Baseball Central

Aug. 21, 2006
Aug. 21, 2006

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Aug. 21, 2006

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Baseball Central

The once-comical AL Central is now the best division in the majors. For six days the author traveled through the new center of the baseball universe and found bullpen bar bedlam, ersatz Elvises and more than a hint of October

Sorry, Red Soxrooters. Apologies, Dodgers diehards. Our attention has been pulled elsewhere.This summer the action's in the Midwest, land of cheese curds, pitching phenomsand the American League Central, home to three of the best teams in the gameand one doozy of a playoff scramble. Just follow the headlines. TWINS ROOK FANS12. VERLANDER WINS 14TH. WHITE SOX GRAB WILD-CARD LEAD. It's as if the majorleague gods folded the country in half and shook all the good baseball into thecrease. For those watching from afar, it's hard to comprehend. Isn't this thesame division mocked as the Comedy Central a couple of years ago? Are thosereally the Tigers, the Detroit Tigers, hovering 35 games over .500? What in thename of Al Kaline is going on?

This is an article from the Aug. 21, 2006 issue Original Layout

So I boarded aplane from the West Coast and went to find out. I recruited old friend andfellow journalist Pete DeMarco, a Red Sox fan and the type of guy who considersThe Baseball Encyclopedia to be bedtime reading. We'd meet in Chicago onMonday, Aug. 7, and make a Central circuit, catching four games in four nightswhile surviving on a global diet of Polish sausages, French fries and Americanbeer. Each morning we'd find the red veins of another interstate, then followit to another city and another ballpark full of believers.

Robert Frostwrote, "I never feel more at home in America than at a ball game," andit's hard to disagree. Once my body clock became attuned to the rhythm ofbatting practices, national anthems and seventh-inning stretches, I couldn'tstop. A four-day trip stretched into six because, well, how could I miss aphenom's first start in Minneapolis and, after that, a weekend showdown inChicago? From an R-rated Ozzie Guillen monologue to the musings of a ballparkElvis to the footwear preferences of Jim Leyland, we soaked it all in. Thegames weren't bad either: late comebacks, tape-measure homers, talk of ano-hitter. Postseason fortunes shifted and creaked with each night's boxscores. At every ballpark it felt like Saturday night, as if the whole Midwesthad been given the week off and gone directly to the ball game. As Twinscenterfielder Torii Hunter said when I apprised him of our trip, "Man,you're seeing some good baseball. A couple of years ago teams thought this wasa weak division. Now, nobody wants to play us. It's like the playoffs everynight out here."

Everywhere wewent, that's all people wanted to talk about--who'd be playing where inOctober--though perhaps that was because everywhere we went had a connection tothe game. The exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit was titled"Baseball as America," and it provided an interesting perspective, butwhat we were experiencing was really the opposite: America as Baseball, theheartland through the lens of its native game.

But I'm gettingahead of myself. Let's start this AL Central diary at the beginning, on asteamy night on Chicago's South Side.

MONDAY: Angels atWhite Sox

It's the baseballfan's equivalent of finding a rumpled sawbuck in an old pair of jeans: themakeup game, in this case of a May 11 rainout. Like all the matchups from hereon out, it's an important one for Chicago, which is a half game ahead ofMinnesota and Boston in the wild-card race and nine behind Detroit for thedivision lead.

Regardless, theWhite Sox are still the champs, and it feels like it when we arrive at SoxPark, as the locals call it. (Comiskey works too, but U.S. Cellular doesn'texactly roll off the tongue.) Ticket sales are on pace to hit 2.9 million, notquite on par with the crosstown Cubs, but the highest total since the stadium'sinaugural year, in 1991.

From theomnipresent SOXSIDER T-shirts to a shared abhorrence of the Cubbies, it's clearthat South Side pride runs deep. This is a working-class neighborhood, and itsheroes are blue-collar guys like Bobby Jenks, the hefty, hard-throwing closer,and square-jawed sluggers like Paul Konerko, affectionately known as Paulie.Whereas Wrigley's known as the city's largest singles bar, at Sox Park it's allabout baseball. Well, baseball and getting rowdy.

