DECATUR — Cards or Cubs?
Depending on who asks the question, there’s only one right answer. But the wrong answer doesn’t disqualify a friendship.
The rivalry is part of living in Central Illinois, where according to Herald & Review online polls taken the last decade-plus, close to 90 percent of baseball fans root for either the Chicago Cubs or the St. Louis Cardinals.
We live, work and play together, but unless someone is wearing a hat or shirt of their favorite team, you can’t know the answer — it’s not a man/woman, white/black, rich/poor, Republican/Democrat thing.
“It transcends all the normal boundaries like race, class and occupation,” said Bob Sampson, Millikin history professor and former Decatur Daily Review reporter and columnist.
It’s a unique rivalry, more nuanced than Yankees/Red Sox and Dodgers/Giants. Their fans don’t live among each other. Husbands and wives, best friends and even fathers and sons in Central Illinois — from Quincy to Danville — live in harmony.
Well, mostly harmony. There are those three-hour intervals 162 times between April and September.
Decatur dentist Bret Jerger is a Cardinals fan who has friends and relatives who are Cubs fans, and sometimes he even watches games with them. Sometimes.
“If it’s just a normal regular season game, yes, no problem,” Jerger said. “But a big game? No way. A playoff game? Definitely not. I could do it if I had to, but I wouldn’t enjoy it.”
Don’t expect Jerger to be sitting down next to St. Teresa Principal and CEO Ken Hendriksen if the Cardinals and Cubs meet in any late-season pennant race games or the playoffs this year. It could happen — the Cubs are coming off their first World Series title since 1908 and the Cardinals have made the playoffs five of the last six years.
“During the season it’s fine, but when it gets too late in the season or the playoffs, it’s better just to stay at home,” Hendriksen said.
Why the Cubs?
Macon County Sheriff Tom Schneider grew up in Pana and spent a lot of time with his grandparents. Their radio was always tuned to the Cubs games.
“I still remember my first trip to Wrigley,” Schneider said. “It was in the mid-’80s — I was 14 or 15, and my brother and I met the train in Champaign and took it to Chicago.”
Cubs fan Brett Zerfowski, one of the voices of St. Teresa football and basketball and WSOY 1340 AM, also became connected to the Cubs through his grandparents.
“I lived with my grandparents in the early stages of life and my grandpa would be watching it on WGN with Harry Caray as the broadcaster,” Zerfowski said. “The Cubs usually weren’t very good, but when something went well grandpa would jump off the couch. That was what my grandpa was watching, so I would follow suit.
“My dad would take me to Cardinal games. But I just couldn’t see myself wearing red.”
While most fans are influenced by family, Tim Spinner of Decatur went against his family to become a Cubs fan.
“My mom claims when I was really small I was a Cardinals fan, but there’s no proof of that. As long as I can remember, I was a Cubs fan,” Spinner said. “I just remember thinking when I was really young: We live in Illinois. The Cardinals play in Missouri and the Cubs play in Illinois. I should root for my home state.”
Spinner said his family eventually accepted his decision.
“I was kind of the black sheep, but they were fine with it,” Spinner said. “They would still take me to three or four games a year at Busch Stadium when I was young, and I’d be one of a handful of people rooting for whoever was playing the Cardinals.”
Why the Cardinals?
Brandy Chisenall of Mount Zion is from what she called a “Cardinals family.”
“My entire family is Cardinals fans,” Chisenall said. “My grandpa on my dad’s side was a Cardinal fan, my dad’s a Cardinals fan. All my aunts, uncles and cousins … I don’t think I have anyone in my family who aren’t Cardinals fans.”
Jerger’s dad was a Cardinals fan and had season tickets — a tradition he’s continued now that he’s an adult.
“As a kid, I remember we would look on the schedule as soon as it came out looking for doubleheaders, that way we could go down and watch two games in one day,” Jerger said.
Amber Thomson grew up watching Cardinals games on TV and going to games with her great aunt during the Mark McGwire-Sammy Sosa home run race in 1998.
“That started when I was little and my love just grew over the years,” Thomson said. “I’ll be a Cards fan until I die — no question about it. I eat, breathe and sleep Cardinals baseball.”
Hendriksen has lived in downstate Illinois for most of his adult life, but grew up on the northside of Chicago.
