Chicago is what America’s all about.
“You gotta have faith.” Uttered by Ernie Banks—Mr. Cub himself—the phrase is at once inspiring and exhausting, a familiar reference to the long wait endured by long-suffering fans. For 101 years, Chicago’s Cubs have made their fans wait. When they’re good, Michael Wilbon asserts, “the city just percolates.” When they are not, well… the city is pretty much used to that trajectory from hope to dismay to determination to frustration that shapes each season for the past 101 years.
Such inexplicable, perpetual devotion is the focus of We Believe. John Scheinfeld’s documentary, which premiered in Chicago in June, celebrates the Cubs’ fans’ stanch commitment to the team and, no small point, their own self-image. The team represents the city, of course, and the city represents “America,” or at least the admirable national traits like “hard work” and “decency” and “Midwestern roots and values.” For Dennis Franz, the Cubs “represent hope, they represent wholesomeness, the epitome of team spirit.”
So do the fans, according to We Believe. Here they’re lined up as a series of talking heads—some famous, some anonymous, all passionate, or at least acting like they are. Their reasons for feeling so devoted are various. Franz recalls his father’s “joy in taking me to Wrigley Field,” while Joe Mantegna calls lifelong Cubs fandom “a curse your father or your mother puts on you as a small child.” George Will remembers he made a choice to become a Cubs fan. Those childhood friends in Champagne (located between St. Louis and Chicago) who threw in with the Cardinals grew up to be “cheerful and liberal,” while he “became a gloomy conservative. Life-shaping, as I say.”
If some fans find comedy in their allegiance, others find solace and diehard community. Jeff Garlin reflects on the moral character of Cubs fans: “They’re not for results-oriented people. I like good results, but I much prefer a great experience and the Cubs certainly, every year, give me a great experience, even when they have bad teams.” This great experience concerns context, from the landscape (for Will, the very flatness of the Midwest is heartening, with “no impediments to your horizon, it’s kind of a blank slate still, where you can go write your future”) to the architecture (rebuilt, of course, since the 1871 fire). The city’s modern buildings and streets attest to a stubborn will to survive and thrive, despite economic hardships or harsh weather. Scott Turow sums up: “People go to LA because they want to become a star. People go to Chicago because they want a job, it’s where real life starts.”
Interspersed among the celebrity endorsements, the film includes as well testimonies by regular people. Sidewalk interviewees describe each spring as a new beginning, “like starting a new relationship.” (Though they hope they don’t know what to expect, one man sighs, “We kinda do.”) One couple appears repeatedly, their marriage apparently organized around their fandom, with a wedding timed to fit the team’s schedule and a house (and a child) decorated with Cubs paraphernalia. The film includes a brief reference to Steve Bartman, who snagged a foul ball during the 2003 NL Championship Series, but doesn’t dwell on this most ignominious fan. (He is not interviewed, as he is apparently still in hiding.)
The regular people interviews tend to be cute and occasionally clichéd. Still, they’re not so banal as the segments focused on players. From Mark DeRosa and Ryan Dempster to Derrek Lee and Kosuke Fukudome, last year’s Cubs offer up their own reasons for believing. Lee expresses his love for the game in clichés that would make Crash Davis proud (“You push yourself, you take it to the limit”), while Dempster asks, “Let us define ourselves and not be defined by the teams that played before us.”
You can only wish him luck on that. The film makes clear that the Cubs’ 101 years without a World Series win loom over their fans’ everyday lives. Whether they see this as a curse or a character-building adventure, they assume their lot with each new season. As Bob Costas puts it, when the Cubs do win, “the meaning will go well beyond the particular team or the particular season it happens.”