As the Boys of Zimmer Dare to Dream, a Nostalgic Editor Returns to His Field of Futility

updated 10/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/09/1989 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Senior editor Ralph Novak grew up in Chicago and misspent much of his youth at Wrigley Field, cheering obstinately for the perennially hapless Chicago Cubs. Ralph lives in New Jersey now, but has remained a Cub loyalist, and as this baseball season neared its unforeseeable end, something...strange...was happening in his old hometown. The Cubs were in fact headed for a most improbable division title—and maybe even their first World Series in 44 years—and in the days before they locked up the title there was a sense of history in the making. If so, how could Ralph not share it with his son, Thad, 9, and thereby introduce the boy to legendary Wrigley? So father and son journeyed to Chicago, where they were joined by granddad John Novak, 77, who had taken young Ralph to his first Cubs game way back in 1950. Then, at Wrigley...well, let Ralph describe their three-generational trip to their field of lost dreams.

Every father wants his children's lives to be better. My father's father brought his family from Poland to Chicago in 1905 so his offspring would have greater freedom and opportunity. My father worked long and selflessly so I could have a good education. I myself have encouraged my son in his support of the St. Louis Cardinals and Detroit Tigers, in the belief that rooting for at least occasionally successful teams would ease his burden in life. Better, I thought, to lessen the chance that he would become jaded and too familiar with grim realities by the time he was 18, as has been the lot of Cub fans since time immemorial, or at least since the Cubs lost to the Tigers in seven games in the 1945 World Series. I had even been willing to overlook some of my deepest moral beliefs this spring, when my son, in a burst of premature rebellion, announced that he was becoming a Yankee fan. "It's not Don Mattingly's fault that George Steinbrenner is a jerk, Ralph," he said, by way of explanation.

But the fact is that through all this, Thad, whether by osmosis or genetics or some obscure Freudian principle having to do with baseball, has developed an overriding affection for the Cubs.

Meanwhile, I have come to face the fact that rooting for the Cubs is a lot like being unwisely in love: There's a passionate rush to it, but you know it's going to lead to frustration, depression and frequent firm decisions to chuck the whole business forever, or at least until spring.

I have forgiven the Cubs a lot. I forgave them for trading Andy Pafko, my first favorite player. I forgave them when they replaced the manager with that ludicrous "revolving coaches" system, thereby humiliating anyone foolish enough to defend their worthiness in arguments with White Sox fans. I forgave them for losing the division to the Mets in 1969. I forgave them when they signed the surly slugger Dave Kingman to wear the uniform that had been ennobled by such martyred figures as Hank Sauer, Ernie Banks and Billy Williams. I've even forgiven them for putting in the lights.

Naturally, I have been delighted by the team this season, in the way Cub fans have learned to enjoy any brief but enchanting illusion of success. So there was little hesitation when the chance arose to take Thad to his first game at Wrigley Field, to see this apparently amiable bunch of youths who thought they were clinching a division championship and experience an idyllic three-generation outing.

My father, who still lives in Chicago, took a more matter-of-fact attitude—he was never a sentimentalist. He could tell you how good a transmission the '38 Packard had, or fix any 1949 Philco TV set you might have, or tell you how to grind a tiny gear down to the finest tolerance. But, he told me on the way to the ballpark, he did not remember the first time he took me to Wrigley Field.

I remember, of course, with astonishing clarity, the way you might remember the first time you had what became a recurring nightmare. It was May 14, 1950, and it was just about the best introduction a boy could get to being a Cub fan. Their doubleheader opponents were the chronically inept Pittsburgh Pirates, who would win only 57 games all season. The Cubs were only slightly less inept: They would win 64. The Pirates beat them that day 6-5 and 16-9. A foul ball came right into our box down the right field line—and the childless couple next to us got it and kept it. A promising young Cub, outfielder Hal Jeffcoat, tried to make a diving catch and broke his collarbone. He took a while to recover and eventually became a pitcher. I never recovered.

The only thing that seems the same on Thad's first day is the ominous opponent—the Pirates. It is a gorgeous, bright, September Chicago day. I spent many such days there, but back then the stands were barely sprinkled with red-cheeked kids and wrinkled old-timers—3,000 of us, maybe—watching the Cubs play out another wretched season and test purported future phenoms—Gordon Massa, Ted Tappe, Don Kaiser, where did you go? Now the park seems surrounded by more souvenir vendors than there once were customers, and the stands are almost filled with fans, mostly good-natured. There is a festival mood.

Thaddeus has inherited some of the traditional Cub fan's skepticism along with the affiliation. When the Cubs fall behind 2-0 early, he throws up his hands. "That's it," he despairs. "I knew they were dead from the start." But he keeps yelling enthusiastically, and when his favorite Cub, Ryne Sandberg, drives in the tying run in the third, he is ecstatic.

My dad is keeping calm. He reserves most of his conversation for exclaiming about how much a cup of beer costs here nowadays. When the people next to us buy four, he says, "You know, you could get a case for less than that."

As the game goes on and the tie remains, Thad starts picking up the enthusiasm of the fans around us, who actually seem to be waiting for the Cubs to win this game. I, unable to overcome old habits, am waiting for them to lose it.

In my day, when the other team had men on first and third with one out in the seventh in a tie game, you started calculating which Cub pitcher would be charged with the loss. Now, reliever Les Lancaster strikes out the next two batters.

In my day, when the opposing team's swiftest runner tried to steal second in the ninth, he made it and went to third on the overthrow. Now, Joe Girardi bazookas a throw to second, nailing Jose Lind for the first time this season.

In my day, when the Cubs got a runner to second in the ninth, he'd be stranded there and some opponent—a Kiner or Clemente, say—would club a home run five miles to win the game in the 10th. Now, the Cubs' seldom-used Mitch Webster pinch-hits with the winning run on second. This is good because he's another of Thad's favorites, along with Dwight Smith, Jerome Walton, Mark Grace, Scott Sanderson and Andre Dawson—Thad's a boy of much affection. It's even better when Webster lines a single to right for a 3-2 win.

I bench press Thad so he can see the winning run score, over the heads of the leaping crowd. I don't start to feel the pain in my back until much later. Thaddeus bounces with excitement, his fist thrust in the air. My dad is on his feet too, smiling. "Pretty good game," he says.

"This game was soooo great," Thad yells. "Everybody says those Giants will beat the Cubs, but I don't think they will, do you, Ralph?"

I think about Kevin Mitchell and Will Clark. I think of that doubleheader in 1950. I think back to the fades of 1969 and 1984 I think of what a happy day this has been, and how good optimism feels. "You're right, Thad," I say. "Those Giants haven't got a chance."

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