March 14, 2005
The second Cubs spring training game of my illustrious career would feature one of the great rivalries in the history of Chicago sports: the Cubs vs. the White Sox. As we have seen, there are different kinds of rivalries. There are the eternal ones, such as Bears-Packers, and there are the ephemeral ones, such as Bulls-Pistons. Cubs-Sox is certainly eternal, but it is a different kind of rivalry than Bears-Packers, which functions like the Capulets and the Montogues. Cubs-Sox is more of a sibling rivalry; Cubs fans are the intelligent, seemingly well-behaved yet underhandedly devious older brother, while the White Sox fans are the immature, bitter, jealous, harder working, more ambitious, and less respected younger brother. It’s like Michael and Fredo Corleone.
“You look out for me? I’m a professional baseball team, just like you, and you look out for me?”
“It’s the way the media wanted it.”
“It ain’t the way I wanted it! I’m talented. I can hit and field and pitch! You’re not the only lovable loser around here!”
And yes, I realize that Fredo was the older brother, but that’s not the point. Michael never cared about his sibling rivalry, because to him it wasn’t a rivalry. He was above it. He was the favorite, and he knew it, and he had the power, and he knew that too. Sox fans have always been more attached to the rivalry than have Cubs fans, who don’t have time to bother with “that sort of thing.” Luke has always said that his two favorite teams are the White Sox and whoever’s playing the Cubs; many fans of a rivalry team think that way. But it’s more than that. Sox fans often put as much energy into rooting against the Cubs as they do pulling for their own team. Most Cubs fans really don’t care about the Sox. They might not like it when they win, and certainly they want to control all of the head-to-head battles and general popularity in the city, but even when the two teams tussle during the regular season, the games always mean more to Sox fans than to Cubs fans, who could leave Wrigley on a late Sunday afternoon after a three-game Sox sweep and think to themselves “Whatever, it was just three baseball games. Meaningless in the whole picture. We’re still better.” It’s that pseudo-pompous attitude that really fires up Sox fans, and can you blame them? Cubs fans—myself included—have always found ways to separate their fandom from their baseball team, as if the two were somehow related yet not directly connected, as if the Cubs’ on-field performance was our drunk uncle whom we tolerate but who has always been separate from our love for The Family. It’s not that we don’t care about winning and losing, it’s that so much losing has enabled us to have a certain detachment from all of the ups and downs.
For most Cubs fans, our focus is centered entirely upon our joy of being a Cubs fan as well as our enjoyment of our team’s performance. Only when the rivalry is thrown right in our face do we focus on it. Like Michael Corleone, we’re fine as long as nobody steps on our toes. It was only when Fredo tried to get “something for me, on my own” that Michael became jealous and, well, ordered the murder of his brother.
But that’s really pretty far down the road. Cubs fans, real Cubs fans—and this is where we must begin to differentiate between real Cubs fans and people who “Love those Loveable Cubbies,” because we really are two entirely separate and nearly incomparable groups—don’t care much about what the Sox are doing. I know I don’t. To me, the White Sox have always been more like the Brewers than the Packers…just another team that plays nearby, the difference of course being that the White Sox play for Chicago, which means that they carry the emotions of many of my fellow Bears and Bulls fans.