Exhibit A is theBullpen bar, where we head in the third inning. Buried beneath the rightfieldbleachers, it's exactly what it sounds like: a bar separated from the visitors'bullpen by a sheet of plexiglass. This affords two opportunities. First, theexperience of standing five feet behind a catcher while a major league pitcherwarms up. Second, prime heckling position. "We see it all," says ourwaitress, Amy Heinrich, who's worked at the bar for six years. "The guysbang on the window and taunt the pitchers. And of course the girls flash theirtits so the guys in the bullpen will give them a ball."

As if on cue, halfan inning later a couple of Sox fans engage an Angels reliever in a gesturingmatch that ends with the pitcher's suggesting, by way of his thumb andforefinger, that one of the fans is not endowed with a very big Comiskey.Later, Chicago pitcher Brandon McCarthy empathizes with the Los Angeles staff."That's the toughest bullpen in baseball," he says.

Despite theefforts of the hecklers, the Angels bang three homers in a 6--3 win, droppingthe Sox 10 games behind the Tigers, who have beaten the Twins 9--3 at ComericaPark. As we prepare to leave, we are intercepted by Amy. "You can't see theSouth Side and not see Jimbo's," she says. "That is White Soxbaseball."

So just like that,she's getting off work early and leading us two blocks down Shields Avenue to33rd Street and Jimbo's Lounge, a small joint with crossed bats for a logo. For22 years it's been the unofficial White Sox headquarters, a rough-edged placewhere there are no flat-screen TVs, the beer comes in cans and the jukeboxplays a loop of Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Bruce Springsteen and Journey.Ozzie Guillen used to come in as a player, as did Carlton Fisk and, in recentyears, Aaron Rowand. Only a couple of months ago, Jimbo Levato himself tellsus, Jenks and McCarthy stopped in after a game. Not recognizing them at first,he shooed the players away--Jimbo's both proprietor and bouncer--before doing adouble take. Soon each player had a Miller Lite in front of him and two more inthe on-deck circle. "I didn't dare ask for a mixed drink in there,"McCarthy says.

We meet53-year-old Denise Plaia, a ballpark bartender who brags that all four of herkids had their first legal drink at Jimbo's; the gloriously sideburned TomLitke, who is preparing to take the stage for Elvis Night at the park on Friday(his rule of thumb: "Always finish with Can't Help Falling in Love");and no shortage of locals willing to tell us what's ailing the Sox this season."Pitching's broke," says a guy in a Konerko jersey. "That, andthose damn Tigers ain't losing."

We cut out atmidnight, the tenor of Tony Bennett chasing us out the door and toward Detroit.Those damn Tigers await.

TUESDAY: Twins atTigers

We point ourrented silver Impala east on I-94 and crank up Track 1 on our trip CD, thetheme from This Week in Baseball ("There it is! Number 500 for Michael JackSchmidt"). Indiana welcomes us, then waves us through to Michigan, whichpromises, with a towering sign, GREAT LAKES, GREAT TIMES. We arrive at ComericaPark at 3:15 p.m., hurriedly changing into more respectable clothes in thestadium parking lot, like a couple of college kids on a spring-break road trip.Which, come to think of it, is exactly what we feel like.

The vibe insideComerica before batting practice is as carefree as it was intense in Chicago.This team has found the sweet spot, already 40 games over .500. Out on thefield the players shag balls shadowed by what appears to be a host of BillVeeckian midgets who, upon closer inspection, turn out to be young boys inDetroit unis. There's outfielder Magglio Ordoñez's boy, Magglio Jr.; catcherPudge Rodriguez's boy, Ivan Jr.; and Alexander Jones, son of closer Todd Jones,looking eerily like his dad with wraparound shades and a burly frame. The kidsare allowed out until the end of BP, a rule manager Jim Leyland let the playersvote on at the beginning of the year.

