Monday, July 14, 2014

Dear Wiley: Summer's still hot, Cubs are still cold

From Sunday's TIMES and NEWS-STAR

I stop by the same cemetery spot on the way to church early most Sundays, hang around a bit and wonder what we’d be up to if Wiley Hilburn were enjoying another hot summer in the north Louisiana sunshine.

Wednesday marks six months since the passing of Wiley, who became a companion, either in person or through his writing, to many of you in his 75 often-trying-but-always-intriguing fun and friendly years. He was the longtime poet of North Louisiana, a favorite son of Ruston, a professor, a newspaper reporter, columnist and editor, and a diehard Chicago Cubs fan.

The headstone will be ready soon. Meanwhile, it looks a lot like any other six-month-old gravesite. But no grave is like that of any other when you love the deceased. So while Wiley remains Everyman, which is how he liked it and how he wrote, he left an immeasurable void for many of us who he treated with such care and kindness. So just in case you were wondering -- after missing him in the newspaper this short time -- Wiley surely lives on in our conversations around Ruston, as if he were absent but sure to show up at any moment to comment on current politics, to praise a new biography he’d read or cheeseburger he’d eaten, or drop his head to his chest over the news of the Cubs’ recent trade of their best pitcher.

Some things never change. We miss Wiley, and Chicago has a stranglehold on last place in the National League Central. Truths eternal.

I remind you here, in Wiley’s absence, that the Cubs have not won a World Series since 1908. They won 99 games in the regular season that year. Ninety-nine! In one year! The Cubs! By contrast, they have lost more than 90 in each of the past three seasons, including 101 in 2012.

In both 1907 and 1908, Wiley’s Cubs won back-to-back world championships -- Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, Tinker to Evers to Chance, that bunch. Both times they defeated the Detroit Tigers and a young Ty Cobb, who passed away in old age more than 50 years ago, in 1961. When the Cubs last won the World Series, Roosevelt was president: Teddy. FDR and two World Wars had not happened yet. The Cubs, in other words, are hard at work on their second consecutive century of being baseball’s answer to outer space’s black hole. Wrigley Field is not where world championships go to die; it’s where world championships have never existed.
Wiley could not have pulled for a more faithful, easy-to-figure organization. As of this writing, the Cubs are 11 games below .500, 12 games out of first place in the division, and seven games out of FOURTH. That means they are seven games worse, at present, than the fourth-best team in one division of one league.

The cliché is to say, “Boy, I’m glad Wiley’s not alive to see this.” But that would be a lie. He’s seen it all before anyway. And what a joy it was to listen to him talk about the pathetic doings up on Chicago’s North Side!, to witness the head shakes and the eye rolls, the limp neck as his head fell back, his face imploring the heavens for help. The exasperation in the sighs and half sentences, and the exclamation points that dotted the air.

It was a beautiful thing.

But never did the often absent-minded Wiley stop believing, or rooting, or wearing his Cubs cap. One thing Wiley left us with was the will to soldier on when things don’t go your way, as they often won’t. He was true to his team, through thin and thinner.

He didn’t want a long funeral, and it wasn’t. So I didn’t say this then, though I thought it, and still do: Since that day six months ago, I’ve carried with me the comforting mental picture of Wiley walking around in heaven, of him wondering who the Cubs play today, and of him wondering where he parked his car.