I love baseball. I cannot say that I have always loved baseball. I played baseball as a boy. I played football and basketball, too. I was not particularly good at any of these sports initially and I did not stick with them long enough to become good at them. My fondest boyhood baseball memory is of hitting a triple. I did that once—in three seasons. As a consequence of all of this my interest in professional baseball was passing at best.
I did always want to play hockey but never got the chance. The father of one of my best friends was a goalie for a semi-professional hockey team. He took us to a number of hockey games and introduced us to the sport. I learned how to skate. I learned some of the game. I remember the miracle on ice. I watched it on television with my friends and family. Nevertheless, I was never successful in convincing my parents to let me play. No, my boyhood sports were swimming and cycling. I did well at those. But other than the Olympics, there was not a lot of media coverage paid to those sports. Lance Armstrong is a year younger than I am. The Tour de Lance does not start until 1999. In my time as a cyclist I did get a chance to meet Greg LeMond, Bernault Hinault, Connie Carpenter, Alexi Grewal, Mark Gorski and Nelson Vails, courtesy of the Coors Classic and the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
Those names are not particularly famous. No one would confuse them with professional ball players. If you wanted to follow major league sports in Colorado there were two teams: the Denver Broncos and the Denver Nuggets. The Colorado Rockies did not join the National League until expansion in 1993 along with the Florida Marlins. The Colorado Avalanche did not arrive in Denver until 1995.
At the time the nearest Major League baseball team was the Kansas City Royals—nearly 500 miles away. The Colorado Springs Sky Sox—45 miles up the road—played two seasons before I left for college. They got some coverage—but that was minor league ball for the Cleveland Indians. I think that if one was not already a baseball fan, the fate of the Sky Sox was not overly compelling. The Royals did not make the local papers or the local news other than the box scores. Even the 1985 World Series win over the St. Louis Cardinals did not garner a lot of attention in my corner of the next state over. I remember watching some of the 1981 series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the New York Yankees with some of my friends. I did not do it because I was particularly interested in baseball. I did it because I wanted to be with them. They were Yankee fans—so the series was a disappointment to them. I did not really care. It would be over a decade before I watched another Series.
I discovered baseball when I moved to Chicago. Chicago knows baseball. Chicago has arguably the richest baseball history of any city in the world. We have two teams—two founding teams. The Chicago Cubs are a charter member of the National League in 1876. The Chicago White Sox were already members of the Western League when it was renamed the American League in 1900. Both teams have been in Chicago since those years. The Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox are both in, respectively, the first and second longest championship droughts of any professional baseball teams. The Cubs last won the World Series in 1908. The White Sox last won the World Series in 1917. Between them they have 23 pennants. The Cubs last came in 1945. The White Sox last came in 1959.
Maybe these elements have something to do with the fact that Chicago is essentially a “football town”. That is, I believe the favorite team of all major league sports teams in Chicago is the Chicago Bears. We have a lot to choose from. Besides the Bears, Cubs and White Sox, we have basketball’s Chicago Bulls, hockey’s “original six” Chicago Blackhawks, soccer’s Chicago Fire and a number of other professional league teams. The Chicago Bears are a charter member of the NFL formalized in 1922. They have ten championships, including one Super Bowl victory. The Bears also do not divide the loyalties of Chicago football fans as the Cubs and White Sox do baseball fans.
Despite the “Orange Crush” fever of my youth, I have grown discontented with football. In a recent discussion among my friends about the sport, Mick described football this way. I think the depiction is brilliant:
Football is the most American of sports because of its two main inspirations: war and litigation. It has more violence and more rules than most other sports combined. There is even an appeals process. The rules are there to limit injury to the most privileged players—[running- and quarter-] backs and receivers—and allow them to continue to dazzle the masses with their beauty, athleticism and riches. As soon as someone steps up into their privileged class, someone is gonna slap a penalty on them, or blow out their knee with a legal chop block or some such. I used to like football, now I hate it. Unless the Bears start winning, which ain’t gonna happen soon.
I fell in love with baseball. I have never been a big fan of the game’s politics. I do not care about contracts. I do not care about collective bargaining agreements. I only care about these things insofar as they interfere with the game itself. If a strike or lockout happens that stops play because of these things I will be upset and angry. I do not care for the particular details. I do not particularly care for pre-game predictions or post-game comments. I just like the game. I love the timeless nature of the sport: a game built on the magic of three, a game without a clock. Football, basketball, hockey and soccer all use a clock. It is not uncommon for games to end by a team “killing the clock” rather than actually beating the opposing team—by direct competition. Baseball has no clock. You cannot win without getting the last batter out. Rallies are not constrained by time. The game lasts just as long as it lasts. That may be two hours; that may be six. It may be nine innings; it may be fourteen.
Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. Sometimes—- it rains.