Beloved by theplayers, Leyland is as old school as they come, a baseball traditionalist whowears his spikes all day because, as he puts it, "those coaching shoes makeme feel like an old man. I'll be wearing spikes until the day I die." Hebelieves in strong leadership and no coddling. "I don't really need tomotivate [the players]," he says. "Some of them are making $14 milliona year. That's pretty good motivation, if you ask me." As he says this,he's sitting with his spikes up on a desk, smoking a Marlboro. It occurs to mejust then that if you don't like Jim Leyland, you don't like baseball.

Out of thesix-team AL circuit (né Western League) founded in the 1890s, Detroit's theonly remaining team, so it's comforting to see the Tigers thriving. The city iscertainly enthusiastic, but it appears unsure what to do with a winner after somany seasons of triple-digit losses. During the game we hear few chants andfewer hecklers. In fact, the only thing the fans seem to do much of, besidescheer, is the wave, which, when started in the seventh inning, goes around notonce, not twice, but three full times. "It's day and night from how it usedto be," explains Jones. "The fans used to come and rip the toilet-paperdispensers off the wall of Tiger Stadium because they were so frustrated. We'redoing well this year, so there's a lot of lovey, touchy-feely feeling overhere."

On this night, theTwins hold off a ninth-inning Tigers' rally for a 4--2 win and as the fans fileout, word comes in from Chicago: Konerko hit a ninth-inning homer off Yankeescloser Mariano Rivera to tie the game before the Sox won it in the 11th. With aweekend series against Chicago looming, there's the faint but unmistakablescent of a division race in the air.

WEDNESDAY: Yankeesat White Sox

Like base runnerstagging up, we reverse directions and head back to Chicago, if not at the speedof light, then at least at the speed of a Johan Santana changeup. We're makinggood time until we see a sign on I-94 near the rural town of Bridgman, Mich.,beckoning like a roadside siren. It reads CAPTAIN MIKE'S FUN PARK and, inletters below, BATTING CAGES. Well, we do have half an hour to spare. It's 50cents for 10 pitches, and we hack away until we've tweaked all our major backmuscles. There's something soothing about batting cages--the hitching windup ofthat metal arm, the metronomic rhythm of the exercise, the memories of LittleLeague Saturdays. Standing in the sun in a small town in the heartland,blasting balls into the net, I remember why I fell in love with the game.

All right, snapout of it: The Yankees await in Chicago. The presence of the Bronx Bombers hasgenerated an undeniable buzz. For the White Sox it's also a good measuringstick. Despite the Central's banner season, New York has had its way with thedivision, sweeping Chicago only three weeks before. Jenks argues that theBombers are just another team, saying, "I think we have a bigger seriescoming up against Minnesota." And while he may be right, with the mediacrush and the clusters of fans waiting outside the park in Derek Jeter jerseys,it sure doesn't feel that way.

In the White Soxdugout ever-voluble manager Ozzie Guillen begins his informal press conference.As usual, it's divided into two parts: 15 minutes or so of standard baseballquestions, then 15 minutes or so of Ozzie talking (profanely) about whatever ison Ozzie's mind. Here's Ozzie on his job: "There's only two reasons whyanyone would manage in Chicago. Either you're f----- up or you'rerich."

On the instructorof the sensitivity class that Major League Baseball ordered him to take afterhe insulted a Chicago columnist with a homophobic remark: "I teach himbaseball and he teaches me about my s---."

On New York'smanager: "Joe Torre's a class act, f-----' unbelievable. He's soclassy."

Game time. Peteand I share a table on the terrace of the Bullpen bar with two Sox fans, one ofwhom, 32-year-old Rick Klasen, has been at the park since 3:30 to snag a primespot. By the sixth inning the Sox are down 7--0 and remain hitless againstlefty Randy Johnson, the 42-year-old strikeout artist who's struggled thisseason. Rick, talkative early in the game, now has his shaved head in hishands. "Please, let's get at least one hit," he mutters. "I'll bepissed if I see a no-hitter."

