Sox and the City
A Fan's Love Affair With The White Sox From The Heartbreak of '67 to the Wizards of Oz
By Richard Roeper
Chicago Review Press Incorporated Copyright © 2006 Richard Roeper
All rights reserved.
In a Choke Hold
September 20, 2005
You've got to be kidding me.
You have got to be kidding me!
It's supposed to be a done deal by now. The Chicago White Sox are supposed to be the 2005 American League Central Division champions. They're not supposed to be involved in a damn race to the wire. It was over in August! I was there. I remember. If this division chase was an American Idol audition, we're already out in the lobby, holding a "golden ticket," jumping around and telling our loved ones that we're going to Hollywood for the real competition — the elimination round. Now you're telling us, in essence, that Simon is having second thoughts and is wondering if, in fact, we're "quite dreadful," that Randy might change his vote and say, "Sorry, dog," that even Paula might be changing her mind, such as it is. No-no-no-no-no-no. Sox fans are already scouting possible playoff opponents and pitching matchups, baby. We're not ready to go back — to walk through that door and reenter the regular season.
Let's put it this way: I've already given away my tickets to the final regular-seasonhome weekend games against Minnesota. Back in February, when the treasured box of season tickets (and parking passes) arrived in the mail and I sat down with my buddy Phil for the annual ritual of mapping out the schedule and carving up the thick brick of ducats, those Minnesota games loomed huge. At that point, we hoped against hope that come September 24 and 25, the Sox and Twins would be duking it out for the AL Central title. That would mean the season would have mattered. But by the end of July, the Twins were treading water around the .500 mark, while the Sox had a record that looked like it belonged to the 1955 Dodgers or the 1961 Yankees or the 1976 Reds. The Twins? Irrelevant.
Sixty-nine and thirty-six. On August 1, the Sox were 69–36 — as in nearly twice as many wins as losses. They were so far ahead it was like Secretariat in the Belmont. You couldn't even see the other horses.
Blinded by the shining light of a 15-game lead heading into the final two months of the season, I started dishing out my season tickets as casually as if they were free passes to the next Deuce Bigalow movie. If you walked under my balcony in late summer, there was a 35 percent chance you'd get hit in the head with a couple of tickets and a parking pass. Sure, I kept a few games for myself, figuring I'd want to enjoy the rarefied air of a late-season Sox game that was meaningless — not for the usual out-of-contention reasons, but because they were so far ahead that a loss wouldn't even sting Enjoy the fireworks, slap high-fives with fellow diehards, check out this Brandon McCarthy kid to see if he's the real deal. Take a Yankee-like victory lap, if you will.
But those last games against the Twins? I figured they'd be about as meaningful as a third date with Wilmer Valderrama.
And then the Sox turned into the.500 club everyone had expected them to be at the beginning of the season, and the Indians started winning games in clumps of four and five. From August 1 through September 20, the Tribe went an ungodly 33–11, systematically trimming the Sox' lead from 15 games to 12 to 10 to 8½ to 5½. Now, on September 21, the morning after a 7–5 Cleveland victory over the Sox at U.S. Cellular Field, the ChiSox lead is down to 2½ games.
Making us even more anxious is the fact that the Sox are just four ahead of the Yankees for the wild card. One more rough week, and the Sox won't just be out of first place — they'll be out of the playoffs all together.
Now, here's one of the six million differences between White Sox fans and Red Sox fans (not to mention Cubs fans). We're not sitting around saying, "Here we go again." We're not lamenting that the Sox are blowing a big lead, because we're not used to their having a big lead. We're practical, big-picture fans. We keep saying things like "Hey, if you had told us on Opening Day that we'd have a 2½ game lead in the division with 13 games to go, ya think we wouldn't have taken that deal?"
