Another lost autumn on the North Side of Chicago—this will make 66 straight World Series without the company of the Cubs—and fans handle their agony in different ways. Comedian Jeff Garlin swears a lot. ("This is my least favorite f------ Cubs team," he says.) Actor Joe Mantegna drops all pretense of hope. ("I still love 'em, but I'll never invest in them again," he says. "They'll kill ya.") Other Cubs fans offer their own variations on the theme.
But in Thailand, close to the border of Myanmar, there's a Cubs fan who still believes. "You will want to talk to Steve," Mantegna says. "He's the most optimistic Cubs fan I know."
Steve Hirschtick pleads not guilty. "No," he says, "I'm not an optimist. That's not the right word... . I mean, I'm kind of an optimist... . No, not the right word."
What word would describe the 65-year-old Hirschtick? He grew up in Chicago, the son and grandson of rabid Cubs fans. Throughout his career as an attorney and law professor in Los Angeles, the Cubs meant everything to him. Spring training of one year, he and his brother were thrown out of the Cubs' dugout by Dave Kingman wielding a baseball bat. Hirschtick and a woman once broke up over night baseball in Wrigley—well, sort of. He had to be there for the first night game, in August 1988, and it just so happened that the couple was in Rome at the time. (Yes, he left. So did she.)
In the late 1990s Hirschtick retired and moved with his Thai wife, Orawan, to her village about 50 miles from Chiang Rai. If the world was flat, Steve says, he'd live on the edge. He won't say the name of the town, though, because he doesn't want tourists.
And why would tourists show up? Because Steve Hirschtick has hired villagers to build a little Wrigley Field on his land.
"I thought, If I build it, will they come?" he says. "Because, you know, I don't really want anyone to come."
It's not an exact reproduction of Wrigley Field—it's more like a Chicago Cubs theme park. It began in the spring of 1997 when Hirschtick's mother told him over the phone that the Cubs had lost their 11th straight game to start the season. (They ultimately lost their first 14.) Hirschtick muttered, "We will reverse this streak by building a monument on this spot." He gathered together some people from the village (he says that at any time he supports 20 or 25 villagers, half of them children), showed them a photo of a baseball with a Cubs logo and paid them to build a 15-foot replica with steel and concrete. "That ball will be around when I'm dead, for 50 or 100 years," Hirschtick says.
He then paid people in the village to build a baseball field with a facsimile of the Wrigley Field scoreboard. Then they built a version of the Cubs' marquee (with the special message ISABEL AND ALLAN SIGN WITH ST. PETER, in honor of his late parents). There's a rooftop with a THIS BUD'S FOR YOU sign on it. In this little town more than 8,000 miles away from Waveland Avenue, there is a school outhouse with a giant sign saying WATCH YOUR CHICAGO CUBS ON WGN TV.
Hirschtick's favorite piece, though, might be a marble tablet with a PG-13 version of former Cubs manager Lee Elia's famous rant about Cubs fans: "Eighty-five percent of the f------ world is working. The other 15 percent come out here."
Hirschtick has tried to explain baseball to people in the village, he says, but they do not follow. He's given them Cubs shirts, which they wear happily. "They think it's a religion," he says. "They think I'm praying to the god of the big red C."
In that, they're not far off. Every day (late night for day games; Thailand is 12 hours ahead of Chicago) Hirschtick watches his Cubs over the Internet. He rarely misses a game.
Against the Reds last week the Cubs took a 4--0 lead, blew it, scored two to tie it in the ninth and lost in extra innings. To Hirschtick, that's Cubs baseball. "When I was working, I enjoyed what I did most of the time," he says, "but there was plenty of drudgery and bull----. Now there's no drudgery. Watching the Cubs take the lead, blow the lead, come back, lose—it's aliveness."
And if the Cubs ever won it all? Hirschtick was born less than a year after the Cubs' last World Series appearance, in 1945. "I hope to see them win in my lifetime," he says, "but if they don't, that will give my daughter [Corie Henson, 38] a reason to keep on living. It's a virus, this Cubs thing. A virus. But for me, it's a virus of joy."
I tell Hirschtick again that he sounds like an optimist. He laughs and says, "I'm no optimist. I know the Cubs won't win. I'm not a fool." But then he sheepishly admits something. The Cubs raise a w flag every time they win, so that people in the elevated train will know about it. (The Cubs also raise an l flag after losses.) Well, Steve Hirschtick brought two Chicago Cubs w flags to this remote part of Thailand to raise on his old flagpole. Why two? He felt sure the first w flag would wear out after a while. And that, friends, is the very definition of an optimistic Cubs fan.
HIRSCHTICK HAS GIVEN THE THAI VILLAGERS CUBS SHIRTS, WHICH THEY WEAR HAPPILY. "THEY THINK IT'S A RELIGION," HE SAYS. "THEY THINK THAT I'M PRAYING TO THE GOD OF THE BIG RED C."