This weekend saw record crowds turn out for the three-game battle of National League Central rivals as the Chicago Cubs visited the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Whenever these two teams hook up, records don't matter. Positions in the standings don't matter. They may end up becoming the butt of a joke or the foundation of a weak comeback during the ongoing banter in the crowd, but it's clear that both the teams and their fans turn it up a notch for each game.
Fully aware that many baseball lovers don't ever get a chance to attend a game in person, I was grateful for the opportunity my wife and I had to attend not one game this weekend, but two games. We had tickets to the first two games of the series, and despite the double-digit lead the Cardinals had in the standings heading into the series, we were so looking forward to the experience at the ballpark.
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Friday night was no exception.
The game was slow, extremely slow at times. And games like that require fans to sometimes create their own entertainment. On Sunday I heard the WGN television broadcasters Bob Brenly and Len Kasper speak of how fans at Wrigley Field get an experience like no other ballpark provides because there is no Jumbo Tron to captivate audiences. At the Friendly Confines there is no Cap Dance. There are no highlight reels set to thumping music. There might be one or two trivia questions, but that's about it. The Cubs announcers argued that the absence of mass marketing between innings at Wrigley allows for fans to meet each other in the stands – to talk with each other about each other, and above all else, the game of baseball. At Busch Stadium you might have a hard time talking with your neighbors during the shock and awe marketing blitz between innings, but in games that play as slow as Friday night's game did, you have plenty of opportunities to engage in conversation with fellow fans in your section.
There were two Cardinals fans sitting to the right of my wife and me. The one sitting immediately next to me was wearing a custom-made t-shirt with the words "Cubs Suck" written on the back. You'd think this guy most likely was one of those fans with a bad attitude. But it was all in good fun. In fact, he attempted to tape a napkin to his shirt to cover the arguably inappropriate word. We sat almost the entire game having a great time as we talked about the rivalry, the game in front of us, Tony La Russa, Dusty Baker, Ozzie Smith, Andre Dawson, the list went on and on. Slow games that last fourteen innings will do that. When the Cubs did something good, my wife and I stood and cheered while the Cards fans next to us sat and sulked. And when the Cards did something good, we sat quietly as they stood, hollered, and enjoyed their moment. There was no ill spirit – just two groups of fans who never met each other before having a good time at the ball park… the way it was meant to be.
As the innings went on and the crowd dwindled, I got a chance to speak with other representatives of Cardinal Nation. My wife and I exchanged pleasantries with numerous Cubs and Cards fans, including one memorable exchange with an old-timer who was kind enough to wish us a safe trip home at in the morning. On our way out of the stadium, we spotted two fans most-likely in their sixties walking side by side – one in a Cards t-shirt and one in a Cubs t-shirt. They stayed for the entire game, and you could tell that they were probably life-long friends who had been enjoying this rivalry for more years than I have been on the planet. They represented everything that was good about baseball and the Cubs vs. Cards rivalry.
Saturday was not the same experience. I've been going to games at Busch Stadium for eleven years now. And despite being a Cubs fan, I can honestly say that Cardinals fans are nowhere near as mean-spirited as the Cubs fans can be – or at least that is what I once thought.
For me, it's disappointing that some fans act like that up at Wrigley. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy talking trash during the games as much as the next guy, but there are definitely lines you draw. You keep the language clean. You keep it about the players and the game's happenings in front of you. And you respect the other fans in your section, regardless for whom they're cheering. In those eleven years of going to games at Busch, I never had a bad experience; that is until Saturday when I came across the bad side of the Cubs vs. Cards rivalry; the downright ugly side.
To put it simply, we had five loud, rude, obnoxious Cardinals fans behind us. And I'm not even sure I can call them fans based on their behavior. They sat throughout the game making extremely rude comments to any Cubs fan in shouting distance. They talked down to the vendors who were there working their tails off to earn a buck, and they called them names to their faces and behind their backs. They even ripped their own Cardinals players. I can't tell you how many times they heckled Juan Encarnacion and Mark Mulder or ripped Scott Rolen. Yes, Scott Rolen – the guy with six Gold Gloves, who has been stellar as a Cardinal, but happened to make one critical error the night before. I guess they forgot he hit that double in the seventh that scored the tying and go-ahead runs.
Now, I'm not necessarily one to believe in karma, but Saturday I did. Just as the guys were getting out of hand with their comments, my wife turned to me in frustration and said, "We better win this game today." And that was the beginning of the fateful fourth inning as the Cubs were down 1-0. Sure-handed David Eckstein would kick off the inning with a throwing error overshooting Hector Luna, who was playing first base for the injured Albert Pujols. And following another out-of-character error by Scott Rolen, Aramis Ramirez ripped a grand slam to right center field silencing the Cardinal crowd. As Ramirez crossed home plate and I was cheering his feat, one of the guys behind me tried baiting me into a fight. Had I been a few years younger and immature I might have taken the bait, but I just sat back down and enjoyed the 4-1 lead get stretched to a 5-1 lead on a So Taguchi error in center field. Talk about karma.
After the Cubs 8-5 victory was in the books, we ran into the ugly side once again. A couple Cards fans on the street spotted us and decided to shout rude, sexual comments as they joked about Cubs fans. They weren't remotely funny, and they did it without remorse in front of kids, who were walking with their parents.
On Saturday afternoon, these fans behind us and on the street crossed those lines I mentioned before. They ruined the experience at the ballpark not just for my wife and me, but for other Cubs and Cards fans around them. I guess one bad experience in 11 years isn't bad, but this one was definitely a black eye for Cardinals fans and what I believe is the best rivalry in baseball.
Thankfully, we had good, true Cards fans in the seats to the right and left of us on Saturday, which made the game somewhat enjoyable amidst the hostile energy behind us. And just like Friday evening, I had a great time talking baseball with these fans. At the start of the game they were complete strangers, but by the end, they seemed like good friends I could grab a beer with and talk baseball. It was another example of the good side to the Cubs vs. Cards rivalry, and it almost made up for that black eye we came across on Saturday.
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