Even as winter finally descends on Chicago, fans of the Cubs are lingering over a November moment frozen in time. As every American was reminded during the World Series, for one hundred and eight years the Chicago Cubs labored under a curse. Then, all of a sudden, the curse broke—with a ball flipped almost casually from a boyishly grinning Kris Bryant to Anthony Rizzo, who deposited it in his back pocket after tallying the final out of those 108 years and winning a World Series.
There’s no such thing as a curse, not even in baseball, and yet we’ve seen three such curses end in the last dozen years: Boston’s curse of the Bambino (1918–2004), the Chicago White Sox’s curse of Shoeless Joe (1917–2005), and finally the Cubs’ curse of the Billy Goat. Each ending was cathartic, the pitcher’s-mound dogpiles amplified by the famous fans, the stories of parents and grandparents who didn’t live to see it, and the accumulated pressure of so many implausible near-misses and narrow escapes. Failure—so grinding and unaccountable that the only way to make sense of it was to borrow the language of witchcraft—undergoes an instantaneous and total reversal. The curse measures the vindication. There may be nothing like it in the world of sports.
Like any dramatic denouement, the ends of these championship droughts are the products of a certain kind of artifice. And it can be an alienating artifice. No American sport inspires the kind of good-bad writing that baseball does, with its hackneyed narratives, its wistfulness that always courts cheapness, its grittiness that skirts kitsch, its philosophy that degrades quickly into mediocre verse--all of it housed within the pure artifice of the game itself.
But there is a venerable hunger for these long-arcing stories and their fustian poesy. The spectacle of the Cubs vanquishing their “curse” was like something out of Shakespeare’s late romances. Readers looking for the perspicuous psychology and crisp narrative of his chief works tend to be disappointed by these plays. They have thin characters and plots that are at once formulaic and ludicrous. We seem to believe that we live in a wised-up age, but even granting the most exaggerated chasm between our mental world and that of London’s groundlings, it’s hard to imagine Shakespeare’s late-career reliance on shipwrecks, pirates, and yes, curses seeming less than utterly fantastical to anyone. Even the scenes of reconciliation and restoration fall into a tonal uncanny valley between the tragic funerals and comic weddings. Hermione changes back from a statue in The Winter’s Tale. Thaisa turns out to have been only mostly dead in Pericles. “O brave new world / That has such people in’t,” says Miranda in The Tempest, sorrowfully and providentially unacquainted with the grimy people she has just met.
It’s all too much, and yet it’s perfect. “Give me a gash, put me to present pain,” Pericles asks after being reunited with his daughter, “Lest this great sea of joys rushing upon me / O’erbear the shores of my mortality / And drown me with their sweetness.” I thought of these lines as I heard and read the stories: a seventy-five-year-old man who’d buried his twin brother a month earlier, crying with relief and grief on talk radio; another who watched game seven by his father’s grave; messages to the dead scrawled on Wrigley Field. Two days before that last out, I buried a ninety-four-year-old who grew up on the north side, going to Wrigley and listening to games on the radio and died two hours before the first pitch of the series. I am a professional and, perhaps more to the point, a White Sox fan, but that particular denouement did get to me. It sent me to Bart Giamatti’s description of baseball on the radio, played “in the only place it will last, the enclosed green field of the mind.” In a clockless game whose misery is doled out by the generation, time really does stand still and then leap in strange ways. Both the failures and triumphs are bathed in an unreal light.
We need this romantic amplitude of experience lest life become nothing more than King Lear and the Yankees winning all the time. It’s wrong to begrudge the evanescent unreality of it. Within a few years the long-suffering Red Sox became perfectly easy to loathe. The White Sox slipped back into mediocrity. Now the Cubs will join them, leaving the stage for the street as they move toward their destiny as the on-field subsidiary of a real estate and hospitality conglomerate. There’s something to be said for being defined by the battle against a curse. “Will Ferdinand be as fond of a Miranda / Familiar as a stocking?” W.H. Auden’s Prospero asks in The Sea and the Mirror. If the curtain doesn’t drop, dreary reality wins out eventually. But that, like an overworked relief pitcher, is a problem for spring training.
Benjamin J. Dueholm lives in Wauconda, Illinois, where he is associate pastor of Messiah Lutheran Church. His writing has appeared in The Christian Century, The Washington Monthly, Pacific Standard, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @bendueholm.