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Familiar rivalry: A Cards fan roots (sort of) for the Cubs

*The Cubs square off in St. Louis against the rival Cards this weekend with first place on the line. On the eve of the revival of the I-55 series, a lifelong Cards fan finds reason to root for the boys in blue. Just don't look for him to be parading around with a Cubs banner if Chicago's North Siders manage to pull off what they haven't been able to do in the last 99 years. 

By Matt Wood

I’ve lived in Chicago for nine years, but I’m a lifelong Cardinals fan. I grew up in southwestern Indiana, just a two-hour drive on I-64 across the flat, oil rig-dotted wastelands of southern Illinois to St. Louis. On summer nights, Jack Buck and Mike Shannon lulled me to sleep with their baritone calls of Cardinals games on the local radio affiliate. My town was split about 70-30, Cardinals to Cubs fans, and my best friend across the street was a Cubbie diehard. We spent muggy July afternoons playing out the rivalry in his backyard: Ozzie Smith and Willie McGee versus Ryne Sandberg and Jody Davis. Grown ups told us that Cardinals and Cubs fans weren’t supposed to like each other, but that was hard to believe. For us, it was more like a matter of taste: Coke versus Pepsi or grape versus orange, just a convenient way to divvy up the teams for pickup games.

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Stand by "The Man": Three generations of Cards fans - Matt, his son, Carter, and his father, John, in friendlier territory, in front of the statue of Stan Musial outside Busch Stadium.
When I went to college at Indiana University in Bloomington, I was in the minority for the first time. I met kids from the Chicago suburbs, northwest Indiana, Indianapolis, South Bend, Fort Wayne, and they all liked the Cubs. Cardinal fans popped up here and there, but for the most part, I spent my time with the Cubs diaspora, created by the universal reach of WGN.

After graduation, I moved to Chicago to follow a girl and a job, knowing full well my baseball fandom would go underground. Sure, there are plenty of Cardinal fans here, downstate transplants and itinerant Midwesterners like me, but it’s like being part of a secret society. We see a red cap and acknowledge it with a quick nod and a “Go Cards.” Our heads pop up like prairie dogs when we hear familiar names across the room: Ankiel, Molina, or Pujols. And while I can set my watch by how quickly someone will make a snide comment whenever I wear my Cardinals hat, it’s usually of the hardy-har-har, bad joke variety, as in, “Ooh, I don’t think I can take your order, sir, you’re a Cardinals fan,” or, “Ha, I wasn’t going to hold the door open for you because of that hat.” It’s annoying, and I admit that I may harbor the occasional fantasy about punching someone in the throat after I’ve heard it for the tenth time in a day, but it’s never threatening. Of all the times I’ve seen the Cardinals play at Wrigley Field, I’ve never once felt like I needed to leave to avoid a beer shower or a Ligue-style takedown.

When Adam Wainwright broke off a slider to strike out Detroit’s Brandon Inge and win the 2006 World Series for St. Louis, I couldn’t share the moment with anyone. My wife, indifferent to baseball anyway, had already gone to bed, and my toddler son wouldn’t have known what was going on even if he had been awake. I danced around my living room, wondering if my neighbors could see me through the windows. My dad called to talk about it, then one friend from home. That was it. Eventually, I sat down on the couch and watched the celebration on TV in silence.

The next day, I started getting emails from my friends who were Cubs fans, but they weren’t what I expected. Instead of saying things like, “The Tigers let them win,” or “I hate you,” they congratulated me, like I had been on the field playing. I have a hard time picturing a Yankees fan doing that for a Red Sox fan, and I know for a fact not many of you did that when the White Sox won in 2005. But it didn’t surprise me either, because this rivalry has never been about payroll pissing matches or intra-city class warfare. Yes, it’s about identity. The Cardinals and my experiences watching them are part of who I am, just as the Cubs color your soul their own tragic shade of blue. But we grew up in the Midwest of mixed allegiances, red and blue marbled on a map that would make a political strategist stroke out. It’s the heredity of your neighbors and your friends, passed down like physical traits. I have freckles on my nose and like the Cardinals. My friend has curly hair and likes the Cubs. I can’t hate him for that.

You know this already, but this year is the Cubs’ best chance at winning a World Series in a long time. They’re a good bunch of guys, this team: D-Lee, Big Z, that Japanese guy with the vaguely dirty-sounding last name, even old Jim Edmonds, his blond highlights finally turning grey. When you get past the calculated tantrums, Lou Piniella is like somebody’s grandpa, pulling quarters from behind your ear to buy you cotton candy and tell your stories about the good ol’ days. Any baseball fan could like them. Hell, Kerry Wood and Ryan Dempster send their kids to my son’s preschool--I like the T-ball team’s chances this year too.

I’ll give you something to look forward to about your team winning the World Series: the honeymoon lasts for a while. I don’t pretend that the Cardinals’ futility was anywhere near as maddening as the Cubs, but by 2006 it had been 24 years since they won a ring. I was too young in 1982 to remember the last championship team, and my Cardinals memories until that point had been of failure too: losses to the Royals and Twins in ‘85 and ‘87, a string of playoff near-misses in the first part of this century, and playing the patsy for the 2004 Red Sox. So when they finally got over the hump, in a year in which they backed into the playoffs on the last day of the season no less, I gave them a grace period of a few years.

I know Tony LaRussa and Dave Duncan have been working their dark magic again on a pitching staff of animated corpses and Quadruple-A rookies to keep the Cardinals in contention this year, but I won’t be upset if they don’t make the playoffs, let alone win the Series. I’m still living off 2006. But I would be a little sad for my friends if the Cubs miss this latest best chance. Don’t get me wrong, I won’t actively cheer for them, and I may have to leave the city for a few weeks if they do pull it off, but I really do want to see the Cubs win it all in my lifetime. I want my friends to have that same feeling I did when the Cardinals won. And I’ll send them an email the next day.

Matt Wood is a writer living in the West Loop. His essay, "First Base of Last Resort" was recently published in Anatomy of Baseball, a collection about the game edited by Lee Gutkind and Andrew Blauner. He is a former columnist for Chicago Sports Weekly, and his work has appeared in Time Out Chicago and online at Babble and Chicagoist, among others.

Posted on Thursday, July 3, 2008 at 11:12AM by Registered CommenterLovable Losers Literary Revue in , | Comments11 Comments

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Reader Comments (11)

Wood, what a great article! I have some thoughts of my own about the rivalry (too much to go into here) along those lines. We'll discuss them over a game at Wrigley sometime.

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