White Sox, in first place on the South Side of the city, could not even sell out on a Saturday afternoon, what was the incentive? Why should the Tribune Company, which owns the Cubs, spend millions to build a winning team if, all these years later, the fans were still willing to pay for sunshine? “We hear a lot of that,” Kevin Tapani, a Cubs pitcher, told me. “But I don’t know of any player that says, ‘We’ve got a sold-out crowd, let’s lose.”

Of course, Tapani, at thirty-six, was precisely the sort of player a team might go after if it was not determined to win; that is to say, yes, Tapani tried to win, but perhaps, at this point in his career, he was no longer good enough to win consistently. And yet the Cubs did spend money. Not so much as the Dodgers or the Orioles but more than some successful teams (the Kansas City Royals, the Oakland A’s), and they traded for players and hired managers who had won elsewhere. A Cubs fan therefore learns to distrust the easy answers and to accept each moment, each game, for what it is, not for where it is leading, which is nowhere. A victory, any victory, is a victory. Like tonight, for example, with a warm breeze off the Lake, and the sun going down (ah, that beautiful Cubs sunshine), and the team at last stirring to life. Jeff Huson, a journeyman third baseman, with teeth as small and perfect as white Chiclets, drove a ball down the left field line, scoring the winning runs. And then we were following the ramps down to the clubhouse, where the players, having already changed into Nike shower sandals and gym shorts, ate fried chicken off Styrofoam plates and watched SportsCenter on ESPN. There was music, there was clowning. Cubs win! Cubs win!

CARDINALS 4, CUBS 2

Three hours before the first pitch, Carol Slezak, a columnist fur the Sun-Times, was in the dugout, looking for a story. Baseball is a world of men, and so it was strange and pleasing to see a woman on the field. Some of the older Latin coaches commented on Slezak’s eyes, her legs. “You are making me uncomfortable,” she said. “Stop it.”

A year ago, Slezak had written a column about Sosa’s music, how it had become an irritating and never-ending soundtrack. Sosa and Glenallen Hill (since traded) had pulled her aside and yelled at her. “Do you know how angry Sammy’s teammates are at you?” Hill said. “They love Sammy.”

“Do you want to hear what Sammy’s teammates say about his music,” asked Slezak

Sammy told her, “Fuck my teammates.”

Today, Carol was in a pregame panic. Her deadline was a few hours away and she had yet to find a subject. Players suggested she write about the heat. “I have a policy,” she said. “No stories about weather.” Mark Grace greeted her in a large way and sat at the end of the bench, determined to help. Each generation, there is one Cub who seems, for fans, to stand for the team. For the last several years that had been Grace. Previously, it had been Ryne Sandberg, Bill Buckner, Rick Monday, Ernie Banks. One of the great things about baseball is that, by setting these players, whose careers overlap, in a time line, you can link yourself clear back to Mike Kelly and Johnny Evers. After suggesting several stories, which Carol dismissed, Grace said, “What about the heat?”

Grace took off his hat, rubbed his scalp. A few weeks earlier, several Cubs had shaved their heads in a gesture of solidarity. Grace was lucky; he looked good. Some of the other guys had emerged knotty-skulled, or bug-eyed, or jug-eared. Grace talked about being thirty-six. In the minor leagues, the Cubs were developing Hee Seop Choi, a Korean power-hitting first baseman, to take his position. To a player like Grace, this was what the end must look like—a husky nobody from the minors with no feel for the game.

Mark Grace was the classic Cub playing in a pointless doubleheader on an August afternoon with the wind blowing in and nothing on the line but a flutter at the bottom of the standings. Only a player like Grace, who got the joke of being a Cub(1) and still reveled in it, could possibly explain to me how and why it was that each Cub season began and ended in futility.

I asked him if there was any thrill to being the spoiler, stopping some other team from making the playoffs often the only role left for the Cubs. “No, I don’t rake a whole lot of pleasure in it,” he said. “But the last thing you want is somebody clinching on your turf, mobbing, pouring bubbly on your field,”

Sosa emerged from the tunnel and shouted, “I just took a big shit. It feels good when you take your big shit.”

The temperature at game time was 91 degrees. In the fifth inning, the umpire left the game due to heat exhaustion. I asked Carol Slezak if the players were upset after such a loss, and she said, “They pretend to be.” The next day, in the Sun-Times, I read her story about how exceptionally hot it was at the game.

