Thursday 19 October 2017

Bandwagon hopping in the Windy City

Presidential election taking a back seat as Cubs' curse-ending triumph brings an outpouring of joy in Chicago

Fans gather outside Wrigley Field on Wednesday night Photo: Patrick Gorski/ USA Today Sports
Fans gather outside Wrigley Field on Wednesday night Photo: Patrick Gorski/ USA Today Sports
Ruaidhri O'Connor

Ruaidhri O'Connor

Confession No 1. Before landing at O'Hare Airport last Sunday, I had little interest in baseball. It's filed alongside cricket and horse racing as sports I'll never fully understand, even though I've been to three professional games on visits to the United States over the years.

That wilful ignorance has been shattered over the course of the past week as the Chicago Cubs came from two games down to win the World Series for the first time in 108 years. It's been a remarkable week.

Ruaidhri O’Connor at the Chicago Bears game on Monday night
Ruaidhri O’Connor at the Chicago Bears game on Monday night

Confession No 2. I have unashamedly climbed aboard a bandwagon this week. It was difficult not to. The Windy City is experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime sporting week, and the Irish rugby team and those following them have found themselves in the middle of it.

With the presidential election looming on Tuesday, I'd expected that Trump v Clinton would be the talk of the town, but it has never come up.

During the World Series decider on Wednesday night, every commercial break - and there were lots of them - featured an attack ad from the campaigns, but the bars turned the sound down and everyone remained focused on the on-field action.

Eight years ago, this place was in celebration mode when Barack Obama was elected president, but now they almost appear to have tuned out the relentless coverage and negative campaigning.

Fans cheer during a World Series victory parade yesterday. Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty
Fans cheer during a World Series victory parade yesterday. Photo: Dylan Buell/Getty

With such a wholesome alternative as the Cubs, who could blame them?

On Sunday, the first Irish journalists to land gathered to watch Game Five at a bar beside Wrigley Field, the Cubs' home field which was packed to the rafters as Joe Maddon's team looked to turn the series around.

Walking around the area after they arrested the momentum and turned it in their favour before heading to Cleveland to finish the job, the unconfined joy was infectious.

Cheesy

The team's cheesy anthem Go Cubs Go rang out from all angles as strangers high-fived and posed for selfies below the 'Cubs Win' sign at Wrigley.

Jordi Murphy during the Ireland team visit to the Chicago Bulls’ training centre. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Jordi Murphy during the Ireland team visit to the Chicago Bulls’ training centre. Photo by Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

On Monday, even the Bears got in on the act by winning the first game of a wretched season, against the Minnesota Vikings.

That was popular, but the loudest cheer of the night was reserved for a mascot bear running out on to the field with the Cubs' 'W' flag. Baseball's been the only show in town.

The action may have been in Cleveland, but all of Chicago was tuning in. Tuesday's win was comfortable, but Wednesday's ten innings epic over the course of four taut hours put the long-suffering fans of both clubs through the wringer. Even those of us who had simply boarded the bandwagon were getting stressed.

They won it, they lost it and then they won it all over again. Whether you knew the rules or not, it was absolutely compelling.

The Kerryman on North Clark erupted and the champagne flowed. Out by Wrigley, you couldn't get near the stadium because of the number of people on the streets trying to soak up the buzz.

It is all so removed from the America we've been watching on the news for the last 12 months.

Tuning in to this acrimonious presidential race, it's been clear that all's not well on this side of the pond.

Yet, the people of Chicago have been unfailingly welcoming. The city is clean and feels safe, yet every morning the Chicago Tribune reports more murders.

According to the local police, there were 78 last month, with 353 shootings and 427 shooting victims reported. So far in 2016, there have been 605 murders, 3,003 shootings and 3,633 shooting victims.

Better writers than this one have addressed the complex paradoxes of the American project, but it is hard to tally the outpouring of civic pride and outright joy with those stats.

It's Obama's town, but Trump's name looms large over the city.

Ireland's gleaming team hotel towers over the other sky-scrapers with the Republican nominee's name writ large across the front.

If he wins on Tuesday, the post-Cubs hangover will kick in.

It's Chicago's story, but the whole country has bought into the narrative and, predictably, the political analysts have been drawing the parallels and opining that the baseball is the balm that will help cure a fractured society.

Like the Romans with their bread and circuses, the sport is providing an escape for a population who have been battered by a relentless political campaign.

Every night this week, one of the four major franchises based in the city were in action.

Despite their previously winless season, the Bears still attracted a crowd of more than 50,000 to Soldier Field on Halloween night, while ice-hockey's Blackhawks had a 22,000 sell-out on Tuesday even though their game took place at the same time as the Game Four of the baseball.

Last night, the Bulls took on the Knicks at the United Centre in a game that marked the controversial return to the city of Derrick Rose, who swapped Chicago for New York last summer.

Amid all of this, Ireland and the All Blacks have been preparing to play in front of more than 60,000 fans today, and even with the large crowd the game is a sideshow.

Promoting rugby Stateside is a tough thing to do at the best of times, but in this sporting week it has been impossible to capture the imagination even though flags promoting 'The Rugby Weekend' adorn lamp-posts throughout the city.

As Dubliner Matt Moore of the Chicago Cut House restaurant - where the Irish team dined on Tuesday - explained, the Irish community here is small, but it's tight. Welcoming so many guests from home this weekend matters to them and they are making the most of it.

Yesterday, a million people thronged the streets to welcome home their world champions, today at 3pm US time the Irish attempt to make their own piece of history.

On Monday, Chicago will return to normal and Tuesday's vote will no doubt pierce the bubble. But what a week it's been in the Windy City.

Irish Independent

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