Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Characterizing the Fanbases #5: Chicago Cubs

Welcome to the latest installment of Characterizing the Fanbases! In this series I’m attempting to present the psychology of every MLB fanbase. This series, as you would expect, comes with a disclaimer: These characterizations are based on my own perceptions and opinions, and no offense is intended by them. I freely admit that I’m only one man, and my view is therefore limited. I’m fully aware that many fans will not fit the profile I depict, and that’s to be expected, because it’s impossible to make blanket statements about large groups of people. If you want to contest anything I write here, feel free to leave a thoughtful, civil comment. Otherwise, sit back and have fun reading. Perhaps I might even say something insightful!

Fasten your seatbelts, folks. I’ve got a lot to say on this one. I’m a Cub fan myself, and I think it’s time to set the record straight on several things.

First, let’s look at the media image of Cub fans, quite popular with many haters: Cubs fans are one of the most uninformed fanbases in baseball. They know nothing about advanced statistics, the finer points of the game or the business side of MLB. Wrigley Field is consistently sold out, but that’s only because the stadium is a popular hangout for party-animal 20-somethings with lots of money at their disposal. They don’t really care if the Cubs win or lose; they’re just there to eat up whatever entertainment the organization feeds them.

Cub fans are also a superstitious bunch that thinks the reason their team hasn’t won is because a bar owner with a pet billy goat cursed them back in 1945. Really, they’ll blame anyone or anything but the team itself for the Cubs’ failure to win the World Series. 1969? It was that black cat that ran on the field! 2003? It was all Steve Bartman’s fault! And so on. Throw in the fact that they play in a large city, and you essentially have a fanbase full of spoiled rich kids who think they’re better than everyone else, and annoy true fans with their constant whining and lack of perspective. They’re a contemptible bunch, they are.

Whew! It was painful to write that. Now it’s time for some reality.

First of all, I want to acknowledge that most stereotypes have some degree of truth in them, or they wouldn’t exist in the first place. The one about Wrigley Field being a hangout for kids who aren’t particularly passionate about baseball definitely has some legitimacy. The last time I went was 2010, and I remember getting that vibe while sitting in the bleachers. Of course, the bleachers are the cheap seats, which are more likely to attract kids looking for something to do than the ones closer to home plate. It’s unfair to define an entire fanbase by its frontrunners, because every team has them.

The stereotypes that really rankle me are the ones in the third paragraph. While you can surely find some fans somewhere who fit them, I’ve never known a Cub fan who does. The billy goat curse is a total media creation, and no one actually takes it seriously. Truthfully, we’re all pretty sick of hearing about it. I even remember my father yelling at an ESPN broadcast of a Cubs game when they put up a graphic giving stats about the Cubs’ championship drought accompanied by a picture of a goat. The media like to portray the Cubs as some cute, cuddly team that embraces its status as a perennial also-ran, but ask most any fan and you’ll get a different story.

What about Steve Bartman? If I may be permitted to get long-winded here (oh wait, I am, it’s my blog), everything you think you know about Steve Bartman is wrong. Let me say up front that I have never blamed Bartman for the Cubs’ collapse in 2003. Some of you probably think I’m lying, but I’m not. Too many things went wrong to place it all on the shoulders of a fan who interfered with a ball that may or may not have been caught. You know what else? Most Cub fans have moved on as well. With the passage of time, cooler heads have prevailed, and they now realize that Bartman wasn’t the one to blame. The issue is pretty much dead except…there are two groups of people who constantly bring it up: the media and Cub haters (sometimes one entity serving in both capacities).

It’s hard to believe it was less than nine years ago, because the Bartman incident has become the go-to argument anytime someone wants to feel justified in hating Cub fans. “Just look at what they did to Bartman!” The implication, of course, is that the situation proves an evil unique to Cub fandom, and that the accuser’s team’s fans would never have done such a horrific thing.

Yes, the stuff Bartman went through in the aftermath of the incident was pretty bad, but go back and try to put yourself in the shoes of Cub fans at that time. Seriously, imagine it. There you are, a fan of a team that hasn’t won a World Series in your grandparents’ lifetime. You love that team of yours, but that drought constantly hangs over you like a black cloud, and you want nothing more than to see it eradicated. You’re five outs away from seeing the Cubs go to the World Series, something they haven’t done since just after World War II ended. You’re on the doorstep of history. It’s so close you can almost taste it. Emotions are running high. Insert any other appropriate cliché here.

An opposing batter hits a foul ball into the first row stands, the left fielder tries to catch it, and a fan gets in the way. It might’ve been no big deal, but the left fielder, in a fit of frustration, throws his glove down. The TV cameras show the fan’s face up close, making him a marked man. Those listening to the radio broadcast hear the announcers angrily complaining about the interference that cost their team a big out. When the Cubs completely unravel during the inning, the dam bursts and this poor spectator starts getting blamed for destroying the team’s composure. The fans heap abuse on him and he has to be escorted out of the building. Once he gets home, he finds he needs police protection from all the harassment.

It was pretty ugly the way it went down, and it’s heartbreaking that it ever happened. Now, is it fair that Bartman had to go through all that? Of course not. He was just doing what any fan would’ve done, and he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So obviously, the whole situation proves that Cub fans are despicable human beings, right? Ummm, no. Cub fans were only exhibiting an unfortunate element of human nature.

The fact is, when people are in an intense emotional state they’re more prone to engage in less-than-civil behavior. When a large group of people feels the same strong emotions at the same time, they tend to have a mob mentality. It’s not uncommon for mobs to do regrettable things, especially when spurred on by someone in a higher position (like an announcer or player).

Do I think what happened to Steve Bartman was right? No way. The people who harassed him were idiots, and I want it to be clear that I’m not trying to excuse their actions. Do I understand what caused them to act that way though? Yes, I do, and while it was a shameful chapter in the history of Cub fandom, it’s in no way proof that Cub fans are especially malevolent. I’d wager that most, if not all, fanbases can count among them folks who would’ve done the same thing if the team had come so close to ending nearly a century of misery and ultimately failed. If you think your own team’s fans in that precise situation would never in a million years have done that, I can only tell you to get off your high horse.

(On a side note, I find it ironic that Cardinal fans frequently play the Bartman card, yet continue to hold a grudge against Don Denkinger. Cub fans blame their losses on scapegoats and make pariahs out of them? What do you call Denkinger? I mean, sure, the guy had his address and phone number given out on the air by St. Louis disc jockeys, received death threats for the next few years and eventually had to contact the FBI, but yeah, that’s really in no way comparable to what those vile Cub fans did to Bartman, is it? For some reason the Denkinger incident has never dimmed the media’s portrayal of Cardinal fans as the classiest in the game. I guess when they do stuff like that it only shows how passionate they are, or something.)

Right now you might be wondering why I put so much effort into shooting down stereotypes against my own team’s fans when I’ve stereotyped a bunch of other teams’ fans in this very series. All I can say is that I’m attempting to characterize each team’s fanbase as accurately as possible (with the obvious concessions to the millions who don’t fit the mold), and if I’m in a position to bring the truth (like now), I’ll do so.

To sum up, I’ll admit that the Cubs have their share of buffoons for fans, enough perhaps to drown out the ones who really know their baseball, sad to say. It’s an unfortunate side effect of having a team with a nationwide following. On the whole though, they aren’t as superstitious or whiny as you probably think they are. There are millions of them who’ll lovingly suffer with their team till the end, and when the Cubs finally do win the World Series, they’ll experience a genuine, heartfelt joy that few have ever known. In the meantime, trying to be optimistic is all they can do.

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