I used to try to go to Wrigley Field annually to watch the St. Louis Cardinals play the Chicago Cubs.
It was one of my favorite parts of the season. But somewhere along the line, at least in my perception, the nature of the rivalry has changed. What used to be friendly, with a Midwestern politeness as opposed to the hard-edged confrontation between fans of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers isn't so nice anymore.
Not only do I think things changed. I think I know exactly when and how.
It was the 2003 National League Championship Series. The Wee Bears were one win away from making it to the World Series for the first time since 1945 when the infamous "Bartman Game" happened. Nevermind the controversial play that made a Cubs fan a pariah in his own town. Chicago spewed forth a comedy of errors that coughed up a late lead and burned that whole season to the ground over the course of just a few minutes.
The following year was the last time I went to Wrigley Field. My wife and I watched a game which the Cardinals lost narrowly to Chicago. It was a fast game and we were supposed to meet some friends in the area afterward so we left the park trying to call them on my cell phone to change the arrangements. We were followed outside by a pack of Cubs fans screaming at us to get out of Chicago and that the (first place) Cardinals sucked. If we walked faster, they walked faster. If we stopped, they stopped. One even grabbed my phone out of my hand as I tried to ignore him to shout profanities at the person on the other end. I don't think I've ever seen my wife so scared. They even followed us into a restaurant before the management finally shooed them off because of their foul mouths and aggressiveness.
We didn't say a peep the whole game to fire them up. But I was wearing a red cap and that was enough.
Suddenly, after coming so close after waiting so long for some sort of the whole lovable losers thing wasn't funny anymore and a certain element of Cubdom was overcome with bitterness. It didn't help that the Cardinals did them one better the very next year, winning the National League pennant for the first time since 1987. (Or that the Cardinals won the World Series in 2006 and 2011 and another pennant in 2013.) When the Cardinals played the Boston Red Sox in the World Series I was surprised to see several people wearing Cubs jerseys -- and, in some cases, entire Cubs uniforms from cap to stirrup socks -- standing outside Busch Stadium to tell Boston fans they hoped their team won.
I found it to be incredibly odd that a Cubs fan would go to such lengths to express their bitterness.
In 2005 the Cardinals ran away with the National League Central Division. They were playing the Cubs late in the season at Busch Stadium and St. Louis was pounding Chicago. A pair of jerks stood up in front of their seats and were screaming at Cardinals fans to shut the blank up. They persisted when the ushers finally came over to throw them out, dropping f-bombs and holding their hands up high giving the double-barreled finger as they were escorted away. As one walked past me I said "Take it easy, man, there are a lot of kids around here." He turned and demanded to know what I had the audacity to say to him. Thinking he must have misunderstood because I considered my words to be pretty benign, I repeated it. I saw his eyes widen with rage and stepped back and he failed to connect on a drunken swing intended for my jaw. Then the ushers jumped on him and drug him out.
My usher told me he hated to work Cardinals-Cubs games because there were constant problems from foul language and taunting to fights in the bathrooms. For a long time I sold my Cubs game tickets because I was just worn out dealing with all the bull. Plus I wasn't too sure that I wanted my little kid to be subjected to it all.
It's only been in the last couple of seasons that it seems maybe things are starting to settle down. With a total rebuild project on their hands, Cubs fans have seemingly walked away from their team. It was hard not to notice all the empty seats at Wrigley Field during the television broadcast. But I suppose it only takes a few to spoil a good time.
I told my wife maybe enough time passed and we should take advantage of the lull to make a trip to Chicago. She just looked at me and asked if I was out of my mind.