The Chicago Cubs and the mystery of faith

My essay, “The Chicago Cubs and the mystery of faith,” was published online at U.S. Catholic Magazine  May 16, 2016.  The essay will appear in the print magazine in autumn 2016. Access the essay at U.S. Catholic via this link, or read the essay below:

By Jay Bouchard

I often joke that I came out of the womb wearing a Cubs hat; I was born in New Hampshire into a family of Chicago Cubs fans on November 9, 1992. Three months later, I was baptized.

I chose neither of these things. But before I could walk, talk, or seek a rational alternative, both were part of my temporal and eternal destiny. To root for a team that last won the World Series in 1908—the same year the Ford Model T was unveiled—often feels like an exercise in futility. Maintaining faith in the Trinity, professing the resurrection of the body, and placing trust in a higher power is often daunting. All the same, being Catholic and being a Cubs fan is as ordinary to me as wearing shoes. Heavy, wet shoes, but still.

So yeah, I’m Catholic. “Practicing?” people inevitably ask. Yeah, practicing, even if I’m not very good at it. And I’m a Cubs fan. “Seriously?” Seriously.

As a kid, I joined my parents at church every Sunday. Like most children, I was too young to evaluate my faith, to question the complexity and the legitimacy of theism, or to understand the full implication of those latter Stations of the Cross—where things get fairly bloody.

Likewise, long before I understood how agonizing it would be to support the most pitiful franchise in professional sports history, I was draped in Cubs paraphernalia. I grew up loyal to the team because my parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had done the same. Though I grew up in New England, my family has deep roots in Chicago; I figured being a Cubs fan was a matter of ancestral genetics, current geography notwithstanding.

By adolescence, my religion and Cubs fandom were a crucial part of my identity. I embraced them both in October 2008.

The Cubs posted the best record in the National League in 2008. They were primed for a postseason run and sports media across the country couldn’t help but predict the Cubs would win the World Series after an astonishing 100-year title drought. They were featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and, as a naïve 16-year-old, I believed they might finally break their curse.

They played the Dodgers in the first round of the playoffs and lost the first two games of the series. On October 4, the Cubs faced elimination and trailed 3-1 heading into the ninth inning. My parents had both already stopped watching; they’d endured too many years of disappointment and had no desire to witness the inevitable. So I retreated alone to their bedroom to watch the final inning.

I was sick with fear. Desperate, I looked around the room and spotted a rosary on my mother’s nightstand. As Alfonso Soriano came to the plate, I started praying. I prayed Hail Marys at such speed that I’m sure even the Blessed Mother couldn’t comprehend the words.

Strike one. My sweaty fingers raced over the beads in an effort to save the Cubs. I completely skipped the sorrowful mysteries and the prayers between each decade.

Strike two. Now with even greater ferocity, I scrambled to finish the rosary. Swing and a miss.

Strike three. The Dodgers burst out of their dugout. Series over.

The Cubs had failed me. Prayer had failed me. The rosary beads still hanging from my limp fingers, I rolled over and buried my face in a pillow.

It was irrational, immature, and selfish to think a ninth-inning rosary might compel God to intercede on the Cubs’ behalf. Still, though I was too distraught to realize, the seeds of faith were growing somewhere within me as Soriano struck out. Those seeds were likely growing even before my baptism, but the Cubs’ predictable collapse in 2008 offered me an opportunity to realize my faith and an invitation to cultivate it in the years to come.

The following April, I reaffirmed my faith in the Chicago Cubs on opening day. One month later I chose to be confirmed in the Catholic Church. I decided independently as a sophomore in high school to maintain the beliefs to which I grew up blindly subscribing. I chose to be confirmed because I was acutely aware that my faith—while even today I don’t completely understand it—was an undeniable aspect of my being.

Did the Cubs compel me to be confirmed? No. But my experience watching the Cubs lose informed my discernment and encouraged me to explore my spirituality.

Every Sunday, I hear the priest proclaim “the mystery of faith” during the Memorial Acclamation. As we proclaim the fact that Christ, by his death and resurrection, set us free, I reflect on what it means to believe in something for which little tangible evidence exists.

I place enormous trust in a higher power whose presence I have felt but never seen. Likewise, I continue to believe in a team that has cruelly disappointed generations of fans before me.

Last April, the Cubs opened their season against the St. Louis Cardinals on Easter Sunday. Of course, I attributed this to providence—the Cubs would begin their long overdue march to a championship on Resurrection Sunday. They came close, but ultimately in October they were demolished by the Mets in the National League Championship Series. Like Christians awaiting Christ’s return, I remained faithful and looked forward to a bright future.

This year, for the first time, both the Cubs and I call Chicago home. On Sunday, April 3, I went to church and prayed that they beat the Angels the following day in their first game of the season. They won. And though the season is still young, the Cubs boast the best record in the league which has baseball analysts from Long Island to Long Beach predicting that this is the Cubs’ year.

I have faith the Cubs will win the World Series this year. Or the next, or at the very least probably before I die. But if they don’t, well there is always the mystery of faith promising me a front row seat and a 16 ounce cup of cold salvation in the bleachers beyond.

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