That is why I never root against the Sox. When the Cubs and Sox go head-to-head, I root for the Cubs, not against the Sox. It’s always exciting to see both Chicago teams sharing a field, but other than that it’s no different that playing St. Louis, Houston, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, or Milwaukee. The Sox are like our sixth divisional foe that we don’t play nearly as often. My main objective is the Cubs’ success. If they are losing, no amount of White Sox failure can cheer me up. Likewise, White Sox success does not get me down. Among my closest friends, Luke and Sven are absolutely diehard Sox fans, and my buddy Josh used to love them before he went to New York and his interest in sports waned, two unrelated yet simultaneous occurrences. We have other family friends who love the Sox—my mom’s best friend Sandy Lorgeree, her entire family loves the Sox, as does my New Trier buddy Dave Kraut. When the Sox are winning, my friends are happy, and as they are Chicago and thus tied into my other teams, I would rather see the Sox win in the playoffs than some other AL team. I pulled for them in 2000, but when the Mariners finished off their three-game sweep, I moved on with my life swiftly and happily as Luke and Sven and Josh dealt with the pain of losing…
So the stranger you high-five at the UC may be the same one who curses you out at Wrigley, and the one you bark with at Soldier Field may be the same one you sneer at Comiskey, and it is these differences that make baseball season in Chicago unique amongst other Chicago sports seasons. As Bulls fans we scream about Laimbeer’s dirty play, and as Bears fans we lament Favre’s knack for dominating us, but as Cubs and Sox fans we scream at each other, brothers so tight one day yet feuding the next.
Another catalyst for the teams’ differences in popularity is their stadiums. Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park/U.S. Cellular Field both have their niceties, but when it comes to Old Timey Baseball, Comiskey falls short. Wrigley gets the popularity nod due to its history, landmark status, and surrounding neighborhood, all of which outshine their South Side counterpart. That said, I really like going to games at the Cell. Of course it doesn’t hurt that Comiskey was the home of my first and only Rolling Stones concert, an event that my life had been building towards since I was four…but Stones or no, I still love this park of many names. Be it Comiskey, New Comiskey, Comiskey Park, Sox Park, U.S. Cellular Field, the Cell, Cell Block Field, or even the Joan, the ball park on the South Side is a wonderful place to see a game. It caters equally to college students and to families, and let’s face it: the food is much better at Comiskey than at Wrigley. Half Price Mondays are a treat, and the fireworks are always fun, and though I haven’t been there since the renovation I’ve seen pictures of the improvements, including the new “fan zone” areas that Luke raves about. The place looks fabulous. There’s not much that the Sox are ever going to be able to do about the neighborhood—it’s not awful, and I don’t feel unsafe…it’s simply the nature of having a ballpark in the middle of the projects as opposed to a yuppie quasi-suburbia—but as far as making fans feel welcome and excited at the park, they’ve done an absolutely fabulous job. And to think, they didn’t even need to dump a spaceship on top.
So the Cubs are media darlings, the most popular team in baseball not called the Yankees. And yes, we are plagued with a ba-jillion tag-along fans who are indeed wearing their Cubbie blue just because they are “fun and cute,” as well as fans who just want to come to Wrigley to have a good time. There’s nothing we can do about that. Were you to somehow remove those fans, then the fan bases of the Cubs and the Sox would be about the same. But that is not the case, and as we get all of the attention and love for our ballpark and our colors, and as we get all of the hype for our talented pitching staff, and as we get all of the pity and sympathy for our 97 title-less years, the Sox just sit quietly with their fun park and their solid pitching and their 88 title-less years, and they become that jealous younger brother, unreasonably angry over things he can’t control and things he should not even worry about…
So with all of these differences between Cubs fans and Sox fans, is it ever possible to legitimately switch sides?
Conversion is a tricky thing. Changing over from one team to another is a lot like changing your religion. When a Christian wishes to convert to Judaism or vice-versa, it’s a very personal decision. Sometimes certain members of the convertor’s family are disappointed or upset, but the convertor does not have to deal with the potential wrath of every member of the faith.
Not so in a sports conversion.
Like converting to a new religion, a sports conversion requires the love and support of family members. Also like religion conversion, sports conversion requires a major lifestyle change and true commitment on the part of the convertor. But the nature of sports makes conversion much more difficult and harrowing.
Like with music, there’s nothing in religion that states firmly that new people cannot join the faith on a whim. Of course, religion is different than music because the majority of religious people in the world tend to stick to one or another, whereas a person can enjoy many different genres of music. Rare is the person who follows the advice that my mother’s rabbi once gave to her: “Mickey,” he said, “pick a religion and go with it.”
