Last week I offered to spend an afternoon carrying things for my aunt, who wanted to go to an airplane hanger-sized thrift store and see how much of it would fit in her car.
While standing around between aisles, I noticed the store sold 1980s and ’90s baseball cards- batches of 100 were sold for a dollar. I lost my childhood collection in a transatlantic move, so I bought the store out on a whim, instinctively reciting the short litany of players I had grown up watching: Sandberg, Maddux, Dawson. I wondered if there might be some childhood gold to be panned from the slurry.
Living for much of my life in the United Kingdom, some parts of my character have been indelibly formed by British people and traditions. The best humor will always be, to me, self-deprecating. All humor should be spelled “humour.” At 11pm sharp on Saturday nights I crave, at a biological level, lamb rohgan ghosht.
But, even after more than two decades living away from my hometown, I find that some American things were imprinted on my heart too early to be changed. One of those is baseball, by which I mean the Chicago Cubs.
Many people follow a sport. Some follow a team to the point of calling its members their “family” or calling a stadium their “cathedral.” I’m not like that. But, for me, baseball is inextricably intertwined with both family and religion.
Although I am right-handed, I swing a bat like a southpaw. This is a legacy from my left-handed father, who taught me how to swing on the front lawn of our family home in north Chicago. In Little League, other coaches and dads would sometimes comment on my swing. I learned the proper response from my dad too - batting lefty made me a step and a half closer to first base.
Despite my best efforts to unlearn my lefty swing for other sports, I can’t do it for baseball, not even a little. Neither can I unlearn an abiding loathing for the New York Mets, who never did a thing to me but who broke my dad’s heart in the summer of ’69 with their blasphemous “miracle”.
My grandfather, himself a lifelong Cubs fan despite his own father having pitched for the White Sox, would watch games with me in his living room, and very occasionally at Wrigley Field. I learned the players’ names from him. I watched players like Rick Sutcliffe, Mark Grace, and Joe Girardi, whose drafting by the Rockies taught me to hate expansion teams on sight. But there were three names I heard over and over again: Sandberg, Maddux, Dawson.
As we watched the games, my grandfather didn’t speak much to me about the strategy or mechanics of baseball. It was years before I understood what a squeeze play was, or when you should try one. When Grandpa spoke to me about baseball, he spoke about the Cubs, and he spoke about virtues. The litany I learned- Sandberg, Maddux, Dawson- was about men whose characters made them praiseworthy. It wasn’t about what they did, but how they did it.
Ryne Sandberg, I was taught, worked harder than any Yankee, never got into trouble, and was always more interested in moving a man over to third than he was trying for the fences. A player who could hit 40 home runs in a season made himself the best bunter on the team. His near-perfect fielding percentage at second base (.989) came from a total focus on reading the game and always, always making the play for the team. He was a leader who led with wisdom, who put prudence behind each step and every swing.
Greg Maddux was the first and only pitcher I really knew as a kid. I later had to have Nolan Ryan explained to me as being “like Maddux.” Even as a 10-year old I understood he was great. But more important, I remember his effort. My grandfather said it wasn’t that he was good, it was that he always got better because he always tried to get better.
At his induction into the Hall of Fame, Greg Maddux said that Cubs pitching coach Billy Connors once asked him if he ever wondered how good he could be, and he said he hadn’t. Connors responded “Why don’t you go out there and try to find out?” Maddux said he’d spent every day since that conversation trying to find out how good he could be.
My father always taught me - still encourages me today - never to consider how or what I am, but to consider what I could be. As a child I hated the word “potential.” I understood it as an unanswerable criticism, a by-its-nature unfulfillable standard.
As an adult, I have come to understand potential as the universal call to holiness, that as life is a pilgrimage toward heaven, the goal is always “nearer,” never “there.” To seek perfection is to seek God; to always have more to do is to never take salvation for granted. To enter the struggle every day takes fortitude, looking at your life for ways to improve requires courage.
My favorite player was Andre Dawson. In 1987, he was a free agent with bad knees. No one would sign him, even the 71-91 Cubs. But Dawson wanted to be a Cub, so he arrived at spring training with a blank contract, offering to play for free, just for the chance to show what he could do. This, my grandfather told me, is what humility looks like - this is how a real man acts. Dawson went on to become league MVP, during a season in which the Cubs finished in last place.
They being the Cubs, and it being the 1980’s and 90’s, their greatness was a rarely sullied by winning. To be a Cubs fan was to live in constant, cheerful hope for a World Series we probably would never see in this world. I learned to hope, not with clenched teeth and fists, but with a smile. I learned to shrug off the losses, and to invoke the promise of next year, to have faith that someday they’d go all the way.
Of course, where the Cubs finished never mattered to me, or to my grandfather, or to my father. And it never touched the greatness of the players for me. I cared that they played the game with, as Sandberg called it, respect - for the game, for each other, for their opponents. They were, as I saw it, righteous.
In 2003, I remember watching the Bartman Game with my dad, live from London in the middle of the night. By the end, I think we were almost relieved - the tragicomedy of the team’s collapse somehow made more sense than victory ever would have.
Of course, two seasons ago the Cubs did go all the way. Sadly, it was 12 years after my grandfather had died. During the 2016 NLCS and World Series, I spent most of the games on the phone with my dad. We talked about the game. But we talked more about my childhood, our family, and Grandpa. On the day of Game 7, I went to Mass (like a lot of Cubs fans). It was the feast of All Souls. I prayed for my grandfather.
I can’t name the whole 2016 Cubs team, but I can still name the Cubs from the ’89-’90 seasons. The 2016 team was fun to watch, but they taught me nothing.
When I got back from the thrift store last week, I sifted through more than 1,000 cards. They were all there: Rick Sutcliffe, Joe Girardi, Mark Grace, even the manager Don Zimmer. I found Sandberg, Maddux, and Dawson as a matching set for the ’89 season. I called my dad. I sent him pictures of the cards. We told stories about Grandpa.
I am going to get those cards framed. When I look at them I won’t see just baseball players. I will see wisdom, fortitude, and humility. I will think of my grandfather, and our call to be righteous and holy. When I look at them, I will call my dad.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. They do not reflect the editorial perspective of Catholic News Agency or Angelus News.