"I get thousands of letters that begin, 'I've been a die-hard Cub fan since 19-whatever, or 18-whatever,' " he says with a laugh. "It's mind-boggling that these people have hung onto the Cubs. They're special, they really are. I've come to understand that better. I don't totally understand it yet, but it's unique."
What is striking now, as the Cubs make a run for the pennant, is how so many people proclaim their joy in one breath and then lament in the next that a dead friend or relative won't be there to share the good times ahead. Jerry Pritikin, who has founded a "Dallas Green for President" club and who carries around a large voodoo doll dressed in the uniform of one opponent or another—he carries a supply of straight pins and invites you to stick one in the doll—fervently wishes his father were around to see this.
Moments after the Cubs beat the Mets for the second time in Chicago, a game in which Cub second baseman Ryne Sandberg made a nifty play to end the game, Joe Scriba was yelling a chant that has become familiar in Chicago every time Sandberg gets a key hit or makes a graceful play: "MVP! MVP!" The 38-year-old accountant savored it only to a point. He appeared strangely subdued as he lingered in the leftfield bleachers, scuffing a foot on the cement walkway, obviously lost in thought. "I have a lump in my throat right now," Scriba said. "The only real sad thing is that my dad didn't live to see this. He died last year."
One afternoon in Murphy's Bleacher, the neighborhood haunt favored by Veeck and other followers of green grass, good beer and the Cubs, Wayne Kowalski, 37, and fellow dockworker Lance Lucado, 25, talked mostly about Lance's late father, Robert, and how he would've basked in what is going on now. "I was watching a Cub game on television with him in 1969," Kowalski said, "and they'd just lost it. He picked up his shoe and threw it through the picture tube. What an explosion! Boom! I couldn't believe it. He was shaking so bad he couldn't talk."
Robert Lucado, a dockworker too, died on the job in 1972. Every spring his widow plants a Cub pennant at the head of his grave.
While the memories of the dead shadow the footsteps of the living at Wrigley Field these days, so also do the bitter remembrances of all the losing summers past. Today, even among some of the truest believers, there is a feeling that somehow, through some pernicious quirk of fate, this whole experience is a trick being played on them, that ultimately it is going to be denied them. They are like combat soldiers doing short time, fearful that they'll be killed in a Jeep wreck on the way to the airport to go home. Their feeling was all the more understandable considering the way the team played recently, with five straight losses that delayed for a time Chicago's first division-clinching celebration.
"It's a strange feeling," said Gary L. Raasch, 39, a Lancaster, Pa. cop and a longtime Cub fan. "I'm afraid to get too excited. I have a paranoia about not seeing it, the feeling that it can't happen. I've seen 'em lose too many times. Back in '69, you couldn't believe it. They kept losing, kept losing, kept losing."
A couple of weeks ago, Raasch drove to Chicago from Lancaster to see the Cubs play the Mets, a journey of 700 miles. "I drove slow," Raasch says. "I feared something was going to happen. I figured I'd have an accident and wouldn't see it happen. So I took my time."
None of them, not one fan among them, knows what he will think or do when the Cubs, Lord help them, get into the playoffs, bump off San Diego, and head for the World Series. "It's kind of scary," said Dennis Dyrby, 33, the village president of Cabery, pop. 300, south of Chicago. "I'm used to coming to games just hoping for a home run. Now if they do win, it's gonna be strange. They've never won in my lifetime. What are we all gonna do if they do win? Will I be happy or will I be sad? We can't sit around all winter like before and say, 'Wait till next year.' It's kind of frightening."
For sure, they've found a measure of security in losing, in knowing their place—usually somewhere in the second division—at the end of the season. Indeed, winning is terra incognita. "You get to the point now where you feel jealous of other fans," said longtime Bleacher Bum Jim O'Connor, 37, district manager for a financial consulting company. "You see a 19-year-old kid out here and you say to yourself, 'What have you done to deserve feeling the way I feel? I've suffered longer than you have. I deserve it more than you do.' We've been married to these Cubs for a long, long time. How very, very long we've suffered!"