My name is Joe and I am a Cubs fan.
To finally utter those ten little words has been an incredibly cathartic experience for me. My sponsor, Bruno, says the first step is to acknowledge the power the Cubs have over my life. "You are not like everyone else," he's fond of saying. "Others can go out to the bar and have a good time without so much as glancing at the score on TV. Some don't even realize a game is being played. This will never be you."
My first meeting was held at a deteriorating church on a Saturday morning. About thirty people were in attendance. I was struck by the business-like environment that awaited me. People were gathered around, broken off into small groups, making conversation and sipping coffee. A couple men dutifully shuffled through papers while a lone woman sat alone in the corner, taking it all in. We were allowed to sit anywhere and no one was forced to speak. You would have thought we were preparing for a regional marketing meeting.
Bruno spoke that first day, and I have to say, I wouldn't have been back if he didn't. His story nearly moved me to tears. I am not at liberty to relay it all to you, but I can point out some of the more jarring highlights. Bruno worked as an electrician, and had been happily married for nine years. He and his wife treasured their two daughters, ages 5 and 3. A star shortstop in high school, Bruno stayed in shape by participating in a men's 16-inch softball league. Life was perfect. He was happy. His wife was happy and his little girls couldn't wait to eat hot dogs at the park and watch daddy play. Then 2003 rolled around.
Bruno never gave much thought to the Cubs. In fact, he was put off by them at a young age. His father was a die-hard Cubs fan and Bruno saw firsthand the emotional strain Cubs fandom put on his father and their family. "Isn't baseball supposed to be fun?" Bruno thought as a child. "Why does dad care so much when he knows the Cubs are just going to disappoint him?" Bruno's dad would throw things, cuss at the TV, and then walk away as if nothing happened. He raised his voice at Bruno when the Cubs lost, and then sent him up to his room for "not believing hard enough." Bruno attributed his broken family life to Chicago Cubs baseball.
His daughters became increasingly interested in baseball as they grew older. They wanted a step up from 16-inch softball and quenched their thirst with the televised Cubs games. Bruno tried to stop it, but soon relented after he saw how much fun the girls were having. "Just a game here, and a game there," he figured. He was only watching the Cubs socially. It's not like he had a problem or anything. He could stop anytime. Bruno and his daughters began watching Cubs games in August of 2003, just as the Cubs were beginning to make their playoff push. "This Mark Prior is one hell of a pitcher," he told his daughters. "He's going to dominate the National League for the next decade. Just you watch." He was nothing like his father. His father was angry and mean and watched nothing but losing baseball. The Cubs won practically every game in September of 2003. Bruno and his daughters celebrated with ice cream and high-fives. His wife, sensing she was losing him, wept in the bathroom with an issue of People magazine.
Details get sketchy from here because Bruno cannot remember them. His addiction to the Cubs left his life disheveled. After the Cubs won Game 4 of the 2003 NLCS to take a 3-1 series lead, Bruno, in his delightful stupor, headed over to the tattoo parlor. He woke up on Clark Street with '2003 World Series Champions' and the Cubs logo tattooed across his stomach. You should have seen the horror on all of our faces when Bruno lifted his shirt to expose the tattoo at my first meeting. What was once a gentle baby bear now looks like the Memphis Grizzlies logo. Despite its grotesqueness, Bruno keeps the tattoo as a testament to his past and a reminder of how far he's come. By 2007, he was attending 3-5 Cubs games a week, regardless of where they were playing. He was blowing through he and his wife's savings to take flights to places like Houston, Pittsburgh, and St. Louis. His low-point came later that year when he failed to pick up his daughters from school because he was too busy scoring Cubs Game 1 playoff tickets from a cook behind a seedy Chinese restaurant. He flew to Phoenix that night, completely oblivious of his familial responsibilities. He came back and his wife had taken the kids and left him. He moved to northern California in 2008, where he waited for the Cubs to play the Giants and ran with a roving pack of bearded gentlemen searching for Ken Kesey in the meantime. He saw some things, man. Some things I can't get into.
As I listened to his story told in a very relateable, sorrowful tone, I knew Bruno was just the man to guide me through a Cubs-free lifestyle.