There's also this. Even as we've enjoyed this amazing season filled with comeback wins and one-run squeakers and "How did we win that game?" specials, many of us have been quietly acknowledging that on paper, the 2005 edition White Sox are not the best team we've ever seen. Surely, the 1993 and 1994 teams, not to mention the 2000 squad, had more talent on the roster. Maybe the only fan in the city who has absolutely no doubt in his mind that the Sox are the best team in baseball in 2005 is Ken "Hawk" Harrelson, who has become the biggest homer in the history of broadcasting. (Kind of ironic, given that some 20 years earlier, Hawk's criticisms of players and management led to Jerry Reinsdorf's taking Hawk out of the broadcast booth and giving him the general manager's job, and what a disaster that was.)
I love the Hawkeroo. I love his blind enthusiasm and his Sox passion. I love his arsenal of terrible clichés. I love the way he talks about the game as if he's mastered every nuance you can imagine, and if only the players would listen to him, they'd all be Hall of Famers. (Even though his own career was mostly mediocre, save the one season in which he led the American League in RBIs. Harrelson finished with a lifetime average of just. 239.) I love the way he announces the games as if he's a Little League dad, and every single player on the roster is his own son. Whenever his announcing partner, Darrin Jackson, talks about the talent level of the Angels or the Yankees or the As, Hawk butts in with something like "I'll tell you what, I like this ball club right here. I'll take our guys over anybody else in EITHER league. I'd go to war with these guys. I'd go to Mars with these guys. Besides, D. J., you're forgetting about the Ozzie factor. Ozzie's got the guys playing Ozzie Ball like nothing I've ever seen. I have never seen a manager so liked and so respected by his team, and I've been in this game in one capacity or another for nearly 150 years ..."
According to the Hawk, Joe Crede is the best defensive third baseman in the game, and probably the best since Brooks Robinson. Bobby Jenks throws as hard as anyone since Sudden Sam McDowell. Jim Thome is the strongest guy he's seen since Frank Howard. (Nearly all of Hawk's references are from his own playing days.) Paulie Konerko is the best "lead by example" guy since John E Kennedy. Scott Podsednik is worth about 14 runs a game with his ability to distract a pitcher.
Ozzie? Smartest human being since Einstein. And the East Coast media probably overrated Einstein anyway.
Unlike, say, Vin Scully, who prided himself on objectivity and would never scream, "Get the ball!" if it got away from the catcher, Hawk makes no bones about his allegiance to the White Sox. The minute someone is traded or let go by the Sox, Hawk never talks about him again. (Have you heard him even mention Jerry Manuel's name in the last few years?) As soon as a new player joins the club, Hawk welcomes him with open arms and talks about how he always loved this guy. At the end of an inning, Harrelson will say, "Going into the 7th, it's the Tigers four, with the good guys coming to bat and we need two to tie." If Paulie gets rung up on a called strike three in a clutch situation with two outs, Hawk won't even describe the pitch. He'll just stew in silence before finally saying, "Home plate umpire Jim Sox-Hater continues to have a very wide strike zone, at least when we're batting, so we go into the bottom of the 8th with the good guys still trailing by two. Mercy!"
So there's the Hawk, and there's the rest of us — and the rest of us are stunned but not shocked by the events of the last six weeks. The Sox going a couple of games under.500 over a 45-game stretch? That's not a surprise. It's the 2005 Indians playing like the 1995 Indians — that's what's making the difference. They're the hottest team in baseball by far, and we want them to stop that, right now.
* * *
Monday night's game had all the ingredients of a classic Sox comeback. Freddy Garcia was down 4–0 to Cleveland ace Kevin Millwood after 4½ innings, but after Casey Blake botched an Aaron Rowand line drive to right in the bottom of the 5th, the near-capacity crowd got behind the Sox. The guys started stringing together hits, with Paulie Konerko knotting it up at four with a two-run double that had the ballpark shaking with excitement. (We don't need no stinkin' "Make Some Noise!" sign to tell us when to make noise.) When Carl Everett smacked a two-out solo homer in the bottom of the 7th to give the Sox a 5–4 lead, it seemed as if they had put the Indians back on the canvas. We'll win this one, the lead will be 4½, the Tribe faithful will be muttering about that Blake error in the 5th, and we'll go for the knockout punch over the next two nights. By the end of the week, the Sox will be up by six or seven games, and we'll go back to talking about whether we'd rather play the Angels, the A's, the Red Sox, or the Yankees in the first round of the playoffs.
