October Surprise

So, it’s a month before the election, and I’m transfixed by baseball playoffs.

This comes as a big surprise to me.

I was not a sports fan growing up. I didn’t really play sports – and when I did I was terrible. I had no talent for them whatsoever, and besides which, I hated losing, and I invariably lost every game I took part in. My father was a semi-professional bicyclist in his youth, and spent several months in France in the 1970s as part of racing team, so the Tour de France, when it was on, got play in my household. But that was about it. All the regular American team sports were of no interest to my family – both my parents and my extended family. And that was basically fine. Most of my friends didn’t especially care for sports, either. I never had much cause to think about sports or pay attention to them, with the exception of when the Red Sox won the World Series back in 2004 – I was working in a kitchen where the chef was from Boston, so we had all the games on, and he was really excited about it. It didn’t hurt that a good friend of mine was also from Boston – I recall meeting his Mom around this time, and she told me that unless you were from New York, you basically had to cheer for the Red Sox. Good enough for me! (I was living in San Francisco at the time).

But besides having no great affinity for professional competitive sports growing up, I also lived in a suburb of Cleveland, a city renowned for having losing teams. In particular I recall the Browns getting beat in the playoffs by the Denver Broncos three years in a row. Every year the newspaper would have a big spread about how the Browns were going to clobber the Broncos – send them to the glue factory! they’d tell us – and every year the Browns would lose. By the end of the 1980s I was aware that Cleveland teams had great fans and terrible players. Cheering for the home team, I concluded, was an exercise in futility, whatever the sport. And then, in the late ’90s, the Indians made it to the World Series, and it was exciting! And we watched them lose to the Braves! Hey, okay, they were a good team, and it was fun anyways. And then a couple years later they went back to the series! And lost to the Marlins, then a team in their second year of existance. Fuck this, I thought. In the meantime, the owner of the Browns had packed up the team and moved them to Baltimore, and renamed them the Ravens. I will never forget the front page of the Plain Dealer – there was a huge spread about how the greater Cleveland area was losing its collective shit over the controversial deal…and at the bottom of the page, a brief notice that the Cleveland school levy had failed for something like the 23rd year in a row. Well, I thought, at least the city has it’s priorities straight.

Fast forwarding to my late 20s, I had moved to Chicago, which is a serious sports town, and has championship teams on a fairly regular basis. Moreover, sports is the default topic of conversation in Chicago, especially if you’re a guy. After a few years, I had worked out the rules of football enough to figure out what was going on most of the time. Which is important, because football is a fucking religion – more so than other pro sports, I think. And in Chicago, where talking about sports is an important part of being a guy, knowing what’s going on in the game, and also the various rivalries, is important for establishing yourself as one of “the guys.” Or at least that was my experience. Anyways, I moved to Chicago, and after a few years of misadventures, I met a girl, and we dated for a few years, and eventually got married. And this girl, who is now my life partner, is from a family of baseball fanatics.

Around the time we got married I watched the Ken Burns documentary about baseball in it’s entirety, and learned a lot about baseball. Enough that I began theorizing that you could understand American culture through it. In particular I found it interesting that people care very much about the team and the players, but not the owners. It bothers people that players make so much money, because baseball is an everyman sport, and we want to imagine that those players could be one of us. In contrast, the public attitude towards the owners is almost non-existant. They are mysterious entities who do not belong in the workingman’s world. And so what if they’re bazillionaires? As a general rule, baseball fans don’t care if the owners are exploitative, since most business owners are, and players should have to deal with it like the rest of us. This is my impression – I suppose anyone might dispute it. The famous Black Sox scandal of 1919, where a group of embittered, underpaid players threw the World Series in an agreement with gamblers, would ruin the lives of those players – but not the owners, nor the gamblers for that matter. People didn’t care about them – because they were simply other. What people did care about was that players had taken a bribe, thus making the game unfair. This is maybe the single most important part of baseball: fairness. If the game is unfair, it simply isn’t worth watching. The well-worn metaphor of the level playing field is popular for a reason. I think fairness is the principle fantasy of professional sports – in a world where we know very well the odds are likely stacked against us, where we expect to take advantage and to be taken advantage of, we can take an afternoon and imagine ourselves on a field with our fellow competitors, abiding by the rules and playing fair.

