Ken Burns’ documentary series Baseball rubs some the wrong way. Hearing an endless loop of George Will and Doris Kearns Goodwin droning on about the perfect art and symmetry of baseball or God-knows-what can be groan-inducing to a particular crowd. Not me though; I’ll sheepishly admit that I have a soft spot for baseball romanticism, and I’m perfectly comfortable embracing BS if I like the way it sounds. Moreover, the entire series is very well-produced, and the chapters on the Negro Leagues should be required viewing for everyone.
I do have an area of deep resentment of Baseball, though, and it comes from a place where we often feel the need to wear our resentment on our sleeve: the Midwest. New York and Boston dominate the series, and Burns doesn’t give the story of baseball in cities like Detroit, Cincinnati, St. Louis, or Chicago a whole lot of attention. This oversight is hardly novel. Forgive me for lobbing a loaded-to-the-point-of-meaningless term like “East Coast bias” at Burns, but I have a hunch he’s grown accustomed to it, and I’ll confess my own Midwest bias. Or, to be even more exclusionary, my Central Illinois bias.
In the Illinois heartland in the mid- to late 1980s, baseball beyond the confines of the rivalry between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs hardly seemed to exist. Not necessarily on the field—the New York Mets were the Cardinals’ truer competitive rival, and, of course, we would still watch and enjoy the World Series, regardless of the teams. But when it came to our daily lives, the Cardinals and Cubs were all we needed. The region was evenly divided between red and blue, and who you cheered for was part of your identity. If we met, it was probably the second thing you learned about me. Hi, my name is Alex; I’m a Cards fan. Today, I could very likely go down the rows of an old elementary-school class picture, and tell you which side of the fence everyone was on. That’s Emily, she came from a family of Cubs fans. That’s Joe, he liked the Cardinals. It didn’t divide just classmates and friends, but families as well. Long ago, my older brother woke up one day and declared himself a Cubs fan. He’s still a Cubs fan so obviously this stuff was irrevocable.
To say the other 24 teams didn’t matter would be incorrect, but only because it would be an acknowledgment that they even existed. This was before cable sports television hit its stride, so to come into contact with footage of the Yankees or Red Sox was as rare as meeting someone who was actually silly enough to root for them. Furthermore, even though the White Sox were essentially local, they weren’t televised in downstate Illinois, so they didn’t fare much better. When I was in the second grade, a friend of mine moved to town from Chicago and told us he was a White Sox fan. We treated him like Sasquatch. You exist?
Obviously, my baseball story was very different from Ken Burns’.
I wanted the Cardinals to win as many games as possible, and for the Cubs to forever go 0-162, but I also wanted that in the nicest way possible. Television scribes have described this as a “friendly rivalry,” and (on the whole) that’s correct. It sort of had to be. These people, these delusional Cubs fans, were your friends, neighbors, and family members. When the two teams played, it was an excuse to have a cookout, or take a family trip a few hours north or south on I-55 to see the game in person. To sit with your contrasting colored caps and hope that your team would victoriously grant you appropriate bragging rights for the car ride home.
The Cardinals and Cubs rarely fought it out at the top of the standings, so we used other things to one-up each other. The 1987 season comes to mind. The first half produced a miniature version of the McGwire-Sosa home run chase of 1998, only with Jack Clark and Andre Dawson. When Clark hit a home run, I let the Cubs crowd know about it. They reciprocated when Dawson cracked one. Dawson eventually ran away with the home run title, clubbing 49 total. Clark cooled off, battled a few injuries and finished with 35. The Cubs, as they were wont to do, finished in last place. The Cardinals, on the other hand, won the hyper-competitive NL East, and Clark ended the season with OPS+ and WAR numbers that dwarfed Dawson’s. Ozzie Smith had, arguably, a better season than either of them. Of course, Dawson inexcusably won the MVP, and I heard about it for far too long. I’m still annoyed.
When the Cubs imploded in the top of the eighth inning in Game 6 the 2003 NLCS, and subsequently lost the decisive game the following evening, I was overcome with a strange sense of sadness. It would have been tough watching the Cubs march on to the World Series—something the Cardinals hadn’t done since that 1987 season—and the thought of them winning the World Series would have been painfully worse, since the Cardinals hadn’t really won one in my lifetime (I was an unaware three-year old when the Cardinals won their ninth World Series in 1982). But I knew so many good people—even if I hadn’t seen or spoken to some of them in years—who must have been devastated by those 11 combined innings. I felt I owed it to them to be in their corner; Central Illinois’ corner. Like it or not, I learned the Cubs were part of my baseball identity.
I was at Game 6 of the 2011 World Series: The David Freese Game. I really enjoy the image below, taken from that night. I first saw it circulating the following morning, on the news. The Cardinals fan who retrieved Freese’s walk-off home run attended the game with a friend, a Cubs fan, who wore a Cubs shirt to the game. I didn’t know these guys, but I was pretty sure I knew where they came from, and their story.
As so often happens, my horizons broadened with age. I was glued to my television and jumped out of my chair with excitement when Derek Jeter drove in the game-winning run in his last game at Yankee Stadium. I lived in Chicago for several years during the mid-aughts, and learned that White Sox fans not only exist, but are a proud and loyal legion of fans. I’m now a resident of Washington, DC. I have partial season tickets to the Nationals, and enjoy watching them cultivate their own fans and history. I also make it a point, every year, to see the Cardinals play in at least one stadium I haven’t yet visited. This has taken me to places like Pittsburgh, Toronto, and San Francisco, and I savor talking to the locals and hearing their baseball story through their own geographical bias.
My story began in downstate Illinois with the Cardinals and Cubs. That rivalry, and the people I share it with, is the biggest reason why I love baseball. On April 5, 2015, I will be at newly (partially, incompletely) renovated Wrigley Field for Opening Night. Cardinals vs. Cubs. Presumably, it’ll be Adam Wainwright vs. Jon Lester. I’ll be the guy in the red Cardinals hat, enjoying the game with a Cubs fan while simultaneously wishing doom upon him. He’ll understand.
Next post: The Braves and Paying for Successful Friends
Previous post: Second Thoughts: Should the Royals Have Re-signed James Shields?