Enter Damaso Marte, master of the ill-timed walk.
I'm not talking about the way he walks, though that's a bit funky as well. I'm talking about the way he walks batters at the worst possible time. Sox fans still shudder when we talk about the July 4, 2004, game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field. A Sunday night game on ESPN — so the whole country was able to tune in for our misery. It was 1–1 in the 9th and the bases were loaded with Cubbies when Ozzie Guillen brought in Marte to relieve Shingo Takatsu, who was a folk hero on the South Side for about 12 minutes. (Shingo's entrances were always accompanied by a gong sound effect, which would have seemed slightly racist if Shingo himself hadn't voiced his approval. Through a translator.)
As usual, Marte had great stuff — a quick fastball, a dipping curve — and he quickly went ahead 0–2 on Todd Walker.
As usual, Marte then proceeded to nibble at the corners and aim the ball. Walker worked the count full, and with the Cubbie yuppies going wild, Marte threw a 58- footer that would have been too low for Verne Troyer in a crouch.
Ball four. Cubs win. A walk-off walk, of all things.
Cubs 2, Sox 1. Happy Fourth of July.
Now, in a much bigger game some 14 months later, Marte walked the dangerous Travis Hafner and yielded a double to Victor Martinez before striking out Ben Broussard. Ozzie then brought in new fan favorite, Bobby Jenks, he of the doublewide body and the 100 mph fastball — but Jenks gave up a two-run single to Aaron Boone, or as Red Sox (and now White Sox) fans like to call him, Aaron *!@#ing Boone.
The Indians added an insurance run in the top of the 9th. In the bottom of the inning, the Sox had two on with two out and Konerko at the plate, and the crowd rose as one in anticipation of a season-highlight moment. As we used to say in the 1970s, "Oh, for the Long One." But Paulie popped it up, bending over in disbelief and clutching his helmet a moment after the ball left his bat.
Cleveland 7, White Sox 5. The lead is now 2½ games.
Everybody is talking about the Sox. In a bad way.
In the Sun-Times, long time Sox watcher Jay Mariotti feared the worst. The headline over Jay's column: NOW PLAYING IN CHICAGO: CHOKE-JOB THEATER.
Jay figures it's all over. He's got the Sox in a body bag. "A mood that started as concern has passed through a panic state and is headed toward a familiar feeling of doom and white-flag resignation. ... Four months of euphoria have descended into a deathly hush, largely because a front office protected its payroll and chemistry instead of acquiring bats and a closer ... it should be obvious by now that the Indians are a much better team and are worthier of the American League Central title."
Geez. Why bother to play the last two weeks of the season?
Even before Monday's game, Salon.com's terrific sports observer, King Kaufman, had reminded Sox fans that things were getting historically bad: "The Chicago White Sox are on the verge of an epic collapse, a historic pratfall, unless they get their act together in a hurry."
Magazines and newspapers were trotting out the dreaded list of the worst collapses in baseball history:
The 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers, who led the Giants by 13 games on August 11 but fell into a tie, and then lost to the Giants in a one-game playoff on Bobby Thomson's "shot heard 'round the world."
The 1964 Philadelphia Phillies, who had a 6½-game lead over the Cardinals with 12 to play, but lost 10 straight and finished a game out.
The 1978 Boston Red Sox, who led the Yankees by 6½ on September 1, blew the whole lead, then won eight straight to finish the season tied with the Yanks — only to lose the playoff on Bucky Dent's pop fly/homer.
