Sunday, November 6, 2016

The column we didn't need: "A kind of victory"


     The Cubs won the World Series. The Sun-Times quickly posted the column I wrote to celebrate the occasion, and it got a lot of traffic -- actor John Cusack retweeted it to his 1.8 million followers. That was nice. 
     The next morning, a regular reader, Kirk Steinhaus, remarked on an aspect that everyone else overlooked, and posted his thoughts under the column on Facebook. He wrote:
I think that we are missing something. You posted this blog last night within five or maybe ten minutes after the Cubs won. It tells me that you had written it before they won, also telling me that you had written a contra-blog to post if they lost. Can we read that one too?
     That caught me off guard. I answered:
Hmmmmm... I'm not sure that would be appropriate. Let me think about it. Something seems amiss.
     What seemed amiss was the magic act quality of journalism. You don't reveal how it's done. As it is, I feel uneasy pointing out that I write obituaries of famous figures months, even years before they die. It's obvious—how else do you get eight pages about the complicated, fascinating life of Muhammed Ali online within 15 minutes of his death being announced? Yet it also seems like something a professional would not draw attention to. "Don't worry folks, the lady is safe, squished up in half the box. I don't really saw her in half."
     Plus there is a braggadocio quality to admitting the work that goes on ahead of time. Your waiter doesn't say, "You know the cook showed up at DAWN to bake that bread!!!" Don't brag. Braggarts are punished.
"The Dugout" by Norman Rockwell
     I talked about it with a couple colleagues, and an editor, and nobody thought running the "Cubs lose" column would violate some cherished journalistic norm. While I was puzzling on it the New York Times  "Insider" blog shared a Cubs lose graphic and page layout they had obviously expended so much effort on that it seemed a shame to let it remain unseen.  The Times is a class act, and they obviously felt it was okay.
      Then again, it was a beautiful painting, an homage to Norman Rockwell's famous 1948 Saturday Evening Post cover, "The Dugout."  Which led to a second qualm about this column. It isn't very good, in my mind, because it echoes an essay,  "Looking Failure in the Face." Yes, it was written by me in 2007, and yes, it ran n Forbes magazine, so few Sun-Times readers would be familiar with it.  But I try not to repeat myself, and while the words are not the same — it isn't plagiarized — the overarching concept, "Dante turned failure into success and so can you," is identical. Re-reading the column after a few days, it seemed a lazy, overly-facile journalistic solution to the problem of the Cubs losing the series.
    Well, considering that my column is not supposed to run at all on Thursdays, yet I turned in two, one if they won, one if they lost, maybe not so lazy. And there is an allure to the idea of unpublished works. When the Cubs neared the pennant win, Ald. Joe Moore wrote, reminding me that I had mentioned in a column in 2003 that I wrote an editorial about the Cubs winning the pennant that had made me cry and made my mother cry, and that I would tuck it away until they actually won. Should they win the pennant, he asked, can we read it? Amazed he remembered after 13 years, I tore up my office looking for it -- we've gone through a computer system or two since then and I don't have it electronically. But it's lost.
    Might as well put this online where I can find it someday. And besides, I am nothing if not a full service columnist, and since a reader requested it, and since none of the reasons not to settled the question in the negative, and since I have to fill this space today somehow, with apologies for its derivativeness and for a build-up longer than the column itself, here is the column that would have sought to comfort people had the Cubs lost which,  thank merciful God, they did not. They won.

