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Illustration by Sam Washburn
"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.
In January, only the outer halves of the sidewalks lining the Wrigley Field corner of Waveland and Sheffield avenues are covered in snow. The Bud Light bleachers, added before the 2006 season, jut out from the original wall in tasteful augmentation. The neighborhood trees, barren and spidery, whip about in the brutally cold wind.
It will be cold, too, when the season begins, as "spring" in Chicago deserves all available quotation marks. In summer, however, it becomes clear why references to Wrigley tend to summon religiosity: It is at once baseball temple and heaven, bundled together by a loose, fraying twine of prayer.
Late last season, once the Cubs had fallen from contention, I decided to bike the 4 miles from my home to a game against the Brewers. Chicago is a city without hills, and a ride through the sunny, 75-degree day was justification enough for the game. But I also wanted to stare down the ugly cause of my ugly behavior, to confront the beast and try to understand.
I was of course wearing a Cardinals hat.
I climbed the walkways of the stadium's open innards, beneath the nets installed to ease fears of crumbling concrete, until I emerged back into the sun, under a sky's canvas touched only by few wispy clouds.
"Want to confuse a Cubs fan?" the old joke goes. "Ask the score." In bleachers famous for a kind of decadent ambivalence, my attempts to find a seat were a bit like young Forrest Gump's. I spent most of the game in motion, never more than leaning.
"Cardinals suck!" a man yelled.
"No they don't," I replied.
A shift in wind brought with it a wave of grilled onion. Jody Gerut, batting .214 for the year, hit a grand slam. Prince Fielder, larger and slower than most, reached on a triple after it dribbled under Milton Bradley's glove. A guy in a "Cubs Pride" shirt was escorted out for throwing a hot dog onto the field. I went for a second beer.
Cubs fans: drunk, uninformed, and even drunker now than when this sentence began.
Eventually I found myself in dead center field, standing behind an older couple who were each keeping score. Soon I realized they were part of a larger group, six altogether. I felt something sharp and suddenly I knew, and became relieved.
Here it was: envy. I envied their group, their laughter and conversation. I envied their shared hopes and common passion. The unity of their rooting, something I missed terribly. Which meant that the core of my ugly behavior was a feeling of longing for my own community, for the sense of belonging to something larger. The sadism of the homesick.
One man called himself "Miles Long," and the rest laughed, while the older couple shook their heads. Soon we were talking about So Taguchi and the Milton Bradley debacle and whether Ryan Theriot would ever amount to more than a barely glorified utility infielder. I found their stoicism and good humor comforting. It was a day prettier than any day deserves to be. I was enjoying the game immensely.
And I knew then why this had felt so important, this question of the contempt I now understood to have grown from my own positive belief and support. All passions, even the seemingly noblest—even a belief like, for instance, just picking a couple out of the air, belief in the sanctity of marriage or to whom land was promised— contain in their nobility the latent threat of sliding into something unrecognizable. Surrounded on all sides by people with whom I fundamentally disagreed, it became clear just how important sport can be to Americans, and not necessarily in the ways we normally think.
Every few years we're reminded of the vast gaps that separate Red and Blue states, Donkeys and Elephants—really, you name it. It's Us, it's Them, and the battles play out across media, narrated by highly paid entertainers. Look how different, we're told. Look how wrong. And so differences are the norm, rivalries, mostly bitter, the result. Can't we summarize the basic conflict of our young century as people with certain beliefs and traits moving to regions dominated by vastly divergent of the same? Being an American in the 21st century means navigating a landscape of conflicting principles and practices. At our worst moments we feel threatened, alienated, or far from home. We fear, not least because we're told to. At our best—and we've caught sufficient glimpses to know we're capable—we celebrate.
It's long been agreed that sport offers its audience catharsis: the contest as theater. But what if the catharsis spread beyond the final out, trickling into the very way we identify ourselves? Fandom is a choice without true consequence, one of few that we have. The opportunity presented by rivalries like this one is a kind of practice or rehearsal, an experiment in the peacefulness we seem less and less capable of maintaining.
To live as a Cardinals fan in Chicago is an exercise in patience and tolerance (for both sides), a steady reminder of not only from where you come and in whom you believe, but also, critically, that these beliefs have an inverse, held by another group and deemed every bit as righteous. So is it meaningful that Dennis Miller, former funnyman turned ideologue, sang that afternoon's "Take Me Out to the Ballgame"? Perhaps. And does it matter that even though I did in fact feel something like empathy for my new friends after the loss, with their weary sighs but firm handshakes, mainly what I felt was profound gratitude to be spared a 30,000-person singalong to that atrocious Cubs jingle? Difficult to say. Clear, though, on that gorgeous day in that historic stadium, clearer even than the sky, was one succinct lesson: that to wear this hat in this particular city, to serve as defender or delegate for Cardinals Nation on a devoutly Cubby map, is a very fine thing indeed.
Kyle Beachy grew up in St. Louis and lives in Chicago, where he teaches writing and literature at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the University of Chicago’s Graham School, and Roosevelt University. (He also teaches at the University of Iowa’s Summer Writing Festival.) Beachy published his first novel, The Slide, in 2009, and he has received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Danish Arts Council. His current Cards cap is finally, after a year, sufficiently broken in.