CARDINALS 5, CUBS 1

Even after a player retires from the Cubs, he remains a hero in Chicago, a god in the pantheon of loss. For players traded to the team this is a consolation. The smart ones, who understand a thing or two about history, must know that they will never be part of a dynasty here. Kevin Tapani remembers when he learned of his trade to the team: “Everyone around here tells you the history and says, ‘Now you are a part of it. You’re one of the lovable losers.’ And so you think, ‘Well, I was not a loser to start with, I did not come here to lose, I will not carry on like a loser.’” Some deluded Cubs even speak of being part of the team that at last breaks the streak. But fans—some of us, anyway, who know the truth—pity the talented young prospect who, having won in Little League, high school, and everywhere else, finds himself on the Cubs. Hope you enjoyed the ride, friend. Because, barring a trade, your winning days are over. In return such a player, if he is good enough to make an impression, is given the city. Chicago loves its Cubs as it loves no other athletes. The Cubs personify Chicago’s striving, the pride that locals take in even the smallest construction, the sense that the rest of the country, especially New York City, is giving us the high hat.

This love was in evidence a few minutes before yet another afternoon game against the Cardinals, as Ryne Sandberg, who for twelve seasons was the star of the Cubs, wandered across the infield to shouts and cheers. In 1994, Sandberg, the highest-paid player in the game, had returned millions of dollars and gone into early retirement, saying he wasn’t happy with his performance. He came back in ’96, found that he had lost his swing, and retired again. It was like watching someone grow old in public. He was now an instructor with the team. On the field, he wore prefaded jeans and a button-down shirt and moved with the stiffness one expects in a retired athlete, his glossy, handsome face turning red in the sun.

For every Cub fan, there is a season, an inning, an at bat, when all hope is lost, when, at long last, he becomes disillusioned and realizes with dread certainty that no matter how good its prospects the team will never win. “The better they look,” my father(2) had warned, “the bigger the heartbreak.” For some, hope was lost in 1969, when, after decades of loss, the management fielded an uncharacteristic collection of future Hall of Famers and all-stars. By September 1 the team was in first place by eight games. After each victory, Ron Santo, the third baseman, would jump up and click his heels. A song that year had the fans singing, “Hey hey, holy mackerel, no doubt about it, the Cubs are on their way!” By mid-September they had been overtaken by the expansion New York Mets, who went on to sweep the World Series. “The Mets were not a team you worried about,” Santo told me. “It was divine intervention. God just lived in New York that year.”

For some, hope was lost in 1989, when the Cubs, with Mark Grace at first base, were swept in the playoffs by the San Francisco Giants. For some it was in 1998, with Sosa hitting all those homers and the team still looking pathetic in the playoffs. For me it was 1984 and the collapse of the great team anchored by Ryne Sandberg, who that year won the National League MVP. In 1981 the Wrigley family had sold the franchise to the Tribune Company, filling the loyalists with hope. Whereas the Wrigleys had refused to spend top dollar on talent, often trading away their best prospects and, what’s worse, evincing a kind of country club racism, for years signing no black players and then signing only a few, the Tribune Company was a cash rich empire. For the first time in years real money was spent on the Cubs. A new general manager was brought in, and soon he had built the first team I ever really cared about. That team had Lee Smith, the fire-throwing relief pitcher, and Rick Sutcliffe, the red-headed ace, and Harry Caray, the great broadcaster, the true visage of the Cubs, who told you not what players were averaging but what they should be averaging were the world a decent place. “He’s really up around .400,” Harry would say. “He’s hit the ball well, but at people.” Harry said that the Cubs infield was not only the most competent in the game but by far the best looking: “Sandberg: classical good looks. Bowa: scrappy, sinewy, and sexy. Cey: just look at that guy! Durham: what woman would not love Bull Durham?”

The team won the National League East by six-and-a-half games. In August several Cubs, including Sutcliffe and Durham, released a country song that my brother called “a crime—an idiotic, stupid, jinx-inducing crime.” The song went like this: “As sure as there’s ivy on the center field wall, the men in blue are gonna win it all.” And: “We’re on top and looking down and picking up more steam.” And: “There’s been lots of talk about no lights in Wrigley Park, we don’t care, if we make it there, we’ll play in the dark.”

