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Lovable Losers and the Lovable Losers Who Love Them

A Sox fan's foray into the Friendly Confines

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Not only did the Cubs and White Sox settle into stereotypical roles this summer--the Cubs as losers, the Sox as frustrating contenders--their fans did too. Last Thursday was a "doubleday," what former Reader colleague Dave Jones calls the rare occasion when the Cubs and Sox are both in town playing games one after the other; I went out to both games, sitting with the hoi polloi, and was astounded at how the fans confirmed my preconceptions. It was like meeting only snooty Frenchmen and officious Germans on a grand tour of Europe.

It was a beautiful day for a ball game--for two, in fact--as temperatures returned to the 80s after more than a week of drizzly late-summer cold. Wrigley Field looked as lovely as ever. "There's no getting around it, it's just gorgeous," said my Sox pal Kate, who'd deigned to join me as a way of celebrating her birthday. The fans in the bleachers were as carefree and sybaritic as ever, which came as something of a surprise, for the Cubs themselves are losers considerably less lovable than they were 10, 20, or 30 years ago. Manager Dusty Baker is being chased out of town, players have been booed, and some particularly brutal losses have prompted bleacher fans to toss trash on the field. By now, however, acceptance had settled in. The 20,000 or so in attendance (just 27,105 tickets were sold, making this the smallest Wrigley crowd in four years) were there to enjoy the sun and the atmosphere (especially in the bleachers) and maybe to scout a few of next year's young prospects. It was September at Wrigley the way it used to be.

The Pirates were in town and had won two of the series' first three games. The team losing the finale would have the worst record in the National League and both of them seemed to covet this title--the Cubs sat Derrek Lee and the Bucs sat Freddy Sanchez, the league's leading hitter. The fans for the most part couldn't have cared less. We were seated in the first row of the center-field bleachers, near where Bill Veeck used to sit 20 years ago, and in the expanded left- and right-field sections below us fans talked and mingled and paid little attention to the game. A guy to our right wouldn't get off his cell phone. He was talking loudly to friends in the grandstand while waving to show them where he was, and he was urging friends outside Wrigley to buy tickets on the street and join him; finally the pals who were with him told him to shut it down. A guy nearby gushed, "Oh my gawd, look at the size of this peanut!" and that was as excited as anyone got all afternoon. A bunch of Notre Dame alums from Philadelphia who'd be trekking to South Bend for Saturday's Penn State game plotted their weekend. "Dugan gets in at 12:30," said one, "so we'll wait for him, if you don't mind, then head out to the campus." From time to time they got into it with a crowd of Penn State fans below. Between innings, when "Funkytown" and "Hot Hot Hot" gave way to "YMCA," one of the Domers yelled, "Yeah, get up, Penn State fans, and sing it!"

Rumors of improved concessions at Wrigley proved to be greatly exaggerated--the food was as bad as the baseball and the surly vendors bitched about the small crowd. My Eisenberg brat must have been cooked over the All-Star break and rewarmed for the occasion; Kate couldn't finish hers.

Meanwhile on the field, rookie Cubs starter Sean Marshall got rocked and the Pirates pulled ahead 5-0, but as my old UPI colleague Frank Kroll used to say, that's the most dangerous lead in baseball, and the Cubs went about proving his point. They scored three runs in the fourth with the help of a two-run homer by Aramis Ramirez (at his best with the pressure off). Then fireballing reliever Carlos Marmol hit a home run, and rookie phenom Scott Moore, just up from the Southern League where he'd been the all-star game's most valuable player, tied the game with yet another in the sixth (atoning for his earlier ole wave at a grounder that went past him at first base for a two-run single).

That ended the scoring for a while. Baker and Pittsburgh's Jim Tracy managed the game as if it was the World Series and used a combined 13 pitchers, but nobody seemed to notice. Baker sent Lee up to pinch-hit in the eighth, causing barely a ripple in the stands. Mercifully--for the worst of all outcomes would have been extra innings--Chicago relievers Scott Eyre and Ryan Dempster each allowed a solo homer in the ninth and Pittsburgh won 7-5. "We're number five!" shouted a fan in the bleachers.

The Wrigley drunks sloshed back and forth in the crowded cars as we rode the Red Line south, but the last of those stragglers and staggerers got off at Lake and Washington to catch Metra trains and the rest of us continued on to Sox Park. The trip took an hour, ballpark to ballpark, and we arrived just as the gates were opening, at 5:30. We were greeted as regulars at the upper-deck Beers Around the World booth. Since it was Thursday, dollar-dog night, we upgraded to kosher for $2.50 apiece, complete with grilled onions. "That's more like it," Kate said.

The state of mind of Sox fans wasn't entirely pleasant. The team's playoff prospects were in jeopardy: the Sox were four and a half games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central and half a game behind the Minnesota Twins, who'd seized the AL wild-card lead. The euphoria from last year's championship was pretty much gone and in its place was old, familiar dread, this night especially sharp because erratic former ace Mark Buehrle was starting the opener of a four-game series against Cleveland. He allowed a run in the first inning and the crowd of 34,671 settled into an anxious near silence.

I've been out at Sox Park this season and heard the fans around me yakking on their cell phones or jabbering about summer picnics; but this evening everyone was talking baseball. "The right fielder can't get any deeper," said a guy behind me when Jim Thome came up to bat. "Come on, Buehrle," moaned a girl when he fell behind 3-0 in the third. When Aaron Boone successfully dumped a bunt down the third-base line with no outs and a man on first, a guy in front of me wondered why Pablo Ozuna had been playing so deep. Between innings, a nearby group got to talking about the mid-70s Sox of Dick Allen, Tony Muser, and, yes, Harry Caray. "That's right, he was with us before he was with the Cubs," said one guy.

Buehrle gave up a leadoff homer in the fifth, and Ozzie Guillen tossed his gum into the dirt in front of the Sox dugout as he went out to remove him. Reliever Charlie Haeger, a knuckleballer called up from the minors when the rosters expanded, almost got out of the inning despite an error by Juan Uribe, but a two-out single and a triple made it 7-0 Cleveland. Boos rained down. "Bring back El Duque!" shouted one fan, referring to last year's departed playoff hero Orlando Hernandez.

A harvest moon appeared on the horizon and gradually paled from red to gold to white as it rose in the sky. The Sox got one run back in the sixth, but the rally ended when Jermaine Dye, the team's top MVP candidate, lost track of the outs and got doubled off base. Kate took an extra cigarette break. Down 7-1 in the eighth, a devoted cadre of upper-deck fans behind home plate kept chanting, "Let's go White Sox!" and those who stayed till the last out didn't seem all that depressed as they walked the ramps down to the street. A sort of acceptance seemed to have crept in on the south side as well.

The next night closer Bobby Jenks blew a 5-3 lead when he gave up three runs in the ninth, but just as the Sox and their fans seemed ready to pack it in and rest on last year's laurels, A.J. Pierzynski hit a game-winning two-run homer. The Sox clobbered the Tribe in the series' third game, and though they lost Sunday's finale they'd made it clear that games would continue to mean something at Sox Park.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images.

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