There’s a song that you probably know, or at least have heard, or know in your soul, if not your brain, from a band called The Irish Choir. “The South Side Irish” is boisterous and boosterish, like it was written either by a group of dedicated and not-extremely-creative musicians or from the hivemind of the local Chamber of Commerce. It feels like 1962, even though it’s from 1984. It mentions various Irish counties, various South Side parishes, and neighborhoods, and of course, lionizes the old Mayor Daley. You’ve probably heard it.
After the litany of landmarks, it ends on a sort of strange note.
We sing the songs our fathers sang when they were growing up
Rebel songs of Erin’s Isle in South Side Irish Pubs
And when it comes to baseball-we have two favorite clubs
It’s rousing — juxtaposing the rebel songs sung against the hated British with a deep loathing of the team from the north. There’s sort of a rough and probably unintended sectarian parallel. That might be too hermeneutic a reading for a song more concerned with recognizable rhymes than any deep meaning, but: it had the same effect.
I heard this song a million times, and even before I did, I internalized the message. The best day in baseball was when the Sox won, and the Cubs lost, and it sometimes felt that, for some people, the latter was more important than the former. Sometimes that person was me.
I was not South Side Irish. We grew up in Park Ridge, surrounded by Cubs fans. My dad was South Side Irish, and we were raised, as I always said, properly and justly. We were raised as Sox fans, and not one of us ever wavered, even in the face of relentless Cub fandom. 1989, where the principal had us sing “Go Cubs Go” every morning during the playoffs, was a slice of Hell.
(How was she allowed to do that? It was a Catholic school, and Sr. Judy ruled it the way she saw fit. Though she also had a sense of humor when my old man sent her a dozen black roses after the Giants sent that team to the afterlife.)
So what was the message I internalized? There was an enemy team that I had to hate. There was a team whose failure fed me and whose success detumesced my soul. Beating the Cubs in the old Crosstown exhibition games was amazing. Losing to them when the games counted hurt more than anything else. Beating them aroused a throbbing ode to joy.
Which, as anyone can tell you, is irrational. Wildly, wholly irrational. The Cubs had nothing to do with the White Sox; we were never fighting for a playoff spot, were almost never good at the same time, and with the exception of 2008, never really had a chance to meet in the World Series. Plus, all my friends were Cubs fans, and I liked them. I still do. I want them to be happy.
I don’t hate the Cubs. To be honest, I barely even recognize the person who did.
There are reasons to hate things about the Cubs. I talked about it in a recent Know Your Enemy, and Ryiin did so with more eloquent fury in this week’s Since Last We Met. The owners are scum, the media attention is annoying, and the more annoying parts of their fanbase suck.
But the thing is, you can say that about any team. Name an owner — a collection of failsons, slum lords, tax attorneys, and sex-pest Nosferatus - who doesn’t suck in some way or the other. All fans can be obnoxious; probably, there are even annoying Rockies fans, I don’t know. There are a lot of Sox fans who make me sick to share a section. As for media attention, while it’s true, literally every fan base thinks the media is against them. Even Yankee fans do, those morons.
Nor is this a clarion call against sports hatred. I think sports hatred is — or, rather, can be — fine. I know what Orwell said in “The Sporting Spirit.”
Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.
This is inarguably true. If you look at the violence in English soccer clubs, the street hooliganism that comes with Rangers/Celts matches, and the level of violence in even low-tier soccer matches, this is true. If you look at the history of how soccer clubs turned into ethno-nationalist street gangs and eventually paramilitaries during the breakup of Yugoslavia, you can see how tying your identity to a team can turn ugly, can lead you to be led, can make a passion into something sharper and darker.
But then, I also believe that nationalism, defined as irrational loyalty to something other than the self, is nearly inevitable. And it can be channeled into something fun and even harmless. That is sports hatred. I hate the Packers. I hate the Twins. Seeing the Vikings suffer makes me happy. I question the moral arc of the universe when something good happens to Duke. And none of it leads me to violence.
So what changed about the Cubs? What turned hatred into a sort of agnosticism, where I am indifferent? How did it get to the point where they are just another team, one I enjoy abstractly when they play good baseball? How did it get to the point where I am uncomplicatedly happy for my friends? I don’t know. It could be that the sharp North/South line felt all too sectarian, felt too much like the unintended echo of the “South Side Irish” song. It could be that 2005 and then 2016 cleaned the slate. It could be that age mellowed me.
It’s possible, though, I felt more unity with people in this city that has become a byword for decadent evil on the lips of my real enemies, the fash and the racists, and the bigots. Maybe there’s a bit of solidarity. Maybe I don’t feel like dividing and subdividing when we’re manning the barriers. Orwell’s lessons in Homage to Catalonia remind us of the danger in the narcissism of minor differences.
There’s no broad lesson here. If you hate the Cubs, I’ve been there, man. This isn’t really moral growth, just shifted priorities. The old passions have changed. The fury of yesterday has moved on. Or, at least, as I jump out of my seat when Luis Robert silences the Wrigley yokels by absolutely destroying a hanging slider, that’s what I tell myself. With a win tonight, the Sox can be both of my favorite clubs.