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FIRST-PERSON: A day at Wrigley: watching baseball with the enemy

CHICAGO (BP)–Chicago Cubs fans are a strange lot.

On one hand, you have to admire their dogged, freakish devotion to a team that hasn’t won a World Series in almost 100 years and has an uncanny knack of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. If there’s a way to lose, the Cubs will typically find it.

On the other hand, however, you have to wonder how well placed their loyalty is. Are they simply masochists parading as baseball fans?

My friend Steve McCoy, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Woodstock, Ill., compares Cubs fans to Hosea, the biblical prophet whose wife continually committed adultery. They are about sacrifice and redemption, Steve says, always willing to overlook the past and clinging to the hope of a brighter tomorrow.

As a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I consider them more like a dog whose owner beats it and mistreats it every day. The dog, meanwhile, continues to approach the owner with a wagging tail. You can’t hate a dog like that. You simply feel sorry for it.

Maybe that’s what prompted me to take Steve — my arch enemy in baseball — to a Thursday afternoon game between the Cubs and Cardinals Aug. 11 at Wrigley Field. What would it be like to sit through a game in which I cheered passionately for the Cardinals, while the guy next to me was doing the same for the Cubs? Would either of us survive the endeavor unscathed?

The Cardinals and Cubs have one of the best rivalries in baseball — maybe not as hate-filled as the Yankees and Red Sox, but intense nonetheless. Just a five-hour drive up I-55 is all that separates the two teams geographically, so St. Louis fans regularly make the trip to Chicago for a Cardinals-Cubs series at Wrigley, and vice versa.

But while the two teams may be close on a map, light years separate them in terms of baseball prowess.

Historically speaking, the Cardinals are the most successful team in the National League, and rank behind only the Yankees in World Series championships. They last won a World Series in 1982, but won the National League in 1985, 1987 and 2004. They are miles ahead in the National League Central Division this year, and are poised for a repeat trip to the World Series.

The Cubs are, well, the Cubs. Their struggles are legendary. They haven’t won a World Series since 1908, and haven’t even appeared in one since 1945. In 2003, the Cubs seemed likely to end that drought, with a 3-1 advantage on the Florida Marlins in the National League Championship Series and a 3-0 lead in Game 6 with only two innings left to play. But, in typical Chicago fashion, the Cubs gave up eight runs in the eighth inning, lost the game, then lost the series the next day. The curse continues.

Such disparity on the diamond has done little to cool the rivalry between the two teams, however, and on this day at Wrigley, when the Cardinals and Cubs kicked off a four-game series, passions were characteristically high. Never mind that the Cubs were coming off eight straight losses and were 19 games behind the Cardinals. None of that matters when the Cubs and Cardinals play.

The game began well enough for me and thousands of other Cardinals fans in attendance. Albert Pujols took Greg Maddux deep in the top of the first, giving the Cardinals a 2-0 lead. This is going to be fun, I thought. Steve was ready to go home.

But the Cubs cut the lead in their half of the inning, and the next inning scored two more times to take a 3-2 lead. Steve’s giddiness was beginning to surface. It would overflow two innings later, when a three-run homer by Derrek Lee gave Chicago a 7-2 lead.

“Did you see the score?” a female Cubs fan sitting behind us taunted me.

“Have you seen the standings?” I replied.

Even with a sizeable lead, Steve quickly realized the quandary he was in. He really couldn’t win, no matter what happened. If the Cubs lost, he’d hear it from me. If the Cubs won, they’re still the Cubs, and the game still has little impact on the standings. A fleeting elation is all he could hope for. Such is life for a Cubs fan.

The Cardinals pulled within three in the fifth and had the tying run at the plate, but Pujols couldn’t repeat his first-inning heroics and struck out to end the inning. St. Louis never threatened again, and the Cubs won 11-4.

The loss stung, despite the fact that little was at stake. I hate losing to the Cubs. They are the enemy. I want to beat them every time. I don’t care what the standings look like.

But it was a rewarding day anyway. I got to sit in one of baseball’s best stadiums, with some of baseball’s best fans, even if they do cheer for Chicago. I got to meet and visit with Steve, who up until now I’ve only known through e-mail. We discussed theology and church issues, family and sports. I got to know a friend with whom I share a kinship in Christ that is stronger than baseball loyalty. And our ribbing remained good-natured throughout.

In a way, I’m glad the Cubs won, if only for Steve’s sake. He hadn’t been to Wrigley in years, so the win was sweet for him. I won’t begrudge him the celebration, and will gladly let him exult in the victory. The Cardinals have the playoffs to anticipate. The Cubs, as always, have only next year.
Tim Ellsworth of Jackson, Tenn., writes a weekly column for BPSports, on the Web at www.bpsports.net. Write to him at [email protected], or visit his blog at www.timellsworth.com for additional commentary on sports, religion, culture and politics.

    About the Author

  • Tim Ellsworth

    Tim Ellsworth is associate vice president for university communications at Union University in Jackson, Tenn. BP reports on missions, ministry and witness advanced through the Cooperative Program and on news related to Southern Baptists’ concerns nationally and globally.

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