There's probably nothing much of any real value that can be added here to the Cubs' recent exploits. The Cubs' rise to first place has had to be experienced to be believed, and it seems almost everyone has followed the team in one way or another--if not by actually getting out to a game, then by watching the Cubs on television or, at very least, catching the highlights on the nightly news. And there have been plenty of people getting out to the games themselves. Approaching Wrigley Field Wednesday week was like walking into a grand, oversized bazaar. The sidewalks were crammed, both with fans going to the game and with people hawking T-shirts, hats, peanuts, and any number of other goods. The hottest items on the street were small brooms and brightly colored T-shirts that asked the question, " What the hell's an Expo?" Both were clear signs of pennant fever, for the Cubs and Montreal Expos were about to play the third and final game of a series in which the Cubs had won the first two. The Expos had come to town tied for first with the Cubs, but now they were destined to leave town in second place--one game back or three games back, depending on the outcome of the day.
There was one other item that was hot on the street--hot for both those who demanded it and those who had ample supplies. That was a ticket to the game. It was only through kismet that we found an extra pair. Out before noon, patrolling the streets around the ballpark, we saw many people who, like us, were in need. With the recent police clampdown on scalping, the ticket market has gone underground, so that scoring a seat has become a risky, covert activity like scoring drugs. We were accosted only once, by a man who sidled up to us and offered bleacher seats for $20 apiece. We turned it down and wound up in front of the Addison Street el station with a number of other desirous fans, holding two fingers in the air and pleading for extra tickets. It was pure chance that two rubes leaving the station happened to catch our eyes first and offered a pair of grandstand seats for $20--total.
So it was that with the Canadian national anthem playing we entered a ballpark already packed to capacity. It was standing room only--and not even that in some places. From the outside, we could see people perched on the railings at the back of the grandstand, pressed against the chain-link fence. Inside, fans were everywhere. The day was hot and humid; a soft drizzle fell at times. Damp-ness was so heavy in the air that our vision of the field from deep back in the grandstand was almost misty, tinged with white, and the lights were turned on early in the game. The buzzing of the fans had a busy urgency--the sound of cicadas with human voices.
As an important event in a pennant race, the game was almost perfect. The Cubs' Rick Sutcliffe was on the mound, pitching against the Expos' Bryn Smith. Both are crafty, deliberate, and bearded, two veteran pitchers who have not exactly been durable during their careers, but who manage to weather each injury and come back with a little extra savvy-- enough to make them as good as they used to be, even with a little less stuff. Sutcliffe, with his contrived, deceptive delivery, is never so wonderful to watch as when he's pitching in a pennant race--something we'd forgotten over the last five years. The importance of the game was such that Sutcliffe's outstanding individual performance was almost overlooked--except in how it figured in the outcome of the game. Yet he left in the eighth inning having allowed no runs and only one hit. He might easily have had a no-hitter going, as the one single came leading off the fourth inning, when Andres Galarraga dribbled a high-hopping grounder on the infield and beat it out when Shawon Dunston's hurried throw kicked into the dirt on the way to Mark Grace.
As for the Expos' Smith, he is the sort of pitcher who has always troubled the Cubs: a thoughtful, junkballing right-hander. He has hunched shoulders and a deceptively easy pitching motion--all the more effortless for its being slightly awkward. It's as if he weren't even concerned about making himself look like a pitcher. Like a father throwing batting practice to Little Leaguers, his manner on the mound is such that he seems almost embarrassed to be making the hitters look bad. He erred in the third inning, however. After Jerome Walton extended his hitting streak (it stands at 24 games at this writing), Smith threw a sinker to Ryne Sandberg that never got a chance to sink. Sandberg met it solidly and it sailed into the left-field bleachers, setting off the stadium like a bomb. Our seats were high in the grandstand, only two rows in front of the standing fans, and a woman with a high-pitched voice right behind us cheered like an emergency radio message: "Ryno! Ryno! Ryno! Ryno!" It was all the runs the Cubs would need, as Sutcliffe gave way to Mitch Williams with a 3-0 lead after walking two men in the eighth. Shifting seats left us behind a girder, so that Williams's "pitching like my hair's on fire" motion appeared to have two parts: a normal beginning, with his high kick, and then an ending apparently divorced from anything that had come before. He'd kick on one side of the girder, then appear on the other side standing on the infield grass, sideways to home plate, pointed toward the Cubs' dugout, looking back over his shoulder to determine the result of the pitch.
