THIRD MAN IN: Lovin’ the Cubs

Behind the Bench/Sports by

In years past, Chicago has been called the most segregated city in America, in reference to the city’s heavily black South Side and the mostly white neighbourhoods of the North Side. The city’s most persistent divide, however, has little to do with race. To a much greater extent than either New York or Los Angeles, Chicago is a city divided by baseball.

The divide is a regional one. South Siders cheer fanatically for the White Sox, while I’m convinced that many North Side guys would rather see a girl in Cubbie blue than in lingerie. And living within walking distance of Wrigley Field, where the Cubs play, is the ultimate goal of many a North Side yuppie.

In the northern suburbs of Chicago, where I grew up, most kids become Cubs fans because their fathers (and often their mothers) take them down to Wrigley on summer Saturdays for day games. As with many sports, allegiance to a team seems to be passed on genetically.

I became a Cubs fan a bit differently.

It’s pretty safe to say that my parents have never been huge baseball fans. Growing up in St. Louis, both of them used to give away or sell the free Cardinals tickets they received from their schools for good grades. And even though it’s been decades since they moved to the Chicago suburbs, whatever latent baseball sympathies they do harbour have remained in St. Louis.

With such unenthusiastic parents, I never really got into baseball as a kid. RBI’s were a mysterious acronym to me, and if I’d overheard someone mention Babe Ruth’s “called shot,” I probably would have guessed the person was talking about hockey or basketball. Though I eventually pieced together the rules of the game, I was never much of fan.

In 2003, however, two things happened. That summer, my uncle took my sister and I to our first game – against the Cardinals, of course – in the “friendly confines” of Wrigley Field. The Cubs won that day, and they kept on winning. As September drew to a close, it became clear that the Cubs were poised for a strong postseason run.

Making the playoffs is exciting for fans of any team, but for no one is it more thrilling than a die-hard North Side Cubs fan. Every week at the top of the division fuels the hope that this year will be the year; that the Cubs will storm through the postseason to the World Series and rid themselves of the so-called Billy Goat curse – the Cubs’ lesser-known and more ridiculous version of the Red Sox’s Curse of the Bambino.

In 2003, however, the Cubbies made it closer than ever before. Brandishing the powerful pitching line-up of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, the Cubs defeated the Braves in five games before facing the Marlins in the National League Championship Series. I watched every game, transfixed – along with the rest of the North Side – by the possibility of a trip to the World Series.

True to form, the Cubs managed to lose that year in heartbreaking fashion. After winning three games in a row against Florida, the Cubs collapsed in Game Five and never recovered. Though they were just a few outs away from the World Series, the Cubs lost to the Marlins in seven games.

I don’t think I cried when the Cubs lost Game Seven, but I came pretty close. It was in that moment, however, that I became a Cubs fan. No other team has the same capacity for raising the hopes of its fan base time and again, and then dashing those hopes in the most dramatic of ways. Being a Cubs fan is intrinsically about being disappointed. But when the Cubs face the Braves in a couple weeks on Opening Day, I’ll be getting my hopes up – along with the rest of the North Side.