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MY TURN AT BAT

And That's a White Sox Winner!
By Douglas Bukowski

Moses spent forty years in search of the Promised Land. For reasons unknown, the White Sox chose to double that figure and tack on another eight years for good measure. Only then did Chicago earn its first World Series championship since 1917. So now, frustration compounded by the decade suddenly yields to celebration. Does estrangement give way as well?

The White Sox weren't the only ones who took too long. I did, too, by holding on to the adolescent notion of baseball as more game than business. This led me, at the age of twenty-nine, to deplore the free-agent signing of Carlton Fisk. Honorable teams didn't raid an opponent's roster, or so I thought. It somehow escaped my notice that Fisk decided on his own to leave Boston for Chicago. Instead, I confused the ideal of loyalty with the reality of the reserve clause.

More than anything, a brush with stadium politics pushed me into adulthood. I had always assumed a protective shield enveloped Comiskey Park the way it did Wrigley Field; beginning in the mid-1980s, White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf sought to prove otherwise. He derided his ballpark as an economic albatross, and a badly deteriorating one at that. Reinsdorf wanted a new, publicly financed stadium; I joined a group intent on saving his old ballpark. Never the two did meet.

The preservation argument of Save Our Sox stressed the civic function of Comiskey Park—this was where the masses and classes mixed, quite unlike Wrigley Field. And they had done it under the park's graceful brick arches for generations, from the time of Shoeless Joe Jackson to Ted Lyons to Minnie Minoso to Dick Allen and, yes, Carlton Fisk. A friend of the writer Nelson Algren once told me that Algren took his then-girlfriend Simone de Beauvoir of The Second Sex fame to games in the late 1940s. My father and I started going in the early 1960s.

Reinsdorf has always been uncomfortable with media attention, especially when he fires people (Tony LaRussa and Jerry Manuel); trades them (the infamous "white flag" deal of July 31, 1997, that pulled the plug on the season with the Sox just three and a half games behind division-leading Cleveland); lets them go via free agency (fan favorites Robin Ventura and Magglio Ordonez); or chooses management hardball over baseball tradition (the 1994 World Series that never was). Me, I would have killed for all that attention. With preservation there is no bad press.

I especially remember an early meeting of the Illinois Sports Facilities Authority, to which I had inadvertently worn my invisibility cape. The White Sox were busy pressing their stadium design, one they have since spent $69 million on renovations trying to undo. At one point I stood up and asked, "Doesn't anybody want to hear the other side?" The answer was no. Critics dismissed preservation with a metaphor, an old Model T versus this year's model. Everybody who was anybody said it was time to trade up. But cars come with "lemon law" protection that stadiums lack. The new Comiskey (now U.S. Cellular Field) compounds poor design with a bad lease that keeps the stadium authority from sharing in postseason revenue. What an odd message to send: The Public Be Damned—Go Sox!

A more immediate problem surfaced on Opening Day 1991, when fans had their first encounter with an upper deck reeking of vertigo. They learned what architect Philip Bess had warned about—that the first row of seats behind home plate in the new upper deck would be located farther from the field than the last row of seats behind home in the old upper deck. Not that the media noticed. The new press box was made comfortable and located close to the field.

During the 1993 playoffs against Toronto, a reporter did rouse himself enough to complain about surprisingly low noise levels at the two-year-old stadium. Had Sox fans, with their perpetual "Na Na Na Na, Hey Hey-ey, Goodbye" gone and taken a group vow of silence? Hardly. It was more a factor of that upper deck, touted as pillar free and perfectly sighted. Such are the benefits of cantilevered construction. There are also drawbacks.

The thing is, fans and the excitement they generate both get terraced away in the new stadiums. Incessant complaints over nosebleed seats led to major alterations of the upper deck by the White Sox following the 2003 season. They took out the top eight rows and put in a more traditional roof—one supported by those once-upon-a-time objectionable posts. This alteration has redirected at least some of the escaping noise back toward the field.

Ironically, the sound issue echoed its way into the World Series, at another and supposedly better-designed "retro" stadium. In Houston, the Astros' front office wanted the games at Minute Maid Park to be played with the retractable roof closed; the team tends to play better when shut in. What a surprise. The roof has to stay shut so this new park can sound as raucous as the old one. Who knew? The commissioner ruled in favor of the Sox and open skies.

Chicago and Houston fans willing to address any noise deficits first had to confront the cost of attending a Series game. Each team made available a relative handful of single-game tickets. Fans either had to wait in line for those, have season-ticket packages with postseason tie-ins, or try their luck elsewhere. Ticket brokers, known as "scalpers" in less-enlightened times, didn't exactly sell cheap. Most tickets ranged from $1,000 to $10,000. Ebay offered yet another expensive alternative.

When the Sox and Astros moved into new facilities, they didn't think it important to provide seating for all that many fans. Old Comiskey had room for nearly 47,000 in 1959, while the Astrodome seated just under 55,000 when it closed in 1999. Their replacements have a considerably smaller capacity—39,000 in Chicago versus 41,000 in Houston. Fewer seats overall, more seats located farther from the action. If baseball really wants to grow its fan base, teams may have to ditch their new stadiums or find ways to expand capacity.

