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The World's Dumbest Fans



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On the first full weekend of August, I visited New York to surprise my mother for her birthday. Also visiting New York that weekend were the Chicago Cubs, who played well: they won two of their three games in the unfriendly expanses of Shea Stadium. For a moment, hope flickered. "Y'know," I carelessly muttered, "Dunston will be back soon, and if this kid Moyer can keep it up. . . ."

My dad, a baseball lifer caught up in the Mets' woes last season, looked at me like I was nuts. (He has this expression of shock that suggests he either made gross mistakes in my upbringing or that there were algae in the gene pool at the point of conception.) On the other hand, my mother--who knows little about the Mets, less about the Cubs, and virtually nada about baseball--also looked at me like I was nuts.

That same weekend, the White Sox were at home entertaining the Milwaukee Brewers. An appropriate term: the Brewers won three of four games from their genial (if stumblebum) hosts at Comiskey. The Sox, a pretty bad and a truly boring team, only sunk a little lower into last place in baseball's worst division, and not even the most diehard sout' sider held the faintest hope for a miracle. Yet by month's end those same fans were pulling their Sox up, up, and away, to the lofty resting place of second-to-last place--not great, true, but higher than the Cubs.

August is the month when the psychiatrists all go on vacation, which tells you who are the real fruitcakes, at least in Chicago. If the shrinks stayed in town instead and set up temporary shop near the ball yards, they could make a mint.

In 1987, the eighth month served well its traditional purpose. It is a time for reflection here in the midwest, when the long, lazy days allow one to take stock of where we've been and where we're headed and of what god-awful jackasses we've been for thinking that either team had an eclair's chance at Oprah's house. It is a time when the flaws we earlier overlooked with glazed eyes are laid all too bare. "What in May escaped detection, August, past surprises, notes. . . ." Robert Browning had seen the future, and it looked a lot like baseball in Chicago.

August lends itself not only to thoughts (almost invariably disappointing) on the Pastime, but also to a grudging anticipation of football and basketball, the surest signs that shirtsleeve driving, wildflowers, air-conditioner ads, and sunset barbecues are soon to be no more. And of course this essay deals with more than just sports. After all, we're talking about 1987 in Chicago, which allows us to consider an entire curriculum's worth of subjects.

For instance, there's Engineering. A passing glance at last winter's playoff Bears--for whom glancing passes were a far more regular occurrence--gives the lie to that old manufacturing dictum about interchangeable parts. Coach Ditka's theory suggested replacing one maverick, dramatic, "magic moments" quarterback (Jim McMahon) with another (Doug Flutie), and then watching his finely oiled football machine function as well as in Super Bowl XX. That's OK; the guys who designed the Edsel thought they'd done a great job, too.

But that's old news; the current-season Bears lead us to the subject of Motivational Sciences. I mean, do I have this right? They start out looking like they could beat the 1985 team, they take a few weeks off for the strike--during which they are the only group of players not to experience dissension in the ranks, the only group of players to hold regular practice sessions--then they come back and can't seem to regain their old fire. Do I have this right? Ditka says they won't listen to him after he sided with the scabs 'n' fans during the strike; the star running back publicly muses whether he, in his final season, is at fault; and the general reasoning suggests the Bears have lost much of their "motivation."

Now really. As if the money, the glory, the chance of sending Walter Payton into retirement with another Super Bowl ring weren't enough--how much more motivation do you need than the prospect of watching Ditka grab his crotch, as he has taken to doing in his increasingly frequent fits of sideliine rage? If you were a football player, and you knew that your onfield failure would generate another instance of Ditka's on-camera testimony, wouldn't you play just a little harder? Watching the Bears in '87 has been, in a way, nostalgic, like watching those old movie serials that feature a new cliffhanger every week; it's just that in Denver, and in San Francisco, they left blood on the tracks.

