And lots of people hate the Chicago Cubs.
Having lived in the Northeast and South for all my life, this came as an utter shock to me. I had assumed everyone loved the Cubs, at least a little bit. In fact, that was their name, right? The Lovable Cubbies. The Cubs meant shirtless beer guts in the sun. The Cubs meant 15-13 games when the wind was blowing out. The Cubs meant "Let's Play Two." The Cubs meant delightful Shawon Dunston scooping routine grounders and rifling 97-mph throws into the 19th row. The Cubs meant losing and heartbreak and 1908. The Cubs meant all the bluster and joy of the late announcer Harry Caray, whether he was blatantly rooting on the Cubbies or making one of his beautifully cynical statements, such as "Manny Trillo is coming in to pinch run. You know, for a lot of teams, you would pinch run for Manny Trillo."
Seriously, how could you not love the Chicago Cubs?
Well, as it turns out, there are a lot of ways. You could grow up on the Southside of Chicago, where Cubs fans are viewed as a whole tribe of spoiled Ferris Buellers. You could be a St. Louis Cardinals fan raised to believe the Cubs are only cute and cuddly to the people who see them from afar. You could be from the greater Milwaukee area, only two hours north of Chicago, where maybe you have had the whole lovable Cubs thing rammed down your throat all your life to the point of bursting.
The shocking thing isn't that these people don't love the Cubs -- it is that their hatred can border on pathological. I have in completely random ways met three people -- THREE -- who still feel frightening hostility toward Ryne Sandberg. I mean, seriously, Ryne Sandberg. The guy retired more than 10 years ago and, from afar, he never seemed like an especially disagreeable or threatening player. But one friend from St. Louis told me she doesn't believe in the devil, "except, of course, Ryne Sandberg."
This is all relevant right now because something unusual is happening in baseball. There's a chance that for the first time since Bill Clinton told military personnel not to ask and not to tell, we might have a postseason without the usual villains. Yes, times are tough these days in Boston and New York. The Yankees and Red Sox are playing their final series ever at beloved Yankee Stadium*, and all that is at stake is a place closer to the exhaust of the Tampa Bay Rays and a little better standing in the wild-card battle with the Minnesota Twins. The Bronx bursts with excitement.
*Officially declared "beloved" when New Yorkers realized how much tickets would cost at the new place next year.
Yes, after all these years of having Yankees and Red Sox interrupt our regularly scheduled programming and jam our car radios and stock our bookstores and overwhelm our Octobers with talk of the guts of Jeter and the quirky charms of MannyBManny, it looks like we finally might get a break. The Yankees are beat up and not much good. The Red Sox seem oddly disinterested. One or both could still make it. But one or both might not.
Put it this way: For the middle game of their final Yankee Stadium series, New York sends out longtime pinstripe favorite Sidney Ponson to defend the honor of Ruth, Mantle and Reggie. Red Sox Nation counters with Boston icon Paul Byrd. Times are tough in Metropolis and Beantown.
That means this postseason should be all about the Chicago Cubs. Oh, sure, if the Rays make it to the playoffs, everyone will be curious, at least for a little while. There could be some moderate interest in trying to figure out the magic card trick the California Angels* keep pulling off -- they can't hit, and they keep winning. The Milwaukee Brewers have a 260-pound slugger and a 250-pound pitching ace (or at least that's how Prince Fielder and CC Sabathia are listed), which makes them an inspiration for those of us on the South Beach Diet dying for one ice cream sundae. The New York Mets could be interesting if they don't fold in September again.
*I went with the Angels, regretfully, when they became the Anaheim Angels. I didn't want to, but, yeah, I went along. When they became the Los Angeles Angels at Anaheim, no, that's when they lost me. I'll accept one name change, but not two. They're back to being the California Angels.
But, no, the baseball postseason needs a center, a soul, someone to root for, someone to root against, or else the whole thing just descends into one of those boring and never ending mini-series that lead inevitably to champagne pouring over Florida Marlins.
The team at the heart of this thing probably will be the Chicago Cubs. They have won nine regular-season series in a row for the first time since 1907, which you probably noticed is one year before 1908. They've got the ferocious manager Lou Piniella, they've got the National League's highest scoring offense, they've got the National League's best ERA. They've got their former closer Ryan Dempster pitching like an ace, and they've got their former ace Kerry Wood dominating as a closer. They've got a moody Carlos Zambrano pitching great as usual, and they've got the wildly underrated Aramis Ramirez putting up his usual terrific numbers, and they've got the unhittable Rich Harden striking out sides and racing against the arm injury that every good and counting-to-doomsday Cubs fan knows is coming.
This looks to be their postseason, for good or bad, for joy or for curses. If they win, after exactly 100 years of comedy and errors, there will be a celebration, not only in Chicago but, you have to figure, on both coasts and throughout the South and in all those places where the Lovable Cubbies have penetrated people's hearts.
But that's not everywhere. I asked one friend, a lifelong Cardinals fan, a lifelong Cubs hater, a sensitive soul who admits bawling like a baby during Brian's Song, if maybe he could feel glad if the Cubs finally win. After all, it has been a 100 years. He looked at me as if I had asked him if he felt any sympathy at all for Attila the Hun. "I hope they lose for another 100 years," he said. "At least by then, I'll be dead."