I'm from Chicago and I have a confession to make: I couldn't care less that the Cubs are in the National League playoffs.
Correction: I would be happier if the Cubs weren't in the playoffs.
I hate the Cubs. I grew up hating the Cubs. I suppose I will go to my grave hating the Cubs.
I am a White Sox fan. Last season, I was in ecstasy. The White Sox -- my White Sox -- were in the playoffs. I took the only one of my children with enough wisdom to understand with me to watch them play the Orioles. It almost doesn't matter that the Sox lost. After 24 years of wandering in the desert, the White Sox were back on top.
But for the Cubs to win? What possible pleasure could there be for me in that? I grew up, like most true Sox fans, being happier that the Cubs lost than if the Sox won. Under the circumstances, given the mediocre teams that the Cubs fielded year after year, the opportunities for joy in my youth were great.
Easterners can't seem to understand this sentiment. With the patronizing manner that supposedly sophisticated people have when they confront a primitive culture, they assume that anyone from Chicago must be a Cubs fan. Did someone from the Bronx like the Yankees and the Dodgers or the Giants. Did Brooklynites root for the Dodgers and the Yankees? Of course not. You picked one and stuck with them, disdaining the others.
Only a provincial inability to understand other cultures can explain the Eastern inability to fathom the anthropology of Chicago. So, I'll try to explain it. I grew up on Chicago's South Side, a 45-minute elevated train ride away from Comiskey Park. The Cubs played on the North Side, where all the rich people live.
In the '50s, when I was growing up, the White Sox had zip and dash with some of the finest glove men ever to take the field -- Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox, the finest double play combination in baseball at the time and perhaps ever.
The Sox had great pitchers like Early Wynn, Herb Score and Billy Pierce. They had gutsy ball players like Orestes (Minnie) Minoso, who broke into the majors when he was in his early 30s and was still rookie of the year, or "Jungle Jim" Rivera, who surely invented the head-first slide (before Pete Rose made it fashionable). The White Sox had relief pitchers with heart -- men like Saul Rogovin, Hoyt Wilhelm and Turk Lown (once a Cub, actually).
Who did the Cubs have?
Before Banks came along, Cubs fans had to put their pathological need for heroes on the unlikely shoulders of bumblers like Hank Sauer, who occasionally could loft a ball out of Wrigley Field but couldn't catch one, my father (also a Sox fan) used to say, without a bushel basket. Or Ralph Kiner, who came to the Cubs, in the words of baseball writers, "in the twilight of his career."
The heart of the matter for me wasn't, and isn't, so much the Cubs themselves. They were then a likable enough collection of undistinguished athletes (with, of course, the exception of Banks).
They came and went with the seasons -- less undistinguished ballplayers like Andy Pafko, Phil Cavarretta and Bob Rush (actually not a bad pitcher) and more undistinguished men like Wayne Terwilliger, Dee Fondy and Roy Smalley, a shortstop who couldn't tell the difference between the first baseman and all those other ballplayers in the first base dugout, where most of his throws wound up.
The Cubs themselves provided moments of comic pleasure. I remember the season, for example, when Cubs management decided in late spring to make a change in managers. Lou Boudreau, who was serving as radio announcer, was moved to manager, replacing Charles (Jolly Cholly) Grimm, who went up to the radio booth. A real first.
So it wasn't the Cubs who bothered me, or other White Sox fans. It was Cubs fans. I used to think that to be a Cubs fan you had to be rich or a deadbeat. No one else could afford to go to day games, unless of course they work at night. As we are all finding out, the Cubs don't work at night. Wrigley Field has no lights. Never had 'em. Never will.
Cubs fans didn't care about the Cubs. They wanted heroes. First Cavarretta, then Sauer, then Kiner and finally Banks. Cubs fans didn't care about the Cubs. They couldn't. What was there to care about? A team that consistently competed with the Pittsburgh Pirates for last place? A team so lackluster, so boring that doctors suggested to insomniacs that they watch the Cubs on television.
Cubs fans always had excuses. The National League was tougher, they would say. Put the Cubs in the American League, and they'd consistently finish in the first division. Or, as a variant, put the White Sox in the National League and they would quickly sink into the second division.
In those years, being a Sox fan was a Sisyphean experience. Season after season the Sox would scramble along, scrapping their way through their schedule, squeezing out runs, searching in vain for the power hitter who could deliver the long ball, and a pennant.
But at least, for a Sox fan, there was always the hope and the illusion. The Sox had grace and style, hustle and class, finesse and . . . no power.
The Cubs had power to burn and that was it. Mediocre pitching. No fielding. No base running. Nothing. So Cubs fans compensated by elevating mediocrity, by talking about Gabby Hartnett, the last Cub of any distinction whatsoever, a catcher and a Hall of Famer.
The only reason the Cubs won a pennant in 1945 was because all the decent ballplayers were off fighting a war. To be a Cubs fan in those days was to wallow in mediocrity, to bathe in it; indeed, to glory in it.
They didn't even win this year.
They simply filled a temporary vacuum left by the disintegration of the Phillies, the Cardinals and Montreal. Anyone who has studied statistics knows about deviation from the norm and regression toward the mean. The Cubs have deviated. Next season, they will return to their losing form. Think of the Cubs' success this season as a temporary suspension of the laws of nature.
I am not a mean-spirited person. Indeed, I am married to a Cubs fan. I don't begrudge Cubs fans one moment every 39 years, because that's what it will be before they win anything again. Meanwhile, there will be a World Series in Chicago next year. But it will be on the South Side, in Comiskey Park, not Wrigley Field.