Comiskey Park is in the midst of a renaissance in this its final season. The White Sox are winning, and the fans are back--both to an extent that no one expected. Two weeks ago, the Oakland Athletics came to town, and when the Sox won the first game of a four-game series they closed to within a game of the first-place A's. The rest of the series saw crowds of 40,000 stream into Comiskey, including the largest crowd since opening day 1984, that occasion meant to celebrate the division title of the year before and the championships soon to come.
We couldn't make it down to Comiskey for the series with the Athletics, but we did make the trip shortly thereafter, a week ago Tuesday, for a game against the California Angels. By that time, the Sox were almost at the end of a five-game skid, as the Athletics had reasserted their dominance--for the time being--by sweeping the last three games of the weekend series. The Sox then lost to the Angels Monday, and they lost again the night we saw them; but, aside from the outcome, the game left nothing but good impressions.
The weather was threatening, but by the time we stepped off the train at 35th Street the clouds were beginning to scatter. We arrived for the tail end of Walt Hriniak's nightly hitting class, but as the Sox took batting practice the slap of bat on ball wasn't echoing quite as we remembered it: there was too much noise in the park, too many fans in the stands absorbing the echo. The sun came out and cast the right-field upper deck in a delightful glow, so that a Little League team marching in single file across the far reaches of the stadium took on the aspect of a mountain-climbing expedition searching for a virgin spot to encamp. Looking around the ballpark, we found that even its cheaper, cost-cutting elements (the Old Roman, Charles Comiskey, took the inexpensive road even when it came to building the park to be named after him) have a character: the unadorned girders that frame the ballpark at the edge of the upper deck, and the odd angle--like the crooks of one's arms--where the seat rows meet down the rightand left-field sides, a consequence of cutting comers when the outfield stands were added during the Ruthian boom years of the 20s. As the sun went down and the game began, the puffy clouds above turned pink like cotton candy.
There is no argument now about which stadium is the city's family ballpark. It's not merely the oddness of the picnic sections, with their large, screened windows looking out on the field--a spot designed for the feeding of the family and the same half-attention devoted at dinner to the television at home--that gives the southside ballyard the title. It's the feeling throughout the park. Unlike at Wrigley Field--where tickets bought in blocks by rural fans arriving by bus and by the yupscale types in their neon colors mean that one can walk for rows without seeing a kid--there always seems to be a family sitting nearby at Comiskey. The fortunes of the team and the designs of the owners have arrived, oddly enough, at an almost perfect medium. Families dominate; but while the numbers of the Comiskey boozehounds have been diminished--driven out, over the years, by subtle but recognizable snubs--they still remain on in smaller, more devoted numbers, keeping the atmosphere from getting too homey.
On this night, about 20,000 were in the stands--a good Tuesday crowd--but only a handful got the joke when the Angels' Luis Polonia--who was caught with an underage girl in his hotel room last season in Milwaukee--came to the plate. Organist Nancy Faust played "You're Sixteen" one at bat, then "I Fought the Law" the next.
Of course the most pleasant thing about Comiskey is that the team is playing well. Even on the night we saw them, when they were losing their fifth straight, they looked sharp. The reasons for this are many, but they fit together in the manner of a web, each strand linked to the next. The pitching is better, in large part, because the fielding is better. Lance Johnson in center and Sammy Sosa in right are turning last year's doubles into this year's outs. Scott Fletcher at second has become an admirable foil for the player who replaced him at shortstop back in 1984, Ozzie Guillen.
And Robin Ventura, who arrived at third base this year with a big reputation at the plate and questions about his glove, died at bat early on but concentrated on defense, turning himself into a third baseman whom--in spite of the occasional rookie lapses--they couldn't afford to take out of the lineup. It's a unique player who does that, and Ventura has redeemed himself of late by raising his batting average and moving into the second spot in the order.
The team's hitting, overall, is not as good as it was last year--in average, anyway--but the hitters are healthier overall. The Sox haven't yet had to do without Carlton Fisk or Ron Kittle for any great length of time, and Dan Pasqua has returned to join them as the team's home-run threats.