The 1993 San Francisco Giants, who led the Braves by nine games on August 12, but finished one game out.
And, oh, yeah, the 1969 Cubbies, who had a nine-game lead over the Mets on August 16, but blew it down the stretch.
We never hear about that one in Chicago.
* * *
Things would get worse before they'd get better. The Sox would come back to take the second game against Cleveland, 7–6, but they lost the rubber match 8–0, and the next night they dropped an extra-inning heartbreaker to the Twins while the Indians pounded on the hapless Royals.
Heading into the next-to-last weekend of the season, the lead was down to 1½ games. By Saturday night, the Sox could be looking up at Cleveland in the standings. Within a week they could be out of the race.
Here's the thing about all those bitter disappointments that they still talk about in Philadelphia and San Francisco and Bah-ston: No team, ever, had blown a 15-game lead in the last two months of the season,
If the Sox blow this thing, it will be the biggest collapse in the history of baseball.
The Mick Goes Deep
July 29, 1966
It looked like a glorified pop-up leaving Mickey Mantle's bat. I'd never seen anyone hit a ball so high, but it didn't seem like it was going to go that deep. Ken Berry, a natural center fielder and one of the best of his time, was playing right field that night in order to make room in center for speedy rookie sensation Tommie Agee, touted by some observers as the closest thing to Willie Mays the Sox organization had ever seen. As the ball started wafting to right-center, I figured maybe Berry would catch it on the edge of the warning track. He'd gracefully drift back and camp under the ball, like I'd seen him do on black-and-white TV.
Ken Berry would have no problem making the play. After all, he was good field, no hit.
That is to say, he was on the White Sox.
In the summer of 1966, I was seven years old. I had a crew cut, and I was quite a bit shorter than I am today, mostly due to my being a child. My brother was nine — and maybe he'd been to a big league game before, but this was my first, and it was a hell of an in-person introduction to the game: White Sox-Yankees on a Friday night, with 30,000-plus fans at Comiskey Park, a magical place that had previously existed only on the radio, in box scores, and in grainy images on the Motorola 19-inch TV in our basement. Neither team was going to win the pennant that year, but the Sox were a solid ball club, and the Yankees, while on a downslide, still featured some of the key names from their early championship teams from the early 1960s. The starting lineup for the Yanks that night included World Series-familiar names like Mantle, Maris, Elston Howard, and Bobby Richardson (I remember seeing him on a Wheaties box), along with young guys, such as Joe Pepitone and Tommy Tresh, who were sure to be perennial All-Stars for the Bronx Bombers in the very near future. (Or so the Yankees thought at the time. Turns out that Pepitone had a Hall of Fame personality and an All-Star haircut, and Tresh had a comic book name — but neither was all that good.)
You know that song "Summer in the City" by the Lovin' Spoonful? It still is played on commercials and on TV shows whenever some oldies-loving, imagination-impaired director wants to convey that it's, you know, warm in the city in the middle of the summer. "Hot town, summer in the city, back of my neck getting dirty and gritty, been down, isn't it a pity ..." This was the summer of "Summer in the City." On Friday, July 29, 1966, it was the No. 1 song on the WLS "Silver Dollar Survey." Other big hits of the time included "Paperback Writer" by the Beatles, "Hanky Panky" by Tommy James & the Shondells, "Wild Thing" by the Troggs, and "Mother's Little Helper" by the Rolling Stones. These songs ENDURED, people. Even the schmaltzy hit of the summer was classic schmaltz: "Strangers in the Night" by the Chairman of the Board.
The top-rated TV shows of the time were Bonanza, The Red Skelton Show, and The Andy Griffith Show. My mom drank Fresca and Tab; my dad smoked L&Ms. Lyndon Johnson was president. We were sinking to our necks in the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Richard J. Daley was the mayor of Chicago. And racial tensions were simmering everywhere. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Sox and the City by Richard Roeper. Copyright © 2006 Richard Roeper. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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