I was 9 years old when the Brewers arrived in Milwaukee in 1970. At that point, I was already enough of a baseball kid to have witnessed the barnstorming visits by the White Sox, who from time to time in the late 1960s would grace the concrete decrepitude that was County Stadium to show us hicks what real baseball was.
But these guys were ours, and I have faithfully followed the predominantly futile campaigns of the Brewers for the last four decades (last year’s run, I assure you, was unusual). I even worked for the team for six years in high school and college. I am True Blue, one of the founding members of the Brew Crew.
My father, sadly, is just as equally a Cubs fan, having grown up on the North Side back in the days of their last Series appearance (you knew it had to come up at least once). In our house, anyway, there has always been a Cubs/Brewers rivalry. So I am always more than a little cheered when the teams meet, as they did for a three-game series ending tonight.
These contests have been season highlights in the North Woods ever since the Brewers moved to the NL in 1998. We love to beat the Cubs. And when they play in Milwaukee, it means elaborate tailgates, over-the-top alcohol usage, and a lots of grilled meat.
But is the Cubs/Brewers’ series a true rivalry?
Sports rivalries differ in many respects from more conventional antipathies—England v. France, say, or Coke v. Pepsi—but engender passions of equal fervor and unreasonable behavior of all sorts.
So what, exactly, makes a rivalry?
In order to determine whether the North Siders and the Brewers have a legit rivalry, I’ve come up with the following must-haves (I’ll tally the results at the end):
1. The cities involved shall be in relatively close proximity.
Auburn/Alabama, Michigan/Ohio State, Yankees/Red Sox, Johns Hopkins/Maryland (lacrosse), South Sydney Rabbitohs/Sydney City Roosters (National Rugby League of Australia)—all great examples of this. Certainly, some notable rivalries have developed without such closeness, but they are never as potent. Rivalries are juiciest when you actually have a chance of running into a fan of the opposing side in day-to-day life.
Distance from Wrigley Field to Miller Park? 86.5 miles. Cubs fans have traditionally used Milwaukee-based Cubs games as an extension of their own season tickets. It got so bad that in 2006 the Brewers started a “Take Back Miller Park” campaign, asking fans to buy season tickets to fight off the hordes from Wrigley.
2. Fans must do outrageous things in support of their team.
An example: Last winter some crazed Alabama fan poisoned a grouping of trees—Toomer’s Oaks—on rival Auburn’s campus. I didn’t get this. Are trees that sacred in Auburn? Or rare? They are trees, not people. Not a mascot. But judging by the response, the oaks are some of the most valued members of the Auburn community and currently being tended to by a crack team of experts. In the eyes of the Tiger faithful, the deed was outrageous.
How about our guys? Other than the unfounded cockiness typically evinced by Cubbie fans, I can’t think of a single event on either side that might be construed as even mildly offensive. General over-indulgence is normal in the upper Midwest at sporting events, and therefore cannot be valid evidence.
3. The mention of the opposing team must bring an immediate reaction from fans.
Try it: sneak up behind your typical Yankee fan and whisper, “Go Red Sox.” Then, in the immortal words of Terry Benedict, the victimized casino owner in “Ocean’s 11,”—Clooney, not Sinatra—“Run and hide, asshole. Run and hide.” In the olden days, in Constantinople, two chariot-racing factions engaged in riots that left half the city burned or destroyed.
Having attended innumerable Cubs/Brewers games, I can tell you with certainty that there is occasional violence. But something is always lacking. The arrests associated with Cubs fans in Milwaukee are more related to the combination of beer than deeply personal animosity. It’s sloppy violence. There is no instant conflagration of testosterone and hatred when they meet on the street, or at the ballpark. It might be because, without alcohol, Wisconsinites are inherently nice. I’ll leave it to the experts in Chicago to state their own defense.
4. The feelings must be symmetrical, or nearly so.
I am pretty sure that Red Sox fans detest the Yankees just as much as Yankee fans hate the Red Sox. In Dixie, the Dukies’ dislike for the Tarheels is equaled only by its reverse. (Poor NC State; no one likes them, but no one really cares, either. This past winter, as the Tarheels stomped the Wolfpack, UNC fans chanted “You’re Not Our Rival.” Ouch.)
What about the I-94 guys? It has always seemed to me far too one-sided, with the Northerners’ displaying a disproportionate hatred of the Southerners. Milwaukee has long had an inferiority complex regarding Chicago. “The rivalry between Milwaukee and Chicago can hardly be exaggerated,” wrote Tom Tolan in Milwaukee Magazine, way back in 1984. “It has almost become a governing principal in the way Milwaukeeans think about themselves…[but] it is a competition only in the minds of Milwaukeeans.” And there’s the rub.
In 1990, in a fit of insecurity, a Milwaukee ad man and a group of radio stations got together and spent $1.2 million on a campaign titled, “See What You’ve Been Missing, Milwaukee.” The idea, apparently, was to make us admit that, gosh darn it, we have just a dang fine city here. I lived in town then, and the campaign did nothing to change my attitude.
Chicago, on the other hand, just seems to tolerate Milwaukee. I always thought they liked having a little brother right up the road—it gave them someone to beat up on and feel superior about. If Milwaukee were 300 miles north, we’d probably feel better about ourselves, and Chicagoans might feel a bit worse.
1. Close Proximity: Yes.
2. Outrageous Acts: No.
3. Reflexive Hatred: (Mostly) No.
4. Symmetry: No.
The No’s have it.
However much joy I may take in beating the Cubs, my scientific study now proves that n rivalry exists. Which doesn’t make it any less fun. In fact, it comes as something of a relief: Now, if we lose to the Cubs tonight, I don’t have to feel any worse than if it was the Padres.
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KURT EHLERT is an orthopaedic surgeon and author, born and raised in the outskirts of Milwaukee as a Packer fan with his unfortunate, misguided Chicago-born parents. His most recent book, “Upright(s): My Season as a Rookie Christian Mentor and Kicking Coach for Cardinal Gibbons High School” is available on Amazon.com. For more, visit mifflinstreetpublishing.com, or follow him on Twitter @kurtehlert.