As I stand here on the wooden "L" platform at Addison Street,
peering between a pair of three-story buildings at empty Wrigley
Field, this is what I think: If a fired-up Sammy Sosa batted
lefthanded with a stiff breeze out of the Iowa cornfields, in the
heat of midsummer, he could launch a ball that would soar over
the rightfield wall and Sheffield Avenue and the bleachered roofs
of these brownstones and land at my feet.
Why not? Once, in a breeze, Cubbies slugger Dave Kingman smacked
a home run ball that cleared the ivy-leafed leftfield wall,
crossed Waveland Avenue and hit the first house on Kenmore
Street, perpendicular to Waveland.
Lefty-hitting Billy Williams routinely broke apartment windows
along Sheffield. His righty pal Ernie Banks broke them on
Waveland. It's just a few more feet to hit the train stop where I
stand. O.K., maybe a hundred feet. Maybe 150.
But Sammy--the god of rightfield-bleacher worshipers, the
chest-thump, finger-kiss, point-to-the-fans ambassador of
happy--what couldn't Sammy do?
April 6, 2003
Ah, Chicago baseball. It is like a drink that makes you laugh,
then cry, then babble. Hope springs eternal in Chicago. It
springs insane. This same train line that can carry me south 13
stops to 35th Street and the home of the White Sox, Comiskey
Park--excuse me, U.S. Cellular Field--ties together those two
pockets of hope like a bungee cord. WHAT DO SOX AND CUBS FANS
HAVE IN COMMON? asks the placard inside each car. THE RED LINE.
But they have so much more than that. Start with the hope. A lot
of knowledgeable baseball people have picked the White Sox to win
their division this year. This is a team that finished .500 last
season. This is a team that hasn't won a playoff series since
1917. The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers has the Sox going all the
way to the World Series. "There," Rogers gasped in his March 27
column. "I actually wrote the sentence and haven't yet turned to
And the Cubs. Dear God, this is the team that hasn't won the
World Series since 1908, the longest stretch of futility for any
continuously active pro team in any sports league in the history
of North America. And yet Cubs fans are fired up. There's a new
manager in town, toothpick-twirling Dusty Baker, direct from the
San Francisco Giants and their 2002 Series appearance. Baker
hasn't managed a losing team since 1996, and he has a kid,
four-year-old Darren, who looks so sweet in his miniature Cubs
uniform that he could be replicated as a good-luck dashboard
ornament. Yes, the Cubs finished 67-95 last year, 30 games out of
first, but they've got Sammy, who through Monday was one homer
short of 500 (and didn't he almost destroy the Miller Field
scoreboard at last year's All-Star home run derby?), and a young
rotation that is headed by 25-year-old fireballer Kerry Wood and
includes three other twentysomethings--Mark Prior, Matt Clement
and Carlos Zambrano. The bullpen may be suspect and the defense
dubious, but what does that matter if you're a Cubs fan feeling
macho in your WE'VE GOT WOOD T-shirt?
"I was looking for a team that could be this year's Angels," says
ESPN.com baseball analyst Jayson Stark of his assessment of which
formerly bad team could turn it all around, the way the '02
Series champs did. "The Angels finished 41 games out of first in
2001, you know." So Stark eliminated teams based on various
criteria and private theories and, as he says, "there I was with
the Cubs and the White Sox." After further review, he eliminated
the Sox, and voila! He was left with the Cubs going to the World
"I recognize how much money I could have lost on the Cubs over 80
years," he says. "Nevertheless, starting pitching, Dusty, the
fact that Sammy will be good, Moises Alou can't be worse, the NL
Central's nothing special, so...." He seems to be recalculating,
like a mathematician stunned by his own equation. "Why not?"
By such ringing endorsements are Chicago hearts inflamed.
Think of it: There are experts who say (if you condense their
many thoughts and select the ones you like) that the Cubs and the
White Sox will meet this October in a subway series. Then there
is reality. Deep down, Chicagoans know--history has proved--that
their baseball dreams are just bubbles. New York can have its
Bronx-Queens classics with the Yankees and the Mets. But the odds
against the Cubs going 95 years without a World Series crown are
huge. And the odds against the Cubs and the Sox giving one city
180 years of combined futility are, according to Elias Sports
Bureau, 10,000 to 1. Which is to say, statistically implausible.
"Maybe there's somebody up there not looking after us," says
former star White Sox pitcher Billy Pierce.
