By Tim Baffoe-
(CBS) The greatest scourge of being a fan of the Chicago Cubs has never been so much the team's futility as the tacit, subconscious knowledge that it will never end. Eternally-springing hope is nothing but a tonic, a smiley mask to cover the pragmatic frown of the inevitable annual fate.
"Wait 'til next year" be damned not just because it's sounds so silly and cliché but because it's the biggest lie. Not one Cubs fan without his or her proper lobotomy has ever entered an April with an unwavering faith that the team will win a World Series. "Wait til next year" acts as a cover for acknowledging "I'm either incredibly stupid for continuing to do this or just insane."
Yet we keep coming back. We might not keep kosher, we might just be around the Church of Baseball for its major holidays, we might look to heavens at least once a year from inside this whale of a pathetic franchise and curse our maker and vow to never do this again.
And then after every winter's thaw the blue pinstripes come out of the back of the closet. The masochism continues mostly because feeling pain is better than feeling nothing at all. But part of it—teeny as it may be—is hope. That dangerous thing, in jaded Shawshankian terms of this prison we Cubs fans have built for ourselves. That little pilot light.
Ernie Banks was our pilot light. Every day, 365 he had a grin that melted our iciness and looked us in the eye and told us with absolute sincerity that this is the year it happens. He embodied that drop of positivity we all needed in our blood to keep us willfully clinging to a team that is the punchline of punchlines in sports.
Everybody at some point had to ask if Banks's positivity and joy and compassion was an act because nobody, especially not a Cubs fan, can operate without a hint of jadedness. But it wasn't, and there was nothing not genuine about Ernie Banks.
And now the latest sick twist in this tragicomedy is that Banks has passed away. Just as the Cubs seem to be fulfilling the annual promise Banks would make to us. Throughout a century-plus of losing we would see individuals who couldn't outlast the sad parade of the Cubs, those represented in the Steve Goodman song associated with Cubs fandom that doesn't suck. But the legends, the figures we would hang our sad hats on in order to salvage some credibility, they were always there. And our hunger sort of shifted from wanting a championship for selfish reasons to wanting one because the Fergies and the Billys deserved it so much.
Then Harry Caray, the Shakespearean comic relief and critic in us all who had to self-medicate through games and seasons, left us. Then Ron Santo, representative of that part of us that kept walking into the horror only to beat ourselves up over it and tear our hair out and then inexplicably do it again, died.
Now Mr. Cub is gone. And he, like the others, never got to see a Cubs World Series, which makes the loss that much harder.
I mean, consider the life of Banks. Second of twelve kids raised in segregated Texas, serves during the Korean War, and fate's cruelest joke rewarded him with a contract by baseball's perpetual laughingstock. Yet if he was having a bad day, he'd never let you know it. Even his scouting report noted his "very good" attitude. Hell, the guy became synonymous with "Let's play two," yet how often do we consider the type of positivity it takes in a human being to want two Cubs games in a day? Banks played in 318 Cubs doubleheaders, the poor guy.
He was a metronome of glass half full attitude that kept multiple generations of Cubs fans from completely losing it. A man so genuinely good that the majority of mentions about Banks deal with his quality as a human being, not as a Hall of Fame baseball player or the first African American to wear a Cubs jersey or, as he'd argue, Major League Baseball's first African American manager. The man had universal respect—even from White Sox fans. Sosa, Grace, et al were ripe fodder for Chicago's civil war rhetoric, but never a bad word was said of Ernie Banks. A freakin' Sox fan awarded him the nation's highest official honor any civilian can receive.
He transcended rivalries and loyalties. Baseball never had a better ambassador, and a franchise without a championship in more than a century never had a better example of true class.
The Cubs were terrible his whole career and almost every year after, but damn if he didn't remind us that bad baseball in the sunshine of Wrigley Field—a place Dante could have written about when it comes to hope—beats most any other lot in life. We needed his warmth and his smile because with the Cubs we didn't have much else to push us on.
Of course the Cubs are now inching their way toward being a really good baseball team. Excitement is percolating. Cautious optimism covers our scars once again.
But a big wound has just cut through us. We are sad because we lost a good man, but we throw our hands up because we lost the flower growing from the cracked, warped sidewalk of our fan identity stepped on year after year. And we lost someone we wanted a World Series championship for more than we wanted it for ourselves. Our bedrock of being able to smile through the pain and to tell ourselves this ain't so bad and it's gonna happen just wait is gone, and that tremendously sucks.
And while we're a mix of mourning and anger right now—miles away from anything resembling hope—baseball goes on. Spring's renewal occurs.
Ernie Banks won't be walking around Wrigley shaking everybody's hand and signing autographs. No. 14 will fly high from the foul pole, though (whenever that foul pole gets put up because of course in a season expected to be "one of the good ones" the bleachers won't even be ready on time because Cubs).
And maybe as a fly ball off a Cubs closer passes that flag for a three-run homer onto the street and we load up our "@#$%ing Cubs!" cannons of rage or resignation, we can pause. And smile. And tell ourselves that despite all rationality we are fortunate to be here in this folly of Cubs fandom. And—maybe not quite with the sincerity of Ernie Banks—tell ourselves it's gonna happen. Just like he always promised us.
I hope so.
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow him on Twitter @TimBaffoe.
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