The funk that has oppressed the White Sox since the 1994 players' strike seemed to lift a little when they opened the second half of the season with a 13-game home stand. Albert Belle, the epitome of funk, started clubbing the ball, with ten home runs in the first ten of those games, giving him 28 on the season and an even 300 in his turbulent career. The team's two other big guns, Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura, both won games with homers in the bottom of the ninth. Pitching, the club's weak point all season, stabilized, with de facto ace and prime culprit Jaime Navarro winning two straight. Crowds returned to respectable levels, and one afternoon even topped 30,000 for a season high. It was easy to get enthusiastic and maybe even optimistic about the team, especially if one was actually going out to the new Comiskey Park, where an obstinate south-side spirit of endurance has grown up in the face of the occupation ownership and high-level mismanagement of the team.
Yet reality can be held at bay only so long, even in a midsummer night's dream of a home stand. Belle, for all his ability, remains unpopular, and clearly returns the sentiment to the fans and the media. A 15-9 loss to the archrival Cleveland Indians offered a painful reminder that the pitching is still a shambles--the Tribe hit five homers to none by the Sox. The Sox' two most talented players, Thomas and Mike Cameron, remain mired in season-long funks of their own. In the final year of his contract, Ventura is hounded by trade rumors. Navarro has asked to be traded and looks to be auditioning for other teams when he pitches well. The "decent" attendance figures last weekend were greatly inflated by Cleveland fans who traveled here because they couldn't get seats in sold-out Jacobs Field. And even the Sox' season-best crowd two weeks ago Sunday should be described as "only" 32,929, because they were giving away Beanie Babies. If rabid Beanie collectors hadn't been made to watch a game--if, say, Billy Graham had staged a Beanie giveaway and revival meeting instead--they would have packed the stadium. Finally, winning seven of those first ten games after the All-Star break still left the Sox 12 games under .500, just a half-game out of last place in the woeful American League Central. And after losing the 15-9 slugfest to Cleveland on Saturday they entered this week 13 games behind the first-place Tribe and--take this, die-hard optimists--an even more abysmal 15 games behind the Boston Red Sox in the "race" for the wild-card spot.
In short, any sense of improvement in the Sox' fortunes is purely a matter of perception.
Even Belle's scorching ten-game streak might have been nipped in the bud--or at least diminished--if not for an idiotic decision by the Kansas City Royals that sent him on his way. Belle homered in the first game of the second half, a loss to the Royals, and has always been notoriously streaky. So the Royals should have been on the alert in the next game, which I attended with my good friend Mark, a lifetime Sox fan raised in Marquette Park. Navarro was the scheduled starter, and when his name was announced the father sitting behind us turned to his son and said, "We came on the wrong night." Navarro, after all, entered the game with a 6-10 record and a 6.22 earned run average, and had succeeded in giving up six earned runs in each of his previous two starts without pitching past the fourth inning. But he retired the Royals in order in the first inning, bringing the White Sox to bat still tied (a rarity this season). Ray Durham, the team's token All-Star representative, whose development at the plate and in the field has been one of the few true signs of hope this season, opened with an infield single. Chris Snopek, playing short in place of rookie Mike Caruso because there was a left-hander on the mound for the Royals, walked. That brought up Thomas with two on and no outs, but he dribbled a grounder to the shortstop, who made the only play available to get Thomas at first. So get this: runners on second and third, one out, Belle up, the left-handed Jose Rosado on the mound, the left-handed Ventura on deck, all common sense and every line of the baseball book dictating an intentional walk, and Rosado pitches to Belle--goes to 3-and-1 on him, too, before serving up a curve Belle crushes over the center-field wall to put the Sox up 3-0. After that, Belle was officially on a tear, and he added another homer in the seventh to make it 8-3 Sox and put the game away (even with the firebug Chicago bull pen standing by).
Meanwhile, we were settling in, enjoying the beautiful evening and the box seats Mark had gotten from an uncle. When Navarro got the first two men in the second inning I turned to Mark and said, "He's gonna pitch a perfecto. That'll show up us experts." He promptly surrendered a home run to Jeff Conine. But Durham got the run back with a homer in the bottom of the second, so we relaxed and started listening actively to organist Nancy Faust, who was playing her usual mix of groaners and hidden delights. She played the first few notes of "Do You Know the Way to San Jose?" for KC's Jose Offerman, but then mixed her musical metaphors by playing the Meow Mix jingle for Hal Morris (Morris the Cat is, of course, the 9-Lives spokesman), and then played Barry Manilow's inexcusable "Mandy" for Mendy Lopez.
When Wil Cordero, the Sox' new first baseman and recovering wife beater, came to the plate, I said, "Nancy should play, 'Hit Me With Your Best Shot.'
"Or Carole King's 'He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss),'" replied Mark, a Top 40 aficionado if ever there was one.
The dad sitting in front of us shook his head while his shoulders shook with laughter. Mark got him to chuckle again by suggesting during one extended at bat that Belle was trying to tie Luke Appling's record for fouls balls. Then I got a chuckle pointing out, as Navarro strolled off the mound after the top of the sixth, that he'd completed no fewer than three (count 'em, three) three-up, three-down innings--in one game!
