So much for Chicago's baseball teams going in opposite directions.
With the originally scheduled opening weeks of the baseball season lost to the strike, the all-star break came early in the season this year. Where it usually arrives well after the actual midway point of the season, this year the teams hadn't played half their games. Nevertheless, the all-star break retained its currency; it's a time when teams that hope to contend sense a touch of urgency about making a move. Both the White Sox and the Cubs knew that if they were going to challenge at all for the new, widened playoffs, they had to come out of the break hot.
Both opened miserably. The Cubs, with all-stars Randy Myers, Mark Grace, Sammy Sosa, and even manager Jim Riggleman (an all-star coach) all hustling straight to Montreal, had a hastily arranged game with the Expos the following day (a consequence of having to even out the games canceled at the beginning of the season). They looked dazed and weary in losing the first game of the second half. Then they returned home to Wrigley Field and a series with the Central Division-leading Cincinnati Reds, who immediately went about proving that they were the real thing the Cubs had only been mimicking in the first half.
The Sox, meanwhile, returned home for a game with the Milwaukee Brewers. Frank Thomas, the only Chicago member of the American League team, even left the All-Star Game while it was in progress--after hitting a home run, in fact--so that he would be fresh the following day. And the Sox did look fresh overall, walloping the Brewers 8-2. Yet the Sox then followed the Brewers up to Milwaukee, where what little was left of their hopes was crushed in an atrocious series that seemed to sum up the squandered season.
While the Sox and Cubs moved on parallel courses in the standings, they continued to go in different directions with their fans. And yet games on the north and south sides proved equally pleasant--the Sox game because almost nobody was there, and the Cubs game because everyone was there.
If the Sox finally surrendered all hope with their awful series in Milwaukee, they laid the foundation for their final collapse just before the break. After winning nine of ten games they actually had closed to within five games of the .500 mark. Now the Sox were coming home for a seven-game stand at Comiskey Park, including four games with the Orioles.
And what did the Sox do but lose six of the seven games, including all four to Baltimore. That left them at 28-38, ten games under .500 with only six games to go before reaching the actual midpoint of the 144-game season. They were 17-and-a-half games behind the Cleveland Indians in the Central Division and 9 and a half behind the California Angels and Texas Rangers (tied for first in the West) in the race for the wild-card spot.
So they were a businesslike, slightly sullen bunch at batting practice before the game a week ago Wednesday. Still, some things never change. There was hitting coach Walt Hriniak, with his scarecrow's hair sticking out from under his cap, squatting in that old catcher's crouch of his and leaning a shoulder against the frame of the cage, commenting on each player as he hit.
We watched bp and then went across the street to meet our friend Mark for the game. He was just back from ten weeks in Europe and, die-hard south-side Sox fan that he is, determined to make amends for not seeing any first-half baseball by starting right out with the first game of the second half, ten games under .500 or not. He bought a bleacher ticket (actually slightly more expensive than the upper-deck reserved seats, to show how little in demand the nosebleed section is), and we took our seats out in sun-drenched center field. We had come straight from work, however, and it was the beginning of last week's heat wave, and the sun wasn't drenching but frying our legs under our pants. So what did we do but pick up our stuff and simply move to right field, where it was shady with ample room for everyone, and we sat ourselves down and there we stayed, removing our shoes and draping our legs over the vacant row in front of us. After Lance Johnson hit a leadoff home run to right field, what was the point of moving back?
The Sox had taken the field to the inspirational strains of Don Henley's "Get Over It," and it seemed that the 21,014 fans took it to heart as well as the players did. We were a beatific, uncynical lot out there in right field, families and friends and a few packs of roving single men and women trying to pick each other up. And there were a bunch of us rooting for John Kruk, the new Sox designated hitter. Kruk has suffered as much from the baseball strike as any single player. A cheerful, unaffected guy with a physical profile that has made him the William "Refrigerator" Perry of the baseball set, Kruk is famous for the line "I ain't an athlete, I'm a baseball player." He is also an extremely good one, something that gets lost sometimes with all the attention paid to his weight. Kruk was the person general manager Ron Schueler originally wanted to replace Julio Franco, but Kruk was pondering retirement this spring and the Sox settled for Chris Sabo. A month into the season Kruk reconsidered and the surly Sabo was sent packing.
