Tonight, just after 8:00 PM local time in Cleveland, Indians right-hander Corey Kluber will throw the first pitch of the 2016 World Series. It's been a magical year for the city, which saw its Cavaliers vanquish the Golden State Warriors—who were up 3-1—in the NBA finals. That win (that block) ended a championship drought for the city that had stretched for more than half a century. If all goes according to manager Terry Francona's plans (he snapped an 85-year dry spell for the Boston Red Sox in 2004, remember) the new gap between victory parades will be less than six months. It would be one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the history of professional sports. And yet outside of northeastern Ohio, virtually nobody cares.
That's because of the Chicago Cubs. Perhaps you've heard of them: Wrigley Field, the North Siders, Sammy Sosa, "let's play two!" Despite being one of the most storied franchises in all of sports, the Cubs haven't won the World Series since 1908. You know, back when the Ottoman Empire existed. Back before Arizona and New Mexico were states. None of the other major professional sports leagues—the NHL, the NBA, the NFL—had been founded. The 1908 Cubs didn't wear plastic batting helmets, because the scientists were still working out the kinks. In plastic.
Plenty of celebrities identify as Cubs fans, but we reached out to our favorite: Serengeti, the brilliant and prolific rapper who has invented entire alter-egos who are grounded in Chicago sports culture. (For a primer on Geti, check out our premiere of "No Beginner" or just watch the "Dennehy" video and remember that he dreamed it up while watching the Little League World Series on ESPN.) Having grown up on the city's south side, but later migrated north, he has a history with both the Cubs and the White Sox. It's like he rapped a few years ago:
"I pull for Chicago teams, both in the same
They both play each other? I hope for a good game
Both stadiums are accessible by the same train"
But Geti's greatest contribution to Chicago baseball lore is "Don't Blame Steve," a song from his Kenny Dennis EP. The title, of course, refers to Steve Bartman, the Cubs fan who infamously knocked down a foul ball in the 2003 National League Championship Series, a moment that preceded—or, as cynical fans would argue, incited—a spectacular collapse.
We spoke to Serengeti about Bartman, but also about baseball fandom as a solitary experience; about what it's like to hold out for years for a playoff breakthrough; about Andre "Hawk" Dawson; and about what it feels like for the whole country to take ownership of your team. His new album, Kaleidoscope, is out November 15, by which point all this will have been sorted out one way or another.
Noisey: I know you play a lot of softball now. When did you start playing baseball?
Serengeti: I played baseball from I was about ten all through high school. I was a pitcher in high school, and [I played] centerfield. I didn't pitch until my senior year—that's when I transferred schools, and I finally got to pitch. I was really excited. It was great, I loved pitching. My senior year, we went to the playoffs, and the coach said I was going to start a playoff game. I was so excited. The previous game, I came in to do an inning of relief. I was throwing harder than ever; for some reason, my arm was really live. But then I got to the game, and they started this other kid.
And you were a fan of both Chicago teams?
I always watched the Cubs, from about the Hawk Dawson years—like '87. We never had cable, but they were always on TV. The Sox were on cable. But the Cubs were just on WGN; it was just me watching baseball by myself. It was great.
I didn't know about that cable divide. Beyond the obvious historic or family ties, do you think that contributes to the distribution of Cubs and Sox fans throughout the city?
For me, for sure. The Sox were on SportsChannel, so I never saw the Sox, really. But whenever I went to a baseball game, it was always the Sox—my stepmother would get free tickets. But I would watch the Cubs. Just me and Harry [Caray] and Steve [Stone]. It was great, especially those night games on the west coast, when they'd play late.
Late 80s, early 90s, the Cubs were good, not great.
Yeah, they went to the playoffs for the first time in my time in one of those fluke years—
—with Don Zimmer, yeah.
