Don't drink the Cubbie Kool-Aid.
Unfortunately, it's too late for Gary Smith. Sports Illustrated's top writer came to town over the summer and went back with a cover story, printed last week, that confirms every cliche about Cubs fans being party-hearty dunderheads with no real appreciation for their team.
Smith is a writer of rare ability. His pieces for SI on competitive deep-sea diver Pipin Ferreras and former NFL player Pat Tillman, who was killed by "friendly fire" in Afghanistan, are among the best anyone could read in any magazine, and they're just two very high points in an elevated career. Yet he came to Wrigley Field this summer, during a season that's supposed to be different from the 100 that came before it, and wrote something that could have been written any time in the last 25 years. The question he leaves unaddressed: Is there a difference in the Cubs—if not their fans—this season?
As many Cubs followers have done many times, Smith got caught up in the scene instead of the team. He lingered with a bachelor party less interested in the game than in getting a pair of fake pink testicles signed by every young woman in the bleachers. He befriended bleacher bum Fred Speck, who told Smith, "Winning or losing stopped making me happy or sad years ago—I just love to be here" and also gave him the cover quote: "If they win it all, I'll cry like a baby and laugh like a hyena for a week."
No word, however, on whether this year's Cubs actually deserve to make Speck cry like a baby.
Smith got drunk in the bleachers with some pals, went back home, and vomited up a cover story. What he "found" at Wrigley is nothing new. See, I know Fred Speck, well enough to know that when he looks around the bleachers and says, "The asshole quotient is actually pretty low today," it would have been even lower if he hadn't been there.
I know exactly what Smith did, because I myself have been writing the same kind of thumbsucker for 25 years. More accurately, I had been writing it for 20 years, until 2003 ended my ability to find losing lovable. I'm not alone; many Cubs fans have taken to booing ineptitude more consistently and vociferously. But the stereotype is so entrenched that even a politician as mainstream as Barack Obama has felt comfortable repeating it, telling ESPN's Stuart Scott this summer that he was a Sox fan because "you go to Wrigley Field, you have a beer, beautiful people up there. People aren't watching the game. It's not serious. White Sox, that's baseball."
I wish I could say he was completely off base, but the stereotype persists with good reason. Last month I went to a game with my 12-year-old daughter, who's enraptured by this year's Cubs in spite of the 2003 debacle (which apparently infected her just as 1969 infected me). By moving to a pair of empty seats we ended up behind two beautiful young couples, or so we assumed they were. At first they seemed into the game. Then one woman got a call on her cell phone from her actual boyfriend; he was outside trying to score tickets. He showed up a couple innings later with a flask. "This is the first time I've really been to a game," he announced. "I'm a Marlins fan." That's a Marlins fan, all right. By the ninth inning they were standing with their cell phones high in front of them, shooting their own portraits without a thought for the game or, for that matter, the fans behind them.
I'm not afraid to say I love and admire this year's Cubs, and for that reason I want nothing to do with the old-school drunkards who think this season is simply their appointed time to party. The first few times I heard it, I liked Eddie Vedder's "All the Way," but the more I listened the more it seemed to express that feeling of drunken entitlement. It might have originated as a paean to eternal hope, but as released on the eve of the Cubs' most promising postseason in decades, it's a sea chantey for beer-swilling bleacher buccaneers.
The Cubs may yet be betrayed by this. Even Steve Bartman, locked into the game with his headphones on, turned out to be a symbol of that it's-all-about-me attitude: I'd rather have a souvenir foul ball than keep my head in the action, pay attention, and avoid anything that could prevent my team from making a play. You think fans in New York and Boston need to be reminded?
To borrow a loaded one-word preamble from Lou Piniella: Look. The Cubs are different this season because the players are different; because unlike most Cubs teams of the past—even the ones that won a few games—they draw walks, get on base, move runners around, and score runs in droves; because they field with grace, agility, and—don't forget this one—dependability; because they pitch with skill and, since Geovany Soto's behind the plate directing things, with cunning and guile. Yet they could still slump. They could still muff a key play. (Alex Gonzalez was considered one of their better fielders in 2003 before he made the error that sealed Bartman's fate.) Their two most talented starters, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, could still fall victim to arm woes like Kerry Wood and Mark Prior before them, and Wood himself could still "choke," the label he applied to himself after the seventh league championship game in 2003.
Yet this season's Cubs proclaim themselves different, and they may well be. And if you're going to appreciate this when and if the glorious should happen, do so as one of the Chicago fans who know their shit and understand the fine points of the game this team excels at—don't just repeat "This is the year."v