“When I was 9 or 10, I would take a bus down Addison with my friends and we would get there early, sit in the bleachers and watch batting practice,” Hendriksen said. “I remember going to a game in 1960 when I was 10 years old. It was the day Ernie Banks got his MVP, and Don Cardwell pitched a no-hitter for the Cubs.”
But Hendriksen said the good moments became hard to come by.
“People don’t realize what Cub fans went though,” Hendriksen said. “It was something. I don’t think people really know what it was like to suffer through all those years not winning.
“And when they did do well, they’d eventually break your heart — the ball going through Leon Durham’s legs, the Bartman thing. I can remember when I was the principal at Mount Zion sitting at the high school prom watching the 1984 playoffs with Jack Blickensdefer, who is a Cardinals fan, and seeing Lee Smith give up the home run to Steve Garvey that tied the series.”
Still, Hendriksen raised his sons as Cubs fans — something he later felt bad about.
“I put out a text to all my kids five years ago apologizing and telling them not to do the same to their kids,” Hendriksen said. “One of my sons has kids, and he texted back, ‘Too late. We’re all in.’”
Hendriksen said even with all the losing and being surrounded by Cardinals fans and their team’s success, he never considered switching.
“No, no, no,” Hendriksen said, laughing. “There is a Cubs fan I know who came into the barber shop one day and said they’d switched from a Cubs fan to a Cardinals fan and they were a lot happier.
“I said, ‘You can’t do that,’ but they said they did and they're happier for it. I just shook my head.”
Best fans in baseball
Bob Brady, owner of Bob Brady Auto Mall, is the son of Cardinals fans and considers himself lucky. He fell in love with the team during late 1960s when Bob Gibson and Lou Brock were the Cardinals star players. He’s seen World Series wins in the 1960s, ‘80s, 2000s and 2010s.
“It’s an absolutely wonderful tradition of winning,” Brady said. “One thing about being a Cardinals fan, and I learned this years ago: Never schedule a wedding in late October. Keep your calendar open in late October. That’s the key to being a Cardinals fan.”
Jerger loves his memories of the 1985 Cardinals beating the Dodgers in the National League Championship Series, but admitted David Freese’s heroics from the 2011 World Series stand at the top.
“There have been a lot of great ones to choose from,” Jerger said. “At this point, it’s just something you expect.”
Brady has been to World Series games, including the clincher in 1982, but his favorite moments are listening to a Bob Gibson no-hitter in 1971 and Lou Brock break the single season stolen base record in 1974 on his transistor radio.
Brady said the Cardinals’ history of success and availability of the games on radio via KMOX during his youth and later cable TV have made for a more informed fan base.
“They’re absolutely the best fans in baseball — they know the game and they’re dedicated,” Brady said. “They draw more fans in a season than the entire metro population of St. Louis. Not many teams can say that. They fill the stadium consistently.”
But even if the winning stopped and there was a long drought between World Series, Thomson said it wouldn’t affect her fanhood.
“Not a day passes that Cardinals baseball isn’t on my mind,” Thomson said. “If I ever have children, they’ll be named after Cardinals players.”
Sleeping with the enemy
There was an immediate attraction between Zerfowski and Chisenall when they began working together five years ago, and even the Cubs’ pennant Chisenall saw at Zerfowski’s desk didn’t slow the budding relationship.
“It was the first day we met,” Chisenall said. “When I came in and started talking to him, he asked me what my favorite sport was. I told him, ‘Baseball, but I’m not on the same team as you.’”
Zerfowski wasn’t perturbed by Chisenall’s Cardinal fandom.
“The fact that she liked baseball was good enough for me,” Zerfowski said. “Just because she was a fan of the other team wasn’t going to make her a bad person.”
Zerfowski and Chisenall have been to games together at Wrigley, Busch and other stadiums as well. There’s never been any acrimony, though Zerfowski admitted he worried there might be during the 2015 National League Division Series, in which the Cubs beat the Cardinals in four games.
“I didn’t really know how it was going to play out between us, but she was amazingly courageous in her attitude,” Zerfowski said. “She was polite about the whole thing.
“And I didn’t stand up and rub it in her face. I gave her a kiss and said, ‘Thank you.’”
The couple has an 18-month-old named Ryne who wears a variety of Cardinals and Cubs shirts and hats.
“We’re being democratic and allowing him to make his own decision in his own time,” Zerfowski said. “He doesn’t even have to be a fan of one of these two teams. We would both like him to love baseball, but if it’s not his favorite, we’ll support that.”
