According to all the travel guides, the charms of Albuquerque pale next to those of Santa Fe and the many little mountain towns of northern New Mexico. Though Albuquerque has views of the mountains and pockets of quaint pink adobe architecture, the town itself exists for the people who live there, not for tourists, and it looks that way. Still, I maintain there is something incredibly endearing about a city that has named its minor-league baseball team after an episode of The Simpsons—the one where Homer threatens a hunger strike when the Springfield Isotopes prepare to move to Albuquerque—and has statues of Homer, Marge, Bart, and Lisa inside its ballpark. (It’s also endearing that there’s a personal injury lawyer who has turned his ad campaign into a tribute to Better Call Saul. His slogan is “Hurt? Call Bert.”)
So naturally when my boyfriend, Jeff, and I were in Albuquerque last week, we had to go visit. Unfortunately, the Isotopes were out of town and the ballpark was closed. We stood around admiring the field through the first-base gate and trying to figure out what to do next when a woman standing at the ticket counter yelled over something scornful about Jeff’s Cubs World Series T-shirt. We yelled back about how it’s not bragging to celebrate something that happens once every 108 years, and a conversation ensued.
It turns out there are a lot of Cubs fans in the mountain states. This is mildly irritating to the woman, Betsy, and her friend, Pat, who are from Wisconsin and therefore loyal Brewers fans. I’d met several other western Cubs fans over the years, guys who grew up in Oklahoma and Denver and Santa Fe who’d become attached to the Cubs thanks to the extremely wide broadcasting range of WGN. (Say what you want about the Tribune Company as owners, but they were brilliant at making sure the Cubs had an enormous audience for their failures. “I always identified with the Cubs,” my friend from Santa Fe said morosely.) Many of these fans continued to love the Cubs even after the advent of the Colorado Rockies and the Arizona Diamondbacks—and even after both these teams won the pennant, and, in the case of the Diamondbacks, a World Series. Which just proves that Cubs fandom is one of those diseases that are impossible to shake if you catch it when you’re still young.
As an example, Pat told us about his good friend Pablo Garcia, a Cubs fan so devoted that last fall, when he made a T-shirt for the Albuquerque Fire Department, he incorporated the Cubs logo and “The Curse is Over!” He sells them for $10 apiece. Pat called Garcia so we could talk to him, but Garcia said he was in Chimayo, one of those picturesque mountain towns, for the annual Holy Week pilgrimage, and we didn’t want to bother him. Instead, he let Pat give us his phone number so we could call him after we got home. And I did.
Garcia, 65, is a former firefighter who has also worked as a meth-lab cleaner for the DEA, a very Breaking Bad detail that I appreciated. (“It was good while it lasted,” he said. “The money was good. As long as we wore our protective equipment, it was good. We had to peel our suits off like a banana so we wouldn’t contaminate ourselves.”) Now he has a business printing materials for firefighters called Pablo’s Fireman’s Corner.
“Lots of firefighters cried because I made the Cubs shirts,” Garcia said. “The Dukes [Albuquerque’s AAA team before the Isotopes] used to be the farm team for the Dodgers, so people raised in Albuquerque like the Dodgers for that reason.”
But a lot of the firefighters like the Cubs too. “I don’t know why that was,” he said. “I don’t know if people felt bad for them or what. I just liked them because they were a cool team.”
Of course he watched the Cubs World Series celebration on TV. “My favorite part,” he said, “was when they landed in Chicago and all the fire trucks went to the airport and shot water cannons all over the buses.”
Garcia’s all-time favorite Cub is Ernie Banks. He has a set of Banks baseball cards, complete except for Banks’s first and second seasons. “I always liked Ernie because of what he said, ‘Let’s play two!’ Some people say Harry Caray was Mr. Cub. But Mr. Cub is Ernie Banks.” (“Well, duh!” I replied. But I guess you have to make allowances for people who are not saturated in Cubness all the time.) He also admired that Banks had played for the Kansas City Monarchs, one of the greatest Negro League teams, before he integrated the Cubs.
As a kid, Garcia would listen to Cubs games with his father, who was a devoted Cardinals fan who admired Stan Musial. In the 40s and 50s, the Albuquerque minor-league team was the Cardinals, and the older Garcia played for a neighborhood semipro team called the Martinez Town Cardinals.
It’s funny, I thought as we talked, how baseball loyalties are born, even in parts of the country where, in theory, people have absolute freedom to choose their teams because there’s no MLB franchise nearby.
Next month, Garcia is going to go up to Denver to see the Cubs for the first time. He resents that he has to see the Rockies too, but that’s the price of admission. The Cubs will be in town for three days, but Garcia only plans to catch the afternoon game. “At night, it still gets cold,” he said. “I don’t want to freeze my butt off.”
He didn’t believe me when I told him that was an essential part of seeing the Cubs at Wrigley Field. That’s on his bucket list, he said, but not when it’s cold.