The Cubs at that time were the only professional team without lights, a fact that, from time to time, was suggested as a reason for their woes. When the team played night games on the road, so went the reasoning, they were out of sorts, up past their bedtime. In 1984 the commissioner of baseball was more concerned with the fact that no night games at Wrigley meant the league would be robbed of prime time TV revenue. As a result, the Cubs, in a great miscarriage of justice, were stripped of their home-field advantage, which, in the best-of-five playoff, proved crucial. I skipped school to attend the first game, which the Cubs won in a blowout. I followed game two at school, checking the score between classes on TV: another victory. The Cubs then went to San Diego, where they had to win only one of the next three games to clinch a trip to the World Series. In each game the Cubs went into the seventh inning with the lead. In each game they choked. The final blow came with a home run by Steve Garvey, the square-jawed Padres first baseman at the end of his career. The footage of the ensuing trot, Garvey pumping his fist, suggested everything that is wrong with the world.

ARIZONA 11, CUBS 2
ARIZONA 11, CUBS 3
ARIZONA 5, CUBS 4

Sooner or later every Cubs fan, if he is at all reflective, comes to realize that if the Cubs were somehow to cast off the past and win, they would no longer be the Cubs. There is a thrill in victory, yes, but there is a certainty in defeat, and is losing not, in the end, more righteous than winning? Sure, the team might enjoy the arrogance of victory for a season or two, or three, or however long it lasted, but it would thereby destroy the more interesting part of its identity. It would become just another club that won not long ago and is now not so good and not so bad. The first shall be the last and the last shall be the first. But what of those in the middle?

Since 1908, ninety-two teams have had hard luck, like the Red Sox, who have not won the World Series in eighty-three years, but the Red Sox have often gone deep into the Series. Perhaps there is more of a sting to the near miss, but the deep pain, the good stuff, is only to be had by never even coming close. If one must lose, it may as well be spectacularly, as was the case with the series I saw in Arizona. Everything went wrong. Every play was botched. Every player stank. If this were a movie I would title it, simply, Three Days in August.

The Diamondbacks play in a kind of terrarium, a vast biosphere in the center of Phoenix with a retractable roof and seats running clear up to the great glass panels. It was well over 100 degrees out there in the desert, but inside it is always a brisk 72; there is even a kind of autumn crispness in the air. Each player’s equipment had been hung in lockers on the far side of the clubhouse. Unfortunately, Sosa’s locker was at some distance from an electrical outlet, and thus he could not plug in his radio. A work crew was brought in to run an extension cord across the floor, which a pitcher proceeded to trip on.

Across the room sat a table with a pile of magazines, on top of which was a Sports Illustrated Where Are They Now? issue that showed William “Refrigerator” Perry, a lineman for the Bears, once a famous athlete in Chicago, in a hard hat and work clothes, over the words, “Bricklayer, Aiken, South Carolina.” The Cubs walked by this magazine as if it had nothing to do with them. They watched, on DVD, the scene in Fast Times at Ridgemont High in which Judge Reinhold, caught masturbating in the bathroom, says, “Doesn’t anyone around here knock?” Sosa made the jerk-off motion—a locker-room gesture so basic and true it was like a revelation.

In the dugout, Mark Grace was talking with Joe Garagiola, himself a former catcher and now the vice president and general manager of the Diamondbacks. Grace told Garagiola that he considered himself a throwback, an old-fashioned player, demonstrated by the fact that, among other things, he did not wear batting gloves, saying he prefers “the feel of the wood.” Since he was a rookie, he said, the big change in the game had been pitchers, who no longer intimidated in the same way. If, as a young Cub, he had come to the plate following a home run, he could have expected the next pitch to be a fastball at his back, “between the one and the seven.” Now, Grace said, pitchers were so nervous about getting tossed from a game that “the best ball to hit is the one right after the home run.” The following night, after Sammy Sosa’s long home run off Randy Johnson, the next pitch is a fastball, to Grace, “between the one and the seven.”

HOUSTON 5, CUBS 4
HOUSTON 10, CUBS 7

With each loss, the clubhouse grew noticeably darker. There was no music during the losing streak, no chatter. Only the sound of Sosa talking with reporters about his most recent home run—a moon shot that kissed the outer glass of Enron Field before falling back into the seats. With each home run, you could see the chasm widening between Sammy and his teammates. “I never really watch the ball,” Sosa said. “I put my head down and run the bases. But I know I got that one good.” In the locker room, Tim Worrell, a pitcher who gave up a homer that meant a lot more than Sammy’s, sat with his head in his hands. A coach, stationed before a VCR, with two empty beer cans at his side, watched the home run, freezing the frame just prior to the disaster: Worrell in his follow-through, the ball hanging like a pigeon over the plate. The coach took notes, rewound, lived through the terrible moment again, then hit fast-forward: the batter, with lickety-split cartoon speed, dashed around the bases to score.

