The last few times I went out to see the White Sox this season I skipped the press box in favor of the grandstand--in part because at that point the fans were more interesting than the players. In Chicago, only fans of the Blackhawks have suffered worse at the hands of ownership, but by now there are so few true hockey fans in town the comparison's almost academic. Sox fans smoke a (very) little bit less than their hockey counterparts and they generally tell better jokes; for all the bitterness they share with Hawks fans they're a hardier, more enduring breed. Even so, it amuses me when Sox fans go out of their way to run down Cubs fans. Cubs fans may be obsessed with status and cell phones and insobriety, but they don't need to be told when it's permissible to make some noise; they don't require a scoreboard applause meter to get them to cheer louder; and they don't pay more attention to the between-innings jumbo-TV sideshow races of frogs and planes and colored pinwheels than they do to the game itself. When Sox fans insult Cubs fans they display their innate insecurity--but hey, with a team like this, insecurity is to be expected.
For all intents and purposes, the Sox' season ended July 26 when Minnesota's Torii Hunter went out of his way to level Jamie Burke in a play at the plate as the Twins won 6-2. The Sox had surrendered first place to the Twins with a 9-2 loss to the Detroit Tigers the day before, and they were now playing four games against the Twins at White Sox Park, three of them before sold-out crowds. But something went out of them with that beat down, something that had little to do with the season-ending injuries suffered by heavy hitters Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez. Quite simply, the Twins had their number. Sox manager Ozzie Guillen said we'd soon see who had the bigger dog, but in admitting he envied the hard-nosed play of Hunter he also suggested he'd rather be coaching those hungry mongrels than his own bunch of lumbering sluggers. The Sox never responded to the grit manager Ron Gardenhire had once again instilled in the pack of well-coached mutts and strays he'd put together in Minnesota; the Sox lost seven straight and 20 of 28 games as they fell from first place to third, nine games back. By late August, the season had become a training ground for next year.
Next year, however, holds uncertain prospects. Thomas and Ordonez are both desirable free agents--desirable to other teams, that is--despite their injuries, and Guillen is clearly hankering to play a scrappier brand of baseball. (He tried to foster "Ozzieball" early on, but it never took root; as the Bulls' coach Phil Jackson once said from the other side of the metaphorical fence, "When you have thoroughbreds you run. When you have plow horses you plow.") So the 2005 Sox could be dramatically altered. But general manager Ken Williams will be rebuilding anyway, after trading away prospects Miguel Olivo, Jeremy Reed, and Jon Rauch in a rash decision to compete this year. They got a horse of a starter in return in Freddy Garcia, whom they successfully signed to a contract extension, but otherwise all they had to show for their trades were retreads Carl Everett and Roberto Alomar, along with the promising but erratic pitcher Jose Contreras, exchanged for the less flashy but equally erratic Esteban Loaiza. Only the slick-fielding shortstop phenom Wilson Valdez raised any hopes, hitting his first big-league homer in the Sox' last home game of the season last Sunday.
Few things brought Sox fans joy this year, but they seized on the comeback of popular Paul Konerko. Revived in part by a new batting approach in which he leaned back before the pitcher delivered the ball--like a commuter peering around stopped traffic to see if it's an express bus or a local coming down the street--"Paulie" bashed 40 homers and challenged for the American League lead. Aaron Rowand established himself as a solid center fielder whose erect stance and quick trigger--all torque generated by his midsection--made him a surprisingly adept hitter: he hit 20 homers and batted over .300. Outfielder Carlos Lee and infielders Jose Valentin and Juan Uribe also topped 20 home runs and Joe Crede threatened to join them, as the Sox broke the team record for homers even without Maggs and the Big Hurt. But Crede, the baby-faced third baseman, struggled all year just to hit .250, and outfielder Joe Borchard, for all his broad-shouldered promise and a 500-foot homer (the longest ever hit at the new stadium), looked overmatched.