Was it '88? [ed. note: It was 1989.] They didn't make [the World Series]. Prior to it, they had been in '84 with that Rick Sutcliffe team, and with those Ryne Sandberg home runs, but I hadn't really been watching. But that was always part of the lore for those [late] 80s teams. But then it was years of futility. It was always almost, like 'The Cubs are about to get Scott Rolen!' but then they get Gary Gaetti. You would still think they had a chance, but they were always these teams that just...weren't built.
I never really got the whole 'If you like the Cubs, then you can't watch the Sox' thing. People always talk about uncles and family, but when I watched [baseball], it was always a solitary thing. If the Sox won, it was great, too. The Sox hadn't won in 46 years when they won in 2005. When they won—sure! Good! It's not like the Cubs and Sox would play each other, so it's just some...talking stuff. [Serengeti lapses into Kenny's accent] Ah, I like the Cubs! No, I like the Sox!
Do you remember Game 6 in '03?
[Ed. note: After dropping Game 1 of the 2003 NLCS, the Cubs rattled off three wins in a row and needed only one more to reach their first World Series since World War 2. They lost Game 5 in Miami, but came home to Wrigley for Game 6. With a 3-0 lead and 1 out in the top of the eighth, the Cubs were only five outs away from closing out the Marlins. But when Luis Castillo hit a fly ball into foul territory in left field, a fan sitting in the first row, Steve Bartman, knocked it off course while attempting to catch it. This caused the Cubs' left fielder, Moises Alou, to fly into a rage. The Marlins went on to score 8 runs that inning; they won Game 6 and forced a Game 7, which they also won en route to their second World Series in just 7 seasons. There's a documentary about this called 'Catching Hell' if you care to watch.]
I do, vividly. It was me, Vanessa, and her mom, and God, it was just unbelievable. It was brutal. They were right there. It was terrible. It was crazy. And that's when the Cubs started to get serious—they'd hired Dusty Baker and started to have a real squad.
I couldn't believe that the guy reached out to catch the ball. 'Holy smokes, why did he do that?' But then after it happened, I put myself in those shoes, and I was like 'Oh, if the ball's coming at you, you're gonna try to catch it, too.' This is a once-in-a-lifetime thing, you sort of just lose all your spatial recognition, and you might forget for that split-second. Because everybody was sort of reaching for the ball, because it is sort of like a thing when the ball's coming at you, a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Well, not once in a lifetime, but it's exciting. You don't know the fella's running, huffing and puffing, thinking he's gonna catch it. You're trying to catch it, too.
Everybody else said, like, 'I would be so aware, and I wouldn't do this and I wouldn't do that' but you never know what you would do. That ball's coming and time sort of freezes.
I don't even think Kenny was alive then. I don't think Kenny came until 2006. But right when I came up with the idea for the "Dennehy" thing, then that whole angle sort of opened up too, about how [Kenny] was a Hawk Dawson fan. He was trying to knock that shit down, because you shouldn't have gotten rid of the Hawk.
[Bartman]'s one of the most famous Cub fans, obviously. And like a real, true fan, listening to the game on his headphones, you know? He should have just reveled in that shit.
It's easy to catch an NBA or NFL game and take it for what it is, but baseball depends so much on the rhythm of the summer—it's an everyday thing. You're a touring musician. Do you keep up with the Cubs all season?
Oh, every game. If I don't watch at least a few innings of it, I'm always checking the scores, or at least the box scores, seeing who did what and so on and so forth.
What's it been like this year? It's a different look for the Cubs in just about every way.
It was amazing—it still doesn't feel real. It sort of goes back to Chicago winning with all these new artists. Chicago's just not the same. The lovable Cubs are not your own Cubs anymore, they're like a national phenomenon. It's huge. Having Joe Maddon and all that starting pitching, these young boppers...prior to this, the Cubs always had these old, grisled veterans. It's pretty amazing to see a super squad like this on the North Side. Before, all the Cubs teams had characters: Dawson, Shawon Dunston. Now they're just pro studs, you know what I'm saying? It's a bit different.
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter.