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Opinion: At the End of an Era

It's been a tough year and, for some Chicago sports fans, it just got a lot worse.

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At the End of an Era


Sorry for the profanity, Mom and Dad. You've always supported me but I've never been a great poet. And, if I'm being honest, that's the most poetic expression I can imagine right now.

It really is a great word. Useful for so many emotions. The way the teeth jump off the bottom lip and your accent carries all the way through to the hard 'K' sound that slams the vocal chords shut.

Chicago sports fans have said it a lot this year.

This time, it was said with that hint of resigned acceptance of a day I knew was coming. Like that first morning in a lingering autumn where the air temperature dips just far enough below freezing to really make you notice and remind you the hawk is coming. And, this time, it was said with all the bitterness and anger at the doom that awaits us and said with the all the disdain and disgust for the tick-tock of the clock we are powerless against. And, this time, it was said with the smirk of nostalgia that makes memories flood back, memories of all that joy that you hoped would never leave while, at the same time, strangely reminds you of all the sad there once was yet is almost miraculously capable of making you feel content because you're older and wiser and you know that joy you're so wistful for will, someday, return again. It's that last one that is always the hardest lesson.

I told you I've never been a great poet. Melodrama was a common critique.

Still, I always like to try to impress when writing about sports because sportswriting demands poetic license because sports is art and the moments that sports create in our lives are sad and sweet and complete all their own but a simple, "sorry, you had to be there," just never seems to cut it. Sure, science and technology and engineering and mathematics always enhance athletic performance and understanding of expectations and help with decision making but, to those of us who like sports for the escape from the daily grind and the doldrums and the hum drum of existence, no amount of data or explanation of the value in the return can erase the emotions that are just as vital and necessary to understanding the human experience as the other.

As all great art aspires to be, sports move, challenge, and inspire. In sports, we find ancient story of struggle and perseverance and we find ancient lessons of humility and wisdom. Sports have the ability to teach children valuable lessons about adulthood before they get there and can turn grown men and women back into kids. And sharing in the thrill of a victory or the agony of a defeat with their parents or grandparents or best friends or even strangers fractalizes into a million more little moments and into new memories that stay with us as long as we are.

Try as we might and hope our favorite teams will always win and our favorite players will always be our kids' heroes and always fulfill our ideal dreams and meet every expectation, sports is a reflection of life. And sometimes we don't always like what we see.

To be more specific, life can be a bitch. A bitch who'll rip your heart out and throw it on the ground and stomp on it and laugh as it walks away.

I told you I've never been a great poet.

As such, for often silly, nonsensical, and completely irrational reasons we attach ourselves to certain teams and players. We project our own personal histories and experiences onto them.

For example, when my favorite baseball team brought in Anthony Rizzo, I first took a strong interest in him as a player not because he was the first piece in Theo Epstein's grand rebuild of the Cubs organization but because he was a young adult cancer survivor, like me. He became "my guy" long before the team around him became good and long before he would go on to unofficially captain my favorite baseball team to arguably the greatest sports fan memory of my life. For another example, I have family members who went to Michigan State University and I played defense through High School and therefore Duncan Keith became "my guy" through his tenure with the greatest Blackhawks team this town has ever seen. His toothless grin in 2010 just solidified his status within. For another example, I had a friend who we'd tease for being a fair weather fan for rooting for a team on the other side of the country that he seemingly had no relation to until he finally admitted it was the favorite team of a cousin who died young and he hoped that, wherever he was, when that team did well it would put a smile on his cousin's face.

We all have our reasons.

And, probably far too often and because of that attachment, some treat their favorite players and teams in silly, nonsensical, and completely irrational ways. Especially when the "business" of sports is a factor.

Just as we can put them on pedestals and call them heroes and buy their jerseys for our kids and cheer that we "always knew they could do it," we can just as easily drag their names through the mud in our conversations and tar their reputations with vitriol and roll them through a gauntlet of criticism the likes of which can only be repeated amongst friends and after a few rounds of drinks in small sports bars with the only witness being a quiet bartender.

And why not, some ask? They get to a play a game for a living, after all, and we don't. They represent us. They get to live our childhood dreams. So why don't their names and our image of them deserve to be treated as we see fit?

They become toys, in a way. Living, breathing, walking, talking toys. And, just as one moment of performance can turn us into the happy kids we all were and wish to be again, with one moment of performance we can throw those favorite toys back into the box or the basket or the bin and never play with them again.

At least, until, after a little time passes, the healer of all things, and we rediscover that dusty box in the attic and we pull out our old favorite toys and the memories that come with and we show and tell the next generation just how much fun we had with them.

It's been a tough year. In conjunction with things like viruses and interminable politics, 2021 has become a year in Chicago sports that marks the end of eras. And we are powerless to stop it.

This last decade has been dominated by the Chicago Blackhawks and Chicago Cubs. But Brent Seabrook and Duncan Keith are no longer your Chicago Blackhawks defensemen, among others. And now Anthony Rizzo - the unofficial captain and face of the Chicago Cubs franchise for the last decade both on and off the field, Javy Baez - El Mago and the fastest tag in the west, and Kris Bryant - the ol' Blue Eyed baby faced Rookie of the Year/MVP and co-founder of the beloved Bryzzo Souvenir Company, are gone. Perhaps not forever, but for now. And, if they come back, it'll be as a part of something new.

Who knows? It may be the beginning of something great elsewhere in town, with the Chicago Bears behind Justin "Soldier" Fields? The White Sox are young and they're hungry and are getting things done on the South Side? Happy days may be coming to this sports town once more!

I know. It doesn't make it any better. Not right now.

I admit, I did think about writing a poem. Something that would last far beyond me and inform the future about how they made us feel in our time. Something to the tune of Chelsea Dagger? Something like Franklin P. Adams' Tinker to Evers to Chance but brilliantly weaving Bryant to Baez to Rizzo? Something like Ernest Lawrence Thayer's Casey at the Bat only, this time, there is no joy in Wrigleyville?

They deserve poems but sorry, I told you, I've never been a great poet.

Sometimes the things we want to say have already been said in ways far better than we're capable and, as the MLB trade deadline news really started to move and my social media feeds began to look more like a social media treadmill, the first thing that popped into my head was an old movie. Old depending on your perspective, of course.

At the end of Toy Story 3, Andy Davis is on his way to college. Woody leaves a note for Andy, who, thinking the note is from his mother, donates the toys to his young neighbor, Bonnie. Andy introduces the toys individually to Bonnie and is surprised to find Woody at the bottom of the donation box. Bonnie recognizes him, and though initially hesitant, Andy passes Woody on to her, and they play together before he leaves.

After he gets into his car and buckles his seat belt, Andy turns to look at his old toys one last time and the poetic geniuses over at Pixar have him say what, I think, we all want to say to players like Seabrook and Keith and Bryant and Baez and Rizzo.

Thanks, guys.