Caveat emptor! This book was written just before that which it implies could never happen, happened. Like the first (fourth) Star Wars, it takes place in a galaxy long ago and far away. A world wherein the most hapless of all hapless baseball teams, hamstrung by a small venue, impecunious (not to mention inept) ownership and the contrivances of Lovecraft’s Old Ones themselves (you can find an account of their malevolence in the Necronomicon) converged in the longest sustained record of futility endured by any American professional sports team so far. A world wherein pain and frustration, according to Will, literally amended the neurological circuitry of Cubs fans. A world wherein fresh air, sunshine and the lost symmetries of playing two exempted the expectation of victory. A dystopia anchored by an improbable relic of a baseball field squatting in a small clearing in the midst one of North America’s great conurbations. Wrigley Field, as it was.
Will provides a delightful history of the ballpark: its construction, its interminable wait for “modernization,” its relationship with the Wrigleyville bars and grills surrounding it, the rooftop bleachers on the encircling apartment buildings. In the process we’re treated to all the innovations which beset alter baseball and its fans, like, oh, night baseball, while this idiosyncratic stadium grappled its way into the 21st Century. Among other things, there’s a disquisition on the history of suds brewing that takes you back to the Norsemen. It’s a tribute to Will’s wit and drollery that when you segue to the next chapter, it all seems to have made perfect, relevant sense.
Now, of course, all is changed, changed utterly. What Will must have been thinking when Rajai Davis hit that game tying home run in the bottom of the eighth inning in game 7 of the 2016 Series may never be known. It is entirely possible, in keeping with Will’s delightful discussion of brain chemistry and the suffering of the fan in A Nice Little Place, that even Will doesn’t know what he thought, his anguish subsumed by the rupture of a neural pipeline full of endorphins.
One of the more enjoyable segments of the book, in fact, is Will’s discussion of l’affaire Bartman, a moment as endeared to Feesh fans as it is anathematized by Cubs fans. On his way out of Wrigley after the Feesh concluded their demolition of the Baby Bruins on that brutal Autumn evening in 2003, a fan recognized him and said “Don’t worry, Mr. Will. We’ll get ‘em tomorrow.” Will replied, “Not a chance. I’ve seen this movie before.”
Oddly enough, Will has been silent about the Cubs’ victory, despite several emails I personally sent upbraiding him for his reticence and reminding him of his duty to expound upon this miracle of miracles. Some folks are no more than the sum total of their losses. For all we know, he still expects to awake some morning to discover that even the 2016 Game 7 rain delay was nothing but a wet dream. What Will also probably doesn’t realize is that the Cubs’ victory was only made possible because the Old Ones were distracted from their perennial hijinks of tripping up the northsiders by their giddy project of electing Donald Trump whom Will, authentic conservative, loathed (as predicted in the Necronomican, which I bet you Will never read).
In addition to his account of the Bartman fiasco, when Cubs fans collectively reverted to their roots as hog butchers to the world, Will not only bestows an apologia for Carl Sandburg in general, but also covers such gems of Cub history as Lee Elia’s expletive-vermoulou-tirade (you get the entire text, plus or minus a few asterixes and grawlixes) about the faithlessness of the “Wrigley faithful,” that truly enlightening history of beer, the truth about the curse of the billygoat, meditations on the nature of architecture, the great opportunities for urban development awakened by the Chicago fire, Ernie Banks, everything you always wanted to know about Hack Wilson but were afraid to ask, the rise of statistics, the correlation between winning and attendance that Cubs fans have stood on its head, the advent of Tom Ricketts, how World War II delayed the installation of night lighting for seventy years (“And then, as suddenly as it began, the war ended”….Ed Wood Jr.), and his own failed effort to have his son and daughter-in-law name their impending child Clark Addison Will. Now that one must have hurt.
Look, I think a writer should always make his biases plain. Mine are slightly to the left of Trotsky’s. I find much of Will’s political discourse about as attractive and logically consistent as some of the records Cub ballplayers set for things like most errors in a game, most strikeouts in a row, most consecutive years without a world championship (108). However, when he turns his attention to baseball, he cranks out masterpieces like Men at Work and Bunts. I’d rank this one just a little behind Men at Work as a cornucopia of delights and bellylaughs for the winter-bound baseball fan. Cubs fans might find it awakens memories of pain and anguish they thought had been decisively extirpated by the 2016 team, and it’s even possible they’ll wake up sweating and shuddering the night after they finish this book from troubled dreams, transformed, if only psychologically, into enormous cockroaches. Yes, and if the preceding 108 years of Cubs history does indeed read like something out of Kafka, Will’s mordantly elegant prose has a way of redeeming it with his love for his team. He recognizes that George F. Will is himself constituted of such jouissant memories. There are forms of anguish so deeply situated they cannot be buried either writhing or suppurating in stuffed spinach pizzas or Italian beef sandwiches. In his interview with Ken Burns in the PBS Baseball documentary, Will declaims he grew up in central Illinois, equidistant from Chicago and St. Louis: “My friends became Cardinals fans and grew up happy and liberal. I became a Cubs fan and grew up bitter and conservative.”
This really is a wonderfully erudite, elegantly inscripted and often very funny account of the team that, until only recently, was a meme for ineptitude on a cosmic scale. I loved it. Bet you will too.