Destiny, Ability, and Camaraderie | Sports | Chicago Reader

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Destiny, Ability, and Camaraderie

That was the magic of the 2005 White Sox.

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Sports, like politics, is local. We can enjoy the skills of a Michael Jordan wherever we live, but it means something entirely different when Jordan plays in your town for your team. And in Chicago baseball is not merely local, in the sense of the hazy boundary line between the north and south sides, but tribal. It's something at once deeply personal and intensely public, and I heard that something erupt as I never had before--no, not even during the Bulls' six championships--with the final out of the World Series in the packed Bridgeport bar Cobblestones.

This was a sound unlike the roar one out earlier, when White Sox shortstop Juan Uribe went into the stands to steal a pop fly from the Houston crowd (an excruciating moment for Cubs fans haunted by the Steve Bartman incident two years earlier). That roar was guttural and appreciative: the championship so close yet not in hand, the Astros' tying run standing at second base in a 1-0 game. But when the last batter chopped a curveball over pitcher Bobby Jenks's glove and Uribe swooped in to nab it and throw a bullet on the run to first, the response was higher in pitch and sustained. It was the sound of a long-suffering tribe freed and triumphant. It was the joyful sound of catharsis. That sound, my friend, is what sports is about, and if you didn't know that joy when Uribe's throw beat the batter to first by an eyelash, I can only hope someday you do.

Less than a week before, on the day before the World Series began, elder statesman Paul Konerko explained the Sox' growing appeal by saying, "I think winning, people relate to that more than anything." But although the team attracted its share of bandwagon jumpers as it neared the championship, success wasn't exactly what made this year's Sox so captivating. That is, it wasn't just that winning created fans--the fans gave the championship its full significance. This World Series at last atoned for the Black Sox scandal, and for the Go-Go Sox teams of the 50s and 60s that could never get past the New York Yankees (and the one time they did couldn't get past the Los Angeles Dodgers). This series wiped away the frustration of the 1983 playoffs, when the Winnin' Ugly team was enchanted by the Baltimore Orioles' Mike Boddicker and the Jerry Dybzinski fuckhead catastrophe spoiled Britt Burns's courageous pitching performance. In the end, at the ticker-tape rally when Konerko presented Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf with the ball that made the final out, this series even rehabilitated Reinsdorf, who held the Sox hostage to get a publicly funded stadium 15 years ago and played a big role in cutting short the 1994 season, when the Sox had what looked like their best chance in years to win a title.

"This team has done a good job of not worrying about the history of this organization," Konerko said. "I think the Red Sox did the same thing last year." But if the players had to put all of that history out of their minds, the fans clung to it and measured this year's achievement against it.

Fans who looked past the hype about curses saw a skilled and beautiful team--with the emphasis on team, on talents fitting together. To a man, the Sox players spoke of how much they enjoyed one another's company. "I think that it's destiny," said Jenks, a rookie who joined the team in July, "or a bunch of good guys who make a great team."

Chemistry is obvious on the basketball court but it's intangible in baseball, which is such an individual sport, especially in the confrontation between pitcher and hitter. The bonding of baseball players, who spend so much time together, is vital to the team, but it needs to be experienced firsthand, inside the locker room. Otherwise it's too subtle for the fan to see, except as it manifests itself in winning. "Winning makes winning like money makes money," in the immortal words of Henry "Author" Wiggen, Mark Harris's fictional pitcher, and of course it helped that the Sox led their league's Central Division from start to finish. The playoffs were more of the same: their series sweep gave them an 11-1 playoff record, tying a mark that had been set by the Yankees.

No team becomes a champion without unexpected contributions, and one of the pleasures of following a championship season is watching key players develop. Third baseman Joe Crede finally flowered into the impact player he'd been predicted to become when he was in the minors. He'd been frequently criticized for his placid, distracted demeanor, but it turned out that under pressure ice water runs through his veins. Whenever the Sox needed a clutch hit he seemed to show up saying, "You rang?" He capped a season of heroics with the go-ahead homer in the opener, when he also stymied the Astros with a series of diving stops, and he triggered the Sox' rally from a 4-0 deficit in the critical third game with an opposite-field homer off Houston ace Roy Oswalt. I've written before about the contributions of Tadahito Iguchi and Aaron Rowand, and of my personal choice for the team's most valuable player, catcher A.J. Pierzynksi. Uribe completed a group that was rock solid up the middle. Yet to my way of thinking the keyest key player was pitcher Jose Contreras, and the pivotal game in the Sox' championship season was the series finale against the Yankees in August.

