The Sporting News proclaimed Chicago the top sports town in the nation this summer, but that doesn't mean there's a monolithic fan base. We've got two baseball teams, and the only thing their fans agree on is how irksome it is that football dominates the talk shows and sports pages from the opening of training camp in July right on through the pennant race in September.
The Bears play pro football at the newly remodeled Soldier Field, at Lake Shore Drive and 14th Street, and if you can get past its ridiculous flying-saucer exterior, it's a beautiful, intimate, highly functional stadium. It's easily reached by public transportation, with the hike from the Roosevelt CTA stop pleasant on all but the coldest days, when you can take a bus. For those who drive, however, the tailgate scene is its own reward. Bears fans like grilled food almost as much as they like football. Tickets, however, are hard to come by for those who haven't inherited season tickets and the accompanying seat licenses. Illinois allows scalping by licensed so-called ticket brokers--the Cubs even have their own--and you can always try the classifieds and the Web, with the usual caveats. But almost any bar will have the game on on Sunday afternoons, when roars can also be heard from apartments as you walk down the street. If you don't care about football, that's the best time to do your grocery shopping.
The Cubs are the city's favorite baseball team, and Wrigley Field, at Clark and Addison, is justifiably renowned as the most beautiful and inviting of big-league ballparks, but the Friendly Confines are considerably less friendly lately. The Cubs almost making the World Series in 2003 (they missed by five outs) raised fans' expectations: ever since, the laughing flesh in the bleachers is still a debaucher's paradise, but otherwise Wrigley isn't as jolly as it used to be. Still, the Cubs continue to pack 'em in. Tickets need to be purchased soon after they go on sale, typically in February, via Web, phone, or box office, where they even run a bracelet lottery. Getting to Wrigley is easy on public transportation (and parking is limited), though the Red Line platform at Addison can get cramped. The bar scene around the park knows no off-season.
White Sox Park--also known as the Cell after its corporate sponsor U.S. Cellular--is no Wrigley Field, but it's been beautified considerably since they lopped off the top of the upper deck and put a roof on the place. Located on the south side at 35th Street and the Dan Ryan Expressway (I-94), it's got easy access on the Red Line (35th Street stop) and abundant parking. Sox fans pride themselves, not entirely without justification, on knowing the game better and being harder to please than their north-side counterparts, but they have to talk between innings over a chatty scoreboard TV determined to keep them from thinking their own thoughts. Still, last year's World Series win has boosted the fan base and packed the stadium almost as tight as Wrigley. The days you could walk up before a game and be assured of a seat are over. With the nearby Jimbo's (3258 S. Princeton), just north of the park, slated to close at the end of the season, the best local Sox bars are Puffer's (3356 S. Halsted) and, for better food, Cobblestones (514 W. Pershing), although neither is exactly easy walking distance. Drop a mention of the dear, departed McCuddy's, which used to be across from the dear, departed Comiskey Park, to impress.
The Bulls are on the rise, with the addition of Ben Wallace to a young talent base, so tickets figure to be more in demand at the United Center (1901 W. Madison) this season. Bulls fans have suffered with the team since Michael Jordan's first retirement and the end of an era in 1998, but they've had the memory of six titles and the greatest player in basketball history to console them. Look for a renewed intensity this season, on the floor and in the stands. The UC is accessible by bus--the 19 United Center Express (best bet on the way out) or the 20 Madison or 50 Damen lines--and the area is an up-and-comer for restaurants. Every visitor must pay homage to the Jordan statue on the east side of the arena.
Years of mismanagement have cut into the NHL Blackhawks' fan base, but hockey remains the most beautiful sport on the planet when it's played well. The fans who keep coming to the United Center are either intensely loyal or somewhat addled. Seats up close are incredible but exorbitant. For now, it's best to buy the cheapest seats available and move down to the best open areas of the 300 level.
The UC plays host to an annual visit by the University of Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team in December and the Big Ten basketball tournament, and the first two rounds of NCAA Division I will be held there in late winter. It's also typically the site of the high school basketball Public League championship game. The city's high school hoops fans are a breed apart--not just students, but real aficionados, students of the game. Some rave about seeing Kevin Garnett in his senior year at Farragut; look for them to be talking about Derrick Rose, a senior at Simeon this year. Games, of course, are played in gyms all over the city, but the Public League semifinals are best for concentrated brilliance, featuring the top four teams in a doubleheader, played the last few years at DePaul University's Athletic Center at Sheffield and Fullerton.
As for local college teams, DePaul's Blue Demons play basketball at the Allstate Arena in Rosemont, though they've become a punching bag since joining the Big East conference in 2005. Northwestern University basketball and football are nothing to write home about either, though the games are on campus and more accessible. The Flames, from the University of Illinois at Chicago, have had a revival under coach Jimmy Collins and play at the refurbished UIC Pavilion on the near west side at Harrison and Racine. For big-time college sports, though, it's worth a pilgrimage to the Touchdown Jesus in South Bend, Indiana, to see Notre Dame play.
The UIC Pavilion is also where the WNBA Sky plays from May to August. The Sky had the worst record--and, not coincidentally, the lowest attendance--in the league this year, its first season, but will add to a nucleus featuring Candice Dupree, who made the all-rookie team.
The Major League Soccer Fire used to play at Soldier Field, but has exiled itself to the new Toyota Park in Bridgeview, just beyond the city limits at Harlem and 71st Street. The Globe Pub (1934 W. Irving Park) soccer bar offers bus service and PACE has an express bus from the end of the Orange Line at Midway Airport.
Those looking for something different--always a treat in the world of sports, which tends to be ruled by convention--can try roller derby with the Windy City Rollers, who play more or less monthly at Cicero Stadium (1909 S. Laramie), where they'll have playoffs in October and the championships in November. A round-trip ticket on the "party bus" leaving from Liar's Club (1665 W. Fullerton) costs $5. Remember, the matches are called bouts, and with good reason.
And in the dead of the Chicago winter, when it gets dark shortly after noon, try the Golden Gloves at the Saint Andrew's gym (1658 W. Addison). The crowd is warm and boisterous, and there's no sportsmanship like two boxers embracing after pummeling each other for three rounds.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Gregory Shamus/Getty Images (Sox), Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images (Hockey and Cubs).