-- As much as we're loyal to Section 416, it's great to see the Cubs play away from home. Rich, Old Style and I went to St. Louis in 2015, and this year, we journeyed to Milwaukee.
For better and worse, Cubs fans are never lonely on the road.
Our trip to America's Dairyland was, like everything else about the 2016 season, different. Last year in St. Louis, we could have used a modern Moses to part the sea of red shirts and caps. A distinct and gently heckled minority, we watched the Cardinals beat the Cubs not long before Maddon's team began its hot streak into October, and we didn't have a lot of fellow Chicagoans to commiserate with.
At Miller Park this year, Cubs fans weren't just a few stray visitors. We were an invading army. Our downtown hotel lobby teemed with folks in Arrieta, Bryant and Banks jerseys. Whole families in matching Cubs caps huddled in corners, trying to figure out the shuttle to the park. The restaurant was jammed for pregame chicken wings, burgers and beer.
Only the preponderance of children and the vast parking lots around Miller Park kept Milwaukee from feeling wholly like Wrigleyville.
Cubs fans don't just travel. They live everywhere. Thanks to the Rust Belt Diaspora that has sent so many people from Chicago to cities in the South and West, Cubs players can count on cheering and autograph-seeking fans at any ballpark from Atlanta to Phoenix to San Diego. Baseball fan identity is as much about who your mother or father rooted for as it is about where you were born, so the children of Cubs fans who moved to the Sun Belt are just as genuine as any born and bred on the North Side.
Beyond relocated Chicagoans, cable TV superstation WGN helped to create a nationwide Cubs fan population during the 1980s and '90s, much as TBS did for the Atlanta Braves.
Transplanted fans clearly seek the Wrigley experience, even when in remote places such as Denver, as the recent controversy over a young fan throwing a Rockies' home run ball back onto the field suggests. Security came and escorted the lad and his family away, which showed that Wrigley bleacher traditions don't exactly translate to other ballparks. Luckily, some common sense prevailed, and the family was able to return to their seats.
One key difference between the experience at Wrigley, with 2016's high expectations and great record, and other ballparks: You can get great seats out of town without dealing with scalpers. Rich scored tickets in the 10th row behind home plate. Officially "obstructed view" because of the protective netting, these were among the best seats we've ever had at any level.
But things weren't perfect, and the worst part of this particular experience was something peculiar to a Wisconsin road trip: high expectations about sausages. I have had nothing but good encased meat experiences north of the Illinois border. But the crowd was apparently more than the Miller Park concessions workers were prepared for.
Lines were long and slow, and when I finally got my brat, it was cold. And it wasn't cooked all the way through. No amount of mustard and onions could save it.
I threw it back like an opponent's home run ball -- not onto the field, though, as that would've been ejection-worthy -- and headed to our seats.
It soon became obvious how many Cubs fans were there. Based on the volume of cheering at Dexter Fowler's leadoff home run in his first at-bat after being on the DL, at least half the place wasn't pulling for the Brew Crew. This sort of split crowd changes the dynamics of a game.
Usually, there's a rhythm to crowd reactions. When the home team gets a hit or a strikeout or makes a good defensive play, the vast majority of the crowd cheers. When the visitors do well, it's boos or stony silence. The intensity ratchets up in the late innings of a close contest, but the noise ebbs and flows.
Not so with the Cubs on the road this year. Every play, whatever its result, gets raucously cheered, either by Cubs fans or by the home team's rooters, and so the noise is pretty much constant. As the Cubs cruised to a 5-2 victory, the Brewers fans got quieter and the rhythm of the crowd noise felt more like Wrigley.
The guys seated directly behind us, though, made clear the potential negative of Cubs fans' taking over opposing ballparks.
There are lots of varieties of Cubs fans, and the guys behind us were of the drink-an-inning/know-it-all variety. Besides loading up on beer and Long Island Iced Tea, one of them loudly questioned every decision made during the game. Whatever pitching or defensive move Maddon made, whatever pitch Miguel Montero called, whatever pitch a Cubs batter took or swung at, this mope would ask, What was that?! What are they thinking?! When the move worked ( Justin Grimm got the third out in the seventh, striking out the only batter he faced), well, then he cheered for what was obviously the right move all along.
Nine innings of that got a bit tedious. But unlike the experience with season tickets -- you get to know and love, or know and not love, the people sitting around you -- you can put up with almost anything for one game.
Except an under-done bratwurst.