Watching the Cubs lose to the Mets last week for the fourth and final time, I was more profoundly disappointed than I expected to be. I wanted to have a reason to watch the World Series, but not only: I wanted to believe that things could be different, that the stars could align in new ways, notwithstanding curses and patterns and decades of the same frustrations. The game ended just before midnight and as I sat on the edge of the couch reflecting, blearily, on this compounded disappointment, I felt a little knot of sadness constrict in my throat, and then felt it unravel almost immediately and almost completely at a single thought: wait ’til next year.
“Wait ‘Til Next Year” captures the abiding essence of what it is to be a Cubs fan (lovingly visualized in a plucky documentary by that very title), but it also suggests a way of drawing sustenance from a hopeless-seeming world, in which the stars cling stubbornly to familiar configurations.
Having recently been up to my ears in affect theory, it’s hard not to think about this doggedness in terms of Lauren Berlant’s “cruel optimism.” According to Berlant, “the affective structure of an optimistic attachment invovles a sustaining inclination to return to the scene of fantasy that enables you to expect that this time, nearness to this thing will help you or a world become different in just the right way.” This kind of cruelty, she writes, supplies “the ‘hard’ in a hard loss”; the loss is costly in itself, made more damaging by its violation of the optimistic attachment underpinning it, while that optimism makes the loss more catastrophic yet by compelling a renewal of that fantasy.
But I’m not sure that’s what is happening here. Instead, “Wait ‘Til Next Year” is a gently expectant futurity, unattached to any specific outcome. The “next year” is perpetually renewable – there will always be a next year, and any next year could be the next year that we’ve been waiting for, or not, but okay – there will be another after that. The open-endedness of the timeframe means that no one is making any promises, and so offers a way to look forward with minimal risk of disappointment. And then there is the pleasure of the waiting itself. The uninterrupted string of next years since the 1908 World Series has conditioned a form of waiting that can be an end, or achievement, in itself; there is no plausible telos other than another next year (guaranteed) and the sweetness of re-encountering that undangerous hope anew.
In this way, I find the “Hey Hey!” and “Holy Cow!” (or “Holy Mackerel!” depending on one’s preference) with which local announcers and fans greet any good Cubs news to be particularly evocative. These nonsense exclamations, rooted in Cubs history but untethered from any actual signification, suggest a capacity to be surprised, delighted, an openness to a happy event but no reliance upon it, really, to sustain that hopefulness.
Of course, the cruelly optimistic attachments that Berlant considers are much more damaging (to formations like neoliberal capitalism or heteronormative family forms), much weightier than sports fandom. But undoing those kinds of attachments, if it is possible at all, takes practice, and that practice might take the form of lingering, waiting, in quotidian forms of fulfillment and despair, expecting that each will follow the other as surely as next year will follow this.