Pretty slow news week this week. In official team news, it’s mostly just been updates about prospect Kenston Hiura having some pretty good success in the Arizona Fall Leagues, as well as Christian Yelich winning his second Silver Slugger award, in addition to his Hank Aaron award for 2018.
When I started this blog series, I was actually sort of excited for the slow news weeks of the off-season, because I wanted to use them as an opportunity to talk about some more general baseball topics, as opposed to just dryly recounting team news or speculating about potential trades, which I don’t really find that interesting.
Little Brother Syndrome
One of the first topics I wanted to discuss was what I’ll call Little Brother Syndrome, which is something I feel that Brewers fans (especially if you live close to the state line) had to contend with, coming from the surplus of Cubs fans who also live in the area, especially in the years since the Cubs won the World Series in 2016.
In 2016, the Cubs felt destined to go to, and win, the World Series. There was a magic about the team, especially from the time they announced their acquisition of Jason Heyward. It was a true murderer’s row of talent, both on the mound and behind the plate. The fact that Jason Heyward underperformed so badly and they still won the World Series is a testament to how ridiculously stacked that team was. Noted baseball enthusiast and Parks and Recreation showrunner Michael Schur called it in April of 2016.
That year was the first full year of the Brewers “don’t call it a rebuild” rebuild under new GM David Stearns and manager Craig Counsell, having fired Ron Roenicke midway through the 2015 season. They went 73/89 during the regular season, neer being over .500 at any point in the year, and finished second to last in the division.
That year, I was more than happy to root for the Cubs in the postseason. They hadn’t won it in 107 years, the longest championship draught of any team in professional sports history. The Cubs were also not the Cardinals, the common enemy of the Cubs and Brewers, who had dominated the NL Central for decades and were also responsible for defeating the Brewers in their single World Series appearance (back when they were an AL team).
Along with basically everyone I know who is a Brewers fan, I enthusiastically rooted for the Cubs in every postseason series they played that year. I wanted them to break the Curse of the Goat, and I’d much rather watch Bill Murray and a bunch of fellow midwesterners sing “Go Cubs Go” after a victory than watching the Dodgers or the Yankees or the Red Sox, with all their celebrity fans, celebrating their team’s fifth victory in a decade, or what have you.
August, Milwaukee County - 2018
However, something happened last year that didn’t really sit right with me. The Cubs underperformed despite having the highest payroll in the league, and Cubs fans were obviously pretty disappointed that they hadn’t run away with the division and clinched in early September, as pretty much everyone had predicted at the start of the 2018 season.
I think Cubs fans felt somewhat entitled to the victory, what with the number of superstars on the team and the league-highest payroll. They felt that the Brewers “skipped in line” with the signing of Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain, who both had MVP caliber seasons.
The Brewers forced a game 163 tiebreaker with the Cubs by recovering from a 6 game disadvantage at the end of August to tie the regular season record with the Cubs at 95-67. This wouldn’t be an elimination game, as the winner would go on to the divisional series of the playoffs, while the loser went on to the Wild Card game against the Colorodo Rockies.
The Brewers won that game, which meant they went on to home-field advantage in the NLDS and the Rockies beat the Cubs in Chicago. We didn’t get a Cubs/Brewers NLDS because of the Cubs consecutive losses at home in game 163 and the Wild Card game, but if we had, I think the Cubs/Brewers rivalry probably would’ve become very real.
The prospect of these two teams from the same division, whose stadiums are only 90 miles apart, facing each other in postseason elimination series, is the sort of stuff that rivalries are made of. I’m kind of glad we didn’t get that, because I like the sort of half-in-jest, non-bitter rivalry of self-aware sports fans who don’t live and die by their team’s successes and failures, over the braying tribalism of bitter rivalries who have actually been responsible for eliminating each other from promising championship opportunities.
The thing that didn’t sit right with me that I mentioned at the top, was that Cubs fans, upon seeing the Brewers jackat that I wear roughly 80% of the time (because it’s my only fall jacket), would often engage me in what I can only surmise as an act of “granting me permission” to root for the Brewers, which I had certainly never asked for.
“I hate Ryan Braun because he’s a cheater, but I guess it’s kind of cool for you guys to go to the postseason this year,” they’d say. This happened approximately five times, always in so many words conveying the same key points:
- I don’t like the Brewers
- I don’t like Ryan Braun
- But I guess I’ll grudgingly allow you to enjoy this rare postseason appearance by your favorite team.
I’d always just comiserate that I’ve also never really liked Ryan Braun, personally - he seems like a meathead and sells ugly Ed Hardy shirts and gave that horrendous press conference where he acted like a victim for what turned out to be a legitimate accusation of PED use.
That said, he served his 65 game suspension. Not to mention how absurdly hypocritical it is for a fan of the team that Sammy Sosa played for when he broke the Roger Maris single-season home run record to suddenly be a rigidly intolerant about PEDs. Sosa just happened to play at a time when the league was “looking the other way,” and tacitly supporting the usage of PEDs due to the breathless media coverage and skyrocketing ticket sales that the home run race created.
The thing that really got under my skin however, was the presumed authority that they’d take to allow me to root for the Brewers “this year,” as if I had asked for permission. A Cubs fan (#1 highest payroll in 2018) talking about how they hate the Brewers (#22 highest payroll in 2018) is the definition of “punching down.” To quote this BuzzFeed piece, there’s a reason jesters make fun of kings, and not the other way around.
I’ve been following the Brewers since I was six and had Rob Deer and Greg Vaughn starting lineup figurines on my dresser. I’d watched them be very bad and then kinda good and then pretty bad my whole life. Now that they’re actually competing at a high level, I don’t need anybody’s permission to continue rooting for them.
This grudging condescension mostly come from Cubs fans who don’t really follow baseball all year, but then perk up when their team has a shot at the postseason. I have several friends who are diehard Cubs fans who follow baseball very closely, and most of them did the thing I mentioned doing for the Cubs in 2016, of hopping on the Brewers bandwagon, happy to cheer for the second-closest-to-home team to win a championship.
Around this time, recently-acquired Cubs pitcher Cole Hamels made some comments about how he didn’t think there was really a rivalry between the Cubs and the Brewers, because there are always so many Cubs fans at Miller Park when the two teams play each other in Milwaukee.
On paper, I actually kind of agree that there’s never really been that much of a Brewers/Cubs rivalry, I think it’s mostly ginned up by the teams’ respective marketing departments to sell tickets. They certainly don’t have the same level of shared history as, say the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears. During the Brewers’ early ’80s heydey, they were in the AL and so they rarely played the Cubs, and never in the postseason. When they moved to the NL in 1998, they were pretty bad and didn’t manage to record a .500 record until 2005.
The Chicago metropolitan area is home to over nine million people. By contrast, Milwaukee County is home to just under one million people. So it’s not exactly a shock that when the Cubs play the Brewers in Milwaukee, there are a lot of Cubs fans in the stands. All that Hamels’ comments did was re-affirm that the Cubs are the Goliath in this relationship, to the Brewers’ David.
I think a lot of the rivalry and smack talking stuff comes from more casual fans, who think it’s something you’re “supposed to do,” and it’s mostly performative. Which is why they are still talking about Ryan Braun’s suspension from five years ago: it’s the last time they paid any attention to anything in the division aside from the Cubs’ 2016 postseason.