For Mine Eyes Have Seen Thy Salvation

Late last Wednesday night something happened in Cleveland that no one has witnessed for 108 years. Chicago Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant fielded a soft ground ball and threw to Anthony Rizzo at first base for the final out of the seventh game of the 2016 World Series. The Cubs won. The Chicago Cubs are the champions of Major League Baseball. For most of those 108 years the Cubs have been a metaphor for failure, mediocrity, and an uncanny propensity for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. I used that metaphor from the pulpit consistently and shamelessly. When speaking away from Chicago I invoked the Cubs as examples of Christian virtues: patience, long suffering, waiting in hope. Always and everywhere it worked. People nodded knowingly and sympathetically, chuckled and occasionally laughed out loud.

Change began quietly a few years ago. The franchise was purchased by a family that announced its intention to recreate the culture of losing that surrounded the team. It hired a young baseball genius from Boston who had managed to end the Red Sox’ own decades of futility. Smart, savvy, a student of new baseball thinking that focused on metrics nobody was paying attention to, Theo Epstein hired computer nerds to do statistical analysis, then recruited young players with potential, finally lured an unconventional and very creative manager, Joe Maddon, to come to Chicago.

It was clear two years ago that things were different. There were desperately needed improvements to Wrigley Field, the Cubs’ century old, crumbling, crowded and inefficient home field. The team began to win. Exciting players in their early twenties appeared in the lineup, good pitchers were acquired, a solid, experienced coaching staff went to work. The 2015 team was an authentic contender. As the 2016 season began the Cubs were consistently good and ended the regular season with the best record in Major League Baseball. Joe Maddon reminded his young players to have fun. They did and so did we. Now they are champions, winners of the 2016 World Series. The “Lovable Losers” metaphor is gone forever.

My love affair with baseball began when I was ten years old. We lived 100 miles east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the Pittsburgh Pirates were everyone’s favorite team. It was that summer that I began to listen to Pirate broadcasts on the radio, sitting on our front porch with my father. Rosie Rosewell and Bob Prince announced home games from Forbes Field and away games reading a ticker tape in a downtown Pittsburgh studio. The Pirates weren’t very good in those days, never better than average, mostly in or close to last place. I waited for Ralph Kiner, the Pirates’ slugging left fielder, to hit a home run and for Rosewell to blow his funny whistle and say, “Open the window, Aunt Minnie, HERE SHE COMES.” The sound of shattering glass concluded the ritual. I thought it was thrilling. My father taught me how to keep score and bought me an official National League Scorebook in which I faithfully recorded most of the Pirates’ games. Dad took me on the train to Pittsburgh that summer to see the Brooklyn Dodgers with the first African American to play in the Major Leagues, Jackie Robinson.

I continued to follow Pirates baseball from afar until they finally won the World Series in 1960 when I was a divinity school student, flirted briefly with Cincinnati Reds Big Red Machine when we lived in Columbus, Ohio, and gave my baseball allegiance to the Cubs when we moved to Chicago in 1985. I had always hoped someday to live in a city with a Major League Baseball team and finally it happened: an exciting, challenging new job in a big city with a Major League Baseball team, two in fact, and big league football, basketball, hockey and soccer. With other church staff members we purchased a package of Cubs season tickets and I have been watching, mostly patiently, for thirty years, through thick and thin, miserable seasons and tantalizing close calls. And now, 2016, they did it: a world championship. I saw World Series games in my hometown.

Chicago was joyful, euphoric. Fans cheered and wept openly for days and nights. There was a parade and celebration attended by millions. Everybody was wearing Cubs shirts, hats, jackets, talking about that last game. It lifted up the entire city for a brief, glorious moment of undistilled happiness.

I heard from friends from all over the country, an elementary school buddy, teammate and Pirate fan from Pennsylvania: a seminary president Yankee fan from New York City: a distinguished Biblical scholar Cardinal fan. Former colleague Christian Century Editor, David Heim emailed the Nunc Dimittis, the church’s Evening Prayer, from Luke 2: “Lord, lettest now thy servant depart in peace, for mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

After that final, glorious victory, I took the best baseball book I own from the shelf, A. Bartlett Giamatti’s Take Time for Paradise: Americans and their Games. Giamatti was a Renaissance scholar, President of Yale University and Commissioner of Major League Baseball. He wrote: “Sports represent a shared vision of how we continue as individuals, teams, or community, to experience a happiness or absence of care so intense, so rare, and so fleeting that we associate their experience with experience otherwise described as religious.”

There it is. A near-religious experience. A lost metaphor. No more “Lovable Losers.” The Cubs won the World Series and I lived long enough to see it.

Comments

  1. timjweaver says:

    I’m truly thrilled and very happy for you and all Cubs fans! Congratulations! Halley’s Comet has come in our collective lifetimes, and it is glorious. The remarkable comeback after being down 3-1. Addison Russell’s moon shot grand slam in game 6. Wow! The epic struggle (including an extra inning) that was game 7. Taken together, a mountaintop season that will continue to bring happiness and satisfaction in Cubbies’ hearts for many years to come. Thanks be to God.

  2. Sweet. I thought of you a lot during the playoffs and World Series!

  3. Judi Simon says:

    John, I have been waiting since the Cubs won for you to write about it. Were you able to be in Cleveland for the final game? Marc, too, was thrilled that they won, as he had been a fan since childhood, listening to broadcasts on his transistor radio. Congratulations. Thank you for sharing, we both enjoyed your posting.

  4. Ann R Schenck says:

    Thanks John. I waited 68 years as a Cub fan waiting for this glorious event. I started at the same age that you did but all Chicago. The low point was living in the NY area in 1969. The high point is now and have not fully grasped how wonderful it is.

  5. I’m delighted that you’re pleased, but I’m concerned that you are (even nearly) equating this with Simeon’s reaction to the infant Jesus. It’s remarkable, yes, but I don’t think salvation is any part of it. It is a wonderful gift of a season to remember, but it’s not that much of a treasure.

  6. Manley Olson says:

    John As a long suffering Cubs fan i strongly identified with you reflections.

    I became aware of the Cubs I 1947 when I was 11 but because we only had a battery radio I could not listen very much. The next year we got electricity and my listening increased exponentially. The Cubs games were carried by a Wisconsin station that I could get only during the day. At night I sometimes got KMOX in St Louis and rarely Detroit and Pittsburgh. By that time the glory of 1945 had worn off and the Cubs were mired in last place. The highlight of those early years was 1952 when they finished 5th and Hank Sauer was MVP. I kept score for many of those games. That was the last year I was free to hear almost every game. When the Braves moved to Milwaukee in 1953 I stayed with the Cubs, while most of my schoolmates became Braves fans. When I moved to Minnesota, the Cubs were still my favorite but I adopted the Twins as a second choice.

    Last Thursday I flew to Ghost Ranch for board meeting wearing my faded Cubs shirt. I got lots of comments, all positive, even from a few Cleveland fans.

    Have you read Baseball as a Road to God by John Sexton? He is a former President of New York University and very comfortable with religious language. Again John, thanks for capturing the feelings of many of us. Manley

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