Monday, October 19, 2015

Not quite ready to turn in my card

I've always prided myself on my card-carrying contrarian ways, but there is a limit.  It's fine to march to the beat of your own drummer, that is until the drummer leads you off the edge of a cliff. That's why I never identified myself with any political party or ideology as I value the freedom of thinking for myself, rather than having my opinions determined by my affiliations. Like Groucho Marx used to say, "I'd never belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member." That can be a rather lonely existence, sometimes I think my life would have been much easier had I not chosen to be the square peg so to speak. Well so be it, that's who I am and after 56 years on this planet, I don't think that's ever going to change.

I've been thinking about that quite a bit these past weeks as the Chicago Cubs have entered into somewhat uncharted territory for the team, success. There is every reason in the world why I should be a Cubs fan. I've lived my entire life north of Chicago's Madison Street, the official dividing line between the north and the south sides of the city. The Cubs play on the north side, while the other Chicago team, the White Sox play on the south side. It's true my baseball fandom didn't have deep roots as my European father couldn't stand the game. But my mother who by and large is indifferent to sports, considered herself a Cubs fan and took me to several games at Wrigley Field in the sixties. Most of my friends while I was growing up were Cubs fans and heck, even I was a Cubs fan during one of the most trying seasons that anyone can remember, 1969.

The disappointment of the epic collapse of that team prepared me well for the slings and arrows of life; one could say I grew up considerably in that, my eleventh year. Unfortunately the experience soured me on the game and I lost interest. When the flame was rekindled a few years later, I re-emerged as a White Sox fan and have been ever since.

It was in part my contrarian nature that drew me to the team on the south side. While it wasn't always so, by the late sixties and early seventies, the Cubs were the team that got the lion's share of attention in this town. It was a bad time for the Sox as the team was going nowhere, and the perception that the neighborhood where they played was dangerous kept fans away in droves. Things got so bad, they played several of their home games up in Milwaukee after the Braves left that town for Atlanta and before the short lived Seattle Pilots were re-christened the Milwaukee Brewers. Meanwhile the Cubs were making a serious push for the pennant, with a team that featured four future Hall of Famers including Ernie Banks, whose infectious personality and effervescent enthusiasm did more for the organization than the highest paid public relations firm could ever dream of doing.

Another big difference was the Cubs' affiliation with WGN, the local TV station who broadcast every one of their games, while the Sox were relegated to a less accessible UHF station who only carried a handful of games. It also didn't hurt that the Cubs played in the relatively glamorous and affluent north side which attracted more media attention than the working class south side.

Then there were the ballparks. Wrigley Field with its ivy covered walls and spectacular views of the city and the lake, was a family oriented place back when all games there were played in daylight, and a large number of fans in the stands were children and their parents. Old Comiskey Park, the home of the White Sox by contrast was cut off from the outside by double deck grandstands that surrounded the field, save for a very small bleacher section in deep center field. Even during the day, the ballpark seemed dark, and at night when the average fan age was about thirty years older than Wrigley's, a permanent cloud of cigarette smoke blanketed the ballpark, giving the joint the ambiance of an oversized pool hall.

It was that edgy, subversive feel of going down to the south side to see the Sox that appealed to me in the time when I also dabbled in radical politics and the counter-culture. Given that, it shouldn't come as a surprise that my biggest hero on those Sox teams was one of the baddest of baseball's bad guys, Dick Allen, the diametric opposite of Ernie Banks. It felt like being a grown up going down to old, dark and seedy Comiskey with its colorful characters and idiosyncrasies. The choice between the White Sox and the Cubs in those days could be compared to the choice between Martin Scorsese's Mean Streets and Sesame Street. For me there wasn't much of a choice, left to my own devices as a teenager, it was a no-brainer that I would fall in love with the White Sox.

As the word would imply, being a baseball fan (short for fanatic), has nothing to do with rationality. Any true Chicagoan will tell you that you can't possibly be a Cubs AND a White Sox fan. Actually it's like being in love with two women at the same time, it can be done, but it's not worth the trouble. However I never bought into the idea that being a fan of one team meant you had to hate the other. Hatred of the Cubs is palpable on the south side where during this past National League Divisional Series between the Cubs and the Cardinals, a south side bar got national attention for offering drinks on the house for every St. Louis home run.

