Commentary: Wisdom or lack thereof?

By GREGORY TEJEDA  |  Nov. 17, 2002 at 10:30 AM
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CHICAGO, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- Few would consider it wise to root for a baseball club that has not won a World Series in nearly a century.

But "wisdom" is what some try to find in the sporting loyalties of Chicago Cubs fans, especially University of Notre Dame professor Jim Langford, who has updated his "The Cubs Fan's Little Book of Wisdom," a light-hearted tome (published by Lanham, Md.-based Diamond Communications, $7.95, 112 pages) that tries to find the humor in rooting for a sports franchise that hasn't even managed to put together consecutive winning seasons in the past three decades.

"Wisdom" is almost a parody of Chairman Mao's Little Red Book, filled with fortune-cookie-size sayings -- 101 in all -- that relate to the history of America's favorite losers.

Take saying No. 78: "Don't let a bad day discourage you." It leads into a tale of future Hall of Fame outfielder Billy Williams' first major league game in 1960 where he went hitless in four at-bats.

Or take saying No. 35: "Don't let a setback throw you" -- a reminder of the words of the ever-forgettable 1970s-era Cubs pitcher Bill Caudill, who once tried to justify his mediocre record by saying, "Even Betty Crocker burns a cake once in awhile."

The problem is quaint little sayings can only go so far to cover up the fact the Cubs -- sCrUBS, to their critics on Chicago's South Side say -- are awful.

How else to describe a franchise that once had eight managers simultaneously -- the ever popular College of Coaches -- and has allowed men such as Lennie Merullo, Adolfo Philips, Larry Biittner and an aging Todd Hundley the privilege of playing in the Big Leagues rather than languish at the more appropriate Triple-A level?

In a sense of disclosure, I must admit to being a part of that shrinking minority of Chicagoans -- if attendance figures are to be believed -- who prefer to get their dose of professional baseball by following the White Sox.

I know, I know. They haven't won a pennant since the year that Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper crashed in an Iowa cornfield and 1919 is a year that should not be discussed in mixed company.

But the Sox (the real ones, not the red pretenders from Boston) managed a streak of 17 consecutive winning seasons during the 1950s and 1960s, put together interesting contending teams in 1972 and 1977, and in more recent history won three division titles.

Their last two consecutive winning seasons were 2000 and 2001. The year 2002 missed being added to the list by one measly game. That compares to the early 1970s for the Cubs, back in the days when perpetual baseball rascal Leo Durocher reigned supreme over Wrigley Field.

Any mention of the Cubs' popularity has to take their ballpark (in the words of late folk singer Steve Goodman an "ivy-covered burial ground") into account.

Even Langford acknowledges that fact in saying No. 74: "Try to understand the magic of Wrigley Field." He says the over-hyped ivy-covered walls, worn-out brown grass, manually operated scoreboard that's always an inning or two behind for out-of-town games and washrooms that reek of nine decades of accumulated urine, combine to create an atmosphere of "friends, a few (baseball) stars and a lot of hope."

It is the environment of Wrigley Field, combined these days with the wind-blown home runs of White Sox reject Sammy Sosa, that has enabled the Cubs to draw record crowds in the past five years to watch teams that largely had to struggle to avoid losing 100 games per season.

That "old-timey" baseball atmosphere helps create a place where a botched ground ball or a blown save can be overlooked, and a Cubs pitcher giving up a home run is an excuse to join in the fun by throwing the ball back onto the field. Langford concedes this, saying in item No. 39: "A Cubs fan who can't forgive is a contradiction in terms."

Compare that to Sox fans. The Web site once summarized the difference between the two teams' fans by saying, "Losing ain't cute" and "Sox fans hate losing."

Hence, you have Cubs fans across the United States who have joined the Emil Verban Memorial Society, paying tribute to the otherwise forgettable middle infielder for the Cubs in the late 1940s as a way of honoring their love of a second-rate ball club.

The equivalent for a Sox fan would be to create a Harry Chappas Memorial Society. Anybody who seriously tried to honor the 5-foot-3 shortstop from the late 1970s would qualify for commitment to a mental institution.

So it's hard for me to take seriously Langford's effort since it glorifies a pathetic excuse for a baseball club whose existence has often forced me to explain to outsiders Chicago is not a town for losers just because some of us sink low enough to root for the Cubs.

But there's no such thing as a totally pointless book. This one does provide a quickie baseball fix for fans just as a Midwest winter is beginning to show its ugly head.

And saying No. 22: "Don't take political correctness to the extreme," is good for a chuckle. It leads into an anecdote about Moe Drabowsky -- the 1960s pitcher and pride of Ozanna, Poland -- who said upon making it to the World Series with the Baltimore Orioles in 1966: "I was the second Pole to appear in the World Series. The first one carried a rake."

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