Good Job, Baseball

The 108-Year Drought That Saved The Show


Baseball finally righted itself early yesterday morning when Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant came up smiling before making a laser throw to Anthony Rizzo for the final out of the 2016 World Series.

It only took 22 years. Not even a quarter of the time it took for the Cubs to become World Champions again.

I was introduced to the game of baseball by an unlikely teacher. My grandmother, Angelina Procopio, came to America as a little girl, and immediately fell in love with the New York Yankees of the 1940s and 1950s. Her favorite players, Joe DiMaggio and Phil Rizzuto, were models of the American Dream with an Italian heritage.

She introduced me to the Yankees shortly after I could walk, and my first memories of baseball are of those late 1970s teams -- Reggie Jackson, Bucky Dent, Graig Nettles, Ron Guidry, Goose Gossage. I'd listen to broadcasts on an AM radio and drift off the sleep nearly every night from April to October.

Baseball was my jam.

When I was old enough to play, I found another player to love. Sure I had loved Reggie and Bucky and Dave Winfield, but I had never seen anything like Ozzie Smith. While my size and power weren't working for me on the ballfield, I did have good hand-eye (thanks, video games!) and quickness. Ozzie, a small contact hitter and defensive genius, was my spirit animal, and by the time he executed his first backflip in the 1982 World Series, he was my hero.

I loved baseball, everything from the numbers to the smell of the grass to belting out Take Me Out To The Ballgame as loud as I could, every time, without fail.

Then 1994 happened.

What the NFL is going through now in terms of horrible product, optics mismanagement, and plummeting ratings -- this has all happened before. The 1980s and 1990s weren't kind to baseball fans, with skyrocketing greed from owners and players alike (mostly owners IMO), off-field incidents piling up, and a vacuum where the commissioner should be.

Any of that sound familiar?

It all blew up in a strike that ended the 1994 season and shortened the 1995 season. Baseball lost fans that never came back, and the strike ushered in an already-inevitable shift in popularity from the MLB to the NFL as America's Pastime.

Even when baseball started to dig itself out, with Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa battling for the single-season homerun record in 1998, the cloud of steroids would rise to effectively cast into doubt ANY personal on-field achievement for the next 15 years, including Barry Bonds 71-homer season in 2001 and his record-breaking career 756th in 2007.

I watched all this with a detached interest -- a bunch of spoiled junkies cheating for overstuffed billionaires.

But my love of the game never died.

Once my boy started playing, six years ago as a sweet-swinging 3-year-old tornado, I dove right back in. I started coaching (I played a bit in high school), I started going to more Durham Bulls games. And then a few years later when my company got the chance to move to a new office overlooking centerfield of the Bulls ballpark, I was hooked again. Joey and I probably see 15-20 games a season from our office deck, and I'll go sit in the stands with my family for a dozen more, and then catch bits of others on my own.

I'm not a Cubs fan. Never have been, never pretended to be. In fact, having no horse in this race probably made it 10 times more fun (and less painful) to watch. But I followed. I started playing fantasy two years ago (Joey played this year and finished 3rd in our work league), and that kept me up to date on who was who.

But man, this series. And that Game 7. It felt like half the country was watching. My friends and I were texting like mad until 1:00 a.m., Twitter was blowing up. And then when Bryant delivered that final out, and Rizzo pocketed the ball, and the benches cleared, and Bill Murray cried(?), it was heavenly to watch.

And in each and every single post-game interview on the field, the players, near speechless, all seemed to know, and what's more, understand, that this was about something bigger than them, bigger than the team, bigger than Chicago.

It felt communal. Which is baseball.

Look, we all know the Cubs had a huge payroll and Theo Epstein, and probably have more than one jerk in the locker room. Maddon is the kind of guy you either love or hate. And Chapman, what you did is still despicable bro. This story is not perfect.

Baseball isn't going to eclipse the NFL any time soon. In fact, when that happens, it'll likely be the NBA that does that. This isn't the WAY THINGS SHOULD BE or any sort of band-aid for anything that's wrong with our societal fabric.

But baseball is back, finally. And it feels good again.