Now then, this is where the story gets complicated. You see, in Chicago there are two baseball teams: the Cubs and the White Sox. The Cubs were formed, as the Chicago White Stockings, in 1871, and are one of the oldest professional sports clubs in existence. They’re a National League team, and they play on the North Side of the city, at Wrigley Field. The White Sox were formed some decades later, as part of the American League, and play on the South Side. There are various minor differences between the leagues (mainly that pitchers are also batters in the NL, while the AL they aren’t) but for many fans these differences are a serious matter. National League fans seem to look down their nose somewhat on their cousins in the American League (maybe it’s because their League is older?) but in general you don’t notice unless you’re a really serious fan. A big difference between the Chicago teams is that WGN (a radio and television broadcaster in Chicago) has been showing Cubs games on TV since the 1980s and as a consequence Cubs fanbase extends throughout Northern Illinois (Southern Illinois hass mostly fans of the Cubs’ archrival St. Louis Cardinals) – the White Sox fanbase is essentially the South side of the cities and the adjacent suburbs (which are largely populated by (white) people from the South side of the city  – Irish and Italians in particular). White Sox fans come from a working class background, and are incredibly loyal to their team. They don’t feel any particular animosity towards the Cubs – they just don’t give a fuck about them (sort of like they don’t really give a fuck about the North side, or the west side, or Hyde Park for that matter). The Cubs fans, on the other hand, are basically insane. They love the Cubs, no matter how bad they are. They love going to Wrigley and they love getting fucked up. The South side, from the vantage point of the North side, might as well be another country. They’re aware of a baseball team somewhere else in town, but between Da Bears, Da Bulls, and Da Blackhawks, (and da blackouts…) who can keep track?

Right, so, I married into this family of baseball fanatics. Now here’s the crazy bit. My father-in-law’s father was a Southside Irisher who married a nice German girl from the Northside in the early 1940s, and promptly set off to fight the war in Europe. So when my father-in-law was born, he was born on the Northside, and therefore became a Cubs fan. However, once his father came back from the war, he saw to it that his three subsequent children were all brought up loyal White Sox fans (despite all of them growing up in a northside suburb). Hence, at family get togethers the subject of baseball is always a contentious one. Compounding the complications is the fact that my mother-in-law, also a Cubs fan, has an older brother who lives in town (and who we therefore see with some frequency) who is (for reasons not entirely clear) a White Sox fan. Some families argue about religion and politics. My partner’s family argues about baseball.

When I lived in Chicago, it was mostly on the North, near West and Northwest sides – for those who know the neighborhoods, I lived in East Rogers Park, Edgewater, West Town, and Logan Square (in that order – West Town for the longest stretch). So I feel more or less okay about calling myself a Cubs fan. And, besides, I’m married to a Cubs fan, so its much easier to take her side when watching baseball. But there’s also a slightly more complicated reason for my taking the Cubs side as well.

I grew up in what was once the “Western Reserve” – that is, part of Connecticut. Cleveland, as well as the Northside of Chicago, were originally settled by Connecticut Yankees, with all the attendant conformist puritanical culture and so on. Shaker Heights was cast utterly in the mold of the New England town. And despite having been made miserable by that culture throughout my youth, I have come to begrudgingly accept it as my own. And the Cubs fans are totally those people. And they drive me crazy. It’s okay going to Wrigley to see a game, but Wrigleyville is unbearable. It’s a very strange thing, and I’m not always comfortable with it. But there it is.

So, here I am, it’s a month to the 2016 election, maybe the most consequential election of my lifetime, and I’m hung up on baseball. I’m pretty sure Hillary will win, that the Republicans will keep Congress, and that political deadlock will go on for another couple of years at least. Here in Illinois the budget crisis will drag on to at least 2018 (when there’s a gubernatorial election) although I suppose Rahm might get the boot in Chicago, and they could finally get somebody who really doesn’t know what they’re doing to drag the city into the abyss of conflict and resentment it seems to long for – well, it seems that the status quo will hang on a little longer. I mean, a few people more get pushed over the edge every day, and sooner or later some horrible crisis will force itself upon us and on that day we can all cry and gnash our teeth, but until then…Go Cubs!

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