Monday, October 06, 2003

The Phillies and the Cubs

Naturally, I’m rooting for the Cubs in the World Series. But there are serious differences between these classic hard-luck teams -- and their fans.

The Cubs play in one of the greatest ballparks ever: Wrigley Field. It’s an ivy-covered shrine to tradition. The Cubs were the last team to start having night games. (The first was scheduled on the euphonious 8/8/88; they must have rained out, because if I remember correctly they didn’t do so until the next day.) On occasion, a home run will leave the park and smash into one of the buildings across the street. I recall a French gentleman being considerably startled in the 1980s when this happened.

Since I was 12, the Phillies have been playing in the phenomenally ugly concrete-and-Astroturf Veterans Stadium. Yes, they won there, especially during the mid-1970s and the annus mirabilis 1980, but I for one won’t miss it. The plans for the new ballpark brought tears to my eyes. It’s going to have real grass and a lovely jewelbox geometry (very different from Veterans Stadium, which looked like a Stalinist monument to The People’s Toilet).

The Cubs’ record is one of early success followed by decades of doldrums. They did actually win the 1907 and 1908 World Series. They had legendary players, some of whom have entered the language: the brilliant double-play combination of Tinkers to Evers to Chance belonged to the Cubs. They went to the Series several more times in the teens, as well as in 1929 (they lost to the Philadelphia Athletics, who are now of course the Team from Oakland).

The Phillies . . . well, some experts consider my boys to constitute the most futile professional sports franchise ever. As one player said, “We’re not a Major League team, but we play a lot of them.” They were the last of the original teams to win the World Series -- 87 years after the club was formed. We still haven’t won our second. We’ve only gone to the Series five times in our long and mostly incredibly depressing history. We’re fabled for our collapse in September 1964 as well as for the 1950 Series in which the Yankees swept us. We once had an outfielder so clumsy he was known as Dr. Strangeglove.

The Cubs fans are loyal, knowledgeable, and perennially optimistic.

The Phillies fans are nicknamed the Boobirds and with good reason. Their despair and anger are expressed by booing anyone they don’t think is sweating to make the team win. That includes the spectacular Michael Jack Schmidt, one of the game’s greatest third basemen, whose elegant style didn’t suit the fans. Philadelphia, a town where sports matter, has been cursed with perennial losers in baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. Except in the magic year of 1980, when all the teams went to the championships -- a feat that has never been equaled by any other city. No wonder the fans are bitter, cynical, and outspoken.

So why do we stay? Why are we loyal to a bunch of losers? My husband asked me that once. (The ex is a lifetime Yankees fan -- that should have warned me.)

“You can’t expect me to cheer for a strange team just because they’re winning.”

They’re my boys. I have to follow them, curse at them, chew my nails over them, and cheer on their triumphs.

I’m rooting for the Cubs to win the Series this year, but only because my boys didn’t win the wild-card spot. (I’m really looking forward to seeing the Cubs trash the Marlins.) What I want, what I long for, is another winning season that ends in late October. A season that will see us as world champions again.

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