I wear a 1972 White Sox replica ballcap these days, and my personal baseball allegiance lies with the Pale Hose. But it wasn’t always that way.
I grew up root, root rooting for the Cubbies, my love of the ballclub passed down from my mother, who learned to love the team from her family. Mom would take my brother and me to Wrigley Field whenever the opportunity arose, or let one of my uncles chaperone us when she couldn’t take the day off from work. This was in the mid- to late-1970s. The wounds from the 1969 collapse were still raw for those who bore witness. There was no “Wrigleyville.” Harry Caray wasn’t a Cubs fan and a Bud Man—he was shirtless and sunburned in the Old Comiskey Park bleachers, calling out the White Sox’ shitty play with Jimmy Piersall on Channel 44 and shilling for Falstaff. The Friendly Confines were nestled in a neighborhood settled by rednecks and white trash who followed the same rail and bus lines north as Southern blacks did during the Great Migration, and seeking similar financial emancipation. The Cubby Bear was a hellhole dive bar and tickets to Cubs games, on game day, were as plentiful and easy to obtain as Sox ducats are today.
My deep, unconditional love for the Cubs didn’t mean there wasn’t room for the other team eight miles south of Clark & Addison. The White Sox, by comparison, were fun punks under Bill Veeck’s ownership. They sometimes wore shorts and collared jerseys on the field during games, had an exploding scoreboard, boasted an entertaining broadcast team in Caray and Piersall who may have drawn more fans to Comiskey as the team, and played their games in an equally rundown ballpark in front of a long-suffering fan base. In a city where you’re almost required to choose a side in its baseball civil war after you draw your first breath, I could respect the Sox if I couldn't root for them. When Mom remarried, my stepfather didn’t hesitate to tempt me with his White Sox fandom. Soon, we were attending as many games at 35th and Shields as we were at Clark and Addison.
Things weren’t the same in our home when my mother remarried. I can draw parallels between that and when the Wrigley family sold the Cubs to Tribune Company in 1981. If the Cubs were my mother, the Trib was my new stepfather, swaggering into the picture, vowing big changes while also claiming to love the ballclub as much as I did, if not more. And those first steps were promising. Jack Brickhouse was out of the broadcast booth, in favor of Harry Caray. The Tribune hired Dallas Green to build a contender. He hired Jim Frey and brought in players from Philly like Keith Moreland, Bobby Dernier and, most notably, a fresh-faced third baseman turned promising middle infielder named Ryne Sandberg. Corporate synergy meant the Cubs had a tailor-made broadcast outlet in WGN and, when cable television exploded in the mid-80s and WGN was included in basic cable packages, the Cubs—with Harry in full salesman mode—had an instant national fanbase. The 1984 Cubs taught me heartbreak. The ’85 and ’86 editions taught me how to swear like a sailor at the team on the field, and rail against an ownership structure that seemed to value keeping the turnstiles rolling than building a perennial. Not that that growing fanbase seemed to notice at the time.
After that, the shine was gone. I was ecstatic when the Cubs signed Andre Dawson in ’87, but confused as to why he only received a one-year, $500,000 deal from the team. (He more than earned that money with an MVP season for a last-place team.) I cursed as Shawon Dunston sent routine throws to first base flying over Mark Grace’s head and into the stands. I first swore to stop rooting for the Cubs when they let Greg Maddux leave for Atlanta as he was entering the prime of his career. But I would still go to games at the now-Crumbling Confines, aware that thin netting hanging over my head was all that separated me and other fans from having chunks of concrete fall on our heads. The neighborhood gentrified, the hillbillies pushed out and “Wrigleyville” was born. Apartment buildings across from Wrigley became hot properties for owners who sought to cash in on the unobstructed views into the ballpark from the rooftops, and highly desirable addresses for college graduates who came of age watching Harry Caray (nearing the end of his storied career and as exasperated as the die-hards at Tribune’s chase for the almighty dollar) extol the benefits of fun at the old ballpark.
Still, I stuck with the Cubs, like being in a marriage of convenience, and kept repping the colors as Mark Grace never developed a power stroke (but he could drink like a champion at Murphy’s Bleachers), felt sorry for Sandberg as he came out of retirement a shell of the player he used to be, and watched as Sammy Sosa, fueled by steroids, became a Dominican Dave Kingman.
There’s a point in every relationship where you take serious assessment and determine if it’s worth continuing, or if it’s time to move on. When it came to the Chicago Cubs, that point was Wrigley Field Premium Ticket Services. This was one of several low-water marks during Tribune Company’s ownership of the Lovable Losers. Aiming to capitalize on the secondary ticket market, the Cubs—with Tribune Company’s blessing—launched a service in 2002 where the team could sell tickets to games against select opponents to their fans, at ridiculous upcharges.
In short, the Cubs decided to scalp tickets to their own games to their fans.
A lawsuit was filed and the Cubs were found not guilty of any wrongdoing. Today, the “premium pricing” model is used by every team in Major League Baseball. By then, I had enough. I moved to Bridgeport three years prior. The White Sox were near my apartment. The team always put forth a good faith effort to be contenders, even if their play on the field spoke otherwise and New Comiskey Park, despite the criticisms, wasn’t that bad of a park to catch a game. I lacked the funds and, more importantly, the emotional capital to be in a one-sided relationship. I bid farewell to the Cubs and embraced the White Sox like someone free to love whomever he pleased. The next year, the Cubs collapsed in the NLCS, which justified my decision.
I felt further validation two years later when the Sox rode some of the most dominant starting pitching I’ve ever seen to Chicago’s first World Series in 87 years.
I was on the phone with Mom the day after the Cubs clinched the NL pennant. She’ll be 73 next month and sometimes her memory fails her. On that day, she was unusually talkative. “Are you excited about the Cubs?” She asked. I told her no and followed with, “You do remember I root for the Sox, right?”
There was a long pause on the line. Then Mom snapped, “that’s not how I raised you.”
Tonight, the Cubs can put 108 years of futility to rest with a win in Game 7 in Cleveland. Across Chicago, there are White Sox fans, fueled by the “second class in the Second City” syndrome, who have probably spent their mornings in front of a mirror practicing rubbing it into the faces of their Cubs fans counterparts if the team loses, or they’ll say “well, we won it first” or “at least we swept our World Series” if the Cubs win it all.
I’m not one of those folks. I see the Cubs today for what they are: freed from a partner who wasn’t good for them, transformed from head to toe, with a new beau who treats them like royalty and ready to tackle the world for years to come. Eight miles south, meanwhile, my team is switching out signage in its ballpark from U.S. Cellular Field to Guaranteed Rate Field, with a logo that perfectly depicts the White Sox’ current standing in Chicago’s sports hierarchy.
I wish the Cubs well and hope the ground underneath Wrigley Field doesn’t open and swallow the mass of humanity gathered around the ballpark whole tonight, as payment for ending the title drought. I know my Mom would be happy to know she lived long enough to see a Cubs World Series championship.
Unlike 14 years ago, however, I’m sticking with my White Sox and, with the help of others in the fanbase, encouraging them to reinvent themselves in a similar manner to how the Rickettses have rebuilt the Cubs. Because the only thing better than one dominant baseball team in Chicago, is two.