The Cubs won that day, and the fans broke out the brooms both in the park and outside, across the street, on the rooftops. The only mystery was why the Expos played so poorly. It's one thing to say they didn't get the big hits when they needed them, but the real source of their failure was an utter, team-wide case of ennui. When they got men on base, they didn't hint at running, but waited for a home run like a storybook princess waiting for a prince to come. It never did, and--where only a week before we had considered the Expos the team to beat in the National League East--we now had grave doubts about whether they would find it in themselves to overcome their apathy and challenge again for first.
All these impressions should be familiar enough. Who hasn't been watching the Cubs? Yet later that same day we journeyed to the south side to see the White Sox, who were also in town on one of those rare occasions when both are at home. It was a journey for old times' sake, for it had been a couple years since we'd pulled a Cubs-Sox double-header, but we also expected it to be something different, something pastoral, peaceful, and almost innocent compared to the crazed environment around Wrigley Field. We were mistaken--at least at first. Traffic into Comiskey Park was at least as congested as that up at Wrigley. There were moments when one waited and waited just for the car directly ahead to move a foot. The reason for the congestion, however, was not that everyone in the city wanted to be at the game, but that the roadways to the park were so bad. The Dan Ryan is still a bit of a mess downtown, and there's no break once you get off the expressway at 35th Street. The expansive parking lots across the street from the ballpark are gone, as the building of the new Comiskey Park II has already begun, so cars pile up, passing the park, waiting to get into one of the lots farther on down the street. Again, we entered the stadium to the strains of the national anthem, joining a fairly large crowd of over 15,000 (increased some small amount by its being Sailors' Day or something of the sort--Navy men in uniform were all over the park). The different attitude of the south-side fans toward their team was suggested right away when someone behind us yelled, "White Sox suck!" for no particular reason early in the game. (Cheers came from that same general area when, later on, the scoreboard flashed a welcome to the Blackhawk Standbys.)
This wasn't the only difference between the afternoon game and the night game. There was no problem finding a good seat, no worrying about someone coming along and moving us out, no concern about the ushers checking for a ticket. Kids--even at a night game--tend to make up a larger percentage of the crowd at a Sox game these days than at a Cubs game. There's no concern about offending anyone when we light up a cigar, because so many more Sox fans than Cubs fans are smokers. One fits in at Comiskey Park with a cigar in one's mouth in a way one doesn't at Wrigley.
As for the play of the game, fans of the White Sox aren't any more apathetic than their counterparts with the Cubs; it's just that they have to find solace in simple pleasures, such as watching Ron Karkovice leg out a triple, or watching Ozzie Guillen make an amazing play to end a rally by the visiting Oakland Athletics in the seventh inning, going deep into the hole behind third base and, with a flashing release, arc a high parabolic throw to first base to get the batter by a step.
There is something exciting in well-played baseball, no matter how meaningless the game. Guillen's play reminded us of this essential point, as did Richard Dotson's pitching. He made only one real mistake, allowing a monstrous solo home run to Oakland's Mark McGwire in the fourth inning. He departed then in the seventh inning, turning a 2-1 lead over to the bull pen, and there was something sad in seeing him march off the field to strong applause and then accept his teammates' congratulations one by one, where the Cubs had met Sutcliffe at the dugout steps en masse and made their congratulations effusive. When the ninth inning came, and Bobby Thigpen took the mound, there was a crisp excitement in the air; where it came from, who knows. Thigpen, however, gave up a leadoff double to pinch-hitter Jose Canseco (kept out of the starting lineup by still more injuries) and then an RBI single to pinch-hitter Ron Hassey to tie the game--extra innings. Yet one pleasant thing about Comiskey Park is that, unlike at Wrigley, they keep selling beer through the ninth inning, so that fans don't get parched just because the game happens to be unusually interesting. So we bought a beer, lit another cigar, and sat back.
The A's left two men on in the 10th and a man at third in the 11th, while the Sox were going tamely in the 9th and 10th. Then, in the bottom of the 11th, Scott Fletcher and Ivan Calderon both singled with one out, bringing up Carlton Fisk. Would the A's walk Fisk and look for the double play beginning at any base, or would they pitch to him? Their decision was so poor that it established that they should lose the game--if there was any justice--and Fisk made sure that they did. Jim Corsi went to three and oh on Fisk. They were trying to get him to swing at a bad pitch, and Fisk would have none of it. They should have walked him intentionally at that point and gotten on with it against Carlos Martinez, but they didn't. Corsi threw an inexplicable fastball right down the pike, and Fisk directed it effortlessly into right field to win the game. Poetic justice in that, that the team that plays better wins and not the team that needs the game more, but there's nothing new to be found in this common sense.