It's been so long, I'd almost forgotten about that unique moment when a fan totally commits to a team. Understand, I'm not referring to a fan's usual allegiance, impassioned though that may be, but to the deeper feeling that a team is going somewhere and taking the fan along with it, for better or--as is usually the case in Chicago--for worse. The Cubs certainly offered fans a joyous and successful season in 1998. With Sammy Sosa hitting 66 homers, Kerry Wood striking out 20 in a game, and Rod Beck claiming saves with that swinging arm and pirate's posture on the mound, what was not to like?--unless, of course, one was a stereotypical, dyed-in-the-wool Sox fan of the sort who thinks of the Cubs losing and the Sox winning as "taking two" for the day. Yet that Cubs team of overachievers never had the talent to challenge the likes of the Atlanta Braves, who wound up sweeping them in their first-round playoff series. They were more of a diversion--a plaything, a midsummer dream--than a real test of one's commitment. The Bulls of the 90s, on the other hand, were so good for so long it was hard to recall that moment, back in the late 80s, when they first roused a fan's commitment. Besides, they rarely tested it, only rewarded it. What was the risk in being a Bulls fan during their dynasty?
This all comes to mind because that kind of commitment to the White Sox was notably absent in the early going this season. The Sox might have pulled out in front of the Cleveland Indians, but the fans held back. As I've mentioned, this was in part because this year's Sox, talented as they are, are sort of a chilly, distant bunch. Their brawl with the Detroit Tigers aside, they've concentrated on taking care of business rather than arousing emotions. It's a new stance for the Sox, whose fan-favorite teams of the past have usually been made up of overachieving characters, like the 1977 South Side Hit Men and the more talented but flawed 1983 Winning Ugly squad, and the youthful 1993 team that never got a chance to reach its baseball maturity. But what I began to realize, as I watched this year's Sox stand up to the New York Yankees in their first visit to the new Comiskey Park, then take two of three from both the Indians here and the West Division-leading Seattle Mariners on the road, was that the taking-care-of-business approach fostered by manager Jerry Manuel actually offers more for the long term. The Sox' miserable fielding and (apparent) lack of a big-game ace do not bode well for a short playoff series, when pitching and defense almost always come to the fore; but it's not hard to imagine this team overcoming those problems, as they've overcome so many others, and surviving on pure attitude.
As a determined new breed of Chicago fan who likes both the Cubs and the Sox--who, for instance, finds himself generally rooting for the Cubs out of childhood allegiance but can admire the way the Sox went to Wrigley Field and beat them up last year--I thought it noteworthy when I sat down for the first game of the recent Cubs-Sox three-game set at Comiskey that I found myself whispering, "C'mon Kip," for the Sox' young starter Kip Wells, once again given the difficult assignment of opening a pressure-packed series, as he had against the Yankees. Well I'll be hog-tied, I realized, they've got me. And they've had me ever since. I've tuned in like an addict for the gleeful nightly reports from Cleveland and New York, and I trust many other fans have done the same. The Sox are making believers of us all. This team has the stuff to go a long way.
Wells was opposed by the Cubs' most proficient starter, Jon Lieber, in their series opener two weeks ago. Both walked the leadoff man. Wells got out of the first with the help of a nice double play turned by second baseman Ray Durham, who fielded a grounder up the middle, stepped on second, and lost the handle on the ball shifting it to his bare hand but plucked it out of the air and threw to first in time to get the laggardly catcher, Joe Girardi. Lieber got similar help when first baseman Mark Grace speared a screaming liner off the bat of Jose Valentin and then put his glove on first to double Durham. Each pitcher worked the first three innings without further incident, but the Sox broke through against Lieber in the fourth. The "Big Hurt," Frank Thomas, led off by flicking a little single to right field and Magglio Ordonez followed with a triple that glanced off Damon Buford's glove in deep center. Ordonez came home on a double by Chris Singleton, who scored on a single by Carlos Lee. The Sox were up 3-0. Wells lost his control and left the game in the fifth, when the Cubs' Eric Young scored with the help of a throwing error by Sox catcher Mark Johnson, but Thomas got that run back in the bottom of the inning by crushing a 2-1 fastball deep into the Sox bull pen. The Cubs' Glenallen Hill responded with a beastly two-run homer in the sixth, but Valentin got one of those back with a homer in the seventh to make it 5-3. Sox fans delighted in the fireworks following each blast, and they were loving the awful day endured by Sosa. Suddenly the object of trade rumors as the Cubs' season went slowly down the drain, he was getting the same rough treatment from Sox fans that Thomas got from Cubs fans last year, when they called him the "Big Skirt." Sosa took the "golden sombrero," striking out four straight times, and each time he heard about it in right field, where Sox fans were chanting "Sam-mie, Sam-mie," in that derisive playground singsong. In the ninth, however, he came to the plate with two out, a runner on, and the score still 5-3. Keith Foulke threw a hanging slider on an 0-1 count, and Sosa mashed it into the left-field seats to tie the game.
"I gotta hand it to him," said one appreciative Sox fan on the train ride home. "With the pressure on, he came through."
By that time, though, a Sox fan could afford to be gracious. The teams battled on in a war of attrition for both the players and the 44,140 fans in the stands, with Sosa striking out again in the 12th. But pinch hitter Herbert Perry singled in the 14th and stole second, and catcher Mark Johnson walked, bringing up Durham with one out. He slashed a ball down the third-base line and Perry trotted home, with most of the fans who attended still there and jumping up and down for one reason or another. The Sox rooters among them left the stadium singing "Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye" and chanting, "Let's go Sox!" as they made their way down the ramps to the parking lots.