Then it happens.First the no-no disappears on second baseman Tadahito Iguchi's single; soonafter the shutout (and Johnson) is gone too. In the eighth it's Iguchi again,this time going yard to make it 7--3. Fireworks explode above centerfield, andthe stands turn into a frothing mass. Not five minutes later the sky lights upagain as third baseman Joe Crede smacks a three-run homer to make it 7--6. Nowit's bedlam. AC/DC's Thunderstruck is booming. There's beer in the air, beer onthe picnic tables, beer on my notebook. Rick is running the length of thepatio, high-fiving Sox fans and taunting New York ones. Pete and I are gettinghugged by people we've never met. It's the type of passionate, inclusive fandomyou only get in the Midwest.

Down 7--6 in theninth, slugger Jim Thome comes up with two out and runners at the corners. Nextto me Rick has struck a pose somewhere between bowing to Mecca and flexing hispectorals. "C'mon, c'mon, c'mon," he chants. On the mound Rivera deals,and Thome takes a mighty hack ... and grounds out to second base. There will beno more fireworks tonight. Still, there's something about the comeback that haspeople jazzed. The consensus: Team's coming together.

FRIDAY: Blue Jaysat Twins

Two days havepassed, and I've covered the 395 miles from Chicago to Minneapolis and,lamentably, lost my wingman along the way. Pete had to head back toBoston--something about having a real job, responsibilities. As I dropped himat O'Hare, he left me with this parting plaint: "Damn, I really wanted tosee Garza."

He's not the onlyone. Garza is Minnesota rookie righthander Matt Garza, called up to replace theinjured rookie sensation Francisco Liriano, who is out indefinitely withligament damage in his left elbow. Only a year removed from Fresno State, the22-year-old Garza has jumped from Class A ball to AAA in four months, amassingsome Liriano-like numbers along the way: 14--4, 1.99 ERA, 154 strikeouts in 1352/3 innings.

I arrive to findthe Twin Cities in Garza-palooza. His photo is splashed across the top of theSaint Paul Pioneer Press, and a feature on Garza occupies a good half of thefront of the sports section. The buzz is not just due to his talent but what herepresents: a chance. The wild-card race, in which the Twins trail by half agame, may well come down to Garza's right arm. "Let's not expect him to bePedro Martinez right out of the gate," Hunter cautions beforehand, "butif he does come out and dominate, then we can talk."

Garza's 6'4"and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and an easy smile. Only he's not smilingtoo much today. Four hours before game time and already he's fidgeting,cracking through gum vigorously and pacing in the clubhouse; he'd later explainthat he "kept looking up at the clock and it wouldn't move." Hereceives a momentary reprieve when all the Twins are herded to the field for ateam photo, whereupon analyst Bert Blyleven takes it upon himself to enliventhe proceedings.

"Hey, guys,tell me if I have hemorrhoids or not!" Blyleven yells from next to thephotographer, then does a 180 and yanks down his pants. Laughter and groans allaround. "Did you shave?" yells Hunter. Blyleven proceeds to grace theteam with two more moonrises. Even Garza cracks up.

At 7:11 p.m. thekid takes the mound to a standing ovation, then promptly strikes out Torontoleadoff hitter Reed Johnson (which prompts another standing O!) and, one batterlater, whiffs All-Star Vernon Wells on a nasty 76-mph curve ball. It's not hardto imagine every fan in the Metrodome thinking the same thing: He could be theone.

Then it all fallsapart. Garza's too amped up--he later says he was shaking so badly he thoughtthe ump might call a balk--and he loses control of his fastball, not to mentionconfidence in his breaking ball. He lasts only 2 2/3 innings, giving up sevenruns on eight hits. After the 7--1 loss Minnesota manager Ron Gardenhire says,"He can really throw the ball, but you have to be able to use more than onepitch up here." Still, when Garza exits, the good people of Minneapolisgive him a third standing ovation. It seems a uniquely Midwestern gesture, anacceptance and inclusion of Garza rather than a pillorying, the equivalent of31,814 people telling him "thanks for trying." Here in Minneapolis,civility reigns. There are no fights in the stands, no hecklers, justenthusiastic, supportive applause. It's enough to make a guy eager to get backto Chicago.