These remarks, including the crack from the father behind us about coming on the wrong night, are not presented as sterling examples of Sox-fan wit, but as typical examples. Anyone who has ever been to a Sox game at Comiskey--the good one or the new one--has heard and probably uttered the same sort of things, and it struck me (like a kiss) that this is how Sox fans cope--and have always coped--with a team 12 games under .500 and an ownership of incompetents. In fact, the same humor flourishes even in good times. I remember seeing the Sox during the glorious summer of '83, sitting in a packed old Comiskey, in the upper deck of the grandstand out where the seats directly faced right field, and all of us rising for a home run, and my buddy spilling beer on the seat in front of him in all the hubbub, and the seven-year-old who occupied that seat turning before he sat down, finding beer on the seat, and pointing at it while looking my buddy in the eye and saying, in all seriousness, "Lick it up!" We just about fell over laughing, and of course we wiped it up; a line as funny as that deserves a little respect.
So with the wife and our oldest daughter out of town last weekend, I took the two-year-old to Comiskey to expose her to that unique fan environment. She got it full bore, but before that happened we sat down and watched batting practice. I pointed out the "Big Hurt," thinking the nickname would attract her, but no: she complained about being in the sun. Thomas fell into that distinctive rhythm--weight on back foot, left foot off ground, weight transferred to left foot, back foot off ground--and hit some monster shots, including one off the bull pen roof, where a certain travel destination offers to pay some lucky fan $1 million should anyone hit it there in regulation play. "Save it for the game, Frank," called a fan from the bleachers. Thomas was teamed with Caruso, and watching him hit after Thomas was sort of like watching your neighbor slap mosquitoes during the finale of the Fourth of July fireworks. In Caruso the Sox have replaced one light-hitting shortstop with no batting eye whatsoever, Ozzie Guillen, with another. Caruso came into (and would leave) the game with five walks on the season. He may be just 21 years old, but like Guillen before him he does not appear to be a pennant-caliber shortstop. Belle and Ventura came up next, Belle clobbering the ball, Ventura cocking the bat behind his head with his wrists and then letting his swing unfold in one smooth horizontal arc. After they hit we went and had lunch.
The game had a 12:15 PM start as a Fox game of the week, so organist Nancy Faust opened with Cat Stevens's "Morning Has Broken." She soon moved on to something even more appropriate for the Sox' fortunes this season, the theme from Titanic.
After eating, we picked out seats in the shade, high in the lower deck behind the Sox' dugout. A group of guys came along and moved us out so we moved back a row, but if I'd had any sense we would have kept going. These four were like the main characters from Quentin Tarantino's next movie. I might call their use of language colorful except that it was only one color: a vivid blue. The game began with Chicago starter John Snyder (don't ask) giving up a walk, a hit, a walk, and, with two out, a grand slam on a full count to Brian Giles. As Giles trotted around the bases, the loudest of the guys in front of us stood up in the aisle and gave him both middle fingers. After the next batter struck out, the next guy in from the aisle watched Snyder walk to the dugout and snorted, "Chump!"
Who knows?--maybe they'd whacked someone and lifted the tickets from under a refrigerator magnet. Their speech was peppered with a certain expletive participle, and the only reason I wasn't more worried about their influence on the two-year-old was that their enunciation was so sloppy I didn't think she'd pick it up. Besides, she was more concerned with her Cracker Jack. The only thing I really knew about the guys was that, loutish or not, they were Sox fans.
When Snyder gave up another homer in the second, one of the guys said, "Get that fool out!" In the third, with another run already in, Snyder gave up a big fly to Travis Fryman. It soared up, up into the sky, and the second guy said, "You bitch!" Whether that was directed at ball or pitcher I don't know. In any case, after it came to earth in the left-field bleachers, putting the Tribe up 8-0, Snyder was replaced, and as he trudged off the field the second guy yelled, "Dead man walking!"
More people might have laughed at that if these guys hadn't already offended or intimidated most of them. They ran off the husband and wife and two teenage daughters sitting in front of them fairly early, with only a few muttered and half-meant apologies to smooth things over. Then a guy from across the aisle told them to cut out the swearing, and the lead lout responded with the usual First Amendment BS. Security came and cooled everybody out, not without some choice name-calling by the lead lout, who said he had $100 in his pocket, enough for bail. There were Cleveland fans sitting behind us and enjoying the whole show, as if they were in a skybox with the game in front of them and an R-rated movie on the TV. Everybody's spirits improved--everybody's except the Cleveland fans', that is--when the Sox tied the game with an eight-run explosion in the fourth, but Scott Eyre surrendered a go-ahead homer to Cleveland's Manny Ramirez in the fifth, and one had the feeling the Sox wouldn't recover. They didn't, eventually losing 15-9. Caruso left the bases loaded in the seventh by popping to third. With Thomas on deck and Belle behind him, a walk sure would have looked good.
No doubt many people will read about the behavior of the four louts and think that's where many of the Sox' problems lie. Yet that sort of behavior was a lot more common in the fondly recalled second Bill Veeck administration, when the old Comiskey was typically referred to as the world's largest beer garden, than it is now. The Reinsdorf administration has done all it can to chase those boorish fans away. Is this a good thing? I tend to think there are no bad Sox fans, and if there are they're the ones still coming out to the park while the silent majority of Sox fans stay home. As the Cleveland rooters chanted, "Let's go Tribe!" with impunity--they were in the majority, after all, in the crowd of 26,067--I looked up at the expanse of blue seats in the upper deck and remembered how five years ago the park was filled and rocking. The team continues to pay reparations for Jerry Reinsdorf's hawkish stance in the strike, and all a loyal Sox fan has as consolation is the hollow sound of laughter.