* * *
I woke up fully clothed in a stranger's bathtub this morning. Sheryl Crow's "Everyday is a Winding Road" blared from the stereo. When I finally came to, I scrambled out of there as fast as I could. Five unfamiliar individuals were scattered across the living room watching The Andy Griffith Show on WGN. Clearly, they had not changed the channel since the Cubs game the day before. They looked like the gang I used to run with last season. Dirty, unshaven, wholly despicable in their appearance, decked out in blue and red. They spontaneously broke out in a "Go Cubs Go!" chant, which sounded like music to my ears, especially in comparison to the Sheryl Crow.
"Where is my Cubs game?" I demanded. "I need my Cubs game."
"The game is over, dude," a 250 pound man made of Bud Light and Wrigley bison burgers answered. "It ended, like, three days ago."
"Three days ago?!? My phone says it's Friday."
"It is Friday. Oh, wait, you're right. The game ended yesterday. The time, bro. The time just flies on by. I should have stopped after the 5th inning like Dennis said to."
"Ok, that's great," I said, fed up with it all. "When are the Cubs playing today? I need to see my Cubs."
The 250 pound man suddenly became very serious. "They don't play today. You haven't heard? They don't play today."
I kicked a hole into the wall next to the hole that was already in the wall. I threw a chair. I helped myself to some water out of the faucet. "Whadaya mean they don't play today?"
"It's an off day. There's always an off day after Opening Day."
He was right, of course. In my anger, I had forgotten even the most basic of baseball traditions. Sheryl Crow's lyrics were starting to become a little too pertinent to my lifestyle. I accepted the 250 pound man's gift of some 1984 VHS highlight tapes to hold me over until Friday. We exchanged head nods and parted ways. Just another part of being a Cubs fan: your "friends" are only your friends until the game is over. Then they have very little use for you.
I called Bruno when I arrived home at five in the morning. He was understanding, but still half-asleep. I made some coffee. While the coffee brewed, I tried to recollect the day before. I remembered Ian Desmond taking the first pitch of the game off the end of the bat and into right and thinking: what a terrible omen. Bits and pieces began to come back. Dempster got out of a jam in the first and again in third when he loaded the bases with only one out. Soriano did something indefensible and Mark DeRosa was there. Marlon Byrd drove in a run and later struck out looking on the only pitch he's not going to swing at this year. Kerry Wood is more franchise symbol than set-up man. It's sad. Kerry was one of my heroes growing up. I had a pennant of him on my wall and his rookie card in a hard case. His 20-strikeout game was one of my finest childhood memories. Now he's just another guy who cannot pitch particularly well. Chad Tracy looks like Matt Stairs nowadays, and as Stairs was apt to do every tenth game, smacked a double off the right field wall. Everything else is a blur. Ian Stewart. What are the odds of two "Ians" being on the same field?
Bruno saved me from my own mind. He burst through the door and before I could offer him coffee, he slapped me across the face, violating, I believe, every sponsor-sponsee conduct rule ever created. "You're better than this," he said.
"You are. And I can prove it to you."
We took a walk in the freezing Chicago morning. Bruno asked me the score of yesterday's game.
"The score? I...I don't remember."
"Of course you don't. The score isn't important to you. You've become so desensitized to losing that you don't bother with wins and losses. You expect nothing. The Cubs are there to inflict pain upon you and you don't have enough sense to break the cycle. Admit it. You like losing. It's all you know."
"Not true. We have Garza going on Saturday. He's our best pitcher. We win that one and we have a chance to win the series. I know we can"
"That's your addiction talking. You're making excuses to rationalize your behavior. It is not normal to support a dysfunctional franchise year after year after year and expect them to reverse a century of suck."
"But we have Theo and Friends!"
"Look," and Bruno looked me directly in the eyes as he paused. "The sooner you realize the Cubs are not good for your health, well-being, or state of mind, the sooner you can begin your road to recovery. I'll be here for you each step of the way, but you have to want it. You have to sincerely believe your life will be better without the Cubs."
"Yeah," I said. "Let me think on it. I'm ready. I know it's the right thing to do. Let me just sleep on it."
I shook Bruno's massive hand and said goodbye. He turned away and jammed his hands into his coat pockets. I watched the cold air emanate from his figure as he faded into the landscape.
"Bruno," I hollered. "Tomorrow. I'll call you tomorrow."
He gave me a thumbs-up and continued on his way. When Bruno turned the corner I checked my watch. Only 29 hours until first pitch. Garza versus Gonzalez. Second game of the regular season. One more game couldn't hurt.