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The Homer in the Groaning

Mr. 10:01: A Blow by Bo Account

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We were happy to be there: I could show you the pictures--the scoreboard is exploding and the faces are lit with delirium. Bo Jackson has just hit the home run that clinches the American League West title and Comiskey Park is up for grabs.

To be honest (to be fair) it's a home run unlike any I've ever seen. Actually--though the ball dropped in the seats directly in front of us--it wasn't so much a homer to be seen as it was heard. To bastardize an old Chicago baseball saw, it was a "homer in the groaning."

Bo was having a weak week, and he'd been dribbling pitches off the end of his bat all night that Monday night, September 27, tapping out nervous little squirters and pops that went nowhere. So by late in a close game when he's worked the count to 3-0, a sensible person has to think he's going to take the next pitch, walk, and give the base paths over to a healthy runner. The swing's got no drive in it: he'll watch the next pitch for sure.

"Three and oh," my father-in-law says, "will they give him the green light?"

"They better not," I say. "He's gotta take."

So when he swings at the next pitch--the ball noiselessly rising straight up like a soft infield pop-up--the groan from the Comiskey crowd is instantaneous and enormous. It's the absolute inverse of the Wrigley Field sound: up at Wrigley, the least of an infield fly is met with a shrill and rising rave of childish optimism, the scream of infinite possibility, that any ball hit in the air in that part of town has at least a chance of getting out of there. At Comiskey Park this cold night, this bad pitch, as soon as Bo swings the bat the crowd just lets out a miserable, sinking, disbelieving groan. It's vortical. That sucking sound we've heard so much about this year.

I put my head down for a moment, not wanting to look, and listen to the groan descend in pitch and tone.

Then--at about the same moment that a Wrigley Field cheer would be dissipating in the winds, fading away to naught and "next year"--a most peculiar aural shift occurs: from a nadir of near-silence, the sound in Comiskey Park begins to rise. Still distinct from a Wrigley sound, it's a sound not of boundless faith and enthusiasm so much, now, as a collective gasp of disbelief.

Looking up for a reality check, I see that Bo's pop fly is still softly rising in the arc-lit air, his certain-doom infield blooper climbing and wafting sideways like a slo-mo Robert Redford fantasy effect. In the papers the next day Bo will marvel at what he'll call his own personal jet stream, yet it seems even stagier than that, strung up by cosmic fish line into some proscenium heaven. Seemingly no power at all behind it, and yet all the preternatural powers of the universe appear to be lifting that ball upward and onward.

And the crowd's roar builds up under it, our eyes as wide and white as baseballs, spirits shifting into a sprint and running hard at the high blue left-field wall, hoping, hoping louder and louder, an air wave of purest innocence and incipient joy, sustaining everything.

When the ball drops--literally, vertically plops--a few rows deep and safe behind the wall, the wash of sound and feeling is positively religious. Hollywood script has turned to scripture: a cheesy sort of rapture, no doubt, but not even a Jay Mariotti column could overstate the ecstasy of this one frozen moment.

All of this is taking place at about, say, 9:35 on the scoreboard clock. Watching the pure antic little-boy glee with which Bo hops and skips around the bases is worth a whole season of .230 hitting. His White Sox teammates are jumping all over the guy--we'll let our heroes take their time. We stand and savor the grand denouement of the balance of the game as a steady mist of beer spills down on us from the decks above.

At game's end, the scoreboard is lit off again, happy rockets of exultation, and our whole gang gathers around the greensward like smiling drunks around an enormous lounge piano singing "Nah-nah-nah-nah, hey-hey--good-bye." Maybe by now it's around 9:57, and we start to see a few White Sox players coming back on the field from the dugout, waving up at us and us waving back. Our brilliant boys of summer taking us into the terra incognita of October baseball.

And then, up out of the dugout comes Chicago's brand-new Mr. October, the man himself, stripped out of his team jersey down to his muscle-filled undershirt. No words or salutes to his teammates--he just takes off on a slow trot around the warning track, one hand raised and waving. The Olympian moment, the multimillion-dollar smile. Three or four other White Sox stand around the pitcher's mound and watch Bo Jackson take his victory lap.

The time on the clock is exactly 10:01. The little red lights on the TV news cameras are winking on. There isn't a reporter in town who's going to ask Bo Jackson if the problem with his swing is one of timing or of follow-through.

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