As of last Sunday*, the Chicago Cubs have the best record in baseball. We’ve heard that a lot this week, but somehow it never gets old. Last Friday morning, in the midst of the team’s seven-game stomping of the Colorado Rockies, I arrived at Wrigley Field to talk to Jason Marquis.
The night before, Marquis had pitched. Coincidently, I’d been there with friends sitting behind the much-loathed pole in section 228. The next morning, I had a better view waiting in the dugout for Marquis to arrive. I chatted with some of the media regulars about the previous night’s game. I watched the grounds crew pull the tarp over the field—they were expecting rain and “tornadic activity.”
When Marquis arrived, we talked a bit about the upcoming game. “The Cubs play 50-something day games and people have jobs—but nearly 40,000 show up for every game. It’s electric every time you step on the field. Look at today. It’s overcast and rainy and there will still be 40,000 fans here and that’s the great thing about this place!”
And the fans that skipped out on work that particular day saw an amazing game. The Cubs came back from an eight-run deficit to win 10-9; there wasn’t any tornadic activity outside of the batter’s box.
If you’re a fan of the movie Bull Durham, which I totally am, you may have grown up connecting baseball to religion in some far-out, mystical Susan Sarandon kind of way. But, there aren’t that many Jews in baseball and there aren’t too many teams with as much mythical lore as the Cubs. So, does being both a Jew and a Cub make Marquis feel doubly persecuted?
When I asked Marquis, who seems like a very laid back guy, he laughed. “Maybe they negate themselves and cancel each other out! But nah, I feel privileged to be part of both the Jewish religion and part of Chicago Cub history. Being from a Jewish background, my parents always pushed education. But I always had time for extracurricular activities too. Sports suited me the most and got me to the highest levels.”
He adds that while there aren’t a lot of professional Jewish athletes, he hopes that more kids who are interested in sports will follow in his and others’ footsteps so in the future, Jewish athletes won’t be such rarity.
As a New York native, Marquis was a Yankees fan as a kid. And during the off-season, he resides in Staten Island. I wondered if he’s still allowed to be a Yankees fan, which I guess would be better than being a Cardinals fan. (Marquis spent the three seasons with our division rival prior to being signed with the Cubs in the 2006 off-season.)
“I grew up a die-hard Yankees fan, and my friends are still all Yankees fans. Now, more than anything, I’m a fan of the team I play for. But when it comes down to it, I’m a baseball fan. When I’m done with this game, I’ll root for the players that I played with and the players that I like, but mostly I’ll just be a baseball fan.”
Life is awesome for Cubs fans right now, and White Sox fans too for that matter. But I didn’t want to ask Marquis about curses or predictions. I didn’t want to know what he thinks of the 100-year destiny talk or any cloven hoofed goats. Because if I have learned anything as a life-long Cubs fan (not to mention a Bull Durham fan), it’s that you don’t mess with a streak and you try to take it one day at a time.
Still, I couldn’t help asking how it felt to play for the team with the best record in the major league. “Last year was a step in the right direction. We got back to the playoffs, and this year we’re off to a really good start,” Marquis says. “It’s nice and fun to be part of a winning team, but obviously it’s a long season so we don’t want to get too far ahead of ourselves.”
Making the move to Chicago was good for Marquis. He’d grown to love the city on road trips when he was with the Cardinals and, for his two young children, Reese Madison and Andrew, the Cubs’ schedule is pretty close to ideal. There are 81 home games and, Marquis emphasized, about 50 are day games, compared to about 20 for most teams. “I love day games because you get a life outside of baseball.”
That life includes hanging out with his kids and his wife in their Lakeview neighborhood and eating at local hotspots including La Scarola and Joe’s Crab House, but it does not include a stint playing acoustic guitar on the most recent Nada Surf album—as stated on his Wikipedia page. He chuckled at that idea. “Nope, I never did. Not me, I’m musically challenged. I’ll sing a little karaoke revolution on X-Box every once in a while but even then…. I’m terrible, but I do it for fun and I’ll make a fool of myself,” Marquis says.
Judaism played a big role in Marquis’s upbringing and he credits growing up Jewish for helping him develop his morals and ethics. “I learned how to treat people the right way, and I think whether it’s Judaism, Catholicism, Christianity or whatever, religion is a good way for kids to have a solid background. It gives them something to stand on as they grow up so they’re not out there clueless in the world.”
He credits his wife, Debbie, who is Catholic, with sometimes knowing more than he does about Jewish traditions—she wants to make sure the kids learn about their father’s heritage. And as is true in many families, food is an important part of the process. “My dad makes latkes for Chanukah and my mother will make the beef brisket. My wife and my mom cook together around the holidays,” he says.
Marquis might get the chance to connect his work to his heritage sometime soon. Israel is trying to get together a team to compete in the World Baseball Classic, which would take place right before spring training. “They contacted my agent to see if I would be interested. Obviously I would be, but they have to build a team of players, which I think they will,” he says. “I mean, will we stack up against the Dominicans and the U.S.? Probably not, but it would be fun to represent my heritage and where I came from.”
It would be fun to watch Marquis play for Israel. And now that his heritage includes Chicago too, whatever happens with the rest of the 2008 season, I’ll enjoy watching Marquis play for the home team.
*This piece was originally published in Oy! last June. The Cubs are now headed to the playoffs! Go Cubs!