Of course, not everyone may want to see a return of games played at venues like Cleveland's Municipal Stadium or the Coliseum in Los Angeles, where a record 92,706 people watched Game 5 of the 1959 Series. At some point we're all couch potatoes, and the Series looks just as good, even better, on television. That is, except for the avalanche of commercials. The fans in the stands shiver through the October cold while those at home grow slack-jawed between innings. The tube may yet be the death of our pastime and us.

Wherever fans watched it, the 2005 Series at least treated them to an absence of grating personalities, apart from Chicago's Carl Everett. This generally unhappy man has taken it upon himself to challenge the existence of dinosaurs; he thinks they're a hoax perpetrated by nineteenth-century pranksters. Otherwise, the White Sox are a model franchise for good-natured diversity, and this is to Jerry Reinsdorf's credit. They have a black general manager, Venezuelan manager, Korean bullpen coach, and a roster straight out of an old World War II buddy movie: Brooklyn, meet Missouri, and guys, Japan over there plays second. Yet I couldn't feel the same connection to these players that I had for Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox, or Ted Kluszewski.

Early in the playoffs, the Chicago Tribune did a feature on the "gritty, workman approach" of first baseman Paul Konerko, who "almost seemed destined to star for this blue-collar team in this blue-collar town." In the new journalism, "blue collar" comes out to $8.75 million a year, jumping to $12 million per season for 2006 through 2010. If only that definition were a benchmark for the American workforce.

While two wrongs don't make a right, the feudal baseball practiced in the days before free agency possessed certain virtues. Player and fan alike were underpaid, with pensions an idea their respective bosses were slow to accept. Now, fans are left on their own to worry about retirement. The players are doing quite well, and no one in their union has seen fit to say anything in support of the workers struggling at United Airlines or Delphi auto parts.

But maybe I complain too much. This is the world we live in. To pretend or insist otherwise means reprising the role of King Canute. The waves just don't listen the way they should. And at some point too much criticism leads to the mind-set of a Richard Ben Cramer. His Joe DiMaggio: The Hero's Life stands out as possibly the meanest book I have ever read. It's hard to tell which Cramer disliked more, DiMaggio or the game he played so well. There is no joy for me in that kind of writing.

Anyway, I have proof enough that baseball retains its power, if only for a moment or two, to transform us again into children: Jerry Reinsdorf cried in public. He did it in front of hundreds of thousands of fans downtown during the welcome-home party for the World Champs. Holding the ball used to record the last out in the Series, Reinsdorf fought back tears long enough to say, "Getting this ball from Paul Konerko is the most emotional moment of my life." Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Life changes Jerry Reinsdorf, life changes me.

The subject of change failed to register with the national media. Poor Joe Buck, having to talk about the long-shuttered Stock Yards as if they still employed workers by the tens of thousands. But maybe Buck deserves a pass for his faux pas, if only because Chicagoans are stuck in the same past. We are a city proud of its "Grabowski" heritage, as ex˝Bears coach Mike Ditka put it. Then again, Ditka is rich, and so is anyone who can afford a skybox. Call it the Chicago Paradox. I suffer from it, too, as a onetime professor who insists on dropping his g's when talking to people. You can take the boy out of the South SideÍ.

The most interesting phenomenon coming out of the Series was all the talk about death it generated. Never in my life has the local news media devoted so much attention to a discussion of dead people, absent some sort of disaster. A staple of sports reporting during any playoff is the story about the home team's magical season bringing someone back from the brink of death. And the fate of all those sickly fans rooting for other teams? 20/20 may want to check into it.

For once, the Chicago media went beyond the miraculous-cure clich╚ in its feature coverage. For example, there was the story about how the White Sox had literally killed off a long-suffering Cub fan (so much for the myth that North Siders don't pay attention to baseball on the other side of town), along with numerous accounts of fans who wished their deceased mother or father or uncle had only lived to see the 2005 Series. People visited cemeteries to adorn graves with a floral display spelling out S-O-X. One such display was found on the grave of Richard J. Daley.

If I had done that for my father, he would've visited me in a dream to ask, "What are you, stupid? How much did you pay for those flowers?" Edwin Bukowski was a practical man. So I honored him and the team he brought me to in another way. I watched the World Series in a wooden seat from the real Comiskey Park. It's one of two I have as a fortieth birthday gift to myself, the cost of which my father never learned.

One seat is painted blue, the other red, per the color scheme used at the time of my first game in 1962. I imagine the people who sat in those seats before me: Algren, Al Capone, Daley, James T. Farrell, Bill Veeck—White Sox fans all. And Edwin Bukowski.

My daughter Clare sat in the other seat. She had a very good season playing baseball in the summer of 2005; at the age of thirteen, she batted well over .300 for the first time in her career. It really seemed to help when I told her how much she reminded me of Sox center fielder Aaron Rowand. Both of them are compact, powerful, and prone to leaving fans, to say nothing of parents, with a collective heart in the throat for their breakneck style of play.

For four nights we sat in the living room and watched. We were two children, unaware that Rowand would be traded a month later or that longtime White Sox radio announcer John Rooney would soon be hired to call Cardinals games. What we did know the second Orlando Palmiero grounded into the final out of the Series was, as Rooney had said over the course of eighteen years, "That's a White Sox winner!"

Nothing else mattered.

—EFQ

DOUGLAS BUKOWSKI is a Chicago writer and author. His most recent book is Pictures of Home.

© 2006 Douglas Bukowski

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