Retired Cubs manager Lou Piniella and I are a lot alike.
We both shed tears Sunday at Wrigley. Sweet Lou wipes his eyes as he walks off the field, tips his hat to the cheering throng and realizes, "This will be the last time I put on my uniform." My eyes tear up after I watch the woeful Cubs take a 16-5 beating and then realize that I've still got tickets to the last home game of the season, when I'll probably don my blue Cubs floppy hat and cheer for a squad that has .150 hitter Darwin Barney batting leadoff.
Lou and I share other attributes. Lou managed the Cubs to the exact number of playoff victories as I have. I've won the same number of Pulitzer Prizes as Lou has. And we both love our moms.
But there is one big difference: Lou can quit the Cubs. I can't.
Lou, who turns 67 this Saturday, is forever a Yankee who won two World Series as a player in New York, a World Series as skipper with the Reds and a season-record 116 games managing Seattle before spending a little less than four seasons with the Cubs. Lou can move on from Wrigley, with suitcases full of memories from elsewhere. I am forever a Cubs fan, destined to lug love and heartache through the barren Cubdom desert for eternity.
Sitting in the upper deck for Lou's last Cubs game with my 11-year-old son, Will, and a couple of his buddies, I sense that Cubs fans envy Lou. We look at Lou as the decent guy who finally broke up with our crazy cousin. While we liked having him as part of our family and wished he could have turned things around, we can't fault him for leaving.
Lou is not alone. Wrigley is littered with Cubs fans wearing the reminders of departed Cubs who no longer share our burden. I see fans still wearing jerseys for ex-Cubs Kerry Wood, Mark Prior, Mark DeRosa, Ryan Theriot, Mike Fontenot, Ted Lilly and the newest Brave, Derrek Lee. My son, who got a Derrek Lee jersey for his last birthday, instantly shuns my pre-game suggestion to wear his prized Lee jersey to the game. "He's not a Cub," Will tells me, as he pulls on his Alfonso Soriano shirt.
When Lee doubles in three runs to dump another shovel of hurt on the buried Cubs, we hear boos. Although maybe fans are cheering "Looooouuuuu!" as the Cubs manager waddles out to replace one minor league pitcher with another. In the seventh inning, as the Braves abuse Cubs pitching for four runs to put the game out of reach, Lou makes three trips to change relievers, logging more productive minutes on the mound than most Cubs hurlers.
You have to think Lou is happy he's getting away from that. Some of the jerseys donned by fans near us sport the names of Cubs who got out while there was still time. Mark Grace, the jersey choice for female Cubs fans of a certain age, left Wrigley in time to get a World Series ring with the Arizona Diamondbacks. Likewise for Cubs legend Greg Maddux, who spent his most productive years with the Atlanta Braves.
The jerseys featuring World Series-less Cubs legends such as Billy Williams, Ernie Banks, Ryne Sandberg and poor old Ron Santo serve as reminders that bad Cubs things can happen to the best Cubs players.
Being a resident of Cubdom is an emotional and bewildering thing. Denied a chance to sing Steve Goodman's victory anthem "Go, Cubs, Go," I think of his "A Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request," in which the dying man notes, "You the living, you're stuck here with the Cubs, so it's me that feels sorry for you."
As the Braves score 11 runs in the last three innings at Wrigley, I think about how my late father, who would have turned 94 last month, died without seeing the Cubs win the World Series. I see a Braves runner sheepishly jog home with another run while the bewildered Cubs worry about the runner on first, and realize that I have no earthly reason to expect the Cubs to win the World Series in my lifetime. Or the lifetime of my son. It's not too late for Lou to leave the Cubs, but it's too late for my dad, for me and even for my son.
"Will," I say as the Cubs come to bat in the last inning trailing 16-5, "have you ever seen a team score 12 runs in the bottom of the ninth to win a game?"
Will looks at me with a steely determination locked on his young face, tugs his favorite Cubs hat firmly on his head and replies, "Not yet."