At the All-Star break, I reached the same conclusion the Cubs must have come to: that I had never really recovered from my late start on the baseball season. Of course, unlike the Cubs, who sleepwalked their way through the first half, I had the Bulls as an excuse. Still, at midseason, even though I had monitored the Cubs and White Sox in the standings and the box scores and more than a few times in person, I remained for the most part unacquainted with the main characters and plot lines of the two teams; I hadn't even been out to see Jack McDowell pitch, and he probably has been the best baseball player in the city this year.
That painful admission made, it was easier for me to recover than it will be, say, for the Cubs. With both the Cubs and the Sox in town last week for one of their rare overlapping home stands, I cleared the docket and set out to see the Sox one night, the Cubs the next night, and the Sox the night after that--a midsummer three-night dream of baseball, brought to a climax with McDowell scheduled to pitch the last of those three games, weather permitting.
The weather, however, was doubtful that first night, when the city's long hot streak came to an end with a series of thunderstorms. A downpour knotted up traffic on the way to Bill Veeck Stadium, but I must also admit that I have yet to solve the puzzle of how properly to get to and park at the new stadium. When the rain paused, about 15 minutes before the scheduled start of the game, I simply parked west of the restricted-parking zone and walked, and I'm not sure that isn't the best way to go about it on any night.
Inside, the ballparks open outfield--no upper deck on the bleachers--made for a natural stage on which the lightning played. It slashed at the horizon through the early innings and kept the 42,295 fans who braved the rain gasping and on the edge of their seats, even though the game itself was as sloppy as the weather. At one point, the clouds began breaking up and produced a sky directly overhead like that found in a Maxfield Parrish painting--all pink, puffy clouds glowing in the sunset almost as if they were backlit, which of course they were. Right after that, however, the rains came again, and delayed the game about 20 minutes.
Greg Hibbard was on the mound for the Sox, with his pitching motion learned, it seems, from a pitcher in a video game. He begins his stride down the mound, pauses almost with his foot in the air as his arm catches up with his body, and delivers the ball to the plate. He has had an erratic season, and he was erratic in this game, allowing two runs in the second and another pair in the fourth before settling down enough to get the game to the bull pen.
The Sox managed to give Hibbard the lead by exploiting the sloppy play of the Milwaukee Brewers. After scoring a clean run in the first, the Sox got another in the second when Craig Grebeck got on on an error and came around. In the fourth, Grebeck got on again, went from first to third on an errant pickoff throw, and scored on a wild pitch. In the sixth, after Dan Pasqua tied the game with a homer deep into the Brewers' bull pen, Grebeck. got on, went to third on a double by Mike Huff, and scored on a two-out infield hit Ozzie Guillen legged out. Sox fans have taken to this team, which scrapes and scraps for runs and then turns the game over to the bull pen, and they loved every moment of this game, especially Guillen's hurried trip down the first-base line, and even the rain, which allowed them to tear into the food mall. Melido Perez and Scott Radinsky nursed Hibbard's sixth-inning lead to the ninth, when Bobby Thigpen came on, allowed runners to reach second and third with two out, then fanned Paul Molitor--one of his vintage performances, a real fan allegiance tester.
The following night, the Cubs and the Cincinnati Reds were ill met by moonlight. The storms had cleared away the heat and humidity, leaving just enough cloud cover to make for one of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen at Wrigley Field. The play, however, was no less sloppy than it had been on the south side the night before, and this time both teams--underachievers going nowhere fast--took part. The Cubs scored two in the first on a pair of walks, a hit, and an error, and added another in the fourth on a hit, a passed ball, a sacrifice bunt, and a sacrifice fly. The Reds stayed close by scoring a pair on gritty Chicago starter Les Lancaster, but the Cubs added another pair in the sixth with a unique rally that had Shawon Dunston scoring on a wild pitch as Lancaster struck out and went all the way to second on the dropped third strike before the Reds got the ball under control. Lancaster then scored on a hit. In spite of the game's closeness, I felt an exposition of sleep come upon me. This was simply poorly played baseball. In the seventh, however, things changed dramatically.
Home-plate umpire Joe West called a wide and varied strike zone throughout the game, and he got Andre Dawson angry in the seventh by calling him out on a pitch that looked a good deal outside. Dawson complained, and the waspish West soon threw him out. That set Dawson off. George Bell muscled him into the dugout, but there he sent a spray of bats showering onto the field. The Bleacher Bums aped Dawson by showering the field with beer cups, and although the game was delayed ten minutes everyone was now awake.
