A Cardinals Fan in Cubs Land
Contemplating rivalry—and envy and schadenfreude and life itself—amid the world's worst singalong
Illustration by Sam Washburn
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"Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he stumbleth ... "
My memories of October 14, 2003, are stored with the lossless clarity and vividness special to moments of personal crisis. I can recall every nuance of the smell inside the Whirlaway Lounge of Chicago's Logan Square neighborhood, the pre-ban cloud of cigarette smoke mingling with the sweet, gently rancid tang of a young crowd's version of a very old anxiety. I was cramped on all sides by Cubs fans, all squinting at the old televisions mounted at either side of the bar that had, in the two months since I'd moved to Chicago, quickly become my favorite. I recall nervous chatter punctuating nervous silence, and my own clammy palms and dry mouth from the first pitch onward.
My nerves, however, were different than theirs, just as the beer label I picked at was different, and when Sammy Sosa, cheater, doubled home Kenny Lofton, egomaniac, in the bottom of the first, people nearby made certain I was watching.
"See that? You see what's up now?"
I did, and it was terrifying. So I breathed and counted silently and breathed more and ordered another Budweiser. I was of course wearing a Cardinals hat.
It was evening by then, as fall nights were creeping earlier into the day. Around me they hotched and leaned into one another for support. With every out they grew more energized, and this buzz, this cautiously hopeful charge among a crowd of long-frustrated Chicagoans, was turning the otherwise welcoming bar (and city, to be frank) into someplace that I in no way cared to be. By the end of the sixth inning, the score was 2–0 Cubs, Old Style was flowing, and Mark Prior had his team nine outs from its first National League pennant since 1945 (a reminder of which hung, faded and torn, behind the bar).
Outside, then. I couldn't watch.
What happened in the next hour was either a miracle or exactly par for the Cubs' course. I remember standing in the middle of my apartment, watching in gleeful dis(kind of) belief as the Cubs' World Series run fell to pieces. I watched Moises Alou flap his arms like a boy in tantrum. I laughed and called friends and yelled over the phone. I whooped and danced and danced.
Important here is a fact so basic it hardly bears mentioning: My team, the Cardinals, for whom I've cheered nearly as long as I've breathed, was not playing. On that night I was cheering failure, applauding the defeat of a team that for more than a century has known nothing but. I was devoid of pathos and empathy and have remained this way, on an extended Roman holiday. I smile with villainy and find comfort in Cubby misfortune. After six years, I've begun to worry that this isn't the healthiest way to live.
Outside of the realm of sport, to celebrate failure is at very least dishonorable. Our common term is "sadism," which at its edge blurs into sociopathy. The engine driving these disorders is the devaluation of another human being, a warning sign of potential harm to those around you, cause for padded cells or very restrictive jackets. And yet apropos of major athletics (excluding, I suppose, the Olympic Games, with their long, mostly good record of sportsmanship and mutual respect), the vilification of a key opponent is viewed as a badge of hard-core support among the most devout fanatics.
Framing this contempt is a thing we call rivalry, the confluence of historical fact and mythology, aggregate lore manifest as clear, focused distaste. If fandom is a spectrum, ranging from the shivering shirtless and face-painted at one end to, for example, my mom on the other, the borders of rivalry are more rigidly defined. Mike Salk, a displaced Bostonian who hosts an ESPN Radio show in relatively unrivaled Seattle, explains, "You can call it a rivalry without hatred and violence, but the difference comes down to history, which means some contempt." The noun itself, "rival," predates "fan" by roughly three centuries, and it is surely the more consequential of the two, entailing competition plus ongoing narratives and plotlines. And without a "friendly" there to qualify it, rivalry implies conflict and a certain trembling balance to provide each side reason to believe in its own, and dislike the other.
Rivalry distills the fan experience to its essence, transcending our current obsessions with statistical analysis. All of the complexities of faith and belief are subsumed into the single task of cheering for ours and against theirs. Rivalry simplifies. Reduces. Strengthens.
