Cubs fans at GCU never lost their passion for team
By Rick Vacek
GCU News Bureau
We are conducting an interview in the most appropriate of places — in front of the television with the World Series game on. Alan Boelter and Matt Hopkins are Grand Canyon University employees who are hard-core fans of the Chicago Cubs, and they are doing what virtually every Cubs fan in the universe is doing this week.
Boelter, GCU’s student conduct manager, went to high school at Lane Tech, a mile and a half from the Cubs’ beloved ballpark, Wrigley Field, and estimates that he used to go to 40 games a year. His office is filled with Cubs memorabilia, including the lineup card the Cubs had posted in their dugout at a spring training game when his son Tyler was a ballboy (here’s a video of Tyler in action).
“I was very nervous up to them getting in the World Series,” he says. “So this is great.”
But still greatly stressful — a stress they both exhibit even though the Cubs take an early lead in the game. Any conversation with a Cubs fan, at least until this year, almost has to involve the team’s most famous follies. The Curse of the Billy Goat. The shocking collapses in 1969 and 1984 and, with Steve Bartman providing the Shakespearean tragedy, 2003. Losing, losing and more losing. If you’re not from Chicago, you could never understand what it is like to feel such a sense of doom.
“Being here in Arizona,” says Hopkins, director of Residence Life at GCU and a former resident of Glen Ellyn, a Chicago suburb, “is like being in another country on the Fourth of July.”
Author’s anecdote: It’s May 22, 1965. My first baseball game. It was the Cubs against the Los Angeles Dodgers at Wrigley Field, with Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax on the mound for L.A. On our way back to our seats after getting a frosted malt, I stood at the top of the stairs, right behind home plate, and stared out as Koufax snapped off another of his legendary curveballs and induced yet another feeble swing. The Cubs lost 3-1. Of course they lost. What else would you expect?
You’d never know it today, given how beloved the Cubs and their ballpark are and how seemingly forgotten the White Sox are on the other side of the city, but there once was a time when the roles were reversed.
The Cubs never had a winning season from 1947 to 1966. In 1965, they drew only 641,361 fans to Wrigley Field, less than one-fifth of this year’s total of 3.23 million. The White Sox didn’t draw much better to another wonderful old stadium, Comiskey Park, but they never lost more games than they won from 1951 to 1967.
The White Sox were winners. The Cubs were losers. And yet the Cubs still had their fans, lots of them.
“Losing is part of the culture of this team,” says Sean Diana, a member of the College of Education’s online full-time faculty who used to work nights as a waiter and bartender in downtown Chicago and spent his afternoons at Wrigley. “When we said, ‘Wait ’til next year,’ we knew next year would be just like this year.”
A big part of the Cubs’ allure was the fact that there were no lights on Wrigley Field and every home game was televised on the local station, WGN. This was long before virtually every game across Major League Baseball was available via cable or satellite, and it definitely helped create fans of a team that looked so lovable and a ballpark (Cubs icon Ernie Banks famously dubbed it “The Friendly Confines”) that looked so beautiful and intimate — even if they didn’t live anywhere near Chicago.
“Growing up, the team you could watch on TV every day was the Cubs,” says Bart Barrett, a University development representative in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, who, as a youngster, tuned in from his home in Portland, Ore. “Then Ted Turner bought the Atlanta Braves and put them on TV, but it was too late. There’s nothing like Wrigley Field.”
When Barrett took his son Alex there for the first time, “we were the first ones in the ballpark and the last ones to leave.” He hasn’t been to Sloan Park, the Cubs’ spring training facility in Mesa, but it isn’t for lack of trying.
“Whenever we do the regular trainings with our team, I always say, ‘Hey, why don’t we come to campus in, say, early March?’” he says, laughing. “They won’t listen.”
Everything changed when the Cubs finally gave in to technology and put lights on Wrigley in 1988. They already had brought in wildly popular Harry Caray, who previously did White Sox games, as their play-by-play announcer, and now their fans could watch the games when they came home from work at night. Or go to the games — the Cubs haven’t drawn fewer than 2 million fans in a full season since.
For many Chicago baseball fans, it is blasphemy to like both teams. You must choose. Upon starting my first newspaper job, members of the sports department made it a point to ask right away, “Cubs or Sox?” I liked them both and had suffered through the horrors of 1969 right alongside my dad, an ardent Cubs fan, but I was tired of the losing. “White Sox,” I said. And to this day, whenever I meet someone from Chicago, one of the first things I ask is, “Cubs or Sox?”
Tom Franz, a University development rep who lives in Pingree Grove, Ill., just west of Elgin and about 50 miles from downtown Chicago, is another lifelong fan. He’d love to go one of the three World Series games this weekend at Wrigley Field, but the demand has sent ticket prices spiraling out of control.
“I think my mortgage holder would be pretty upset if I decided to spend it on a ballgame,” he says.
The Chicago Tribune reported that a pair of seats behind the dugout for Game 5 was selling for $150,000, and the asking price for a reserved table plus food at a pub near the ballpark was $1,250. That’s what happens when casual fans jump on the bandwagon, and it’s generally lamented by the people who have stuck with the team through the good and the bad. People like Franz.
“Being a fan is a gathering, a ritual,” he says. “It’s more than winning or losing. That’s what being a Cubs fan is all about. It’s not about trophies. My 5-year-old doesn’t care about trophies — he wanted to know what color they wear.”
Funny how that can make a difference, too. Janay Poole, GCU’s director of housing operations, wasn’t a diehard fan growing up in Lisle, Ill., a western suburb, but she gravitated to the team on the North Side because “I think the Cubs are more fun, and I like their colors better. I think their fans are better, too — they’re more loyal.”
Those loyal fans will be tested this weekend with three days that could bring rapture or more torture. Asked to make a prediction, Barrett hesitates and finally says, “I can’t say it. I just don’t want to say it. But it would be nice to see them win the next three in Chicago.”
Boelter will be there for Game 5, which means he will be in the stands if Barrett’s dream comes true and the Cubs win the World Series for the first time since 1908. Asked what he would do if that came to pass, he says, “I’m not sure I know that emotion. That’s new. I’d probably cry — and buy lots of Cubs World Series gear.”
Boelter looks at the game we’re watching and reminds us what time it started. It was moved up an hour because of the threat of rain in Cleveland, meaning it started at 7:08 Eastern time.
“What time is that in military time?” he asks. “19:08.”
Despite the bad omen, the Cubs win the game 5-1 to even the Series at a game apiece. Maybe, just maybe, their time has come. Instead of suffering through more losing, maybe it’s time for Cubs fans to, quite happily, lose their minds.
Cubs fans were openly scornful of the White Sox’s World Series victory in 2005, their first since 1917, and many Sox fans return the “favor” by rooting for another Cubs disaster. But I can’t go there. Even Cubs fans deserve to win it all, oh, every 108 years or so.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or firstname.lastname@example.org.