Sunday, March 14, 2010

What Is the Problem with Cubs Fans?

Just to be clear: not all jerks are Cubs fans.

I've been determined not to talk about Milton Bradley, and I'm not. I have no intention of addressing the specific indignities committed against or by Mr. Bradley. The simple fact is that far too many people, fans and bystanders alike, have proven themselves incapable of rational thought whenever Milton's name is involved. So any comments about Mr. Bradley have no relevance in this discussion. None.

Instead, let's talk in generalities. A lot has been said about Cubs fans lately. There's the argument that a minuscule fraction of the Cub-fan population, a mere handful of aberrant freaks, have given Cubs fans a bad name. I'd like to address that possibility. However, some proponents of that argument have constructed a straw man that any accusation of racism at Wrigley is an irrational blanket accusation against all Cubs fans. I have no desire to address that theory, because nobody really thinks that all Cubs fans are cross-burning racists and/or rabid slobbering jerks. Nobody. Thinks. That.

But a lot of people do think and have insinuated that the jerk-to-decent-human-being ratio is higher at Wrigley and among Cubs fans in general than it is at other ballparks and among other fan bases. That line of thinking warrants a serious look, although I won't wage a full-scale investigation to settle the argument. I just want to know why that might be the case.

In the realm of statistics, intelligent people don't give credence to small samples of data that lack a clear cause-effect relationship. For instance, Mark Grace hit well on Mother's Day. Sammy Sosa hit well on his birthday. Ryne Sandberg may have had a .750 average in the seventh inning of road games in July against left-handed pitchers for teams with blue uniforms. We like those stats because of the sheer coincidence of it all. No one with a functioning cerebellum really thinks those stats mean anything. But when it comes to baseball matters outside of statistics (such as the behavior of fans of certain teams at certain stadiums) the demand for reliably determined cause-effect relationships too often goes out the window.

Is there any conceivable reason why Cub fans would be more prone to racism than would other fans? Is there something about the Cubs that is more attractive to racists? Should we expect Cubs fans to be more apt than the general public to assemble grassroots hate-mail campaigns? An argument could be made that Chicago is a racist city, but it is most definitely not the only one.

As a quick aside, I'm not going to pretend racism is all that less prevalent in America today than it was 30, 40, or even 50 years ago. But for the most part, decidedly racist people have learned it's better to employ silent, subtle racism than the officially posted, vocally oppressive, publicly violent version of the segregated era. Just because  speaking the N-word has been ruled unacceptable by almost every subculture of America doesn't mean no one ever thinks it or ascribes to the hate behind it. (I like Tom Lehrer's prophetic views on the subject: publicly ignoring hate has little effect on people's private views.)

But I also don't think all the rage about Cubs fans is or should be confined to race. The fact is, it's the same attitude that drives a fan to spit on a player of his own race as the one that motivates a white fan to send hate mail to a black player. People don't do something like that because of race, they do it because of a vindictive, prideful jealousy. As much as fans love to live vicariously through their heroes and share in the glory of their success, we (yes, I'm making a universal claim here) like to do the reverse with the players we don't think deserve the money, fame, and fulfillment that comes with being a Major League Baseball player. Booing makes us feel superior, like we have the power to strip them of their glory.

It's the same thing that drives homely people to leaf through People's 50 Most Beautiful issue and complain about the ugly, horse-faced, overrated choices. It's what causes music fans to slap the "talentless" label on Grammy-winning musicians they don't like. That's why, I'm sure, I critique American Idol performances. Who doesn't enjoy taking the undeservedly famous down a notch or two?

There are some who take their glory-envy to the extreme. These are the ones who hurl racial epithets at star baseball players when they would never have the nerve to do the same to an average Joe. And yes, those same people would never think of doing that to the team's best players (even Archie Bunker thought Sammy Davis Jr. was a god). But for the players on the opposing team, the guys they just don't like, or even the fans who get in the way, common decency goes out the window. That's not unique to Chicago. But is it more prevalent with Cubs fans?

To those who think it's just a few fans, I think you're in denial. But you're probably in denial about people in general and not just Cubs fans. There are plenty of unsavory people in this world, and quite a lot of them prove themselves as such when attending baseball games. Being a jerk might not be Americans' favorite pastime, but it's in the top 10. I've been to a lot of Cubs games and the ones that weren't at all marred by obnoxious, rude fans have been somewhat rare. The same goes for the games I've attended in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Comiskey, the Cell, Milwaukee, San Francisco, and Oakland.

I don't hear racist comments at every game or even most games, but it happens. Usually someone speaks up in a "Hey cool it" kind of way. Other times it's just a bunch of cold glares and awkward silences. But the moral outrage over racist or offensive behavior is much more common in message boards and comment threads than it is in the stands at baseball games. In my experience, this is pretty uniform no matter where you go, but over-the-line rudeness is anything but rare.

Okay, here's the big question: why does it seem, at least to some, that offensive behavior at the stadium (and from the fans writing in at home) is worse among Cubs fans than in other fan bases? The Cubs do get more media attention than a lot of teams, but not all. And the other Chicago team has a manager who has the amazing knack of absorbing any negative publicity that comes his team's way (seriously, the top story all spring in Cubs' camp has been Milton Bradley, while the only White Sox news item of note has been Ozzie's Twitter account). Could it be a century's worth of frustration or just a stronger desire in Wrigleyville? I'm not buying it.

To me, there is one big difference at Wrigley Field that might invite an extra measure of obnoxiousness: the bleachers. I don't think any outfield seating area is closer to the outfielders than the Wrigley Field bleachers. There's something about the mob mentality, the fans' high angle looking down on the lowly players, and the massive amount of liquid courage that instill in bleacher fans, a sense of superiority, entitlement, and invulnerability. The majority of fans in the bleachers are perfectly delightful, but the real snarly and hateful ones find the perfect forum atop the ivy.

The bleachers have their outspoken apologists, but plenty of other Cub fans take pride in the adversarial power wielded in the non-beer hands of the bleacher bums. Growing up, I took that view. I thought the real Cubs fans were the shouting, genuflecting soldiers in Andre's Army, the fans who yelled insults at, dumped beer on, and generally made life hell for opposing outfielders. At some point I realized that was stupid, but I'm sure there are plenty of fans who still identify with that mentality, even some who don't frequent Wrigley Field.

I would guess that there is a lot more rude, offensive, and even racist behavior in the bleachers than in other areas of the ballpark, so why wouldn't I expect it to be more prevalent in the Wrigley bleachers than in other stadiums in general where the fans' proximity to the players isn't so pronounced? And why wouldn't I expect that to spill over to the fans watching at home? I can't think of a reason.

The only way I know how to conclude this monstrosity is this: I doubt Cubs fans in general are inherently any more racist or rude or offensive than any other fans. But I do suspect that Wrigley might bring out the worst in a lot of us. I think as fans we have to make a conscious effort to curb that trend.


  1. This was a gread post, AC. Very much agreed about the bleachers being so much closer to the action at Wrigley. Is there any other ballpark that's as alcohol-fueled as Wrigley (or at least the bleachers?). Miller Park might come close due to the tailgating there, but tailgating has a much more laid back vibe than pounding beers at one of the packed Wrigleyville bars before the game.

  2. Thanks, b. That's a great question; I always forget how accommodating Wrigleyville is to getting tanked before the gates even open at Wrigley. On one hand, having it in the neighborhood adds to the atmosphere, but I'm sure it ups the a-hole quotient as well.


Spill it.

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