Second City sleuthing

When the team-dispatched fan photographers make their way around Citi Field, it seems like most Mets fans no-thanks them away or, at best, muster up a halfhearted smirk and shove the claim card in their pockets to be discarded later.

Not so at Wrigley Field. Not this weekend, anyway. Cubs fans stand and pose their best Facebook poses, arms around each others’ shoulders, faces locked in mile-wide smiles prepped to withstand digital shutter delays. When the photographer walks away, they examine the card and file it in a wallet or handbag, then cheerfully turn their attention back to crappy, meaningless September baseball.

Everyone told me about how Cubs games almost always sell out even when the team sucks, and how the fans almost never boo, though they haven’t seen a champion in over a century. So I went to Chicago hoping to learn something, trying to take from the Second City some lesson I could bring home about patience or eternal optimism, to find out what it is about those people that allowed them to tolerate a terrible team for such a long time. An ambitious goal obviously, but Chicago is built on the maxim, “Make no little plans.”

For a day, I considered that perhaps the Wrigley crowd was like an audience full of Tyler Durdens, nihilists enjoying baseball games for the sake of baseball games, in isolation, absent of hope. Remember that in Fight Club, Durden maintained that true freedom came only after you hit rock bottom. I thought maybe all these Cubs fans stopped dreaming years ago and could come out to Wrigley to drink and watch, unencumbered by the desperation that claws at fans of the 29 other teams. Maybe they don’t need any validation; maybe they just want to see baseball.

But I’m not sure that’s it.

Many of the people I asked maintained that Cubs games — or at least these particular Cubs games — are more a social event then a sporting one. The park is the attraction, and all the day games draw the carefree, playing hooky. The loudest cheers we heard all weekend came for the successful completion of a stadium wave on Sunday. After that, the most raucous applause came for a guy who made a nice play on a foul ball, and the only jeers were aimed at a fan slow to throw a Met’s home run ball back onto the field of play. Fans rooting for fans.

I came to Chicago under the impression that Cubs were the drunken, epithet-spewing cretins that so flummoxed Milton Bradley, the racists that buy the terrible t-shirts I saw selling on the street outside, the angry mob that looked ready to murder Steve Bartman. But the people I encountered were attractive, bubbly, happy to be there. Maybe some were buzzed, some even tipsy. But none appeared bitter, downtrodden, angry or even the slightest been concerned that the Cubs idled in fifth place in the N.L. East.

I suspected the bleachers held some answers so I tried to make my way there. I wasn’t allowed. Turns out the “all” in “All-Access Press Pass” does not include the bleacher section at Wrigley. I asked everyone I could to find out how I could get in, but I was denied at every stop. They said the bleachers were for fans only.

So I have no idea what goes on there. Maybe it’s more of the same, the smiling Facebook set with their cheery singalongs. Or maybe those are the real Cubs fans, and they’re all just too drunk or too sad, too terrorized by bad baseball to summon the strength to boo their team so late in a lost season.

And I realize that’s probably the big thing, that trying to measure Cubs fans when their team is out of the race in September is unfair or impossible, that it would be a whole different story if the team was actually playing for something.

But then again, it’s not like that happens that often.

On Sunday night, before I left the city, I went up to the observation deck on the 94th floor of the John Hancock Center. I looked out from that skyscraper at all the others, behemoths tapering swiftly into the endless suburban twinkle. And I wondered how people could stand in the shadows of such accomplishments and still stand for this, how a place with the hubris to erect so many stories on so much land could stomach so much losing.

I have a feeling it’s something that would take a whole lot more than a weekend to understand.

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