SATURDAY: Tigersat White Sox

I arrive viaO'Hare, bringing me full circle on this diamond expedition. BACK INBLACK trumpets the headline on the back of the Chicago Sun-Times. And,indeed, the White Sox are back after a 5--0 win on Friday night in the openerof their three-game series against Detroit, cutting the Tigers' lead to 7 1/2games. Making matters more interesting, the Sox have taken seven of 10 fromDetroit this season, prompting Guillen to say, "I wish we could play themevery night." Former Tigers manager Sparky Anderson once said it takes aweek to gain one game on a team in a pennant race; the Sox are playing as ifthey might pick up three in a weekend.

Chicago lefty MarkBuehrle comes out channeling Sandy Koufax, striking out a season-high seven inthe first three innings. Only thing is, Detroit starter Kenny Rogers ispitching even better, with a no-hitter through four. First Johnson, now this.Apparently I'm good luck for cantankerous fortysomething pitchers.

In the fifthDetroit's Sean Casey sends one into the rightfield bleachers, just above theBullpen bar, to give the Tigers a 3--0 lead. Aided by three Detroit errors, theWhite Sox draw even in the bottom of the inning, then tack on another run.Before I know it, Jenks is jogging in from the pen to protect a 4--3 lead inthe ninth. Just then it dawns on me: After a week on the road, this could bethe first time I see a home team win.

Down goes theheart of the Tigers' order: Rodriguez, then Ordoñez and, finally, shortstopCarlos Guillen. White Sox win! Then it's fireworks and high fives, and--mostnotably--it's O.K. to talk in numerals again. Six-and-a-half games. We have arace.

Of course, neitherteam wants to admit as much after the game--except for rookie outfielder BrianAnderson, who had two big RBIs. Not yet versed in baseball bromides, he nodsvigorously when asked about the series, saying, "Oh, yeah, to go out andsweep these guys would be huge." (The next day Chicago completes the sweepwith a 7--3 win. Five-and-a-half games.)

He's right, anddespite my flight home on Sunday, I'm tempted to hang around. I've been suckedinto the jet stream of the Central race, and I'm having a hard time bailingout. Part of it is the games, sure, but part of it is the sense of communityand identity that's particular to sports fans in this part of the country,where I never stopped being surprised when a stranger offered a hearty hellojust because he and I happened to be at the same park. It brings to mindsomething Amy Heinrich, our White Sox waitress, said when I asked her what sheliked most about her job: "No one comes to the ballpark in a badmood."

She's right.Leaving the ballpark, though, is a different story. As I packed for home, I washeartened by an e-mail that pinged onto my laptop from a certain friend back inBoston. "Keep in mind," Pete wrote, "the playoffs are a great timefor road trips."

> BlogCentral
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"A couple of years ago, teams thought this was aweak division," the Twins' Hunter says. "Now, NOBODY WANTS TO PLAYUS."
We're getting hugged by people we've never met. It'sthe type of PASSIONATE, INCLUSIVE FANDOM you can only get in the Midwest.
THREE PHOTOSPhotographs by Al TielemansTOUR DEFORCE - During a 1,376-mile trip, the author took in the debut of phenom Garza(left), a close one at Comerica (top) and a series in Chicago in which allthree games were decided by one run.
THREE MAPSPRECEDING PAGES: MAPS BY UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS LIBRARIES, THE UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTINTHREE PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS (3)SOXAPPEAL - As Chicago made a stand for the fans at home, Tigers offspring shaggedflies in BP and the Twins kept their focus.
THREE PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS; ANN HEINSENFELT/AP; JOHN BIEVERBURNINGBRIGHT - Granderson (far left) and Ordoñez enjoyed a Tigers win, while fans gota kick out of Sideburn Night and Elvis imitators.
THREE PHOTOSAL TIELEMANS (3)CHANGEUP- By week's end, Guillen's sneer was gone, as was Pudge's smile and theoffensive production of Mauer and the Twins.