As an adult, I have come to understand potential as the universal call to holiness, that as life is a pilgrimage toward heaven, the goal is always "nearer," never "there." To seek perfection is to seek God; to always have more to do is to never take salvation for granted. To enter the struggle every day takes fortitude, looking at your life for ways to improve requires courage.
My favorite player was Andre Dawson. In 1987, he was a free agent with bad knees. No one would sign him, even the 71-91 Cubs. But Dawson wanted to be a Cub, so he arrived at spring training with a blank contract, offering to play for free, just for the chance to show what he could do. This, my grandfather told me, is what humility looks like - this is how a real man acts. Dawson went on to become league MVP, during a season in which the Cubs finished in last place.
They being the Cubs, and it being the 1980's and 90's, their greatness was a rarely sullied by winning. To be a Cubs fan was to live in constant, cheerful hope for a World Series we probably would never see in this world. I learned to hope, not with clenched teeth and fists, but with a smile. I learned to shrug off the losses, and to invoke the promise of next year, to have faith that someday they'd go all the way.
Of course, where the Cubs finished never mattered to me, or to my grandfather, or to my father. And it never touched the greatness of the players for me. I cared that they played the game with, as Sandberg called it, respect - for the game, for each other, for their opponents. They were, as I saw it, righteous.
In 2003, I remember watching the Bartman Game with my dad, live from London in the middle of the night. By the end, I think we were almost relieved - the tragicomedy of the team's collapse somehow made more sense than victory ever would have.
Of course, two seasons ago the Cubs did go all the way. Sadly, it was 12 years after my grandfather had died. During the 2016 NLCS and World Series, I spent most of the games on the phone with my dad. We talked about the game. But we talked more about my childhood, our family, and Grandpa. On the day of Game 7, I went to Mass (like a lot of Cubs fans). It was the feast of All Souls. I prayed for my grandfather.
I can't name the whole 2016 Cubs team, but I can still name the Cubs from the '89-'90 seasons. The 2016 team was fun to watch, but they taught me nothing.
When I got back from the thrift store last week, I sifted through more than 1,000 cards. They were all there: Rick Sutcliffe, Joe Girardi, Mark Grace, even the manager Don Zimmer. I found Sandberg, Maddux, and Dawson as a matching set for the '89 season. I called my dad. I sent him pictures of the cards. We told stories about Grandpa.
I am going to get those cards framed. When I look at them I won't see just baseball players. I will see wisdom, fortitude, and humility. I will think of my grandfather, and our call to be righteous and holy. When I look at them, I will call my dad.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author. They do not reflect the editorial perspective of Catholic News Agency.
Ed Condon is a canon lawyer and worked as Catholic News Agency's Washington DC editor until December 2020.