Experience of the Year: You go(a)t to believe!

“If your shitty team from Queens beats the Chicago Cubs, I promise you I will run a marathon barefoot!”

Being a Cubs fan and marathon runner can be very painful. Especially last year when I lost that bet against a runner from New York and ran the Singapore Marathon barefoot. My feet were hurting when I finished the long journey, but that was nothing compared to the pain I felt when the Cubs lost four straight games against the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series (NLCS) last season. Let me take a step back though and explain how a European marathoner got mixed up begin a Cubs fan.

I started playing baseball in Sweden back in the early ‘80s when I was 14 years old. A few years later I also started to run marathons. One of my trainers (I forgive him for being a St. Louis Cardinals-fan) always ran to our practices and, somehow, talked me into trying long-distance running. It wasn’t a hard sell. I loved it.

Playing right field in Sweden was normally just a long wait between at bats. There were seldom any balls to catch because they rarely made it out of the infield. I needed more activity and that’s where my running career started.

Ljusdals Basebollklubb from the mid 1990s. I am third from the left on the second row.

Most of us players had never seen a professional baseball game. One day, a guy on the team got a recording of an MLB game sent to him. The video was then passed around to everyone. This opened a new world to us. There was not a single error in the entire game! Could this really be true? Watching that tape I decided I had to see an MLB game with my own eyes.

It would take me many years before my dream came true. Coincidently it was my passion for running that made it happen. The first time I went to North America was twenty years ago to take part in a marathon. That trip is where my fate as a Cubs fan was sealed.

After traveling around the U.S. for two weeks I finally had time to visit a ballpark before I went back to Sweden. By coincidence I had booked my return flight from Chicago. That random decision would forever change my life. I had a late flight and the Cubs happened to be playing an afternoon game at Wrigley Field that day.

At the time, I had no idea about The Curse of Billy Goat. The “reason” the Cubs hadn’t won a World Series since 1908 and had never played in the World Series after 1945. Bill Sianis, the owner of the Billy Goat Tavern in Chicago, cursed the Cubs when they played the Detroit Tigers in the 1945 World Series. The reason? He was denied entry to the park when he tried to bring his goat Murphy into the stadium.

Maybe not surprisingly, my first MLB-game ever ended in a defeat, but I still had a great time at Wrigley Field. My seat was surrounded by guys from a neighboring state who were having a bachelor party. I joined them at a few bars after the game. I was surprised to realize all the spectators were out partying, at least it seemed like it to me. Even though the team lost that game, their fans made me want to be part of their world. I thought, ‘If their fans are celebrating a loss like this I really want to be here when they win!’ They forever won my heart that day.

Since that first game back in 1996, I have traveled to the States often. I have been across the U.S. on bike several times and have run marathons in all fifty states. Every journey includes baseball. A long-time goal is to see a game at all 30 MLB stadiums. So far I’ve been to 16. At least once a year I also go to Wrigley Field to see my heroes, even if that normally means I have to leave Chicago in frustration. But not this year… this year was different.

For a few years now I have been working as a travel guide for a Swedish company that sells marathon packages to Chicago and New York. I, therefore, have the benefit of traveling around the U.S. in October and November during the MLB post season.

Just feeling the atmosphere in “The Windy City” this year, when the Cubs started their post season a few days before the Chicago Marathon, was fantastic. Being there weeks later, when they played the World Series was nothing short of magical.

Everyone living in the north side of Chicago really believed that it would happen in 2015. It was even predicted in the classic movie “Back to the Future”. But, once again, we ended up as the “loveable losers” of the MLB and added another year to our losing streak. There has always been a “next year” for most living Chicago Cubs fans.

So, as soon as the Cubs won the pennant against the Dodgers this season, I knew exactly where I should be the last weekend in October (even if I was scheduled to be running marathons on the east coast at the time). The instant they clinched I booked a flight to Chicago just to be close to the action. I would never spend $3,000 on a game ticket, but I knew I wouldn’t be alone outside the stadium.

Fans from all over America, and actually the entire world, had the same idea. More than 100,000 supporters were walking around the stadium from early morning until midnight, just to be close to the team who hadn’t won since Teddy Roosevelt was President back in 1908.

This was also a new situation for Cleveland Indians fans whose team had won their last trophy in 1948. These were the two MLB teams with the longest draughts going head-to-head guaranteeing one a win at the end. I guess that was the reason all the fans were still a little bit shocked, muttering, ‘Is this really happening?’ as the games drew near.

Every game in Chicago followed the same pattern. People woke up early, dressed in their team’s colors and went to the arena just to be a part of the history. If you had a dog (or even a goat!), you dressed your favorite animal to match. The animals disappeared later in the afternoon when it became too dangerous for shorter legs in the growing crowds surrounding the ballpark.

People would lined up as early as five o’clock in the morning outside the bars on Wrigley’s block just for the privilege to pay a $200 entry fee when the pubs opened five hours later. My own experience from bigger sport events in rest of the world is that big crowds always mean problem. But the American sport culture is so different. The fans outside the stadium apologized if they stepped on your foot and everyone was just so polite, even to the Indians fans.

I spent three nights in a hostel, just one block from the stadium, watching the games on TV with people from all over the U.S. My roommate Chuck was from Arizona. He left Chicago over 30 years ago to play baseball in college. When he left he swore he’d never return to Chicago until the Cubs were playing in the World Series again. He’d kept that promise.

Another guy came from Wyoming to see the game. He told me, “I know it’s expensive. I paid $3,200 for my game ticket, but damn, I have waited a whole lifetime!” At least he got to see the game though. One hostel guest acted as if he’d won the lottery when he happily announced he got a ticket in the bleachers for just $600. He came back an hour later, a little less happy, after realizing he’d bought a fake ticket. “I would do it again”, he told me.

Wandering around the park before security shut things down each day, I met an 80-year old gentleman who showed me his ticket stub from the 1945 World Series. There was also a woman sitting in the wheel chair surrounded by her family. This dedicated Cubs-supporter showed me a picture of herself throwing out the first pitch for her 80th birthday, ten years earlier!

Because of my work as a tour guide I couldn’t stay in Chicago over the entire Series. I took a 19-hour bus ride back to New York directly after game 4. I arrived just in time to see the first pitch of game 5 in the bar of my hotel. “This is a lucky glass,” the bartender told me as he handed me a beer. “If you are drinking beer from this glass, the Cubs will win the World Series”. An avid baseball fan, and a Cubs fan no less, I knew better than to break a superstition, whether I believed it yet or not. I drank beer from my lucky glass in that same hotel bar for the last three games of the World Series.

After following all 162 games of the regular season and every game in the playoffs, plus all the previous World Series games, I reached my personal breaking point. With a comfortable 6-3 lead heading into the bottom of the 8th, the Cleveland Indians tied the game up and I just couldn’t take any more. I couldn’t bear to watch another pitch. I left the bar, entered the hotel room I shared with three other Swedish tour guides, turned off the television and screamed, “They are losing!”

Luckily one of my American friends, a friend who shares my love for the Cubs, sent me a text on my phone late in the game. I turned on the television just in time to see the final out and experience the Cubs become World Series Champions for the first time in 108 years.

The bartender was right. That lucky glass followed me back to my hometown of Ljusdal in Sweden. The best part of this victory was my sweet revenge however. My running friend, the NY Mets fan I lost the bet to in 2015, had promised me to run the New York City Marathon in a Cubs hat if the Cubs won the World Series. Believe me, it was worth the twenty years of frustration, and feet I still have nightmares over, to see her in that beautiful hat!

#MLB #baseball