Crosstown Rivalry: The Sox, The Cubs, and Oppositional Fandom

I have almost no memory of attending my first major league baseball game. That’s not surprising, since I was probably about six years old. When I try to conjure up recollections from the time my folks took me to see the Chicago White Sox at old Comiskey Park, all that comes to mind are these faint images of grass and sunshine and metal railings. The train ride home made a stronger impression; a group of street toughs jumped into our car, looking hard, while an old dude sitting across from me shook uncontrollably in this spooky, drug-addled way. I realize now that the toughs, decked out in red berets and white tees, were just a benign group of Guardian Angels, and I’m guessing in hindsight that the poor would-be crackhead was instead a Parkinson’s sufferer.

The origin story of my Sox fandom is weak and lacks actual baseball, but it’s all I’ve got. And I feel like I need something, because the Pale Hose are the only team in all of professional sports that I truly care about.

I’m not really sure how this happened. After that inaugural pilgrimage, I don’t think I made it back down to 35th and Shields until a decade later; by then, the organization had demolished the original 80-year-old stadium and erected a hulking monstrosity across the street, a concrete fortress sans charm or personality. I did log countless hours watching the team’s local broadcasts and tracking their progress in the newspaper, but they were generally mediocre and far from inspirational. Their major accomplishment of my youth was taking the pennant in ’93. I recall then-shortstop Ozzie Guillen reveling in the postgame locker room coverage of the clincher, champagne close at hand, cajoling his son to puff on a victory cigar; the boy, who might still have been in diapers, looked frightened and on the verge of tears. They proceeded to drop the ALCS to the Blue Jays.

No matter. By then, despite their propensity for failure over the years, the mysterious forces that govern the baseball universe had made the Sox my team.

Growing up just north of the Chicago border, it would have made much more sense for me to pull for the Cubs, who played closer by and enjoyed way more popularity with everyone around me. For whatever reason, however, I’ve always harbored an instinctive dislike for the Cubs, a deep-seated antipathy that I’ve never been able to shake even when I’ve tried. In fact, if I’m going to be honest with myself, my rooting for the Sox is inextricably tied to my rooting against the Cubs. It’s not something I should be advertising, because it follows a local stereotype that Sox fans have more passion for hating the Cubs than for supporting their own team.

We do have reason to be jealous. While both Chicago’s baseball teams have a lengthy history of futility, fans on the North Side have the pleasure of witnessing that futility at Wrigley Field, a shrine steeped in tradition and surrounded by bars, restaurants, and condos in a vibrant part of town. After a loss on the South Side, fans exit the monolithic U.S. Cellular Field to views of asphalt desolation. But for me — and I suspect many others as well — the crosstown rivalry I feel toward the Cubbies is spawned by more than just envy about where they play. It’s got something to do with the culture there, about the preppy, frat-ish element of Wrigleyville, the orgy of bros, trixies, light beer, cellphones, and young wealth that you find up in the bleachers and out on the streets.

In 2003, I moved in nearby, about a half-hour’s stroll from Wrigley Field. The Cubs were solid that year, with excellent young starting pitching, and I endured a lot of joyous winning throughout the summer and into the fall. Sometimes I could hear the roar of the crowd in my apartment. When they clinched the division on the last weekend of the season, I was at a party across from the stadium, mournfully draining an Old Style as pandemonium erupted all around me. When they lost to the Marlins in Game 7 of the NLCS a few weeks later, I roamed giddily out into the night, curious to catch a glimpse of the faces of dashed dreams.

Just two years later, the Sox put together a stellar season of their own, leading the AL Central wire-to-wire en route to 99 wins. They drew the Red Sox in the divisional round of the playoffs, and for the first and probably last time in my life, I paid $100 for a ticket, to Game 1. I found myself sitting next to a Boston fan, but the good guys pounded his squad so hard, he was gone by the seventh inning stretch. The Pale Hose rolled the rest of the way to a World Series title, losing only once, to the Angels, before sweeping the Astros in the Fall Classic. I soaked in the final out at Jimmy’s Woodlawn Tap in Hyde Park, squeezed tightly into the back room with a delirious throng of screaming nutjobs. It was amazing, as was the parade a few days later, where I may or may not have shook Senator Barack Obama’s hand.

The experience of 2005 altered my fandom in an auspicious way — it set me free of anxiety. Well, not entirely; I still get apprehensive when the Sox falter. But I can always fall back on the warm nostalgia of that one championship. It’s satisfying, reassuring. I’m content to rest on those laurels (if that idiom can apply to fandom). I also take comfort in the knowledge that the Sox didn’t go a full century between World Series titles, like the Cubs have. This has allowed me to stop rooting against the Cubs.

Or so I’ve thought. It’s been rather a non-issue, since the Cubs have been irrelevant for several years. However, that looks to be changing. I avoid media coverage of the North Siders, but I still notice the headlines, and I’ve gleaned the team might make some noise this season. Their roster remains unfamiliar to me, but I saw that in one recent preseason game, their lineup cranked out four homers against new White Sox acquisition (and former Cub) Jeff Samardzija. Has boy wonder Theo Epstein finally found his footing in the general manager’s office? Will Joe Maddon bring the same magic to the clubhouse as he did as skipper in Tampa Bay? These and other questions have begun to nag at me, just a little bit.

Tomorrow night in Chicago, the Cubs will host the Cardinals in the first official major league baseball game of 2015. What will those mysterious forces that govern the baseball universe have in store for them? For the White Sox? And for me?

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