The next day, the Sox had to face Wood; they batted as if they didn't know where the ball was going, but then again neither did he. Wood allowed only one hit into the middle innings; unfortunately for him, that was a first-inning, opposite-field homer by Ordonez after a walk to Valentin. Wood was wild, working out of a self-inflicted bases-loaded jam in the fourth but not another in the sixth, when the Sox scored two to go ahead for good, 4-2. In the eighth, the Cubs scored to pull within one and put Eric Young on third and Grace on first with two out. Then Sox reliever Sean Lowe pulled that ridiculous old fake-to-third-and-throw-to-first trick, only with a new twist--a dainty little false step to third followed by a quick spin and throw to first. Though the Cubs would claim, perhaps rightfully, that Lowe had balked, which would have scored the tying run and put Grace on second, the umpires made no such call. Grace was fooled, and he was picked off scrambling back to first. Foulke came in and redeemed himself, pitching the ninth to pick up the save.
On Sunday, one Sox fan arrived with a banner reading, "Mark Grace slept here," a lovely little play on the old "Washington slept here" that had been addressed to the Sox' own Claudell Washington in the 70s. Many others arrived with brooms slung over their shoulders. They were anticipating a sweep--and with justification, as de facto ace James Baldwin was going. Baldwin has a menacing manner on the mound, his cap pulled low on his brow and a pitching motion that is a model of efficient purpose: he kicks, strides, and delivers, with his broad shoulders serving almost as a catapult to sling the ball toward the plate. The Sox staked him to a lead right away, with Valentin homering on an 0-2 curve from Ismael Valdes in the first. The Cubs took the lead for the first time in the series with a two-run homer by Brant Brown in the third, but Thomas and Ordonez answered with back-to-back shots on consecutive pitches in the bottom half. That's called getting it back real quick, and those brooms were swinging as the second volley of fireworks went up over the Dan Ryan Expressway. Durham and Valentin added another set of back-to-backers in the sixth, Valentin's again coming on an 0-2 curve. (You could almost see Valdes slap his head and go "D'oh!") Yet in the seventh, Baldwin, wearied by the high tension and even higher humidity of a steamy weekend, hit the first man and walked the next and was removed for lefty specialist Kelly Wunsch. "It's Wunsch time!" shouted a fan just below the press box. Wunsch got two of the three men he faced, but in the middle a bloop single by Young loaded the bases. That brought up Sosa, so Manuel called forth right-hander Bill Simas from the bull pen.
The Sox displayed a great skill for advance scouting in this series, as they did last year at Wrigley. Sosa was pitched outside throughout, and struck out eight times in the first two games and again in his first at bat Sunday. Hill, likewise, had been tamed with a diet of high fastballs. That sort of scouting and disciplined observance of it (the Sox call the pitches from the dugout) should be a hidden strength in the playoffs. This time, however, they went to the well with Sosa one too many times. Simas threw him a slider on the outside corner on 0-2, and he lashed it to right center for a game-tying triple. In the ninth the Cubs loaded the bases with two out and a two-on walk to Sosa, and manager Don Baylor called on the speedy Chad Meyers to pinch-hit for Willie Greene. Meyers hit a slow-rolling grounder to short and just beat Durham's throw to first to avert the double play and allow Young to score the go-ahead run. Rick Aguilera came on to preserve the 6-5 lead and allow the Cubs to save a little face.
"Hopefully, we won some people over," Manuel said philosophically afterward. "We've got to get up for tomorrow's game. It's huge again." The Sox were headed to Cleveland for three games and then to New York for four, and whatever Sox fans hadn't already been won over soon would be. The Sox won each game in dramatic fashion. They beat the Indians in the opener 8-7, as Foulke gave up a homer to Jim Thome in the ninth, then loaded the bases with one out, and looked prepared to lose--TV announcers Ken Harrelson and Darrin Jackson seemed prepared too. But Foulke got Sandy Alomar Jr. to ground into a game-ending double play, and he burst forth with the pictorial definition of a shit-eating grin. Durham won the next night's game with a homer in the tenth, with Bobby Howry coming on to earn the save, and the Sox just clobbered the Indians 11-4 in the finale. They went to Yankee Stadium the following night and clubbed the Yanks too, winning 12-3; Paul Konerko opened the gates by yanking an outside slider down the left-field line to score the Sox' first runs in the first inning. Baldwin went to 10-1 by beating the Yanks 3-1 the next night, with the hard-throwing Howry saving the game by striking out the Yanks' great Bernie Williams. Howry threw an 0-1 fastball knee high on the outside corner for a strike called, then threw another in exactly the same spot, but Williams got the star's automatic ball on 0-2 to make it 1-2. A ball later, Howry went back to the same spot and got the call to seal the game. The Sox won 10-9 the following afternoon, with Foulke coming on to earn the nail-biting save, helped on the final play by a nice stab by Tony Graffanino, a Braves castoff brought aboard as a late-inning defensive replacement. In the series finale on Sunday the Sox just plain walloped the Yankees, 17-4, with the whole lineup, top to bottom, bashing the ball. The Sox came home Monday for seven more games against the Indians and Yankees, having won seven in a row and 13 of 14, putting them seven and a half games up on the Tribe with--get this--the best record in baseball at 44-24. If they can get through this weekend still 20 games above .500, says I, they can start printing playoff tickets. Then again, I'm a believer.