The hatred for the Cubs in that part of town is understandable as the feeling that both the Sox and the south side get no respect cannot be denied. Ten years ago when the White Sox won the World Series, the Cubs, then a lackluster team, still got more media attention and drew more people than the Sox. Passion for the White Sox on the south side of Chicago can be best compared to that of Brooklynites for their Dodgers before the team was taken away from them in 1957. Sox fans like Brooklyn Dodger fans before them, perpetually wear a chip on their shoulder.

On the other side of town, I'd say the general feeling about the White Sox is indifference rather than genuine loathing, although there are Cubs fans who for some reason unknown to me. boldly profess their hatred of the men in black. Talk about irrational.

Personally I never root against the Cubs unless of course they're playing the White Sox, which they do six times a year. Since the two teams play in different leagues, they do not compete against each other in the standings, and since both teams are usually bad, those games are meaningless, except as bragging rights for their fans.

The only relevant bragging right at the moment is that one of the two teams, the Cubs, are still playing baseball in mid-October. I admit to having jumped on their bandwagon a few months ago when it became evident that they would have a serious chance at getting into the playoffs and possibly beyond. At this writing, they are unfortunately two games down to the New York Mets in the National League Championship Series. If the Cubs manage to come back and win that series, they will have accomplished something they have not done for seventy years, make it into the World Series. If they win that, they will be baseball champions for the first time since 1908.

I hope they do it. Should they lose to the Mets, I'll be bummed, just as I was back in 1984 and especially in 2003 when they came so close to the World Series. For me, rooting against the Cubs right now would be the same as rooting against my mother, my friends, my family, my community and my city. It would be nothing more then contrarianism only for the sake of being contrary, petty, pointless and dumb. 

Still there is a little part of me that would love to rebel against all the Cubs hoopla, especially TV interviews in bars with drunk yuppies waxing poetic on the history of a team they know nothing about, the nonsense of curses, and the attention paid to every knucklehead who brings a goat to the ballpark.

In his wonderful book The Boys of Summer about the Brooklyn Dodgers, Roger Kahn wrote the following about the Dodgers vis-à-vis the Yankees:
You may glory in a team triumphant, but you fall in love with a team in defeat.
Despite their lack of success on the field over the years, the Cubs are to Chicago what the Yankees are to New York. Not only have the White Sox been perennial losers just like their crosstown rivals, but they did it in relative obscurity, all the more reason to love them.

This is the baseball cap I've been sporting around town lately:

To the uninitiated, a blue cap with the letter "C" embroidered on it no doubt is a vintage Cubs cap, but it's actually a reproduction 1949 White Sox cap. That team was special for nothing other than it was the year the great pitcher Billy Pierce who recently passed away, joined the club.

Wearing it, especially on the north side is my subtle way of showing solidarity with my favorite team in a time when they are all but forgotten. It's also my way of saying that I haven't completely gone over to the dark side.

Such is the life of a north side White Sox fan, still crazy after all these years. With that I conclude:

Go Cubs, seriously.

POST SCRIPT: The day after I wrote this, the Cubs were unceremoniously swept in four games by the Mets and as I predicted, I was bummed. Lots of folks brought up the rift between Cubs and Sox fans; many Cubs fans seemed genuinely hurt that Sox fans rooted against their team. As for the Sox fans, my guess is that most of them secretly rooted for the Cubs against the Mets if for no other reason than they would be able to continue to root against the Cubs in the World Series. With no Chicago team in the World Series this year, which of course is the normal state of things, only real baseball fans in this town will have any interest in what hopefully will be a good series.

Who am I rooting for Kansas City or New York? Well let's just say I'm rooting for the series to go seven games with game seven being decided in extra innings. I'm not quite ready for the chill winds of autumn yet.

1 comment:

Tony said...

I love your perspective and share your sentiment. In fact, when the White Sox won the World Series 10 years ago I was secretly happy for the city and their fans. As a Chicagoan and a long time Cub fan, it's been hard at times but baseball is fun and that's been enough for me. I'm greatful for the success the Cubs have had this year, but I'm especially greatful to have your support. Great post!