My mom is Jewish in three ways: she was born of a Jewish mother, she is a cultural Jew, and she maintains a Jewish identity of her own accord. However, my mom is also a practicing Buddhist, a religion she chose on her own. She doesn’t take heat from Jews and Buddhists demanding that she “pick one.” She finds elements in both that she likes and respects, and practices both equally.
This is an impossibility in sports.
Imagine asking somebody what baseball team they root for, and getting this reply: “Well, I’m mostly a Cubs fan, but I root for the White Sox batters. I just like their lineup more than the Cubs’.”
Wouldn’t fly, right?
So, barring odd familial circumstances, a sports fan can have only one diehard favorite per sport. Any conversion is difficult, even one between two teams that have no real connection—like, for example, the Bulls and the Nuggets. But when you are trying to convert between two rivals, well, you’d better have a damn good reason. It’s also best not to try it during an “up year” for your “new” team, lest you be persecuted by the current members for what would appear to be blatant fair-weather fandom. But if you really are serious about your switch, if you are truly committed, and if you are completely backed up by your friends and family, then you will have an easier transition period than many others, even if you do so during an “up year.”
Which brings us to the curious case of Don Gordon.
For nearly all of his life, Don was a Cubs fan. His mother was a Cubs fan, and she passed her Cubs love along to him. He grew up across the street from Wrigley Field. He snuck into games when he didn’t have tickets. To this day, he glowingly reflects upon his many summer days that he spent out in the bleachers. He got married, had two daughters, and shared with them his love for the Cubs.
But there was a great ugliness festering underneath the surface.
My father, a great Cubs fan himself, has always held fast to the idea that being a sports fan is about the good and the bad, and if the bad happens to include having your head bashed in and your heart ripped out every so often by your favorite ball club, well, this was simply part of the job.
Don did not agree.
The first time I met him was just after last summer. Meghan and I began dating in May, just before I went to camp. When I got back, it got more serious, and in the middle of September she invited me to a Cubs game with her dad and his friend. I wasn’t nervous to meet her father, but certainly I wanted to make a good impression. Still, I could not hide my shock and confusion when Don threw on a White Sox hat on our way out the door. From there, the story came tumbling out of him as Meghan stood, shaking her head. It was pretty simple: Don was fed up with the losing, but even more than that, he was fed up with the nearly unbearable way that the Cubs jerk around their fans’ emotions.
And like that, poof, he’s gone.
Overnight, he became a Sox fan. He was like a guy who had clung to his unfaithful girlfriend for years before snapping one day, dumping her, and finding an intense love and full devotion with a new woman within the week. This was Don Gordon. His sudden defection left his friends and family members stunned. Meghan was a freshman in college at the time; Shanna was in high school; both were Cubs fans. But Don, after years of misery, decided that enough was enough. He traded in his Cubbie blue for White Sox black, and that was that.
His family still gives him crap for it, though rather lovingly. In truth, he seems like a White Sox fan. Passionate yet bitter, intelligent and cynical, a baseball fan with a dark and twisted soul for the sport. He is also an extraordinarily kind man, and still carries a soft spot in his heart for the team from which he escaped. He keeps track of his “old girlfriend” just to see how she’s doing, and shakes his head as she continues to sleep around and break the hearts of every man she sees. Sometimes, though, the pain is too much, and he lets loose on his old flame. “The only baseball worth a damn is south of Madison Ave.,” he proudly exclaims. His friends still respect him; his conversion has been absolute and he is clearly satisfied with his new life…yet I believe that in his heart of hearts, he wishes for only good things for the Cubs, because even though he is done with them completely, he still wants good things for his old team, hoping that they will finally, finally, reward their faithful and adoring fans with a championship.
After the Sox get theirs, of course.
But enough about that. Back to the game.
Once again, we are treated to a beautiful day of spring baseball. The D-Backs game had been a nice appetizer for what was clearly the main course. There’s nothing like seeing the Cubs and the Sox on the same field. For me, it’s always been more a game of city pride than of city animosity. What a great feeling to see these two home teams slugging it out. I’ll take mine and you take yours. Like one-on-one hoops against your brother. Always intense, always fun.