I think I wanted to travel with the Cubs and see them suffer in return for all of the suffering they have caused me. But being on the road with the team in a true slump—well, I guess I had no idea how awful it would be: the stillness of the clubhouses, the eyes on the floor, the jumpiness. Mark Grace saying, “”I’m 0 for this road trip, and that really sucks,” and after every game the manager, Don Baylor—why does a manager wear cleats?—making his statement to the press, the general of an army in perpetual retreat: “Defensively, we’ve gone from the bottom to second in the league.” Or, “That was a home run people can talk about for years. … Unfortunately, it comes as part of another loss.” It was hard to imagine how the Cubs would ever win another game.

Eventually I put the problem to the man charged, hopelessly, with fixing it. “What this club has always done is lose,” Baylor told me. “So even if you have to change the players, you need to find a way to switch the mind-set. You have to find winning players who will talk about winning and not about how the organization has never won.”

GENERAL MANAGER’S OFFICE

One afternoon in Chicago I met with Andy MacPhail, the president and general manager of the Cubs, in his office at Wrigley Field. MacPhail, who won two World Series with the Minnesota Twins, descends from baseball royalty. His grandfather Larry MacPhail, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, helped pioneer night baseball in the major leagues. His father, Lee MacPhail, was the general manager of the Yankees and the Orioles and the president of the American League. For Andy, a neatly dressed middle-aged man with blond hair and wire-rimmed glasses, turning the Cubs around is perhaps the only way he can outdo his father and grandfather, both members of baseball’s Hall of Fame. “The Cubs have not been good enough at bringing players through the system,” he told me. “Other clubs have done it better. You don’t have to look further than the Yankees, who’ve been going to the World Series ad nauseam in the nineties. People think it’s the payroll, but look at Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter, Andy Pettitte, Mariano Rivera—all of them come from the Yankees system. That’s what we need to do, and I’m confident that we’re doing it. We’re going to have our share of players coming up. I can see them in the pipeline.”

I asked if there wasn’t something greater at play with the Cubs. A corporation-wide funk, a mental or emotional block, a culture of loss.

“To be honest, I have been trying to figure that one out myself,” he said, “and here is what I realized: through different ownerships, managers, general managers, players, equipment managers, the one constant has been the ballpark, the vagaries of playing in Wrigley Field. In Minnesota, in the dome, we had AstroTurf, 70 degrees, and no wind, every day. You could customize your team to the environment where you played. You can’t do that here. One day the wind is howling straight in from the lake; the next day it’s howling straight out. You really have to be good all the way around.”

“What about the Cubs teams that were good but still lost?” I asked. “How do you explain ’69 and ’84?”

“I don’t think that there is a curse, if that’s what you mean.”

In 1945, when the Cubs last went to the World Series, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, not allowed to bring his goat into the park, is said to have hexed the team—a curse some fans say explains ’69 and ’84, and all the rest of it.

I told MacPhail what Ron Santo had told me on the road. “Once you win it, and establish that you are a winning club, it becomes easier,” said Santo, who in his playing career never won anything. “When you have won and somebody comes to this organization, they cannot look back and say, ‘Well, we haven’t won since 1908, or even been there since 1945.’”

“I hate to disagree with a Cub legend,” said MacPhail, “but I can’t get into the occult. My problem is wins and losses, supply and demand. Do you really think Bill Buckner or Leon Durham was thinking about 1969? I don’t think it’s in the players’ minds. I do think it is popular with fans to have teams that represent futility. They like to have lovable losers. Even in the years where we were pretty good, they are slow to recognize it, or believe it, or want to believe it. Now, I find that personally repugnant, and I am going to die trying to change it.”

