May 22, 2006
Tectonic Plates Moving on Madison StreetBy Richard Baehr
Chicago, the most ebulliently American of our big cities, is seeing a great reversal of fortune in baseball, the American national pastime. The White Sox, scandalized as the "Black Sox" almost a century ago, the team of the downscale Southside, has emerged from the doghouse and won a World Championship, and is now proving they were not just a one year sensation. The Cubs, with their upscale Northside locale and quaint Wrigley Field, no longer have a secure hold on the hearts of Chicago baseball fans.
It is the 10th year of inter—league play in baseball, and in Chicago when the Sox and Cubs meet in a 'crosstown classic' fan interest is intense. If this had been a boxing match at US Cellular Field this weekend, the fight would have been stopped Friday and Saturday, and the Cubs gone by TKO short of 9 innings on both days. On Sunday, the Cubs salvaged the finale of the 3 game series with a late comeback, scoring more runs than they have in all but one game in the last month.�
As White Sox announcer Ken Harrelson likes to say when a Sox opponent strikes out— 'he gone,' and that may soon be the case with Cubs manager Dusty Baker, if the suddenly hitless wonders of the Northside continue their recent futility: a 5—17 streak, with barely two runs a game over that period. In the first two games of the Cubs/Sox series, the combined score was 13 to 1 in favor of the Sox (6—1, and 7—0), and the games were really not that close, all but over in the first few innings both days.� Since the Cubs, minus the injured Derrek Lee, have been unable to score runs, once they fall behind by 4 or 5 runs early, they are done for the day.
The Southsiders, on the other hand, look every bit like a team good enough to repeat as world champions, after winning their first title since 1917 last year. The Sox are 28—15, and seem better than last year's championship version, after General Manger Kenny William worked to add slugger and DH Jim Thome, and pitcher Javier Vasquez.� The Sox knew their payroll would have to expand to keep the club together after the World Series victory, but more than just keeping all the key players around (with the exception of Aaron Rowand, traded for Thome), they restocked with more talent.�
The main addition for the Cubs in the off—season was the Marlins' outfielder Juan Pierre, not enough to change the fortunes of last year's under .500 team, even if everybody stayed healthy for a change. For Cubs pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior, a full season of work would be several standard deviations from their normal availability, given recurring injuries to both pitchers pretty much every season. They are the modern version of the Dodgers' phenomenal outfielder of more than half a century ago, Pete Reiser, who couldn't keep his body away from outfield walls, and flamed out early in his career. With Wood and Prior, there is lots of talent, but so far, only a modest amount to show for it, apart from the 2003 season.�
Pierre became available to the Cubs when the Marlins continued their fire sale on all high salaried players to spite the locals for not approving a new stadium deal. Regrettably, the better talent let go by the Marlins went to Boston (Josh Beckett) and Detroit (Ivan Rodriguez last year). Only the Yankees have won more World Series than the expansion Marlins the last 30 years, but for the unappreciative fans of south Florida, their team will also soon 'be gone.
Another failing Florida team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, might have been the Tampa Bay White Sox, had the Sox owners not shaken—down the Illinois state legislature in a five minutes to midnight stare—down to get their new stadium deal approved back in the early '90s. A few years of early success (strong attendance) in the new Comiskey Park, ended abruptly when Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf was blamed by many locals for the season—ending baseball strike in 1994.�
Not until the second half of last year did the crowds start coming back in big numbers. This year, attendance is running more than 10,000 a game ahead of last year's numbers for the first 22 home games, despite steeper ticket prices.� There have been 9 sellouts, with many more to come (Cardinals, Astros, Yankees, Red Sox, and the surprising Tigers in the months ahead).�
The Sox will draw fewer than the Cubs again, but the gap is narrowing quickly. By year's end, it will likely be a few (2 to 3) hundred thousand at most, after several years when the Cubs outdrew the Sox by a million or more.� And for the Cubs, ticket sales do not necessarily equate any more to filled seats. It is now a buyer's market outside Wrigley Field, with lots of people selling tickets. The Sox have signed many of their top players for several years. If they stay healthy, they could have a run like the Yankees had from 1996 to 2001, baseball's last mini—dynasty.� If that happens, the Sox could become the feature baseball attraction in the second city (sorry LA, you are not a city in my book but a sprawl, so you don't count).
Several years back when I went to the Cubs/Sox game at the 'Cell,' the fan split may have been 50—50 . When the two teams met at Wrigley Field, the fan support was at least 90% for the Cubs. Last year, that began to change. Sox fans were maybe a quarter of the fans at Wrigley for the three games, and were a strong majority for the 'cross—town classic' games at the Cell. This weekend, Sox fans were 90% or more of the crowd at the Cell on Friday and Saturday, though a slightly higher percentage of Cubs fan seemed to be at the 'Cell' on Sunday.� The Sox used to need Cubs fans to fill the house for their only three sellouts during the season.
Things change quickly, when there is success and failure just 9 miles apart on the CTA red line.
An exclamation point on the different direction the two teams are taking occurred in the second game of the series this weekend. Sox catcher A. J. Pierzynski barreled over Cubs catcher Michael Barrett to score the first run of the game. Pierzynski is a fiery player who has stirred the brew with all the teams he has played for. With the Sox, he joined a collection of players, as well as Sox manager Ozzie Guillen, who have similar high intensity� levels, and has become a fan favorite.
Rather than just going back to tag the plate after the collision, he pounded it for emphasis. Pierzynski then got back up and started walking by Barrett to retrieve his helmet, when Barrett suddenly punched him in the face, leading to the proverbial barnyard brawl (not nearly as gripping as 'Malice at the Palace' with Ron Artest, the all—time—best in this category, but not bad by non—boxing fight standards).� Barrett, a decent but frustrated player on a frustrated team, later apologized for his behavior, for which he will likely suffer a short suspension.�
The Sox have been doing their pounding with bats, not� fists this season, and capped off the 'fight inning'�Saturday with a grand slam home run by Tadahito Iguchi to put the game away. Both Barrett and Pierzynski had key hits Sunday, and no further altercations occurred between the teams.
An index of how quickly the fortunes of the two teams have changed is seen in the baseball caps worn on the streets of Chicago. Sox caps were a rarity in years past, but are now sported most everywhere. The Cubs trail as badly in this department as they do in the won/lost column.
This is not to say that Chicago has become a Sox town, but it is now emphatically a two team town, and the energy and swagger is all on the Southsde.� Madison Street used to divide the declining Southside from the trendy, prosperous Northside. Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley is a Southsider, and therefore a lifelong Sox fan.�
There was a classic picture of Daley beaming from ear to ear behind the dugout after a three run homer for the Sox in their 14 —2 rout of the Red Sox in game one of the Division playoffs last year. The Governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, is a big Cubs fan, who has to hope his fortunes turn out better than the Northsiders come November. The big real estate boom in Chicago is primarily south of the loop at the moment, between downtown and the Cell. And the baseball fireworks are pretty much all coming from the Cell, and not from Wrigley these days.� Come October, the fans will likely be taking the CTA to 35th St. and Shields on the Southside, and not to Addison and Clark on the Northside.
Richard Baehr is the Chief Political Correspondent of The American Thinker.