What all that losing has done is unite the teams' fans in an
unacknowledged bond of self-contempt. The hope is there--Chicago
is a hardworking, extreme-weather town that handles even February
with optimism--but not the deep-seated belief that either team
will amount to anything. The Cubs had the metal removed from
their spines in the storied collapse of 1969--up by 9 1/2 games in
August, they finished eight behind the Mets. The Sox had a giddy
pennant drive in 1959 and then were slapped aside by the Dodgers
in the World Series. That, of course, was 44 years ago, the last
time either Chicago team would play for it all.
But the Sox also had 1983, when they won their division by 20
games and were promptly thrashed by the Baltimore Orioles in the
American League Championship Series. Worst bummer of all, though,
was 1994, the strike year. The Sox had their best team in
decades--led by guitar-playing pitcher Jack McDowell and young
slugger Frank Thomas, they were 21 games over .500 when baseball
shut down-only to see it neutered by the strike, with
management's biggest nut-cutter being the Sox' chairman, Jerry
"Oh, poor Chicago," says Pierce, who played on that '59 team,
never dreaming it would be a pinnacle that would erode like a
spring ice chunk in Lake Michigan. "That's a long time ago. You
think about a big city like this, and you think there's something
wrong. The Cubs in 1984--you couldn't believe that could happen."
Oh, right. The '84 Cubs of Ryne Sandberg and Rick Sutcliffe fame
were up two-zip on the San Diego Padres in the five-game National
League Championship Series, then lost three straight. And let's
not forget 1998, when the Cubs and their fans celebrated wildly
after the club won a wild-card playoff game against the Giants.
The reward? A 3-0 divisional spankfest on the Atlanta Braves'
Bill Peterson, the Chicago-born star of the TV show CSI: Crime
Scene Investigation, is a Chicago sports fan of such intensity
that he once left the film set of Manhunter in Atlanta and took a
commercial flight to Washington, D.C., for a few hours just so he
could watch the Bears play on TV. He is a Cubs fan and is on the
April cover of Men's Journal, sitting at a bar with other rabid
"It's all about Fergie Jenkins and Ernie and Ron Santo," Peterson
says. "A tie to your childhood." And, of course, dislocation
makes the tie grow stronger. "I sit here in Los Angeles," says
Peterson, "and it's just a wasteland. In Chicago you have
elements to contend with. Here it's 76 degrees, it's perfect. And
you know what? It sucks."
That's a Chicago sentiment. That's where the empathy for the '69
Cubs comes from. Hey, folks, we know how scrawny Don Kessinger
suffered in that September heat. Hey, I once lost my car in a
snowdrift. Kessinger was nearly a skeleton by Labor Day.
Peterson says he would root for the White Sox if there were no
Cubs, and at any rate, "I don't root against them." But the Sox
have what he describes as "bad dynamics." Many Cubs fans agree.
"Man, they used to have exciting guys like Luis Aparicio and
Nellie Fox. Now, Frank Thomas, Mark Buehrle, Bartolo Colon? Like
I could care? There are heroes on the North Side. Thomas is a
mope. Snap out of it! Plus, I hate the park."
U.S. Cellular Field is the new name of the park that will host
this year's All-Star Game, but it may be years before anyone
refers to the place as anything other than Comiskey, or New
Comiskey, which came into vogue after the original ballpark was
demolished, in 1991. The newly renamed park--fans will appreciate
the improvements we're making with the signage money, says
Reinsdorf--is not exactly sterile, but it has roughly the charm of
a clean utensil drawer.
Wrigley, on the other hand, is a quaint little relic from the
days when elevators and parking lots weren't on ballpark
architects' radar. Wrigley is so nestled into its yuppified
neighborhood that its outside wall at one point is only 7 1/2
feet from the gutter of Addison Street. "A lot of the Sox fans'
problems with the Cubs is jealousy," admits former White Sox home
run champ Bill Melton, himself a diehard Sox man. Melton means
the Wrigley attendance--which is huge regardless of the Cubs'
performance. (The past five seasons were among the Cubs' six best
attendance years ever at Wrigley, despite the team's having
finished a combined 107 1/2 games out of first place over that
span.) He also means the festive atmosphere in a ballyard
surrounded by dozens of bars, restaurants and million-dollar
condos. "But Wrigley is a dump," Melton says. "I'd love to hit
there. But it's a dump."