When I moved to Chicago in the early nineties I discovered baseball. I remember the first time I walked into the ballpark. I remember walking up the ramp at Wrigley Field and stepping out into the stands. I do not want to romanticize that park because in the end it is not the ballpark that has my attention. I think the ballpark is a location for the game. What I do find interesting is that the ballparks are not the same. This, too, makes baseball an anomaly. There are some elements that are consistent among parks. Rules dictate the size and shape of the bases and the infield: the infield being a square, ninety feet on a side; the pitching rubber sitting sixty feet six inches from home plate. The outfield has only vague rules—and these are often skirted or adjusted to fit the long legacy of the game. For example, there are no rules at all regulating the height of “fences, stands or other obstructions”, other than the assumption that they exist. There are all sorts of variations in parks, from different lengths to the fences to uneven playing surfaces to massive or minimal amounts of foul territory. Yankee Stadium and Tiger Stadium both contained flagpoles in the fields of play for several years. The Houston Astros’ home, Minute Maid Park, features a thirty-degree hill and a flagpole in center field. Wrigley Field has an ivy-covered brick wall circumscribing the outfield—that is no fun to crash into when chasing down a fly ball. These curiosities all affect the nature of the game.
And perhaps finally the game itself is a tense dichotomy between teamwork and individual excellence. Baseball is a team sport. At the same time, baseball places individual players under great pressure. This is not unique to baseball; the same can be said for many team sports. What I find attractive to baseball is the amount of pressure—the intensity of scrutiny. Strategies are obscure, complex and myriad. The fundamentals of the game have not changed a great deal in the hundred and thirty-five years it has been played professionally. A pitcher must make good pitches or risk losing the game; a batter has a fraction of a second to decide what pitch has been thrown, whether he should swing, and if he swings, how he will swing—what does he hope to achieve. Is he looking to hit a home run? Is he looking to advance a runner from second to third? Just get on base? No one can help the pitcher while he pitches. No one can help the batter while he bats. And if our beleaguered batter hits a line drive to deep left field, the outfielder alone must make the decision to try to catch the ball or play it on the bounce—and he still has to execute successfully on that decision.
The 1994 baseball strike put a temporary stop to my budding interest in baseball. It was not until the 1995 and 1996 seasons that I truly became a fan. In those years I scored my first games while listening to the radio. I read my first sports column—and more importantly understood more than the superficialities of what he was saying. I had friends who had been lifelong baseball fans, Chicago natives who had grown up with one team or the other. They taught me about the game. They provided me insight and explanation about the sport and the business surrounding it. I began reading more about the game. I began watching more than just the television broadcasts from April to October: Why Life Begins on Opening Day, Bull Durham, Flying Sock, Eight Men Out, The Wrecking of Old Comiskey Park, Wrigley Field: Beyond the Ivy—I mentioned the Chicago natives that indoctrinated me to the game; the last two documentaries I just listed, they were made by my friends.
I am looking back at what I have written and am now asking myself why I have gone to all this trouble to chronicle this. The short answer is probably to explain why I am a Chicago White Sox fan. In retrospect I do not think I have done a particularly good job of explaining that. The longer answer is probably this: this essay is my attempt to articulate some of this last year. 2005 has been a terrible and trying year for me. One thing I have clung to—something outside of my concerns for my health and my work and my family—something essentially fun has been to follow the 162 White Sox games from April to October. And have it be something good. The White Sox story this season is a great one. Yesterday the White Sox succeeded in their first post-season playoff series win since 1959. That is a milestone. That is something from which I can draw strength. The White Sox story is one of defying odds and doing things with a fierce spirit of independence coupled with unwavering teamwork. Redemption and recovery.
In 1900, a new baseball team carpet-bagged its way up from Saint Paul, Minnesota. Charles Comiskey had a plan. Comiskey was one of these sorts of guys who does things the Chicago way. Imagine this description spoken in my best Scottish accent, an imitation of Sean Connery’s Jim Malone, “You wanna know how you do it? Here’s how: they pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send on of his to the morgue! That’s the Chicago way.” Comiskey wanted to compete with the National League. So he buys a club, moves it to Chicago and rips off the original name of the—at that time—rather successful Cubs: the White Stockings. The newspapers shortened the name to White Sox to better fit the headlines they printed. And they were some damn fine headlines. Sox won the league’s first two pennants. They drew 150,000 more fans than the Cubs in 1901. In 1903 the two leagues agreed to bury the hatchet and play in a grand championship at the end of the season: The World Series. It took Comiskey and his so-called ‘hitless wonders’ three years, but in 1906 the south side White Sox beat the west side Cubs four games to two. The team stayed.
They won the World Series again in 1917. In 1919 the Chicago White Sox went to the World Series for the third time. They were betrayed. Eight players on that team conspired to lose, to abandon the dream and the love of the game for $100,000. That is all it cost. The great “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, pitchers Eddie Cicotte and Claude “Lefty” Williams; infielders Buck Weaver, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, Fred McMullin, and Charles “Swede” Risberg; and outfielder Oscar “Happy” Felsch wounded the team—and consequently Chicago and baseball—in ways that still reverberate across the culture of the city and the game. Like most White Sox fans, I do not believe in curses: goat, Bambino or otherwise.
I believe in redemption.