Wednesday, July 1, 2009

1 and 1A

Popular Wisdom has it that there are two kinds of Chicago baseball fans: Cubs’ fans who hate the White Sox and White Sox’ fans who hate the Cubs. The view gains credence whenever the two teams play (as they did last week) and the TV cameras roam the sports bars in search of incendiary statements from supporters of each side. There’s no lack of them, loudly voiced.

Look to the sides of the pictures, though, and you’ll see people hunched low over their drinks, keeping mum. They are members of the tolerate minority that wishes both teams well. Silence is a good strategy for them because it saves them from dealing with the zealots, and they know the TV types won’t use their quotes anyway. But they do exist, and probably in greater number than you’d expect.

I know because I’m one of them. Yes, having grown up a short bike ride from Wrigley Field, I’m primarily a Cubs’ fan, and a Cubs’ win is enough to make my day. But I like the Sox, too, and when both Chicago teams prevail it’s a great day, made all the better by its rarity.

Like most Northsiders, as a youngster I considered the South Side as terra incognita, and dangerous to boot. But once I grew up a bit and got my own wheels (a much-used Ford, around age 19) I began visiting Comiskey Park and watching the likes of Nellie, Little Looie, Jungle Jim and Big Klu do their things. What was not to like, especially in a prolonged era of Cub decline?

Some of my most-memorable baseball moments came at what has come to be called “Old” Comiskey Park. The most impressive home run I ever saw was hit by the wayward slugger Dick (“Don’t Call Me Richie”) Allen in a 1971 or ’72 game at Comiskey against the Yankees, an awesome blow that started low and seemed to be still rising when it cleared the left-field wall 370-or-so feet away. Years later I spent a day with Allen reporting a column, and told him of the memory. “I hit a lot of them like that,” he said with a smile. “If they cleared the shortstop, they were gone.”

Chicago has been a Cubs’ town for the last 20-plus years, and many assume that’s always been the case. Not so. The Sox were the better and more-popular team through most of the 1950s, ’60s and ‘70s, and even outdrew the Cubs in 1984, the Wrigleys’ break-through, divisional-title year. The Sox lost their edge because of two fateful decisions: going to cable (and off “free”) TV in the ‘80s, before many people had it, and the civic-minded choice of the South Side of Chicago over the west side of Florida when a new ballpark became imperative.

They’ve reaped precious little good will for the latter action. The team did enjoy a several-season attendance spurt after New Comiskey Park (now U.S. Cellular Field) opened in 1991, but soon the stadium’s legislature-mandated location in an expressway wilderness dragged it down, and despite Chicago’s first-in-a-century World Series title (in 2005) it’s in the position of having to win to draw. That’s somewhere no sports enterprise wants to be.

To the Sox’ credit, they’ve done their best with what they have. Despite being a middle-market team in a major market, they’ve paid up for players, and their GM, Kenny Williams, isn’t afraid to pull the trigger on moves that might improve their lot. They’ve visited the post-season about as often as the bigger-payroll Cubs during the playoff era, and done much better once there. That includes last season, when they not only matched the Cubs’ noisier divisional title but also won a playoff game.

This season has been painful for followers of both Chicago teams, but more so for Cubs’ fans. When I think of the Cubs these days I think of Milton Bradley, batting .230 and mad at the world despite being paid $10 million a year to play baseball. When I think of the Sox I think of Steve Stone back in the booth and of such bright young prospects as Gordon Beckham, Aaron Poreda and Tyler Flowers, the latter a catcher currently battering fences in the minors. It’s not much to smile about, but it’s something.

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