Blue skies and unseasonably warm temperatures greeted the baseball season on both sides of town last week. But the blissful weather for the home openers only served to disguise what appears to be a dramatic change in the local sports climate. The White Sox were welcomed back April 4 by a sold-out crowd of 38,141; the fans were gleeful, joyous, and enthusiastic, quite a departure from the surly, win-or-else south-side stereotype. While making changes over the winter the Sox had promised crisp, well-played baseball, and that's exactly what they delivered in a 1-0 victory. The Cubs opened Wrigley Field April 8 in front of a jam-packed 39,892. Cubs fans are usually considered happy-go-lucky sybarites more eager to cheer their heroes than decry their shortcomings, but this audience didn't behave that way at all.
Over the winter the Sox let Magglio Ordonez walk through free agency and traded slugger Carlos Lee for speed merchant Scott Podsednik. These changes, combined with the temporary loss of Frank Thomas, out at least into May as he recovers from ankle surgery, left the Sox depleted in power, if perhaps better on defense--a team that will have to scramble with steals, bunts, and the hit-and-run to score. But this was what manager Ozzie Guillen wanted. "We're gonna manufacture runs," he said, talking with reporters during a Sunday-morning workout the day before the opener. "I think the batters we have this year are a lot better. This year I'm gonna put myself in the situation to see if I can manage or not. Last year, I was just changing pitchers and talking to you guys for 162 games."
Guillen speaks in a speedy Spanglish version of Stengelese, the managerial double-talk Casey Stengel made famous, and like Stengel he sells what he says with his enthusiasm. "You're gonna be excited," he added. "This team is gonna be exciting. I think this team is together. I think these kids get along together real well, on the field and off the field. I got that feeling.
"A lot of people say you gonna manage the way you played, but they're wrong, because I was never that good. I just tricked them for a long time."
That's the reason they play the games, isn't it, to find out if a team is as good as its manager thinks it is? Opening day came off exactly as Guillen said. Ace Mark Buehrle took a perfect game into the fifth inning, and helped by two sharp double plays faced only one batter more than the minimum in shutting out the Cleveland Indians through eight. After leading off the Sox seventh with a double, plodding Paul Konerko went to third on a fly ball that Ordonez's replacement, Jermaine Dye, hit deep enough to advance even him, and scored when Cleveland shortstop Jhonny Peralta booted Aaron Rowand's grounder. The run was all the Sox needed. A gong welcomed bullpen closer Shingo Takatsu onto the field in the ninth and rang again for each out as Takatsu nailed down the 1-0 win. The game was done in 1:51.
Could the Sox win with such an anemic attack day after day? They fell behind 3-0 in the second game of the series. But in the ninth the old Sox returned, with Konerko popping a two-run homer and Dye's shot one pitch later tying the game. The Sox loaded the bases with the help of a muffed sacrifice bunt and won on Juan Uribe's sacrifice fly. Chicago gave one back in similar fashion the following day--with fans waving their brooms, Takatsu came on in the ninth with a 5-2 lead and gave up three solo homers before he could get that last gong, and reliever Luis Vizcaino eventually gave out in extra innings--but then the Sox went to Minnesota and took two of three from the arch-rival Twins. Guillen had his team--and its fans--believing.
The mood at Dusty Baker's opening-day media conference last Friday was vastly different from the one at Guillen's Sunday sermon. The Cubs already had a losing record, having won the opener in Arizona only to give the next two to the Diamondbacks, and Baker looked weary. Over the winter the Cubs had lost Moises Alou and basically given away Sammy Sosa in a trade for Baltimore utility man Jerry Hairston; but even if Baker was responsible for his own team's altered personality he offered none of Guillen's rah-rah optimism. Baker had never seemed enamored of Sosa or the Cubs' star-making machinery, so general manager Jim Hendry gave him a squad to suit his us-against-the-world temperament. If he seemed defensive, it was perhaps due to the Cubs' other major personnel change over the winter. Baker had taken issue last year with the on-air criticism of beloved TV analyst Steve Stone, who didn't return to the broadcast booth. But Stone's departure, far from stifling him, gave him an even freer hand. In his new venue, local radio station WSCR, Stone had already brought up the issue of Baker's sensitivity to criticism. None of the reporters had the nerve to raise it at Baker's pregame conference but it lingered in the air with the potential to be a major distraction, especially if the Cubs got off to a slow start.
As it turned out, a fan behind home plate appeared frequently on TV waving a "Bring Back Stoney" placard, while the Cubs did little to claim a viewer's attention. Making his first start of the year, Kerry Wood couldn't hold a 2-1 lead and was removed after walking in the tying run in the sixth. The Cubs regained the lead in the bottom half on a run-scoring double by Sosa's replacement, the beefy Jeromy Burnitz, but stranded runners at second and third. Trouble came in the ninth, when LaTroy Hawkins got two quick outs, but--as was so often the case last year--couldn't close out the game. He gave up a single to Junior Spivey and a two-strike double to Lyle Overbay down the left-field line. With any sort of relay left fielder Todd Hollandsworth should have had a play at the plate, but he dropped the ball and Spivey scored uncontested. Hawkins fanned the next batter to end the inning and was booed off the field, his body language describing him as withered and beaten.
Last season Cubs fans expected and demanded success, and when they didn't get it they turned more and more to boos. So the fans booed Hawkins. Various Cubs failed to execute the fundamentals in extra innings and the fans booed them too. When John Leicester gave up three runs in the 12th before Baker yanked him, the fans booed both of them. The Cubs won the next day behind a splendid performance by pitcher Carlos Zambrano, but when Greg Maddux fell behind Sunday even he was booed. The Cubs came back to win in extra innings and level their record at 3-3, but their season seemed to hang in the balance moment to moment. Baker's Cubs raised expectations by insisting they were playing to win, not be cuddly, and now that Sosa is gone and the fans have no pacifier to distract them, they'd better win. Otherwise, losing could be far uglier on the north side than winning ugly ever was for the Sox.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jonathan Daniel--Getty Images.