Since then, Kruk has been ridiculed by just about every newspaper columnist in the city--sports, political, op-ed, and otherwise--as the emblem, suddenly, of what's wrong instead of what's right with baseball. Keep in mind, however, that he entered the second half hitting .348 with an on-base percentage of .434 (not that far from Thomas's league-leading .485). He had a pretty typical night on this evening. He went 0-for-2 but walked twice, and one of the walks pushed into scoring position a runner who soon came home, and one of his outs was a grounder that advanced a runner who later scored. Even going 0-for-2, Kruk helps a team. While columnists tend to be disgusted, we fans remember to remain amused. Kruk remains a fan favorite, at least among our circle out in right field.
Even from right field we could see that starter Wilson Alvarez had a good fastball and an excellent curve, and while he drifted a bit in the middle innings, allowing runs in the third and fifth, battery mate Ron Karkovice backed him up with a three-run homer (again to right), and the Sox coasted home 8-2.
Of course, everything changed on the bus ride to Milwaukee. The Sox lost four in a row at County Stadium, with Roberto Hernandez blowing one game and the Sox looking overmatched and overtired in the rest. That left them 13 games under .500. Their season was over.
Back at Wrigley Field, the Cubs' postseason hopes were taking a similar beating. By the time we got out to see them on Saturday the Cubs had already all but surrendered to the division-leading Reds. The Cubs came into the series seven games behind Cincinnati but only two and a half out of the wild-card slot. Yet in the season's first real test of playoff mettle, Chicago shortstop Shawon Dunston committed two errors in the very first inning of the critical four-game series, opening the doors for five Cincinnati runs, and the Reds never looked back. Saturday night, when we saw them (after lying low for two days in the heat), the Reds had that pleasant buzz of a winning team around the batting cage, and they scored whenever they really needed to in beating the Cubs 4-3. Yet the Cubs, too, remained cheerful around the cage--the atmosphere under new team president Andy MacPhail and general manager Ed Lynch has changed completely from a year ago, and the Cubs are so far ahead of where they expected to be in rebuilding this year that the team is giddy even when it's losing--and, really, they played well even while getting beat. And the sellout crowd of 39,130 (this in what was still a considerable heat wave, with a game-time 7 PM temperature of 90) was into the game throughout.
The Reds scored in the second on another error by Dunston, this one on what would have been an inning-ending grounder with a man on second. Bret Boone added a homer off Jaime Navarro in the fourth. Yet the Cubs came back to tie the game with two runs in the bottom of the inning on three straight hits by Grace, Sosa, and the newly acquired Todd Zeile, and a redemptive sacrifice fly by Dunston. The Reds' Barry Larkin, however, got on base and came around in both the seventh and the ninth, allowing the Reds to weather a ninth-inning Sosa homer. Dunston followed with a two-out single, and Howard Johnson came off the bench in the role of Mighty Casey. Unfortunately, he produced the same result, but it's hard to argue against 39,000 fans (it seemed every seat was filled and no one had left) all up and screaming in the bottom of the ninth.
The Cubs saved face with a win on Sunday, something the Sox couldn't manage. Still, the first week of the second half of the most dire season in baseball history seemed almost comfortable on both sides of town--and considering the weather that's saying something. After the game Saturday night, we boarded a westbound Addison bus with a load of drained but cheery fans. We trundled through the city, past blacked-out blocks with no electricity, as if we were survivors of a war zone--and in a way, as baseball fans after the strike, we were. There is really no greater test of a sports fan than losing, and as Chicago sports fans we're accustomed to having our patience tested. Now we're back with our lovable losers, the way it's supposed to be. There may be no outright joy in Mudville, but joy is fleeting. Who needs it? Fair-weather fans and the easily outraged can stay away. More room for us.