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Cubs Theology

Michael Donovan

William Van Ornum - published on 06/21/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Lessons learned at Wrigley Field--the heroes, humor and hope in the midst of the Cubs' adversity.

As Spring turns to summer we’ve seen good baseball books emerge, including George Will’s A Nice Little Place on the North Side and John Sexton’s Baseball as a Road to God.

North Sideoffers an affectionate hundred-year history of the Chicago Cubs, now celebrating their centennial in the beautiful confines of Wrigley Field. Changes that trouble many are met with equanimity by the usually-conservative columnist: Will the houses on Sheffield still be able to see the game if new outfield advertisements are constructed? Will the ivy brick walls be broken to create a new bullpen for pitchers to warm up?

Road to Godis more contemplative, theological, even existential. With the enthusiasm of John Paul II the Great, its author proclaims new saints, such as Roberto Clemente and Christy Mathewson, both admired for clean-living. Clemente was “martyred” in a cargo plane crash carrying relief supplies to earthquake victims in Nicaragua. Mathewson died of tuberculosis, the result of mustard gas exposure while fighting in WWI. Despite the damage to his lungs, during his career, Connie Mack said of him: “Mathewson was the greatest pitcher who ever lived. He had knowledge, judgment, perfect control and form. It was wonderful to watch him pitch when he wasn’t pitching against you.”

There are other portrayals as well: the great sinner, Ty Cobb, known for his racism and meanness, sharpening his shoe spikes to cut deeper into the flesh of the second basemen when Cobb stretched a single into a double; and a faithful believer, Sandy Koufax, who refused to pitch a World Series game on the Sabbath.

Some of the best lessons I’ve learned, as a person, psychologist and a Christian, emerged from my decade as an intense fan of the Chicago Cubs in the 1960s.

The diamond on the North Side taught me the value of hard-work. My first job, at age 15, was to show up along the left field stands at 9 a.m. where groundskeeper Pete Marc Antonio doled out burlap sacks to neighborhood urchins. We went systematically though the park (including the field itself!) picking up all the empty cups discarded by Hamm’s beer drinkers. The reward: a free ticket to the game.

Later, my work at the park was a way of earning money during the summer for the next year’s expenses at Loyola University. As an interim CTA bus driver, I made two runs in the brutal heat, bringing overloaded buses of fans along the eight-mile stretch between Harlem and Clark Street. After a turn-around on Lake Shore Drive, drivers were allotted a free game pass for the first through seventh inning. Then it was back to the buses, carrying weary and usually disappointed fans back home.

My hero was Ron Santo. Always on the move at third base, snaring line drives, pivoting and throwing to first, clicking his heels and jumping into the air after a Cubs victory. Santo was indefatigable, strong, and one of the players who was most willing to give an autograph. At his induction into the Hall of Fame two years ago, baseball’s commissioner called him “the grit and glue of the Cubs.”

This hero had a hidden flaw: during all his playing years he suffered from Type I diabetes. The primitive treatments of the era were little help to him, so he devised his own treatment plan, regulating his glucose levels with candy bars, orange juice, and lemonade. Describing the effect of this disease on his eyes, he recalled, “One time at bat I saw two balls coming in. I aimed at the one on top and hit a home run.”

After his playing career, those jumping legs and clicking heels–the signature of his athleticism–both had to be amputated due to diabetes. No big deal. Ronnie just continued his career in the Cubs broadcasting booth, becoming one of the most beloved broadcasters in Chicago history.

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