By CARA COOPER
In late July of 2016, an older guy at my work who likes to talk sports with me asked if I had heard about the Cubs most recent trade.
“They got that big closer from the Yankees. He seems like he’s the man. I watched some highlights. Wow! I can’t believe how good he is.”
Other people who knew I’m a Cubs fan also saw me out and about and said much of the same things.
“The Cubs got Aroldis Chapman. The rich keep getting richer.”
“You must be ecstatic.”
At that point, the Cubs had the most wins in baseball and a seven game lead in the NL Central. And if it was a year sooner I would have been ecstatic. Are you kidding? The Cubs, my favorite sports team of all time, were getting the best, most dominant closer in baseball. And they were getting him because he was THE piece they needed to win the World Series. It was the kind of trade that would have had me wearing my W flag as a cape and running around like a crazy person. The kind of trade that would have had frantically me searching for flights to Chicago for the first week of November. I mean, the Cubs were now the undisputed World Series favorites, and it wasn’t even a contest. I should have been freaking out. I should have been out of mind.
But I couldn’t be. I couldn’t bring myself to be excited about it. Because there was a lot more to Aroldis Chapman than just him being the most dominant closer in baseball.
Chapman was the first player suspended under MLB’s newest domestic violence policy, and he had sat out 30 games earlier that season. The Washington Post reported when he returned from suspension, “During an argument with his girlfriend, Cristina Barnea, last fall in Davie, Fla., Chapman allegedly fired eight shots into the garage wall and, according to Barnea, put his hands around her neck. Chapman was not arrested and no charges were filed because Barnea and other witnesses declined to cooperate. In addition, he was not read his rights before a statement was taken and no Florida gun laws were violated.”
Upon his return from suspension, Chapman said he “didn’t do anything,” and maintained it wasn’t serious and was just an argument.
I couldn’t bring myself to tell people that I wasn’t excited about the Cubs acquiring Chapman for this reason, because they were all so sweet and innocent in the way they wanted me to be excited. I felt like if I told them that Chapman is actually a garbage person it would be like telling a 4-year-old Santa doesn’t exist.
Plus, part of me wanted to have their same childlike enthusiasm. I desperately wanted to be excited for this. My favorite sports teams employed plenty of scummy people when I was growing up, ones I knew about and I’m sure many others I didn’t. They were still the Cubs, the team I used to tell people I was going to play for when I was five years old and obsessed with Sammy Sosa. I used to hit my glove before I caught pop flies because I wanted to be like Alfonso Soriano. I cried in my college dorm when they got swept by the Dodgers in the 2008 NLDS. But when you’re a kid you don’t think about that other off-the-field stuff, you just think about how much fun sports are.
The fun and goofiness is what I love most about them. Always have. That’s why Javy Baez is my favorite baseball player. And Starlin Castro is my second favorite. And Russell Westbrook is my favorite athlete on the planet. And it’s why I seek out videos of batflips and touchdown celebrations like a detective searches for DNA evidence.
Isn’t that what made us all fall in love in the first place? The fun and joy of watching your team win or favorite player do great things?
That same gross feeling I had watching Chapman dominate for the Cubs throughout the playoffs I’ve had all offseason this year ever since it became increasingly more clear the Cubs were going to retain shortstop Addison Russell, despite the fact Russell will be suspended the first 40 games of the season, also because of domestic violence accusations.
Me and so many other Cubs fans will have to watch Russell play in an infield next to Baez. We’ll share gifs and pictures of Baez, who brings more joy to Cubs fans than probably any player in the 21st century, doing crazy slides and tags, and we’ll smile while also feeling kind of dirty every time Russell gets a hit or scores a run.
But isn’t that what professional sports teams are banking on? They know we’re all just watching a game we fell in love with as kids, and that love is basically unconditional. We want to celebrate championships and be a part of a community. We remember staying up past our bedtimes to watch games and we like having something to talk with our dads about. We all so desperately want to have that same childlike enthusiasm for sports we’re willing to overlook the fact so many teams employ players who have no right being given any sort of national spotlight.
And we will, I will, I guess. But, when you tell a kid Santa doesn’t exist anymore, a lot of times they don’t believe it at first. They keep living that fantasy for just a few years longer, because it’s more fun that way and you don’t want to admit what you know to be true. But as you get older, reality sets in, and that bright-eyed fantasy of Rudolph and free toys wears off and you see the real world for what it really is.