Basking again in great baseball

The Chicago Cubs celebrate after Game 7 of the Major League Baseball World Series against the Cleveland Indians Thursday in Cleveland. The Cubs won 8-7 in 10 innings to win the series 4-3 in the team’s first title since 1908. (AP photo — David J. Phillip)

I inherited my love of the Chicago Cubs from my dad, and he from his dad, and he from his. That traces it right back to the team’s earliest days. But I admit I haven’t been a very good fan — not for a while.

The Crowleys were an Irish Chicago family, and still are. They’ve dispersed, but many of the offspring, like my brother and sister, have returned. And even though my dad grew up in northern Indiana, 90 miles from the city, his family still identified with Chicago and had the Tribune delivered to their house every day.

My dad wasn’t as lucky as his oldest brother, whose grandfather took him to Cubs games at Wrigley Field. Baseball wasn’t even really my dad’s sport. He was a football player from his youth through high school.

Baseball was my sport, though.

I wasn’t that good, but I loved it. Even in those lonely swaths of time when I was stuck in the deepest outfield, I don’t remember thinking, “I hate this game.” Rather, I remember burning to play infield.

I collected baseball cards, read biographies of baseball greats, memorized stats and played pick-up games of stickball with friends and siblings. I read my parents’ newspaper for the baseball box scores (and the comics, but not, ironic as it seems now, the news).

In four years as a member of my high school’s varsity team, I wasn’t a starter until my senior year, and I rode the pine the first two — and I mean all season. I trained and practiced as hard as anyone, but my freshman year I played one single inning, with one at-bat, against a team we were demolishing.

I hit a double, which means I led the team that season with a 1.000 batting average.

My sophomore year, I played two innings. I got out both times at the plate.

You can’t say I wasn’t committed back then.

I was committed to the Cubs, too. I have vivid memories of the 1989 National League Championship Series, watching Ryne Sandberg and Mark Grace and Andre Dawson and Greg Maddux get knocked back by the Giants (who were then pulverized by the A’s in the World Series, the one that opened with an earthquake).

The 1994-95 player strike did a number on the fan in me, however. It came a year after I stopped playing and just as I was maturing into an adult. The greed on both the owners’ and players’ sides disgusted me and prompted me to see non-amateur sports in a skeptical light forever after. There’s just too much money involved.

Since then I’ve followed sports only sporadically. There have been moments, such as an idyllic summer double-header at Wrigley in 1998, but for the most part, I’ve rarely been able to recover that childlike passion for a team or player.

The World Series that ended around 1 a.m. Thursday morning was one of those moments.

I hadn’t watched a baseball game all season, although I had followed the league in the paper. It was the Cubs who got me to track down a bar with cable TV, but it was the great games that kept me glued to the screen night after night. They had masterful pitching, clutch home runs, fabulous defensive rescues and more instant-replay calls at bases than I could count. If the Cubs had lost, I would still be walking on air, patting Indians fans on the back and saying “Helluva game!”

On Thursday, Rob Arthur wrote that because the Cubs were so bad for so much of the 108 years since they were last World Series champions, their fans learned to lean back and just appreciate the game. They didn’t become bitter balls of angst, the way Red Sox fans did during their 86 years in Purgatory.

“We went to (Wrigley) to enjoy baseball, not necessarily to watch the Cubs win,” Arthur’s father told him. “You knew the Cubs stunk.”

That’s why it was perfect that the World Series the Cubbies finally won was such a magnificent example of the game, ending in a 10-inning nail-biter that’s being called one of the most exciting baseball games ever.

I watched Game 7 at the Shamrock in Gabriels, where I usually go on Wednesday nights to play music with friends. We played as we watched, somehow able to do both at once until the Indians tied it up. Then we sat mesmerized. It was a wonderful night.

I wonder what will happen now. My other favorite baseball team as a kid was the Red Sox — I had two aunts in Boston and a thing for old stadiums. I cheered for the Sox vigorously as they won the 2004 World Series, but with the curse lifted, things changed. The Sox won it again and became one of the perennial big-money powerhouses. My skepticism kicked in.

Maybe it’ll be different with the Cubs, but I don’t really care. I’m just enjoying the moment. I don’t sweat it when serious fans call me “fair-weather.” I have deeper things to put my faith in than a ball club.

But sports, at their best, are a lot of fun.

As many have said, this comes at a time when we Americans need a hopeful distraction from a horrible presidential election, but it also comes at a time when baseball is in decline. Its “America’s favorite pastime” nickname isn’t quite accurate anymore; football and basketball have made great gains. To compete better for ratings, Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to speed up the game, such as by cutting the time between pitches and between pitcher changes. I think that’s great.

But don’t put baseball on life support just yet. These World Series games stretched the one minute between innings to three, due to the demand for money-making TV ads, and people paid ungodly amounts of money for tickets. There’s still plenty of demand for this nuanced game of skill that rewards patience — even 108 years’ worth.