The starting pitching is better also because the relief is better, and the late relief is better because the middle relief is better. Bobby Thigpen hasn't been subject to long stretches of ineffectiveness--as he has in the past--because, to borrow a usage from the Bulls' Phil Jackson, he hasn't had to pitch as many big innings. He comes in in the eighth or ninth--not the seventh--and finishes up. He's able to do so because the Sox have found a wonderful pair of setup men in Barry Jones and Scott Radinsky. Jones has regained the form of his rookie year, 1986, when he appeared to be the new bullpen stopper for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Anyone who remembers him from that September recalls a big right-hander who threw strikes consistently knee high on the corners--nothing complicated. Since then, he's struggled with his control--until this year, when he's 8-1 with a 1.54 ERA. Radinsky, a 22-year-old who threw in South Bend last year, is a big left-handed rookie with a low kick but a long stride, a motion that allows his arm to loop back so that it must appear to the batter that he's throwing from second base, but then the 90-mile-an-hour pitch is there--pop.
What was most impressive about the White Sox the night we saw them is the most difficult element to explain. Even while losing, 5-3, they were intent, alert; the players, on defense, leaned forward with the pitch, and the base runners were eager for a sign to go. Everyone, even sluggers like Ivan Calderon, was trying to bunt for base hits, sending the other team's infield defense into spasms. Three times, starter Melido Perez ended an inning with a strikeout--twice with men in scoring position--and each time he responded with that trademark half-raising of the arms, the same gesture a bird of prey makes over a victim.
Manager Jeff Torborg seems an entirely different person from a season ago. Where his sunglasses and hat pulled low made him seem embattled last year, this year he is a poker player on a streak, concealing his many moves and options. His handling of the pitching staff has been masterly; he's used every pitcher, but each in short bursts, so that they all remain sharp without growing weary.
They obviously treasure their stature as the surprise team of baseball this year, and they aren't about to surrender it. They ended their five-game skid the following night, beating the Angels' high-paid, highly touted, high-kicking Mark Langston, and then last weekend they swept the A's in Oakland, drawing again within a game of first, and leaving Oakland manager Tony LaRussa complaining about how they were showing up his team--LaRussa, coach of the world-champion A's, the bashers. The White Sox probably won new fans across the nation.
The Cubs, meanwhile, are losing, but without any of the pleasures we associate with losing. The crowds, instead of being small and stoic, are large and embittered in the wake of last season's first-place finish. The pitching is poor and the defense is sloppy. The Cubs have been hit with injuries, to be sure--especially in the pitching staff, where the losses of Rick Sutcliffe in the rotation and Mitch Williams in the bullpen have been costly--but at this point the team already looks like a group thinking about next season. Last Saturday, left fielder Dwight Smith gave ample evidence of the connection between pitching and defense: he came in on a liner that then went over his head, scoring two runs on what should have been the last out of the inning. (Wags in the press box responded, "The Sarge is a Gold Glover compared to this guy," a hilarious remark for anyone who remembers Gary Matthews in left.) In the fourth, Joe Girardi--who's growing noticeably weary as the only real catcher on the Cubs' roster--failed to block a ball in the dirt that was ruled a wild pitch. That sent a runner to second, whence he then came in to score on a bloop single. In the fifth, a two-out error by third baseman Curtis Wilkerson led to three unearned runs. The following day, the Cubs got the best pitching performance they'd seen in weeks, from Mike Harkey, then almost squandered it. Harkey was in the process of pitching out of a bases-loaded jam in the seventh when a Joe Girardi passed ball allowed the tying run to score. In the bottom of the inning, Shawon Dunston gave up all hope of scoring the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly by Harkey when he ignored the signal of Dwight Smith, standing behind the plate, and came in standing up, a posture that allowed him to be tagged out easily. The Cubs won in the tenth, but it was a sloppy, unpleasant ball game.
The Sox, it seems, are looking better all the time, against all forms of competition.