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It’s How They Play: Why Chicago’s pro sports fans are doubly blessed

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By Keir Graff

There are two reasons why Chicago is a true sports fan’s Shangri-la right now. The first, as anyone from the inner city to outer Mongolia could tell you, is the Bulls. At this writing, the Bulls have finished the regular season 69-13 (third-best in NBA history) and swept the first round of the playoffs. And they’ve achieved this during an injury-plagued season in which only Jordan, Pippen and Kerr have managed to stay off the injured list. While up-and-coming teams hope these collective impairments are evidence of vulnerability, to the rest of us this year’s struggle is yet more evidence that the Bulls are the greatest basketball team of all time. Even depleted by injuries and slowed by age, they still find a way to win.

But what of reason number two? What other team helps make Chicago a sports-fan paradise? Who dares run with the Bulls?

Well, it’s the, um, Cubs.

Mon dieu! you exclaim. The Cubs make headlines by losing, not winning. When they opened the season with a fourteen-game losing streak, it was widely recognized that this was the Baby Bruins’ best chance at setting a record this year. That they couldn’t catch the ’88 Orioles (0-21) for the worst start in history, you wryly note, underscores the fact that the Cubs are destined to avoid any real kind of greatness. With a pitching staff already running out of arm and a rash of bad leather, it looks like, well, business as usual at Cubs Park. To paraphrase Luke Skywalker, if there’s a bright center to the galaxy, they’re on the planet it’s farthest from. Now, you say, sitting back with arms folded and a skeptical smile on your mug, What the hell are you talking about?

Simply this: Both the Bulls and Cubs have elevated sports viewership to a higher plane—one by virtue of its greatness, and one by dint of its endless mediocrity. The Bulls will win, the Cubs will lose. Since we know this, we don’t watch with gritted teeth, our stomachs knotting in fear of the loss or in hope of the win. We watch to see sports played. In the case of the Bulls, with moments of greatness. With the Cubs, we settle for moments of Grace.

This may sound like naiveté to some, heresy to others, but professional sports teams shouldn’t be watched because they win and give us some twisted pride of “ownership.” We don’t make the teams win—the talent of the athletes, good coaching and the avaricious dealings of team owners do. Yet when “our” team wins, the endorphin rush of hard-won accomplishment isn’t confined to the locker room. Hence the worldwide popularity of Your Chicago Bulls.

The uberfan, confronted by the seemingly endless victories of the Bulls (only two losses at home all season!), needed to find something to get tense about, and so was reduced to worrying about whether Jordan would average thirty points a game for the ninth straight season (darn, only 29.6). The uberfan hoped all season long for seventy wins and felt vaguely let down by a mere sixty-nine. But to hope for more and ever greater records diminishes the game to mere math. In tallying the baskets, wins, ‘bounds and assists, they completely miss the poetry of M.J.’s fadeaway jumper, Scottie Pippen’s swish from the arc, or a lob that finds Jason Caffey at the backboard with his arms already putting the ball down.

But what, then, is the joy of watching the Cubs, who seem fated to win only the title of hapless? True, there’s not much poetry in watching them blow a lead to a fellow cellar-dweller or get shut out by a team’s fourth starter, but there are other pleasures. Some of the finest teams in the country play at Wrigley, and if you can swallow your pride, you can enjoy watching the Cubs lose to the likes of the Atlanta Braves. Every game has its wonderful moments, from steals to slides to broken windows on Waveland. The first game I ever took in at the Friendly Confines, the Cubs won when Sammy Sosa homered in the ninth. I don’t need them to have a winning season to cherish that moment. And even the worst teams in baseball win a third of their games.

Every time someone takes you out to the ballgame at 1060 West Addison, you find yourself enthroned in one of a half-handful of ballparks that aren’t festooned with corporate regalia and irradiated by the JumboTron. No freeway whizzes past the park. Buy yourself a four-dollar beer and relax for a few hours in one of the finest cathedrals they ever built to the god Baseball. And if you’re watching at home, you can relish the slurring sibilance of Harry Caray. He may not be an accurate play-by-play man, but he’s one of the last sportscasters in the country who didn’t go to the ESPN School of Tonal Blandness.

Yes, sports fans, we are the luckiest of our kind in the world. We don’t have to watch games red-faced with emotion, screaming at the ref, the ump, the TV or an offending player. We have better things to do than follow our team’s stats with relentless obsession. Bookies don’t give good odds on the Bulls or Cubs anyway, and we’d rather cheer for our players than a point spread. Let those who have a hard time making conversation with their friends try to gain oracle status in the office betting pool.

We watch because a game is a story, and like a Faulkner novel, the way it’s written is more important than the way it comes out. We’ll never know what it’s like to explode to the basket and put in a one-handed jam, but it’s sure fun to watch someone who can. And a kid—of any age—can still catch a ball at Wrigley and not care who won.

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