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The White Sox' annual Dog Day Afternoon promotion used to take place, appropriately enough, in the dog days of summer. But this year they held it on the second Saturday home date of the season, a day that turned out to be barely fit for man or beast. The Sox weren't about to waste the promotion on a summer weekend, when the Comiskey Park bleachers fill with sun worshipers; better to bring the dog aficionados to a game that might otherwise produce a paltry crowd. By last Saturday, the summer temperatures that began the week had been blown away by a late-season reappearance of the hawk howling in off the lake. The dog-filled bleachers were the most packed sections of the stadium.

I took the weather philosophically. It was a reminder of what many fans go through--the distant fans from beyond the city who can't make a snap decision to head to the old ballpark. They buy their tickets weeks or months in advance, then pray there's good weather for what might be their one baseball outing of the season. Canine tickets are limited and advance registration is necessary, but I thought that with my wife scheduled to be out of town on business, Dog Day Afternoon would be a good diversion for my two daughters, and I sent in my application before the Sox' home opener. The tickets came in the mail--some marked HUM for human and one marked DOG--early last week, and I started hoping for good weather. The summer temperatures weren't expected to hold but at least it was supposed to be sunny--but the forecast changed to rain the night before the game. When my six-year-old daughter woke me at 6:30, the day outside the window looked damp and cold, and I thought, "Great, we're going to be spending the afternoon with 500 wet, smelly dogs and next week the kids'll be out sick," covered my head with a pillow, and went back to sleep. By eight, however, the clouds had magically cleared. It was crisp but sunny--bleacher weather.

The sun didn't last, but at least the rain stayed away. It was cold but not unpleasant as we walked our dog (a sweet old lug of a soft-coated wheaten terrier that was being repaid for having to sit out a Kane County Cougars game in a stranger's yard a couple of summers ago) around the park and into a line of dogs near the center-field gate for a pregame parade along the warning track. There were dogs of every breed, shape, size, and color, many sporting old Sox T-shirts cut down to size, and at least two Jack Russell terriers wearing sleeveless Harley-Davidson leather motorcycle jackets. After waiting in the cold and wind, we got to march in about a half hour before the game. To judge by the evidence left behind, some owners of rather large dogs were distressingly lax about picking up after them, but a pooper-scooper company got a chance to promote itself and the parade otherwise went off without a hitch.

It was warmer in the bowl of the stadium, where we were protected somewhat from the wind blowing in, and the one good thing about that chilly wind was that it was likely to deter home runs. Usually a parent wants the Sox to hit homers, because the fireworks keep kids engaged in the game, but our one worry about our dog was his aversion to explosions of all kinds. He's usually a mild-mannered fellow, but fireworks send him into hysterics. The longest day of the year at our house is the Fourth of July. The brisk breeze figured to spare us some embarrassment.

Afraid not, however. Head wind, tailwind, against good pitching or bad, left-handed or right-handed--the Sox are clobbering the ball. Jose Valentin led off the second against Detroit with a blast that rode the wind into the right-field seats. The fireworks burst and our dog went nuts--as did other dogs, if not so completely. Yet it wasn't dreadful or humiliating; it was kind of a kick, like when the bleacher bums go ape over a Cubs homer but without the beer tossed in the air. Speaking of which, a vendor in the aisle pouring a beer as the rockets popped turned to me and shouted, "I love home runs on Dog Day. It's my favorite time." The following inning Paul Konerko blasted a grand slam to left field into the teeth of the wind, and that got almost as much of a rise out of the fans as it did the dogs, and in the fourth Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez hit back-to-back shots, which really set the dogs off. By then it was 10-2, and the Sox coasted to a 12-5 victory. The final out brought on one last blast of fireworks to send the dogs home barking.

The Sox began the season looking every bit as erratic as the Cubs, with every worrisome weakness made manifest. They won on opening day in Seattle but lost the next two against the Mariners, with bull pen closer Keith Foulke blowing a three-run lead in the ninth. They went on to lose two of three in Kansas City before a rain out gave them a much needed night off to compose themselves in Detroit. Since then they've been the same early-season wrecking crew they were two years ago, when they jumped out to a fast start and glided to the American League Central Division title. They beat up on the Tigers twice to get back to .500, then came home for the Comiskey opener, in which they walloped the Baltimore Orioles 5-2 behind home runs by Valentin, Ray Durham, and Sandy Alomar Jr. before 41,128 fans. They beat the Orioles three out of four and were ready for a chest-thumping session with their archrivals, the Cleveland Indians, who brought a ten-game winning streak and a four-game lead to town. The Sox smacked around Cleveland starter Chuck Finley in the first game and romped to a 10-5 win, and Mark Buehrle won his fourth straight the next night, 7-2. Newly acquired Todd Ritchie outdueled Cleveland ace Bartolo Colon the following night to complete the sweep, 7-1. When the Sox weren't blasting home runs, Durham and leadoff man Kenny Lofton were getting on base and beating the Tribe with little ball. The Sox looked invincible.

