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CHICAGO (AP) – Tim Fleming and Jennifer Miller took the plastic cups of Old Style from the Wrigley Field vendor, then tapped the beers together as if making a champagne toast.
This workingman’s brew is as much part of the lore at the home of the Chicago Cubs as bricks, ivy and the billy goat curse blamed for the team’s long championship drought — so news that Pabst Brewing Co. might pull the beer from the ballpark after six decades doesn’t sit well with Miller and other loyalists.
“Not acceptable,” she said.
In a city of refining tastes that is embracing craft beers and microbreweries, Old Style is a throwback to the six-pack. It’s an anachronism to the frequent criticism from crosstown White Sox fans that Wrigley is filled with yuppies less interested in the game than taking photos of one another.
But many fans wouldn’t think of drinking anything but Old Style during a Cubs game. Some of the so-called bleacher bums stop drinking it only long enough to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” during the seventh-inning stretch, unless they’ve already spilled it on the ivy-covered outfield wall.
“I never get it in a bar, but I drink it every time I come here,” said Fleming, a Chicago bartender by trade.
With no pennant race to worry about, yet again, fans are buzzing both at Wrigley and on the Internet about the prospect that the team will end one of the most amazing streaks in sports — the 61 years with Old Style, not the 103 years without a World Series title.
According to a published report, billionaire C. Dean Metropoulos fired off a memo to senior staffers shortly after he bought Pabst last year that he wanted to “exit the Cubs deal” in favor of spending more to market Old Style Light.
Pabst’s chief marketing officer Bryan Crowley declined to acknowledge the memo exists as the Chicago Tribune first reported this summer. However, he told The Associated Press in a telephone interview that a contract is set to expire after this season between the Cubs and the company, which also makes Old Milwaukee and Schlitz.
In a prepared statement sent last week, Crowley said the company “would like to see our partnership continue for seasons to come.” He says the company believes the Cubs-Old Style partnership is the longest of its kind in the United States.
Wally Hayward, the team’s chief sales and marketing officer, said Cubs officials are well aware of their fans’ loyalty to the brand. He speculated that the talk of discontinuing the partnership likely stems from many changes the beer company is going through — including a revamped executive team and its headquarters moving from suburban Chicago to Los Angeles.
“We’ve enjoyed a 61-year partnership with Old Style, and we’d like to keep them (as partners) longer,” Hayward said.
The owner of a Chicago-based ad agency that handled a summer promotion in which Old Style bottles were designed to look like baseball bats said you’d need a scorecard to figure out who works at Pabst these days — and that could affect the Cubs contract.
“They have a different idea about how they want to market the brand,” said Victor LaPorte of Scott & Victor, whose own relationship with Pabst “just sort of dissolved” when Pabst moved to Los Angeles.
All that leaves fans worried they might have to wash their annual disappointment down with something other than Old Style.
“It’s history, this field and this beer,” said Fred Kist, a 59-year-old suburban Chicago resident who grew up an Ernie Banks home run away from the park. “Wrigley Field will lose something by losing Old Style.”
Of course, Kist recovered after the Cubs broke tradition by starting to play night games at Wrigley in the 1980s, and also when the ballpark stopped selling another longtime favorite brew, Hamms, years ago. So if Old Style disappears, “I’ll get over it,” he said.
Then there’s the question of what would replace Old Style if it goes. While Ric Clarke says he wouldn’t be overly bothered drinking a beer made in Milwaukee, home of the Brewers — largely a friendly rival of the Cubs — he is galled by the thought of drinking one made in St. Louis, home of the hated Cardinals.
“I’ve never had anything else to drink here,” said Clarke, 63, who grew up blocks away from Wrigley and still attends about a dozen games a year when he visits from Nashville. “It’s the real flavor of baseball.”
Other companies have certainly tried to win over Clarke and fellow Old Style devotees, with varied success.
For years, a roof beyond left field sported a huge red Budweiser sign to honor the late broadcaster Harry Caray. He was a longtime pitchman for the St. Louis beer company, and fans have been known to insert a can of Bud in the outstretched hand of Caray’s statue outside the ballpark.
Yet not all Cubs fans are crying in their beer over the prospect of a Wrigley and Old Style divorce. Phil Thompson of Indianapolis says that would simply make his beer of choice, Bud Light, easier to find.
But the purists — even the out-of-towners — insist Old Style is a crucial part of any Cubs experience.
“I went from vendor to vendor until I found Old Style,” said Pete McCarty of Mobile, Ala., who attended his first Cubs game last week. “To me, that’s Wrigley Field.”