     Dante Alighieri never got the girl. Beatrice Portinari, the love of his life, whom he first saw in the streets of Florence when he was 9 and she was 8, married someone else. Then she died young, at 24.
      Heck, Dante didn't even get to live out his days on the streets of his beloved Florence. He threw his lot in with the wrong political faction, was exiled and sentenced to death if he returned. He spent his last years sleeping on other people's sofas, basically.
     "Bitter is the taste of another man's bread," he wrote. "Weary the tread up another man's stairs."
     Kind of a loser really. But he made the best of it, forging his "Divine Comedy," immortalizing his lost Beatrice, placing her at the gates of heaven, and creating a fiery hell to roast his real-life enemies for all time.
     Quite the accomplishment.
     That is the art of life, which does not consist of one triumph after another. Instead, it is a chain of trying and failing and putting a brave spin on it and making your defeat into a sort of victory.
     When the Cubs dropped a second World Series game to the Cleveland Indians and their lights-out pitching, I cheerily observed that the Cubs had also been down two games to one against the Dodgers, and that worked out just fine. Don't give up hope!
     After Saturday night's loss, well, there was still Jason Kipnis, Northbrook's very own, slugging the first three-run homer hit against the Cubs in a World Series game at Wrigley Field since Babe Ruth did it in 1932. For the wrong team, true, but at least someone from the Chicago area was having a good night. I knew his father, Mark Kipnis, a lawyer for this newspaper who got unfairly singed when Hollinger International went up like a gas refinery explosion. It's nice to think of the karmic wheel spinning skyward for him too.
     I was ready for the Cubs to drop Sunday night's game. But they won that game. Then the next, in epic fashion. It was the Indians muffing easy fly balls. And suddenly the prize that had eluded the Cubs for so long seemed in their grasp at last.
     Only it wasn't, of course. The dust settled after Game Seven and it was over. The Cubs lost, as they always do.
     And yet, remember, the Cubs were in the World Series. They were there, somewhere they hadn't been for 71 years They made some errors, but they were not hapless. They were beaten by superlative pitching. Usually the Cubs lose by choking; this time they were strangled.
     I'm not a baseball expert, but I don't see the shame here. We were conquered, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, we did not capitulate.
     Nobody wants to lose. But we shouldn't be terrified of defeat either. Look at Donald Trump. He's so scared of losing that he's already babbling excuses. The election is rigged. The media biased. Wah. Which makes his defeat even more certain. He's running into the arms of the thing he's most afraid of.
     No need for excuses. I'm not a sports fan; I went to the opening of an exhibit at the Field Museum Wednesday night. But I know the Cubs winning would make people happy, and so I wanted them to win. But as with any victory, there would also be a cost. If you ask what makes the Cubs special, as a team, only two things really stand out: Wrigley Field and their 108 seasons without a World Series win. Each adds to the mystique. Sure, you could build a bigger, more modern ballpark. But it wouldn't be Wrigley, and the Cubs wouldn't be the Cubs.
     So sure, they could have beaten the Indians. Came close. But then they wouldn't be the Cubs, not the Cubs we knew, but some different team, the kind that wins a World Series. If you look at the Red Sox, winning the Series in 2004, 2007 and 2013 made them less the Red Sox that people loved and more of a Yankees Lite.
     By all means, be disappointed. Then make the best of it. All told, it worked out pretty well for Dante. He didn't get the girl. But he got the fame he hungered for. The Cubs didn't win the series. But they got to remain the Cubs we've always known and loved. And that's a kind of victory.


  1. That was a bit weird to read. That Times graphic is very well done, the addition of Tom Hanks and LeBron is a nice touch, but I am so glad that's all alternative reality.

  2. I was very surprised when I got my Tribune on Thursday morning and saw that they had full coverage of the victory, notwithstanding the game had ended close to midnight. They must have pulled out all the stops.

    Yet another reason why sportswriters don't have an easy life. Yes, it's fun seeing the games for free, but the deadlines can be brutal, as can the travel. Plus you have to beg for a few seconds of attention from a bunch of surly muscleheads who, if they couldn't do something with a ball, would be changing the oil in your car.

    Bitter Scribe

    1. @ Bitter Scribe/ I like your style. You hit the nail on the proverbial head with acerbic humor as usual.

  3. One of the pleasures of reading Steinberg is his ability to connect. Only he could find similarity between the tortured history of the Cubbies and the life of a 13th Century Italian poet. There is a touch of sadness in his evocation of "it might have been." It will no longer be the lovable loosers we've always known.

    Tom Evans

  4. I once had a dream to become an excellent sports columnist, but I have tried to learn how to write essays well but it doesnt work for me that is why I have still to buy essay. Thanks once again!

  5. Wow, great inside in the world of journalist ethics! As a young entrepreneur in this field, I find this material quite useful. Moral things in journalism always interested me.


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