The only real excitement at Sox Park this season was generated by the rise of relief pitcher Shingo Takatsu. "Mr. Zero," the all-time saves leader in Japan, replaced Billy Koch as closer early in the year and came on each time to a series of gongs on the PA system. The crowd typically went ape, shouting, "It's Shingo time!" With his thin arms and shoulders--he looked like a Little Leaguer in his fluttering sleeves--and 60-mile-an-hour breaking pitch (TV announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson again demonstrated his flair for nicknames by labeling it the "Frisbee"), he was an everyman's dream. But I was in the upper deck on the Saturday night the magic ended. He gave up a game-winning three-run homer in the ninth to the Cleveland Indians. "He's not Mr. Zero," grumbled one fan. "He is a zero." Even the postgame fireworks failed to cheer the fans, and we all talked quietly as we walked down the interminable ramps to the ground.
Much like Crede, promising pitcher Jon Garland failed to make it over the hump. His earned run average hovered around 5.00 much of the year, and a typical game was the one against the Tigers in mid-August when the Sox were a mere five games out and trying to mount a challenge. Garland gave up back-to-back homers to the bottom of the Detroit order in the second and, afflicted by an error, surrendered five more in the third before leaving in mid-inning. Booed as Guillen replaced him, he grabbed his crotch on the mound and shook it again before entering the dugout.
Garland's bad start didn't dissuade fans from cheering when the Sox rallied with three runs in the sixth. Nancy Faust played "Charge!" on the organ. The bright grandstand screen flashed "Charge!" The kid sitting behind me shouted "Charge!" Then the screen went back to flashing the Pepsi logo and the kid responded with deadpan sincerity, "Pepsi!" I laughed until I cried at that one. Sox fans, once the fiercely independent denizens of the world's largest beer garden, the old Comiskey Park across the street, had largely become a nation of behaviorists. The Sox went on to lose 8-4. Last Sunday Garland would win the final Sox home game of the season to even his record at 11-11 and make the Sox 79-76, but the season was over.
I planned to see the Twins' last trip into town last week, but when de facto Sox ace Mark Buehrle opened the series by giving up four runs in the first on a pair of two-run homers--the first hit by the irksome Hunter, as if to rub salt in the wound--and the Sox went tamely, 8-2 in just over two hours, allowing the Twins to clinch the American League Central Division title, I didn't see the point. Of course, the eliminated Sox went on to win the next two when they didn't count. Take that, Twinkies. Instead, I paid my respects last Friday, bringing along my dad, visiting from out of town. His presence made me think of the sultry summer night many years ago when he took me to my first game, the cigarette smoke pouring out of the grandstand and hanging in the lights above old Comiskey Park, and the Baltimore Orioles' massive first baseman, Boog Powell, sweating his way through two of those wooly uniforms they used to wear.
This night was more comfortable if considerably less exciting, an egg-shaped moon wobbling across the autumn sky. I bought him a cheap bleacher ticket--well, cheap at $26 for the last weekend of the season--and we settled in along the third-base line, getting chased once by a dutiful usher before we were allowed to claim two empty seats among the crowd of 14,270. The night's opponents were the Kansas City Royals, a team that had seen its promise go even further south than the Sox had this year. The Sox scored two runs in the first on Lee's 28th homer and two more in the third with the help of Uribe's 21st. But Garcia gave up a homer in the third to KC catcher John Buck, the leading prospect the Royals received when they traded Carlos Beltran to Houston at midseason, and two more when Burke dropped the throw in a play at the plate that would have ended the inning. The Royals scored again in the fifth to tie the score, and Buck greeted reliever Felix Diaz with another homer to lead off the sixth and put the Royals ahead. The Royals scored a run in each of the last five innings to win 8-6. The Sox had two in and two on with no outs in the ninth, but Rowand popped up a bunt, and Uribe grounded into a game-ending double play.
But you can't beat fun at the old ballpark, as Harry Caray used to say, and we could thank Sox fans for that. When the Royals' Abraham Nunez came to the plate, one fan yelled, "Abraham, can you play today? It's Yom Kippur!" In honor of Desi Arnaz, Faust played the theme to I Love Lucy as KC's Desi Relaford batted. And when the playoff-hungry Cubs' final score was posted, a 2-1 win in New York over the Mets in ten innings, a few charitable fans cheered but to our right one Sox loyalist shouted, "Suck!" Down the first-base line, four helium balloons broke free of whatever small child had been holding them and sailed up and out with the breeze, over the right-field bleachers and above the advertising signs beyond, crossing just under a nighthawk that patrolled the fringes of the lights picking off bugs--all soon to be gone like the baseball season on the south side.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Polich--Reuters/Corbis.