The big advantage of attending the game on Friday was that it was my warm-up game; I enjoyed the baseball, but it was also my time to get acquainted with the spring training experience. With those details and basic questions accounted for, I was now prepared to fully immerse myself into the depths of Cubs-Sox. Don’s eyes have a mischievous look about them; he and I have come to enjoy hammering away at each other about the Cubs and Sox, and this spring game is our first real opportunity to do so. Out in the outfield we watch as starters Ryan Dempster and Mark Buehrle warm up in the pen, and we watch as Derrek Lee stretches and Aaron Rowand jogs. The crowd is about two-thirds Cubs fans, which seems about right. A small group of Sox fans can always hold their own against the larger Cubs contingent.
Meg and I take a walk around the park, meeting my camp buddy Danny Muschler, who came in from the University of Denver to watch the game. Annie Millstone and her roommate came along as well, so we had a nice little camp reunion at the game. Anyhow, on our way around to meet Musch, we pass by the players’ entrence, and though most of the guys are on the field, Neifi Perez is late getting there. Ordinarily this area is closed off as players walk through, but since he’s the only one it is open. He stops and signs some baseballs for some fans, and I approach him and shake his hand.
“Thanks for hitting that home run for us in ’98,” I say.
“Hey! No problem buddy!” He says. I now love Neifi Perez, even more than before.
When we get back to our “seats,” Don looks at me, a sly underhanded smile on his face. “I’m happy that you’re finally getting a glimpse of what World Series-caliber baseball looks like.”
“Yeah, it’s fun,” I say. “The White Sox are probably excited to see the Cubs, too.”
We laugh. The game is beginning…
…and as it turns out, the Sox are ready to play. The Cubs score first with a run in the second, and then the Sox begin unloading on Dempster. They put up three runs in the third, one in the fourth, and then four in the fifth off Glendon Rusch. Bam! Bam! Bam! Home run upon home run fly out of HoHoKam, and four land around our section during the first five innings. Two of those Sox home runs are caught by Sox fans, while the other two are caught by Cubs fans, and of course we all did our “Throw it back!” chant on each home run, and of course, the Cubs fans throw them back.
Then in the bottom of the fifth, Michael Barrett rips a home run back in our direction. This one is fielded by a young mother who is sitting on a Cubs blanket with her nearly-infant son. I mean, this kid was barely old enough to throw a baseball…which is exactly what he does, right over the fence, much to his Cub-fan mother’s dismay.
Can you blame him? For the past half hour he’s heard repeated chants to “throw it back,” and twice they were followed up with a fan throwing it back. His mom set the ball down next to them, and as soon as she did the kid just picked it up and tossed it over the fence. When we all saw it we immediately began laughing, and then murmurs of “Aaaawwwwwwwww! How cute!” began filling the outfield. Incredibly, it was clear in this kid’s eyes that he understood that he had done something wrong, and within a two count of tossing that ball over he begins to cry. His mother takes him and tries to comfort him, and all of the fans in the area feel bad. The ball rolls past Rowand in center, and then, in a wonderful scene of sports togetherness, a man in a Sox hat begins yelling at Rowand, getting his attention in order to get him to throw the ball back. It was “Throw it back” to the extreme. Sure enough, Rowand calls time, picks up the ball, and tosses it back to the guy in the Sox hat, who in turn brings it over to the kid.
“Hang on to it this time,” he says with a smile as he hands the kid the ball.
We all applaud, and as I laugh I take a closer look at the kid, and realize that, perhaps, his reasons for throwing it back extended beyond his nature as a young and confused toddler.
“No wonder,” I say to Meghan and Don. “He’s wearing a Cardinals hat.”
After going down 8-1 in the fifth, the Cubs make a game of it with a run in their half of the fifth and three in the sixth. They go on to lose 9-5, but the score hardly matters. I have taken in my first spring training season, and it feels great. The next time that I pay such close attention to baseball will be April 4th, on Opening Day.