A dump can be beautiful and rare in its way, which is why the
city of Chicago is trying to designate Wrigley a historic
landmark. Naturally, Cubs ownership, the Tribune Company, doesn't
want such a distinction. You can't build more skyboxes in a
landmark or add giant bleachers to it. That's another thing:
Chicago mayor Richard M. Daley is a born-and-raised South Side
Sox fan, like his dad, former mayor Richard J. (Boss) Daley, and
you always wonder if Junior wouldn't like to stick it to the Cubs
But the North Side Cubs have a unique quality that seems to be
tamper-proof. Let's let Bill Jauss, the veteran Tribune
sportswriter and a North Sider through and through--and, of
course, the son of a Cubs fan--explain. "I have interviewed
literally hundreds of Cubs fans around the park, made it a point
to talk to them after excruciating losses," says Jauss. "I ask
them, 'Did you have fun?' And about 90 percent say yes. I ask
them why. Well, we saw the girls fall out of their halter tops.
The beer was cold. The breeze was off the lake. What's better on
a summer afternoon?
"The answers imply that the Cubs are not in the baseball business
but the entertainment business. And the biggest entertainer in
the troupe is Sosa. You can see it in the kids' faces. [Former
White Sox manager] Jeff Torborg told me last year that when he
sees Sammy run out before the first pitch--with his right hand up
and his finger pointed to the sky, his head down, sprinting as
fast as he possibly can, circling in front of the rightfield
bleachers in a counterclockwise fashion toward centerfield and
back--he gets goose bumps.
"Santo wore his emotions on his sleeve. Hank Sauer before him.
The fans loved Rod Beck. The Cubs don't have to win to entertain.
And the '69 Cubs epitomized that. When else has a loser been so
glorified? Sox fans are more discriminating. They think they know
more baseball than Cubs fans. They think they're all Tony La
Russas. In the meantime the Cubs fans are having more fun."
That wasn't always the case, because the sly and effervescent
charlatan Bill Veeck once ran the White Sox, bringing in midgets
and spaceships and all manner of nonsense to amuse folks and
deflect awareness that he had almost no money to invest in
players. Veeck was once an executive with the Cubs, too--it was he
who planted the first ivy at Wrigley--but his heart was on the
South Side, where he could work with the common man who would
happily come to his baseball sideshow. "Listen to me carefully
now," Veeck wrote in The Hustler's Handbook, "because if you are
a hustler, you are going to start out with a bad team. A bad ball
club is generally the available one, the cheaper one, and the one
you can best bring your talents to bear upon."
"Hoyt Wilhelm one time was pitching [for the Orioles] at
Comiskey, and he was attacked by furious clouds of gnats,"
recalls Jauss. "He just smiled. He suspected Bill Veeck."
One of Veeck's friends, 81-year-old Chicago sportswriting legend
Bill Gleason, retired these past two years, points out that there
are other divisions in Sox-Cubs fandom besides geography or even
economic class. "It's religious," the Irish Catholic South Sider
says. "The Cubs started with Protestants on the West Side.
Comiskey came in with the newer American League club, and the
Irish Catholics were down here on the South Side. My grandfather,
who came from Tipperary, was a Sox fan, and my father, who was
born in Joliet, came up on the Inter-urban to old White Sox Park
at 39th and Wentworth. I'm a Sox fan. I have two brothers who are
Sox fans and one sister who is. Another sister became a heretic,
a Cubs fan. My father said, 'I'd rather she left the church.'
"In 1959 Mayor Daley and his pals set off the air-raid sirens
after the Sox clinched the pennant, and it scared a lot of little
old ladies on the South Side--they thought we were being attacked
by the Russkies." Gleason pauses to reflect. He sighs. "It was so
typical of the Sox, to get all excited and do the wrong thing.
I'm convinced the White Sox are cursed. The Black Sox scandal is
proof of that. Ray Schalk was the catcher on that team, and if
you ever used the words Black Sox or scandal in his presence, you
would hear a stream of curse words. He referred to it only as
'1919.' But it destroyed the Sox. They lost eight players. Schalk
told me, 'There never would have been any f------ Yankees if it
weren't for 1919!'"
The lint of truth therein lingers sadly. Of the first 15 World
Series, 10 were won by teams from Chicago or Boston. Since 1919
the Yankees and the Mets have won a total of 31 titles, and of
course the Sox and the Cubs have won none. The Red Sox haven't
won a Series since 1918, and they gave Babe Ruth to the Yankees
way back then. But we'll let Red Sox fans tell their story
There is one other factor in determining the Cubs' and the Sox'
fan bases. "Yes, it's north and south," says Chicago native
Michael Wilbon, a sports columnist for The Washington Post and
cohost of ESPN's Pardon the Interruption. "But it's also racial."
Wilbon, who grew up on the South Side, remembers that black Sox
players and even black Cubs players lived near him because they
couldn't get housing on the North Side. "My dad tried to go see
Jackie Robinson at Wrigley in 1948, and he was turned away, and
he vowed he would never go see the Cubs again. Walt (No Neck)
Williams of the Sox lived near us, and Ernie Banks lived just
east. We'd all take the "L" to Comiskey, like, 20 times a year.
But Wrigley, that might as well have been in Minneapolis."
Still, Wilbon is now a fan of the Cubs as well as the Sox,
sensing their common ineptitude and linked striving. He has a
satellite dish and a baseball package at his home in Maryland
just so he can watch his hometown clubs. "Michael Jordan and the
Bulls relieved pressure on Chicago baseball," says Wilbon. "Ditka
and McMahon and the Bears of the '80s took a lot of summertime
depression out of it.
"But I don't expect to see the Cubs or Sox win a World Series in
my lifetime. I stopped daydreaming about it. I let it go."
All the bad trades and dumb deals by both clubs are enough to
make most fans exhale like Wilbon. The Cubs' 1964 trade of
leftfielder Lou Brock to the Cardinals for sore-armed pitcher
Ernie Broglio, who won all of seven games for the Cubs while
Brock became a Hall of Famer, is generally considered the worst
in team history. But letting Greg Maddux go to Atlanta also ranks
right up there, or down there.
The White Sox' signing of human virus Albert Belle for tons of
money was bad. As was bringing in goofball pitcher David Wells,
pre-diet. But canning singular manager La Russa in 1986, three
years after he won the division and was named Manager of the
Year, might win the dunce cap.
And what of on-field blunders? How about Sox manager Terry
Bevington going to the mound and calling for a righty out of the
bullpen, only to discover nobody of either arm was warming up?
The White Sox' red uniforms and their honest-to-god game shorts
would make even Elton John blush. But let's also recall Cubs
eccentric Joe Pepitone, who once, after reaching first, got a
wink sign from first base coach Joey Amalfitano confirming a
hit-and-run play. Pepitone, who spent great lengths of time
grooming his toupee, winked back at Amalfitano, blew him a
kiss-and was promptly picked off.
Hack Wilson, who holds the major league single-season RBI record,
with 191, was such a drunk in the 1930s that an enlargement of a
newspaper story titled HACK'S LAST WARNING is posted in the Cubs'
training room. "Talent isn't enough," Wilson says in the old
interview, when he was near death. "You need common sense and
good advice.... I spent all of my money, most of it in barrooms."
Wrigley Field itself has been compared to an outdoor barroom, and
former Cubs manager Lee Elia's tirade against the Wrigley daytime
habitues in 1983 was half-inspired, half-deranged. "The f---ers
don't even work!" Elia ranted. "That's why they're out at the
f------ game! Tell 'em to go out and get a f------ job and find out
what it's like to earn a f------ living! Eighty-five percent of
the f------ world works, the other 15 come here!"
Well, not all of them. A fellow like me is wandering around the
outside of the park, marveling again that the only statue at
Wrigley is not of Hack or Tinker or Evers or Chance-Cubs all-but
of bloated, grinning announcer Harry Caray, holding out a
microphone to an invisible crowd, singing silently in the seventh
inning. LET ME HEAR YA.... the legend chiseled on the base reads.
A ONE.... A TWO.... A THREE.... It's perfect, really, just like
Disco Demolition at Comiskey years ago, the blow-up-the-albums
riot that canceled a game and destroyed the turf as well as the
sanity of the place. Deejay Steve Dahl, who concocted the event
and wore a military helmet during the detonation, says now that
Sox fans and Cubs fans can accept the endless losing because
"we're happy just to be outside for a few months."
There's truth there. But I think also of the bond among all the
finger-pointing Chicago baseball fans, the loop of yearning and
hope and wistfulness and suffering that ropes them all together
like a herd. "All the baseball infighting in this city, and it
means nothing," says veteran WMVP-AM 1000 radio producer Tom
Serritella. "It's like the slug calling the worm a crawler."
And so I return to the "L" and climb aboard for the 25-minute
ride south to the place called U.S. Cellular Field, thinking that
this would be the preferred mode of transportation for fans in
the event of a Chicago subway series. But what am I thinking?
Even hope has its limits. A train can chug, but it can't fly.
IT'S LIKE A DRINK THAT MAKES YOU LAUGH, THEN CRY, THEN BABBLE
CHICAGOANS KNOW THAT THEIR DREAMS ARE JUST BUBBLES
"YES, IT'S NORTH AND SOUTH," WILBON SAYS OF THE CUBS-SOX DIVIDE.
"BUT IT'S ALSO RACIAL"