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Change of Season

James M. Rohner | April 2017

    I read an article this winter about how briefly elation lasts after your favorite sports team wins a championship. According to researchers, the feeling fades in about three months. Here in Chicago, where winter has melted into spring, we are still excited about the Cubs’ World Series victory. I walked through Wrigleyville about a week after the final out and marveled at the happy mass of humanity crowding the sidewalks. Some came to buy a souvenir; others left messages in chalk on the brick walls outside the ballpark. Most people just wanted to take in the happy glow.
Rooting for the Cubs, as I have for over 40 years, brings valuable life lessons about perseverance and disappointment and patience. As the Cubs zipped off to a 24-6 start in 2016, I started to hope that this season might end differently. “This is the type of year they write books about,” I told anyone who would listen. When the final out arrived in November, the victory came with new lessons.
    It does not take the best player to be a leader. One of the biggest heroes of the 2016 Cubs was among the weakest hitters on the team. David Ross, a career backup catcher, arrived in Chicago two years ago with a pair of World Series rings and hopes of winning a third before retirement. He quickly became a leader on the team, the gray-bearded veteran who had seen everything and had the credibility to help younger players find their way. You rarely heard about discipline problems or overstuffed egos on this team, even during a terrible losing streak in the middle of the season. Ross seems destined to become a major league manager in the years to come. When he homered in the final at-bat of his career, Ross’ status as a Chicago legend was secured.
    A little levity works wonders. Cubs manager Joe Maddon has taken some criticism for his decisions during the seventh game of the World Series. Maddon has welcomed the second-guessing in interviews. The critics forget just how much Maddon contributed to winning 103 games during the season. Maddon receives considerable press for such entertaining stunts as hiring a magician to help conjure a win for the team after a tough losing streak. Perhaps more important was the relaxed atmosphere Maddon maintained on a daily basis. Most teams make a ritual of batting practice before a game. Maddon told players what time to show up for the game and left preparation largely up to the individuals. When inexperienced players made rookie mistakes, their manager deflected the criticism from the press. He counseled players that adversity would come on the road to a title. Because these are the Cubs, adversity arrived several times.
    You are always building on the work of those who came before you. One of the moving aspects of the playoff run was how many former Cubs showed up at the games. Guys who hadn’t worn the blue pinstripes in years wanted to see the end of the story. Kerry Wood, who pitched for the tragic 2003 team felled by Bartman, hung on every pitch. His former teammate, Mark Prior, a pitcher whose career crumbled in the years after the 2003 loss, returned to Wrigley Field for the first time in over a decade. Of course, there were players who did not live to see the World Series victory, including Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Ron Santo. These players helped establish the tremendous loyalty of the Cubs fan base, even when the team was far back in the standings.
    My favorite article about the Cubs victory in 2016 was an epic piece by ESPN writer Wright Thompson. Thompson captures remarkable vi­gnettes about the unbreakable bonds that pull Cubs fans together across time and generations. He tells of a cancer patient clinging to life during the World Series only to pass away between games 2 and 3. Her daughter would go to Wrigley Field after the series to leave a message in chalk like so many others. She scrawled on the metal gate, “Mom, thank you for teaching us to believe in ourselves, love and the Cubs. Enjoy your view from the ultimate skybox.” This silly game and this frustrating, loveable team brought together parents and children, friends and strangers – all hoping that this time victory would be ours.
    In triumph and failure, humility is key. As the Cubs arrived at spring training this year, Maddon reminded his players to stay humble. I sometimes think about the Chicago kids who grew up at the start of the 20th Century, when the Cubs won back-to-back championships in 1907 and 1908. They probably thought the Cubs were going to win every year. Alas, in sports, music, and life, the past guarantees nothing. You have to keep doing the little things that most people never see. When success comes, it makes the memories of the journey even sweeter.
– James M. Rohner