But Chisenall said Zerfowski isn’t as easy-going about Ryne’s future decision as he says he is.
“I have older kids and they’re all Cardinals fans, so Brett said to me, ‘Just give me one,’” Chisenall said, laughing.
There’s been a good sign for Zerfowski — when he sees the Cubs logo, Ryne says, ‘Daddy.’”
Most sports fans have at least some idiosyncrasies, but few fan bases match Cubs fans for superstitions.
It goes along with the “Curse of the Billy Goat” — a popular myth explaining why the Cubs went 71 years without making the World Series. The story goes that a tavern owner was asked to remove his pet goat from Wrigley Field and the incident cursed the Cubs for 71 years.
Zerfowski said he wears his Cubs shirts in a certain order, and when Chisenall wore one out of order during the World Series last year, he panicked.
“I decided for the last game that I would support the Cubs by wearing one of his Cubs shirts,” Chisenall said. “But I, apparently, got it out of order and he said I’d messed up the entire World Series.”
“Sure,” Zerfowski said. “Everybody who is a superstitious fan has their shirts in order. You wear them in the order they’re in. You don’t know that?”
Hendriksen, so pained by past heartbreaks, has taken to not watching during particularly tense moments.
“Here’s how sick I am — in certain spots during critical games, I would turn all the TVs in the house off,” Hendriksen said. “I think it helps if I don’t watch.
“My oldest son David would sneak up to his bedroom and watch it, but no downstairs TV could be on. I know it’s deranged. I need counseling.”
During Game 7 of the World Series, Hendriksen was watching the game at a gathering with friends and left after the Cubs fell behind. He didn’t see the finish.
“I left, went home, got into my pajamas and went to bed,” Hendriksen said. “Then I just sat there and waited for someone to text me.
“Finally I got a text from my son saying they’d finally done it.”
Hendriksen got dressed, went back and celebrated.
“It finally happen,” Hendriksen said. “If they would have blown that game, I don’t know what kind of year I would have had. Probably miserable.”
Things have changed
Cardinals fans lost the biggest bullet in their arsenal —the Cubs’ 100-year-plus World Series drought — when Chicago beat Cleveland in seven games last year.
Brady said if he’d become numb to the Cardinals winning, it ended with that.
“It’s something very strange that happened,” Brady said. “I’m still trying to figure it out.”
Many Cardinals fans struggled with how to deal with the Cubs’ sudden success. Some, like Chisenall, embraced inevitability and rooted for the Cubs to win, some sat in silent shock, others went down swinging, swearing the curse would come back to bite the Cubs eventually. They were almost right.
“I wouldn’t say I was rooting for them, but part of me was happy for all the fans who stuck with them — especially the older generation,” Thomson said. “But as a Cardinals fan, it’s hard for me to say that.”
Jerger said he was happy for Cubs fans, but won’t be happy for them again.
“I have to be careful since I run a business — Cubs fans have teeth, too,” Jerger said, laughing. “I’m happy they finally got to experience what Cardinals’ fans have gotten used to. I have some very good friends and relatives who are Cubs fans and I was excited for them. But on the other hand, I hope it’s another 108 years until their next one.”
The friendly rivalry
Because the fans have to live among each other, it has to stay at least somewhat cordial. Though there are surely incidents of Cubs and Cardinals fans coming to blows, that’s not what the rivalry is about.
“Growing up in Chicago, my rival was the White Sox, and when I lived there, it was rough,” Hendriksen said. “It wasn’t just ribbing like it is here with Cardinals and Cubs fans.
“Once I got here, a lot of the good friends I made were Cardinals fans. And while they didn’t cheer for the Cubs, they weren’t haters. I think my good friends were happy for me when the Cubs won the World Series, and I was happy for them when the Cardinals did it.”
Thomson said she also sees the rivalry as cordial.
“It can get serious, but it’s mostly fun and games,” she said. “It’s something that will always be there.”
Jerger said he’s looking forward to a new era in the rivalry with both teams experiencing an extended run of success — something not seen since the 1930s.
“That takes it to a new level now, which is great,” Jerger said. “It will be nice for it to be a real rivalry.
“I’m excited about it. I think we have a good team. We’re the underdog, which, if you look back, those have been the years in which we’ve had the most success.
“And the Cubs … they’ve been blessed to be the healthiest team in the history of baseball the last two years. Hopefully the Cardinals get some of that this year.”