When the Reds rallied for two in the eighth, they brought bullpen ace Rob Dibble on to keep them close at 5-4. Dibble was fresh from a three-day suspension for hitting a fan with a thrown ball, and he was not sharp. He allowed two doubles, sent the second base runner on to third with a wild pitch, then watched as Doug Dascenzo dumped a suicide-squeeze bunt down the first-base line. Notice I didn't say Dibble watched helplessly; he found something to do. He fielded the ball, watched the runner cross home plate, then took dead aim at Dascenzo's legs and glanced a throw off his calf. West ejected Dibble immediately, as the fans howled him off the field for probably the most glaring display of unsportsmanlike conduct I've ever seen on a ball field. If Dibble has any fans, they are enamored of an ass.
Paul Assenmacher did his best Bobby Thigpen imitation in the ninth; the Cubs survived to win 8-5. As the fans left elated (I heard one call it "one of the best games I've ever been to," while another said, "I almost didn't come; what a mistake that would've been!"), Dibble answered reporters' questions with his head buried in his locker, mumbling between his knees. I walked back to my car with the moon waxing low over Wrigleyville's apartment buildings.
The almost-full moon rose low out of the scoreboard at the Veeck the following night, another near-perfect night for baseball. McDowell was indeed on the mound for the Sox. He remains thin and with an angular motion, all knees and elbows--someone posing for the cover of a cheap kids' paperback called "Fireball Freshman"--but it has been smoothed out, ever so slightly, over the years. He has a good fastball, a split-finger, a curve, and a slider, and he mixes them all well and changes speed so that he is now, clearly, a finished product, the ace of the staff. He still begins with that oddly feminine cradling of the glove against his cheek--a schoolgirl holding her books--but with his goatee he now looks the part of a riverboat gambler, and the high, shady way he holds his left shoulder--almost as if he were hiding behind a cloak--adds to that effect. He went all the way for the Sox, even though he was not particularly sharp and allowed ten hits.
The night's opponent was the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the best teams in baseball, and the Sox rose to their level in all games of the three-game series, winning two, but fell just short in this game. Even so, this was baseball at a very high level. McDowell allowed a homer to John Olerud in the fourth, then faced the Jays' Joe Carter with a runner on second, two out, and Olerud on deck in the fifth. McDowell opted to pitch to Carter, the Jays' most dangerous hitter. He had struck him out in the first on a full-count curve, then struck him out again in the third when--with Carter thinking of that curve--McDowell blew a fastball past him. Here, McDowell got two strikes on Carter, on a change-up and a curve, and with the count 1-and-2 he tried to sneak the fastball by again, and Carter lined it into right for what would prove to be the game-winning run.
David Wells was on the mound for the Jays. As a pitcher, he is almost the antithesis of McDowell. Where McDowell is tall and thin and looks like a pitcher, Wells is wide, with a barrel torso and thick, fleshy arms (no sweatshirt), and looks like a bowler. He has sound mechanics, however, much more sound than McDowell's, and he knows how to pitch, mixing a fastball and a cut fastball with a good curve, and changing speeds on everything. He kept the Sox stymied until the seventh. Then, the returned Ron Kittle led off with a single and, one out later, the pesky Grebeck doubled, Kittle checking in at third. Pinch hitter Tim Raines scored Kittle with an infield out against Toronto reliever Bob MacDonald, but that effectively ended the rally.
But not the excitement. McDowell allowed Carter and Olerud to lead off the eighth with singles, then pitched out of the jam. The Sox went to the bottom of the ninth down 2-1, but with 23 wins in their last at-bat, including a 3-2 victory the night before against the Jays. It's gotten to the point on the south side that when the Sox trail by only a run going into the bottom of the ninth one expects them to win, and that sense of expectation was roused by Elvis Costello's "Pump It Up," played on the public-address system as the Jays took the field. Toronto bullpen ace Tom Henke came on and allowed a leadoff single to Carlton Fisk, driving the fans crazy. Guillen pinch-hit for Kittle, but failed to advance Fisk's pinch runner, Ron Karkovice (a rare managing boner by the Sox' Jeff Torborg, who could have opted for any number of faster players), on a bunt and replaced Karko at first on a fielder's choice. Guillen stole second, however, as Pasqua fanned, meaning pinch hitter Matt Merullo could still tie the game with a single. He hit a high, arching fly to right that had the fans rising from the seats, only to leave them walking up the aisles. It was caught.
I felt fully caught up. The Sox began this week only three games out of first, playing scrappy baseball that has produced 44 straight crowds of 30,000 or more. The Veeck is a hopping, happening place, and as I walked back to my car, parked on a street west of the stadium, then turned onto Halsted and drove home without a hint of a traffic jam, I decided I had finally solved how to get to and from the new stadium.