But if this makes sense on a semitheoretical level, it does little to ease my ethical concerns. I would like to believe that I am a good person who respects the opinions of others, that I've retained some of my parents' Mennonite values. Besides, if the Yankees/Red Sox and Giants/Dodgers are fistfight rivalries, bloody, impassioned battles on field and in stands, then Cards/Cubs registers as slightly more than something like a really firm hug. Former Cub Mark Grace has spoken of the warmth he feels watching Cubs and Cards fans share a libation. It's a rivalry of good nature and, barring the odd libationary dust-up, politeness.
And personally, aside from the time Cubs pitcher Kerry Wood had me removed from seats behind Busch Stadium's visitors' dugout (for the record, Kerry Wood has a terrible sense of humor), I've never been harmed by these people. They holler when I wear my red hat, yes. They tell me who sucks (my team sucks!) and where exactly Albert "takes it," which I'll leave up to your surnymic imagination.
And I suppose if we're making a list, I'm needled by the way many Cubs fans wear "loser" as a crown. Ask and they'll gladly explain: There are baseball fans, and then there are Cubs fans—toughened, weathered, and realer than the rest. They are the proudest losers you're likely to find.
Plus do you know that many Cubs fans own at least one replica version of the giant white "Win Flag" that the team hoists above Wrigley Field's historic and charming scoreboard every single time the team wins a game? It is true. Meaning that on an average of 84 days of each of the last six summers the city has unfurled in various sizes commemorations of a feat that for other teams is expected.
But the flags are mere hiccups compared to the song they play at Wrigley Field after a Cubs victory, which is variously called "Go Cubs Go" or "Go, Cubs, Go" or even "Go, Cubs, Go!" And would it surprise you to learn that the song's unreliable punctuation isn't even close to the most annoying thing about it? With a structure that makes "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" sound like Schoenberg, it pleads, "Hey, Chicago, what do you say? The Cubs are gonna win today!" The whole stadium chimes in and across the city, too, everyone ignoring the weird inversion of verb tense that predicts exactly that which has just happened, the tune snaking through the city like a noxious odor or the worst sort of product jingle (which, turns out, it is: "Baseball time is here again. You can catch it all on WGN").
The true nausea of Cubs fans, then, isn't their almost Calvinist belief that continued loss somehow grants them chosen status, but rather how contradictory this behavior is to their onanistic responses to victory. To live here is to be continually reminded how much of the baseball cake Cubs fans want to both have and eat—and worse, to see that many of these people appear to not even really enjoy cake! And use cake as an excuse to skip work and get drunk in the sun! And oh God what a cute little baby bear you've got there ...
... Do you see?
These are friends and neighbors who hold doors, strangers at whom I smile while our dogs meet and play. People I would hope to respect and connect with, and certainly not feel morose delectation in their pain. Because make no mistake, I've reveled in all Cubs defeat, regardless of divisional standings. I want, it seems, for these people to suffer.
The similarities between us could well be part of the problem. As my historian friend describes it, "Chicago and St. Louis are two sides of the same coin: They sit at opposite ends of a more-or-less coherent cultural unit." Cubs and Cardinals fans reciprocally share a high degree of what neuroscientists call "high self-relevance of the comparison domain." In this case, there are essentially two ways my brain can respond to the Cubs. The first, which we've covered, is called schadenfreude, the sick habit of deriving joy from the pain of others. When I raise a toast to another Cubby loss, my ventral striatum is firing on all cylinders. But schadenfreude, a recent study finds, occurs most often as a kind of corrective process, a pleasurable sensation we produce to undo the emotion that corresponds to activity in the brain's dorsal anterior cingulated cortex. This negative emotion is envy.
Envy, oxygen to schadenfreude's flame. Envy, the true cause of laughter and sick joy, jokes, derision, and my entire personal essence as a Cardinals fan in Chicago.
Exactly the kind of answer that'll stop a man from asking questions.