It is not a bad little drive, roughly twenty miles south down I-35. You take a right at
exit 102. Then it is just a little less than 6 miles to Slater, Iowa. My grandpa is on the
left-hand side of the road, just as you reach the edge of town. It was late, not the kind
of hour a person would normally visit him, but it was important to be there. I parked
my car, walked across the dark grass, and sat down next to him. I apologized for the
hour and for not stopping by very often. My siblings are so much better about
stopping by to visit him. I am awful about those types of things.
I had so many things on my mind I was going to talk to him about. Did he see the
game? The Cubs won. 108 years. 108 years of “wait until next year.” 108 years of
frustration. 108 years of coming up short. They finally did it. They finally won.
You don’t break that frustrating curse easily. They came back from being down
three games to one, winning the last game on the road in Cleveland. Up 6-3, I knew it
was not going to be that easy. An exhausted closer, Aroldis Chapman, on the mound,
who had pitched too many innings the previous two games. Then came that two-out,
game-tying homer by some guy named Rajai Davis. It appeared with a bullpen filled
with the best relievers in baseball, it was the Cleveland Indians to lose and the Cubs’
fate to wait again until next year.
Then the rain delay that seemed like the tears of Cubs fans from heaven, as if more
than a century’s worth of disappointment had to come out somehow. Painfully long,
it was as if the fates were wringing every last bit of agony from a Cubs’ fan’s soul.
Then, just like that, the skies cleared up and the field crew rolled the tarp back.
Extra innings. A kid named Kyle Schwarber, who should not have been playing
given the severe knee injury he had suffered earlier in the year, hit an amazing
single off the Indians’ closer. He was replaced by a kid name Albert Almora, Jr., who
was in the minors a year ago, as a pinch runner and somehow these baby Cubs came
away with two runs out of the inning.
Just three long, painful outs. Another junior, Carl Edwards, Jr., came in to pitch. Two
quick outs and then he just couldn’t seem to find the plate. The tying run on first
base, one swing away from losing it all, one swing and it was wait until next year all
over again, Mike Montgomery on the mound and Michael Martinez hits a tricky
grounder to third baseman Kris Bryant. This is where, over the last 108 years,
Bryant would have grasped the ball and sailed it into the stands, but instead he
somehow threw it to first for the third out. And just like that, the Cubs were world
champions. Cubs win! Cubs win!
My grandfather was one of the best baseball players the state of Iowa has ever
produced. He was offered a professional contract back in an era where he was
making more money driving a cream truck. When you have a family to feed those
decisions become pretty easy to make. I am sure he had regrets, but those were the
things men from his generation kept to themselves.
The Chicago Cubs were his team. The highlight of my father’s childhood was going
to Wrigley Field with his dad. Almost every year in the early 1950s they would go to
Chicago for a long weekend to watch the Cubs play a four game home stand, two
normal games and a doubleheader. For a kid from rural Iowa, for whom it was a big
deal to go anywhere, to walk with your father to the corner of Clark and Addison, to
sit in a stadium with more people than you could ever imagine in one place, to have
your father’s attention, to feel the warmth of the sun and his hand on your shoulder,
to see him smile as his Cubbies run onto the field to take batting practice, big doesn’t
even come close to describing what kind of deal it is. It is those moments that stay
with sons the rest of their lives.
My grandpa loved the Cubs. My dad loved the Brooklyn Dodgers. Before one of
those games, my dad was walking with his father through a hotel lobby, and there
he was, my dad’s hero, Jack Roosevelt Robinson, Jackie Robinson, a man who not
only changed baseball, but transformed the entire country. My father still
remembers the blue suit and white shirt he was wearing. And the other Dodgers
were also there, Roy Campanella in a Panama hat and pink shirt, Pee Wee Reese, Gil
Hodges, Don Newcombe, Carl Erskine, Duke Snider, and Preacher Roe. These men,
these giants that they were about to go watch play, were right in front of my dad,
and they could not have been kinder. More than six decades later, my dad still has
the pieces of paper they signed.
I can just imagine my grandfather standing there as his young son dashes from
player to player, a huge smile on his face. This is a moment no one can ever take
away from his son. More than six decades later, my dad still talks about that moment
and you can still hear that childhood awe in his voice as he talks about these men
taking a moment for a kid from Iowa. For them it is just a few seconds out of their
lives, for my father and other little boys, it is something they hold onto for the rest of
their lives. Baseball gives you those moments. Going to see the Chicago Cubs play
gave that moment to my grandfather and dad.
My grandpa was a good man. He, a few years later, got a job as a teller in a bank and
he worked his way up to become vice-president of that very same institution. People
came to him when they were in need. He always listened to them, did what he could,
and always had an Ole and Lena joke ready. He told so many of them that people in
the area began to call them Sody (short for Soderstrum) jokes. To show you what
kind of guy my grandfather was, although it was never said at the time, during the
1980s farm crisis, he chose to retire early rather then foreclose on his friends and
neighbors. He just could not do that.
I remember his retirement party. He joked about having more time for the Cubs.
And that is how he did spend his retirement. I remember going to major league
baseball games with him. I remember if you stopped by their house when the Cubs
were playing, you could hear announcer Harry Caray’s voice coming from the
basement. He could be found down there in his chair watching his Cubs on the
We didn’t always have much to say to each other. When you are a young person,
sometimes you cannot escape your little world, but we could talk about the Cubs. I
learned who Ernie Banks, Ron Santo, Ferguson Jenkins, and Billy Williams were.
How they were so close in the 1960s and might have done it if they hadn’t been so
dumb as to trade Lou Brock away. Again in the late 80s, with Andre Dawson, Rick
Sutcliffe, Ryne Sandberg, Ron Cey, and Lee Smith, they appeared to be so close again.
There were the hopes of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood that ended in arm injuries.
Even in the off-season, there was always the hope of next year.
Of course, I had to come to see him when the Cubs won. I had a thousand things
rehearsed in my mind of what I was going to say, but I could not get any of it out. I
just planted the little white flag with the blue “W” on it and started to cry.
There were no more next years, certainly not for my grandfather. He died several
years ago. He loved the Cubs so much that he had their game on when he was in
hospice. There was a Cubs symbol on his casket when we buried him. I stood in that
dark cemetery crying like I was five years old again. He lived and died, and like so
many Cub fans, was such a good person, and he never got to see this day. He never
got that moment of standing on the mountain top and hearing, “Cubs win! Cubs
I don’t know if there is an afterlife. I’d like to believe the road goes on forever, but I
have never been able to see what is around the bend. I know there is baseball. And I
know, at least this year, even if I cannot say the words without crying, Cubs Win!