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Guest Column: Brian Gunn
2004-09-03 04:32
by alex ciepley

Your hosts Christian and Alex are vacationing, but The Cub Reporter isn't. While we may peer up at Brian Gunn and Cardinal fans everywhere like they're the Evil Eye of Sauron, there's no disputing that Brian's work at Redbird Nation is some of the best in baseball blogging. TCR is more than happy to offer him some room for his thoughts.

Cubmania: An Outsider's Perspective

When I was a kid growing up in St. Louis, I watched tons of Cubs games on WGN, just like a lot of kids around the country. I was aware of the longstanding rivalry between the Cubs and my hometown team, the Cardinals, but it was hard to hate the Northsiders in those days. Maybe it was Harry Caray's boozy drawl, or the way TribCo ran the franchise like a charming podunk outfit, or the parade of bumbling fools like Scot Thompson and Ivan DeJesus, or perhaps it was all those throwback daytime games—whatever it was, something about the club always struck me as clownish and congenial, like maybe one of your dorky uncles.

But the current team down at Wrigley Field isn't your uncle's Cubs, or your father's Cubs, or even your older brother's Cubs. They're neither clownish nor congenial. Instead, they're just plain mean.

Now, understand that this isn't necessarily a bad thing. You want your team to be dogged and gritty and ready to play. But that doesnít make them any less mean. Just in the past year alone we've had the following skirmishes:

Zambrano vs. Edmonds, Baker vs. La Russa, Barrett vs. Oswalt, Wood vs. Oswalt, Wood vs. Kent, Wood vs. Eric Cooper, Alfonseca vs. Justin Klemm, Zambrano vs. Craig Wilson, Baker vs. McClendon, Remlinger vs. Berkman, Barrett vs. Morris, Wood vs. Morris, Zambrano vs. Ward, Hawkins vs. Tschida, Baker vs. Garner, Farnsworth vs. a cooling fan, and Prior vs. Kline.

Like the Bill Laimbeer Pistons, the Cubs seem determined to piss off every team in the league. But it isn't just the mood on the field that's changed. The mood in the stands seems different, too. To my eyes anyway. I haven't been to a game at Wrigley in years, but last time I was there, in the mid-1990s, it was more of a party or, as Tom Pagnozzi once referred to the Cards-Cubs rivalry, "more of a beer-drinking series."

Not anymore. Every time I watch a game on WGN, the urgency-level seems to be on permanent orange alert. I first noticed it last September, when Kerry Wood buzzed a fastball at Matt Morris' ear and damn near half the place erupted in cheers. Again this past July, Carlos Zambrano knocked Jim Edmonds on his ass and the place went bananas.

But it's not just the dark stuff. The fans seem to hang on every pitch, ready to burst into paroxysms of joy. A few days ago the joint let out a deafening roar when a Cubs batter worked the count to 3-1 (although that may say more about the Cubs' ability to draw walks than anything else). And last Sunday the fans leapt to their feet in exultation at what turned out to be a loud foul from Moises Alou. The score was 10-3 at the time.

It doesn't really matter the situation or the score—whether it's booing Sosa after an off-week or two, or bringing down the house after another barrage of Cubby home runs—the impression you get is that this is the Cubs' historical moment, the year they see all their hopes and dreams vanish, or the year they finally release 90-some-odd years of pent-up longing. If nothing else it's good melodrama, the guys' version of daytime soaps.

Some have said this tightly-wound act is exactly what ails the Cubs. Just the other day a Cub fan friend of mine said, "They're a team with no even keel, no leader. Dusty Baker should be that guy, but he only makes things worse." Other people have claimed there's a relationship between the mood at Cubs games and their recent shoddy play in the field and on the basepaths, as if they're hyper-amped, trying to do too much too quickly. (A recent subhead on ESPN.com made this relationship explicit: "Cubs lose their cool and the game.")

But personally I don't think this is much of a problem for the Cubs. The team may be mean, even downright irritating to the opposition, but I think it's good for the franchise. They've transformed themselves from a bunch of Mondales and McGoverns into something less multilateral and more threatening. And besides, it's not like you can't win amid tension and acrimony—just look at the Mustache Gang A's, or the Bronx Zoo Yankees, or the '86 Mets. All mean, all winners.

In fact, I've even got a little secret: there are times I wish my hometown of St. Louis were less polite about things. Folks down at Busch Stadium pride themselves on being loyal and respectful—not all of them, of course, but most. It's the type of place where the crowd might give a standing O to an opponent who hits a tape-measure home run, as they did for Mo Vaughn last year. (Jesus, was Big Mo really hitting home runs as recently as last year?) Donít get me wrong—I love the fans at Busch; I even love their civility. But a bit of hooliganism isnít always a bad thing.

The really odd thing is that the roles of Cardinals fans and Cubs fans are the exact opposite of what I would have guessed before the season started. Last year most pundits picked the Cards to win yet another division title, and Cub fans got to laugh at all the wrongheaded predictions. This year it's the reverse—it's Cardinals fans demanding recognition. And for years and years Cubs fans accused Cardinals fans of arrogance, of lording their superiority over their neighbors to the North (Billy Corgan went on Chicago radio not too long ago and referred to all us St. Louisans as "fat arrogant Republicans," or something like that). But now whenever anyone badmouths the Cardinals—and I'm sure you've heard the gibes, if not started a few of 'em, about the Cards so-called weak starting pitching and so forth—then it's Cardinals fans who are quick to accuse the Cubby fans of unwarranted arrogance and swagger.

All in all it's a weird time for this rivalry—both sides peeved, pissed, cocky, wounded, hopeful, doubtful. I don't think one side will be able to claim ultimate victory, though, unless or until they Go All the Way. And I have a feeling that, come October, one team might have to go through the other to do it. Talk about melodrama...

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