CUBS 15, HOUSTON 5

When it happens, it happens fast. One moment the Cubs cannot string together two hits, or turn a double play, or steal a base. The next minute they are driving the ball all over the field, sliding into clouds of dirt, racing around the bases. The beat reporters typed furiously into their laptops, adjectives flying everywhere. A pressbox announcer said that the fifteen runs scored by the Cubs ties their season record set in May in a game against Montreal, which the Cubs lost 16–15. In the clubhouse after the game, it was V-E Day all over again, music cranked up, players goofing in the showers. There were whoops, shouts, backslaps. In the aftershock of a high ten, I was racked by a memory that filled me with shame: In the sixth grade I was on a hockey team, the Winnetka Warriors, that had started the season 0 and 13. In our fourteenth game we beat a team from up north. Afterward, as the two teams stood side by side, we started to sing, “We are the Champions!” The other team, who knew they had lost to the biggest losers in the league, waited until we reached the line, “No time for losers.” That’s when the brawl broke out. I fought for my team, of course, but I was ashamed doing it. And that’s pretty much how I felt watching the locker room parry after the Cubs beat the Astros. There was something self-deceiving in the whole crummy display.

At night when I can’t sleep, I sometimes think back on my travels with the Cubs, and it is always the same image that first comes to mind: I was in the clubhouse in Arizona after another defeat. The room was somber, the players dressing quickly in front of their lockers. Several reporters had gathered around Mark Grace, who had caught that Randy Johnson fastball between the shoulder blades—retaliation for Sosa’s long home run; Grace had staggered and collapsed.

As Grace buttoned his shirt, one of the reporters said, “Looked like Johnson didn’t have his best stuff out there.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Grace. “The one that hit me felt pretty good.” You could already see the bruise. It was red and blue, and within it was a darker bruise left by the stitches on the ball. Over the next several days, this wound would develop like a photograph of yet another painful season for the Chicago Cubs.

Footnotes…

(1) At the end of the season, Grace would leave Chicago; unwanted, he would sign a two-year contract with the Arizona Diamondbacks. At the press conference he would say, “I know we play [the Cubs] nine times this year, and I want to kick their butt nine times. … I gave my heart and soul for thirteen years to the Chicago Cubs.” Cub greats have often met a dubious end. In my era, Bill Buckner was traded to Boston at the end of his career, where, in game six of the 1986 World Series, he let a routine grounder hop between his legs, costing the Red Sox their first championship since 1918. This inevitably leads to Mike Royko’s Cubs theorem: If you want to determine the outcome of any particular baseball game, simply calculate which ream has more ex-Cubs. That’s your loser. There are exceptions to this rule—players who go on to win Cy Young Awards and pennants elsewhere but these usually result from awful deals. The worst trade in ream history sent twenty-four-year-old Lou Brock to St. Louis, where he would rewrite the record books, in exchange for thirty-seven-year-old Ernie Broglio, a warhorse of a pitcher who would retire a year later.

(2) A New Yorker, my father had urged me to follow the Dodgers or the Yankees, the teams he had watched as a kid. He worried that in cheering for the Cubs I would come to accept losing as the natural condition of things and so ruin my life.

 

[Boom Box painting by Tim Sours]

But I Like It

Here’s a good piece on Keith Richards’ memoir by Rich Cohen:

Life is not a standard addiction memoir, because Richards sees his addiction as anything but standard. It’s not a weakness, not a disease. It’s martyrdom. “They imagined me, they made me, the folks out there created this hero,” he writes. “Bless their hearts. I’ll do the best I can to fulfill their needs. They’re wishing me to do things that they can’t. They’ve got this job, they’ve got this life . . . but at the same time, inside them, is a raging Keith Richards. When you talk of a folk hero, they’ve written the script for you and you better fulfill it. And I did my best.” In other words, Richards taunts death so that we can be free.

Much of the trouble between Jagger and Richards must come from the simple fact of longevity. They are locked in a partnership that started when they were too young to make lifelong commitments. How would you get along with your high school friends if you still had to depend on them today? Richards, a sentimentalist, cannot help but compare how it was then to how it is now with sadness. “Mick has changed tremendously,” he writes, “only thinking [back] do I remember with regret how completely tight we were in the early years of the Stones. First off, we never had to question aims. We were unerring in where we wanted to go, what it should sound like, so we didn’t have to discuss it.”

In the end, it does not matter that Richards is unfair to Jagger or that Richards sees the world through a coke-addled lens. In this book, as in his music, Richards’ real obligation belongs not to Jagger or anyone else. It belongs to the reader, and to the art. At this, Richards succeeds brilliantly. The result is a classic book of rock & roll.

While you are at it, check out Cohen’s 1994 Rolling Stone cover story on the band.

Poetry in Motion

Sad news to report. Steve Sabol has died. He was 69. To me, NFL Films is the best thing that ever happened to pro football.

Here is a terrific piece on Sabol by Rich Cohen over at the Atlantic.

Sabol will be missed.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver