Successor in spirit to Carl Sandburg, Ring Lardner and Studs Terkel, a baseball team on the South Side of Chicago spun a tale last weekend that will outlive this generation of fans. The sons and daughters of the Windy City, the newest of whom began life last week swaddled in White Sox blankets provided by local hospitals, have lived to see a World Series in their town, something no one born since 1959 could have claimed. Not only that, but with two breathtaking wins, the White Sox were halfway to giving Chicagoans under the ripe age of 88 their first look at a world championship. ¬∂ "Nothing happens," Sandburg wrote, in what could pass for the credo of a Sox fan, "unless first a dream."
Nicholas Konerko did not need to wait long for the dream of a World Series in Chicago to come true. Four days, to be exact. Born Oct. 18 in Scottsdale, Ariz., 10 days before his due date, as if to be sure not to miss the historic event, Nicholas is the firstborn of White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko and his wife, Jennifer. And since he entered the world, the Sox have won more World Series games in Chicago than they had in the 86 years since they infamously threw the 1919 Series.
"He told me," the proud father said with a wink on Sunday, "that I better not come home without the trophy."
Konerko is one of the many proud fathers in Chicago who finally have World Series stories to tell, though his is uniquely personal. He can tell Nicholas about the seventh-inning grand slam he hit on Sunday in Game 2 against the Houston Astros, the first one in Series history to come after the sixth inning and turn a deficit into a lead.
"How lucky am I," Konerko said, "that I hit a grand slam in the World Series and it's still the second-best thing to happen to me this week?"
Houston did recover, scoring two runs in the ninth to tie the game at six, though the rally served only to set up another addition to Chicago's new oral history. White Sox fans will always remember where they were when Scott Podsednik ended the game with a bottom-of-the-ninth home run off closer Brad Lidge, becoming the first player to hit a walkoff Series homer after hitting no home runs in the regular season.
Indeed, this is a whole new world, not just for little Nicholas but for the rest of White Sox Nation and even for major league baseball. That the Sox, largely unloved and unremarkable for 88 years, would play in the World Series against the similarly vanilla Astros, who had never been to the Series in their previous 43 seasons of existence, signaled the death of baseball's October elitism. The Fall Classic has become a model of democracy.
It's not just that baseball will crown as champion its sixth different franchise in six years, something the sport hasn't done since 1982-90 (when nine different teams won), the NBA hasn't done since 1975-80 and the NFL hasn't done since 1968-73. It's not just that the past 10 World Series berths have been filled by nine different teams, including six that had combined for zero championships since 1954 (Diamondbacks, Angels, Giants, Red Sox, White Sox and Astros).
A beaming commissioner Bud Selig, who helped create the six-division, wild-card format in 1994 and increased revenue sharing among clubs in 2002, said on the field before Game 1 about such democracy, "This wouldn't have been possible eight or nine years ago. You bet it's encouraging."
More than that, though, this matchup proved that World Series Version 2.0 does not require great teams with great players.
The 101st Fall Classic featured:
• the first matchup between teams that ranked no higher than ninth in their respective leagues in runs;
• the longest combined championship 0-fer (0 for 131 seasons, or 0 for 228 if you include the Cubs' contribution to Chicago's drought);
• no .300 hitter for the first time since 1973;
• the fifth team in the last four Series that finished the regular season in second place. Houston won a wild-card spot without ever seriously contending for its division title. It fell eight games out of first place only 30 games into the season and never drew closer, finishing 11 games in arrears of the National League Central champion Cardinals.
Of course, those new rules of engagement took nothing away from the joy and excitement in Chicago, where tickets went for as much as $7,500, or in Houston, where fans so eagerly snapped up the first items of clothing ever made with Astros and World Series on them that some stores limited sales to two items per person.
"I was driving to play golf [last Thursday] and passed a sporting-goods store," Astros pitcher Andy Pettitte said. "There was a line out the door and around the block of people waiting to buy stuff. I've never seen anything like it."
Not long ago the World Series seemed to have established its home office in New York. In the five years between 1996 and 2000, 12 World Series games were played in New York while 14 were farmed out to four other cities like Live with Regis and Kelly remotes. But since then nine of the 26 major league markets have hosted Series games, a de facto rotation system that circulates the game's most powerful emotional currency-no, not $25.99 souvenir T-shirts, but personal World Series memories-among a greater pool of fans.
"It's much bigger than basketball ever was," says White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who also owns the Chicago Bulls and has six NBA championship rings. "The Bulls in the NBA Finals were big because of Michael [Jordan]. But this is bigger than that by a mile. If anybody tries to tell you baseball isn't the biggest thing, they're not facing reality."
On the eve of his Game 1 start, Astros righthander Roger Clemens, appearing in his sixth World Series, nailed the uniqueness of this Fall Classic while seeming to borrow from Sandburg: "We're in Chicago, where the air is a little crisper, the sights are clearer. I'll be very interested, when everything is said and done, to hear the comments from guys who have not been here before."
Of the 50 players in this World Series, 41 were appearing in their first Fall Classic. Only Clemens, three of his former teammates with the Yankees (Pettitte, White Sox righthander Orlando Hernandez and Astros utilityman Jose Vizcaino, whose two-run single tied Game 2 in the ninth) and Houston outfielder Orlando Palmeiro (2002 Angels) had played on a championship team. The Series newbies included Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, who had played the most career games (2,564) before getting to his first Fall Classic, and teammate Jeff Bagwell, who ranked third on that list (2,150).
"I was amazed," Bagwell said after Game 1, "how not nervous I was. I felt an extra calmness."
A smiling Biggio added, "It was everything the World Series is cracked up to be."
And this was in the losing clubhouse. Say this about the Fall Classic: Even with a cast as unfamiliar to the national spotlight as this one, the World Series almost never disappoints. Even when the one iconic player in the Series, Clemens, had to leave Game 1 after two innings with a sore left hamstring, and even when the damp, chilly weather gave the action a film noir look (Chicago catcher A.J. Pierzynski tried not to exhale on pitches so the fog of his breath wouldn't obscure his vision), the level of excitement rose to match the magnitude of the games.
Of course, the White Sox would have it no other way. Their 5-3 and 7-6 wins gave them 67 victories this year by one or two runs, or by the hair on third baseman Joe Crede's chinny-chin-chin. Crede snapped a 3-3 tie in the fourth inning of Game 1 with a solo homer off Clemens's replacement, Wandy Rodriguez, then saved possible game-tying runs with diving backhand plays in the sixth and seventh.
Houston threatened once more in the eighth, putting runners on first and third with no outs. But relief pitchers Neal Cotts and Bobby Jenks whiffed Houston's 4-5-6 hitters, presumably after asking directions to the mound-manager Ozzie Guillen hadn't used his bullpen in 11 days. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it was the first time in World Series history that a team fanned three straight batters with the tying run in scoring position after the sixth inning.
Jenks ended the sequence by blow-torching a 100-mph fastball past Bagwell. Guillen had summoned his burly closer for that confrontation with a vaudevillian signal to the bullpen, extending his arms far out to his sides as if grasping an imaginary refrigerator. Indeed, the 6'3", 270-pound Jenks fits the profile of Chicago legends, be it former Bears icon William (Refrigerator) Perry or Sandburg himself, who seemed to presage Jenks's arrival when he wrote of Chicago one year before the Sox' last world championship, in 1917, "Stormy, husky, brawling/City of the big shoulders."
Chicago is a team built on extraordinarily efficient pitching, especially of late, when it allowed only 39 runs during a franchise-record-tying 14-1 tear through Game 2. Only the Dead Ball era White Sox staffs of 1906 and '08 ever went 14-1 at any point with fewer runs allowed. Moreover, Chicago had thrown 183 consecutive innings without giving up more than two runs in any of them.
That said, the White Sox have also prospered from a run of good fortune that borders on the ridiculous, especially given that for almost a century, this city's well of baseball luck had been emptier than Al Capone's vault. Clemens's untimely departure, for instance, followed Chicago's dodging of two others aces: the Angels' Bartolo Colon (who missed the ALCS because of a shoulder injury) and the Red Sox' Curt Schilling (who pitched the regular-season finale and was scheduled for an ALDS Game 4 start that was wiped out by Chicago's sweep).
Moreover, after cashing in on a dubious umpire's call in Game 2 of the ALCS-the apparent strikeout that wasn't, involving Pierzynski and umpire Doug Eddings-the White Sox did the same in Game 2 of the World Series. With two on and two out in the seventh and Houston holding a 4-2 lead, Chicago rightfielder Jermaine Dye was awarded first base when home plate umpire Jeff Nelson ruled that he'd been hit by a 3-2 pitch, though Dye later admitted that he'd fouled it off. Nelson, though, refused the request of catcher Brad Ausmus to ask other umpires for assistance with the call.
"And I asked him to check the ball to see if it had a black mark [from the bat], but the ball was already gone," Astros manager Phil Garner said. "We didn't get any [help]." Konerko blasted the next pitch, from righthander Chad Qualls, for his one-of-a-kind slam.
Ausmus, with as good an explanation as any for the Sox' run of luck, said later, "Maybe Shoeless Joe's out there."
After Houston tied the game off Jenks in the ninth, Garner gave the ball to Lidge, who was making his first appearance since he served up the monstrous ninth-inning shot to Albert Pujols of St. Louis that decided NLCS Game 5, the first homer that Lidge had allowed in 201/3 career postseason innings. "Our dugout was surprisingly upbeat," Konerko said. "We saw they put their closer in the game and said, 'Let's break their hearts.'"
Just nine pitches later Lidge lost his second straight postseason game on a ninth-inning homer. Podsednik, who didn't go deep once in 507 regular-season at bats, blasted a 96-mph fastball 408 feet through the cold autumnal mist and into the rightfield stands, as unlikely a home run as anyone will ever hit. "I got to 2-1, and I said, Hey, let's put a good swing on this fastball," Podsednik explained. The night lit up with fireworks and with the great, big, silly grins of grown men turned little boys again. "Unbelievable," said Chicago centerfielder Aaron Rowand. "I can't think of words to describe it."
Oh, the Sox and all those who root for them will find the words, of course. Over and over fathers will tell their children about this night, and their children will tell their children. All these years and dreams later, the city of the big shoulders was changed as only a World Series can change it.
More Series coverage, including Tom Verducci's Insider column, at SI.com/baseball.
On Saturday night Jose Contreras threw the first World Series pitch in Chicago since 1959.
Konerko's grand slam made Series history, but it wasn't even the highlight of his week.
Chris Burke scored on a nifty slide to tie Game 2 in the ninth, but then Houston's bullpen faltered.
Crede (left) didn't wait nearly as long as Biggio to get to the Series, but he wasted no time in making his mark.