On a beastly hot day in a high-pressure game against his former team, with the Sox trying to halt a seven-game losing streak, Contreras held the Yankees at bay until the Sox erupted for four homers and six runs in one inning off Randy Johnson. That victory began a streak of nine straight for Contreras that extended into the playoffs. The difference in Contreras made the difference between a merely good first-place team, which the Sox were in 2000, and a playoff powerhouse.

Again there was that mix of destiny, ability, and camaraderie. Manager Ozzie Guillen said Contreras fulfilled his potential "not because we speak the same language but because he knows he has a friend in the manager." Guillen's way was to show faith in his players and protect them at all costs, even if it meant acting the fool from time to time to distract the media. Everyone from Contreras to the lowest benchwarmer responded, including Geoff Blum, who hit the game-winning homer in the 14th inning of game three, and Willie Harris, who led off the eighth inning of game four with a pinch-hit single, went to second on Scott Podsednik's bunt, advanced to third on a grounder to the right side by pinch hitter Carl Everett, and scored the game's only run on a trickler up the middle by Jermaine Dye--vintage Guillen small ball. That hit clinched MVP honors for Dye, but the honor could have gone to any of several players.

Every seat was taken, and despite temperatures in the 40s a feeling of warmth and unity filled Sox Park for Chicago's first World Series game in 46 years. It was in the cheers for Contreras as he went out to warm up, in the roar when Crede's homer sailed just beyond the reach of the leaping Willy Taveras into the center-field seats, and in the cheers as Jenks emerged from the bullpen to fan Jeff Bagwell on a 100-mph fastball to end the eighth. An inning later when Jenks ended the game with another strikeout, fans jumped up and down and high-fived and hugged, then thanked their stars that the rain had held off.

The crowd the following night wasn't so lucky. A downpour canceled batting practice and a cool, spiky mist fell through the middle innings. I was watching in the warmth of the auxiliary press box down the left-field line, but I felt for the fans below. They looked especially miserable after Mark Buehrle, curling his mitt with nervous energy, squandered a 2-1 lead and fell behind 4-2. His counterpart, Andy Pettitte, labored in the cold like a horse pulling a carriage down Michigan Avenue, emitting huge steamy puffs of warm breath. Pettitte turned the lead over to the bullpen in the seventh, and the tension began to mount with Uribe's one-out double. When Iguchi walked with two out, all fans were on their feet. Dye loaded the bases on a dubious hit-by-pitch call, and Konerko came up with the crowd on the verge of hysteria. He clubbed a first-pitch fastball from Chad Qualls into the left-field seats, and as he lifted his arms and pumped his right fist trotting to first base, there was pandemonium.

Jenks, suffering a letdown from his previous night's heroics, allowed the Astros to tie the game in the ninth and prolong the fans' misery, but the outcome redeemed every minute of it. Podsednik got ahead of Houston closer Brad Lidge 2-1 in the bottom of the ninth and looked for a fastball. That's what he got, and he hammered it into the center-field seats. The fans went mad. They stood in the cold savoring the experience, and I ran down the ramps to the media interview room--where Konerko would take a friendly jab at Podsednik as they sat side by side, saying the Sox always thought they'd win, but "I don't think we thought it would be that quick--or on a home run by him." I thought of my friends Mike and Steve, soaked but happy in their right-field seats; of Kate, who no doubt had applied a little lucky lipstick moments before, wherever she was watching; of Wuk, who grew up a Sox fan on the south side and now kept the faith deep in the enemy territory of Lake Bluff; and of our friend and colleague Jim Pecora, dead of cancer and buried this summer, who could talk eloquently in a smoke-tinged voice about the frustration of watching the Sox in the 50s and 60s, when they struggled to get past the hated Yankees.

I certainly wasn't alone in my reverie. It seems that all Sox fans were thinking of others near and dear, whether they could share in the moment or could not.

Mike Mulligan, a good friend and fine gentleman (in the words of former Sox announcer Bob Elson), had been in the stands, and he summed up the experience the following day on his WSCR show when he said, "If you were at that game, you deserved what happened." But it wasn't just that game. If you were a fan of the Sox for any stretch of the previous 88 years you deserved this season every bit as much as the Sox themselves did. After all that time, it was full return on everything a fan invests in sports, a return all the more precious for how we never expected to see it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Scott Olson--Getty Images.

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