The study of sports in Chicago also leads us to Philosophy, and specifically the following question: What do we make of the hoary axiom about the whole exceeding the sum of the parts when one of the parts exceeds the whole? Michael Jordan, the first NBA player in two decades to score 3,000 points in a season, picked up where he left off last spring, except for the aspects of his game that have improved. Decried as a "mere" scoring machine by jealous outsiders grasping for some complaint (any complaint), he now hands out assists like a Boy Scout at an old-ladies convention, and he's leading the league in steals. Jordan has left little doubt that he's the finest player in the game, and if the Bulls finish anywhere above .500, he'll have to win the Most Valuable Player award (which he could just as well have won last season).

That the Bulls will likely finish with a winning season--indeed, that they could reasonably be expected to challenge for the division championship--says a great deal about Jerry Krause, the man in charge of the Bulls. With Jordan on hand, it was Krause's idea to go after super-rookie Scottie Pippen and, before him, Charles Oakley (who would be justified in ax-murdering the team's public-address announcer--how many times can you hear that guy go "Charles Oooooooooakley" before you snap?). It was Krause's decision to let Doug Collins run the club. And now, instead of Michael and the Jordanaires, the Stadium floor show features the CB Combo, a versatile little group that could stay on the charts for some time.

Krause--and this is hard to say, believe me--actually seems to know what he's doing, which means he stands pretty much alone among the executives in charge of Chicago's sports teams. That statement goes double for the owners. (Sorry, class, we've moved along to Economic Theory; this is the chapter on "Evils of Capitalism.") I suppose worse sets of owners inhabit other big-league towns, but this is the only one I live in, and "appalled" only begins to describe my considered reaction to what goes on.

That the Cubs, for instance, have traditionally featured a lot of high-priced, under-performing talent isn't really that surprising, is it? After all, the Cubs belong to the company that owns the Chicago Tribune, which features a lot of high-priced, under-performing talent. The same moguls who made a newspaper-industry joke of upper management placed their ball club in the hands of Dallas Green, a breakdown waiting to happen; we can only thank the heavens that he didn't snap before treating us to his delightful macho bluster, his woeful inability to admit his mistakes, and his famous "Big Q" speech of August.

That the Sox have continued to resemble a schooner with neither sails nor rudder--that is, they'd be going in circles if in fact they were going anywhere at all--has plenty to do with Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf, the double-dip that bought the team from Bill Veeck. The Sox now feature a general manager known for two things: he doesn't want to hire free agents to help the club, and he wants the players to pull their uniform socks up proud and tall. (In other words, a man equally afraid of lone wolves and calves.) The Sox have already traded their top two starting pitchers, and now they whisper openly about trading Harold Baines, which is sort of like General Motors dropping Cadillac.

And we can't forget Mike McCaskey, no matter how hard we try. I hesitate to say McCaskey is decidedly more venal or more arrogant or less knowledgeable than the others: he may just have had more opportunity this year to show these qualities, owing to the football strike. Give him a D+ for competence, with an "unsatisfactory" for attitude and behavior.

Finally, no intellectual pursuit in Chicago would fail to include Architecture. In August, the Cubs were lobbying hard for lights and some night games; the Bears were hashing out new-stadium plans; and the Sox were anxiously preparing to start evicting residents down at 35th and Shields so they could break ground on Comiskey II. ("Just when you thought it was safe to come out of the bleachers. . . .") By December, the Cubs were still lobbying to play under the stars; the Bears were still hashing; and the Sox had been stung by the announcement of an independent report to learn if Comiskey is really as ramshackle as they claim (or as broken-down as the team's farm system, whichever comes first). On top of that, if and when the new stadium gets built, these guys want the taxpayers to indemnify them against a possible players' strike--which, rumor has it, the owners are already preparing for by assembling a strike fund.

I'd be furious at these guys for thinking the fans so dumb, if they hadn't been right in the matter so many times before.

At any rate, I have a suggestion. The Cubs want to play at night, and the Sox want to get out of Comiskey. So I suggest they switch parks. The Cubs pitchers will benefit from the roomier dimensions at Comiskey, and those tired-looking Sox sluggers will benefit from the healthful aspects of playing baseball in the sunshine. What's more, each team will be traveling to a neighborhood that reviles it, thus insuring competitive tension and a winning edge.

Of course, judging from the attendance figures, the Sox aren't all that well liked in their own neighborhood, either. But hey--that's the old ball game.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.

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