As the baseball season chugs into the All-Star Game break, the last-place Chicago Cubs are a long way from the World Series. To put it in the soccer vernacular of World Cup fans, the chances of the Cubs winning the pennant and playing for a championship this season are nil-nil.
Adrift in our perpetual sea of futility, we Cub fans cling once again to our "Wait Till Next Year" life preservers. But a new sports and political thriller, "Killing the Curse," imagines a brave, new world where the Cubs are one victory away from winning the World Series, the team's biggest fan is the U.S. president from Palatine, and suburban characters hold all the answers to a terrorism threat. "The Cubs are in the World Series, so you know it's fiction," notes author Dennis Hetzel's Facebook page.
"I was able to play out a lot fantasies," says Hetzel, a lifelong Cubs fan whose family moved to Hoffman Estates in 1957. The Cubs, who hadn't had a winning season since 1946, finished that season with a dismal 62-92 record and were embarking on a dubious five-year rebuilding plan that would see them lose 103 games in the 1962 season.
"People who think the Cubs are bad now forget how bad the Cubs were then," Hetzel says. That's why the author says it was "a blast" to center his book around the Cubs in the World Series. Having graduated from Western Illinois University as a political science major, Hetzel also got to create a fictional president "based in part on what I'd like to see in a politician." A moderate Republican with political enemies, the president plans to attend the climactic World Series game at Wrigley Field to root for his Cubs to beat the Boston Red Sox. But domestic terrorists and a crazed fan from Streamwood have the potential to alter the outcome of the game, expose secrets from the president's childhood, blow up a local tourist attraction and even assassinate the president.
"I'm a political junkie, and I love sports. The book was a chance to bring these things together," says Hetzel, who also added plenty of his suburban memories to the book. "It's all set in the suburbs. I didn't expect it to become as personal as it did. I pulled out a lot of stuff from my childhood in the suburbs."
The book contains references to a juvenile detention center in St. Charles, a nod to the Hippo's hot dog place that was legendary in Schaumburg during his childhood and a scene when students "come back from lunch after JFK had been assassinated, and it's pretty much the way I remember it."
Hetzel's father, Paul, a Cubs fan born in 1908 when the Cubs last won the World Series, worked as a vending machine repairman when he moved his family from a Hungarian neighborhood on Chicago's West Side.
"We were one of the early residents of Hoffman Estates," Hetzel remembers. "Roselle Road was two lanes."
His mom, Ruth, worked as a checker at Jewel. His dad served as an assistant chief for the volunteer fire department. A 1970 graduate of Conant High School, Hetzel wrote about baseball better than he played.
"I was the classic right fielder in terms of my athletic ability," remembers Hetzel, whose Cubs frustration matched his personal baseball trauma. "I tried out and was one of the few kids who didn't make the team."
But that didn't stop him from summer days filled with games of 16-inch softball.
"We played ball all day. It was a very nice place to grow up," Hetzel says, adding that he had his blue-collar characters grow up in Palatine instead of Hoffman Estates. "If you're not from the suburbs, the name Hoffman Estates implies something it isn't."
He was just 15 years old when he used his writing talent to win a paying job in sports, covering high school games for the weekly suburban papers. After graduating from college, where he served as editor of the college paper, Hetzel took a job as sports editor for weekly papers in Barrington and Palatine. He worked as a reporter for daily papers in Illinois and Wisconsin, before stints as a managing editor for the Capital Times in Madison, Wisconsin, and 14 years as editor and publisher for the York, Pennsylvania, Daily Record. About to turn 62 in a week, Hetzel now is executive director for the Ohio Newspaper Association in Columbus, Ohio. He and his wife, Cheryl, make their home in Hebron, Kentucky, and are parents to grown sons, Jon and Nate, and daughter, Lindsay.
Since his book, published by Headline Books and written with longtime friend and author Rick Robinson, is a thriller with many twists, Hetzel can't reveal much of the plot. "It's not just a book about baseball. There's more to it than that," he says, directing fans to his Facebook page.
Not wanting to spoil the ending, this column also won't reveal how the Cubs do in that seventh game of the World Series. "I've actually started working on a sequel," Hetzel says.
For that, we'll have to wait till next year.