CHICAGO -- Now, even as we recognize that selecting random Tweets and acting as if they are somehow representative of any larger subsect of humanity is a lazy fool's errand, I hope you'll indulge me this one moment. Here are four tweets sent at me since I began this Leitch Across America Trip.
The first set:
I am shocked--SHOCKED, I tell you--to see @williamfleitch undercut the Cubs' importance to Chicago.— Ken Schultz (@kenthinguy) April 17, 2014
Gosh, I can't wait to read the fresh insight that Cub fans are nothing but yuppies & drunk frat bros. Don't disappoint, @williamfleitch!— Ken Schultz (@kenthinguy) April 17, 2014
The second set:
@williamfleitch Mr Leitch apparently does not know that there are 2 MLB teams in the City of Chicago.— Mysterion3000 (@Mysterion3000) April 14, 2014
The point is, with Chicago baseball, you just can't win.
* * *
Under any other circumstances, the Chicago White Sox would be considered one of baseball's most historic jewel franchises. They were founded in 1894 and are older than the Red Sox and Yankees. (If you give them credit for their Sioux City period.) They've had a ton of Hall of Famers. They've featured some of the most eccentric and beloved players, managers and even promotions in baseball history. They even broke through and won a World Series after going nearly 90 years without one, typically the quickest route to iconic status in American sports.
But they aren't -- at least, they aren't widely considered so. The White Sox can't win for losing. Even when they won that World Series in 2005 -- snapping a championship-less streak that, I remind you, was longer than the Red Sox's was -- nationally, it was considered an afterthought, a little too much history, too soon, after Boston's title. And this is tied up, inextricably, with their neighbors on the North Side.
Mets fans have an inferiority complex with the Yankees because the Yankees get so much more attention, because they win so many more games, because they have so much history. White Sox fans don't have an inferiority complex with the Cubs; they have a Jesus, why don't you notice we exist? complex. The Mets objectively can't match up with the Yankees. But the White Sox can objectively match up with the Cubs -- exceed them, really. They've won a World Series since the Cubs have and they've had a better team for most of the last four decades. They're the President's favorite team. And yet the world totally forgets they exist. "I've had people ask me if they're a farm team," says Richard Roeper, the longtime Chicago Sun-Times columnist.
This is because of the park, obviously.
In his new book, A Nice Little Place On The North Side, columnist George F. Will makes the not-new-but-still-convincing case that the primary reason the Cubs have had so many years of struggle is because of Wrigley Field. William Wrigley Jr., back in the 1920s, realized that it was cheaper to run a great ballpark than it was to run a great team, and he prioritized accordingly. To quote Will: "This became the Cubs' business model. If the team is bad, strive mightily to improve … the ballpark." Wrigley Field is the best place on earth to watch a baseball game -- even if, as any player will tell you, it's hardly the best place to participate in one -- which has meant that the park is always full, no matter the quality of the team inside it. The Cubs have outdrawn the White Sox every year since 1993.
There are signs that this is changing. The Cubs are averaging under 30,000 in their six games so far this season, a number they haven't finished below in a year since 1997. (To be fair, it has been cold.) More to the point, it's obvious Cubs fans have had enough of the lovable loser label -- one they never liked in the first place. (For the loser, losing is never lovable.) Patience is wearing thin with this ownership and management group; the team just suffered through its first three-year stretch of losing 90-plus games since 1960-62. Cubs fans are ready to start winning already. They're tired of hearing, "This'll all come together in 2015 … or 2016 … wait, 2017." They've seen all of their rivals have all of their dreams come true. They've seen the Red Sox, their philosophical neighbor in suffering, win three World Series titles in a decade. The park isn't going to cut it anymore.
This is good for the Cubs long-term -- the best way to make sure a team prioritizes winning over all else is to ignore them when they don't, no matter how pretty their field is -- and probably good for the White Sox in the short term. (Also: Their park is a lot nicer than you think it is.) Mets fans will always tell you how they ruled the city in the '80s, and the White Sox can point to similar times in their history, most notably in the early '90s and mid-'60s. This current White Sox team probably isn't any sort of contender this year, but they're infinitely more fun to watch than the Cubs are, if just for Jose Abreu and Chris Sale alone. They also are saying goodbye to Paul Konerko, who has played for the team for 16 seasons now and is responsible for one of the best moments in franchise history.
There's only one reason to go see the Cubs rather than the White Sox right now: The park. For years, that has been enough. The common White Sox fan complaint is not that they are outnumbered by Chicagoan Cub fans; studies have argued that, among people who grew up in the city, the fan bases are fairly similar in size. The issue is that Chicago, like any big city, is jammed with transplants. And given a choice between the fuzzy Cubs, with the Bill Murray and the pretty park and easy mass transit options, and the White Sox, with the hard-to-get-in-and-out-of-stadium, and the lack of cultural reference points for an outsider … well, for the casual fan, that's really no choice at all. There are diehard fans for the Cubs and for the White Sox. Just more casual fans choose the Cubs.
Cubs fans hate being stereotyped as people just wanting to drink and meet girls at the park in the sun, and they should. But that they have more casual fans than the White Sox is undeniable. There's nothing wrong with that. It doesn't make diehard Cubs fans any less diehard, or the Cubs any less worth cheering for. But it drives White Sox fans insane.
They do exist. They will loudly remind you at every opportunity. When I've asked people on this trip if a Bears Super Bowl victory would be a bigger deal in Chicago than a Cubs World Series -- something that would seem unthinkable to an outsider; a Cubs championship would be the biggest story in sports for a decade -- they've almost always told me yes, obviously. But it's not because there isn't passion for the Cubs, or because people just like the Bears more. It's because of those White Sox fans. From the outside, we don't always see them. But let there be no doubt: They are here.