They may be better than they were two years ago. The offense is certainly every bit as powerful, at least now that Thomas's usual tinkering with his batting stance has started to pay off. (He walked the first two times against the Tigers Saturday--always a sign he's seeing the ball well--then homered, singled, and doubled to break an early-season slump and raise his average to .300.) With the newly acquired Lofton leading off and Durham bumped down to second, in front of Thomas, three players with on-base percentages above .400 top the Sox' batting order for the booming bats below: Ordonez, Konerko, Valentin, Carlos Lee, and Alomar. This team is going to score runs by the bushel, which makes a dependable journeyman like Ritchie doubly effective. Buehrle has already boasted he'll win 20 this year, and at the tender age of 23 he looks like a full-fledged ace--rarely walking hitters, changing speeds, working ahead in the count, and generally keeping batters off balance. His freshly dyed blond hair is the only thing that suggests a flaky left-hander within.

The Sox' scoring is giving the even younger pitchers a chance to settle in at the major-league level. Jon Garland struggled with his control at times on Dog Day, but worked five innings to claim his second win. Jon Rauch, the tallest pitcher in major-league history at 6-11, kept the Indians at bay for four innings in the opening game of that series and showed an excellent curve. (He was yanked in the fifth--his lack of work as the fifth starter held him to a low pitch count.) Rauch probably flirted with the far edge of what's allowable in a young pitcher last Sunday when he gave up eight runs and nevertheless left the game with the score tied, thanks to an eight-run Sox first. The Sox went on to win 11-8.

The persistent trouble spot has been fourth starter Dan Wright. If he doesn't settle in, Jim Parque is still down on the farm trying to return to full strength. Foulke's first-week meltdown aside, he's looked solid, and I believe that Bobby Howry and Antonio Osuna will be dependable setup men--in the occasional event of a close game. If late March acquisition Damaso Marte can hold the left-handed relief role until Kelly Wunsch comes back--and Marte worked three good innings on Dog Day--the Sox should be fine. With their kind of hitting there's plenty of room for error in the field, which helps when Valentin is out of position at third base and Lee is lumbering around left field.

In short, here were the Sox on Dog Day, in an early battle for first place with the Indians and the upstart Minnesota Twins, pounding the ball, looking good, and offering one of the most anticipated promotions of the year. Yet they were being outdrawn by the woeful Cubs in Wrigley Field 36,476 to 15,737--not counting the 525 dogs. Keep in mind that with the wind out of the north, it was probably a lot more comfortable in the grandstand at Comiskey, which turns its left-field shoulder into a north wind, than at Wrigley, where the Cubs lost to the Cincinnati Reds to fall to 6-10 and five games out of first.

There's no denying that some of the smaller dogs were shivering in their owners' laps as the game went on. And one big yellow dog--in color and in temperament--got so shaken by the crowd he refused to move and had to be carried up and down the aisle by his owner. In general, however, the dogs were better behaved than their human counterparts: contrary to the usual south-side fisticuffs that break out during Sox games, especially this season, there wasn't a single dogfight. The worst altercation was probably when Scraps, a basset hound sitting behind us, used the barking and commotion over Konerko's grand slam to sneak down under my younger daughter's seat and take a bite of her slice of cheese pizza. I noticed soon enough to pry his jaws open without much damage done, tear off the frayed section, and return the piece to my daughter's lap--no more leaving food on the ground. All told, the dogs seemed to love the outing, as did their owners. When the scoreboard TV screen went to the "Kiss Cam"--images of couples urged to smooch--the beefy guy in front of us who was wearing a black leather jacket and a small black watch cap that allowed his twin hoop earrings to stick out scooped up his little bat-faced dog and gave it an extended kiss. Between home runs our dog even got comfortable enough to lie down in some beer Scraps had spilled a couple of innings before. Rain or shine, those dogs were going to come home smelling foul.

For all that it was a lovely afternoon of baseball. The sun briefly came out late in the game, bringing cheers from the bleachers, and I looked up at the scoreboard and saw the Cubs trailing 6-1. I thought of all those hangdog fans suffering through a freezing day of miserable baseball at Wrigley, and oddly enough it gave me a very catlike sense of contentment.

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