May 8, 2005
In a perfect world—or, at least, in a better one—I would have watched the Bulls and Wizards play Game 7 at the United Center this afternoon. That was not the case. Instead I spent my Monday getting a few things ready for camp, little preparation jobs like accessing my gym shoe situation and re-breaking in my glove. I also spent this afternoon reacquainting myself with the current baseball season, a season that I’ve pretty much ignored in favor of focusing entirely on the Bulls playoff run. I haven’t ignored the season completely, but if you had to choose between focusing your attention and energy on the surging Bulls or the slumping Cubs, what would you choose?
Now the Bulls are done, and I feel like a parent who returns home from a much needed vacation and finds the house in disarray. I knew that the Cubs were struggling just to stay above .500, but the Bulls gave me the leeway to forget almost entirely about baseball and simply live in a world where the team I root for is in the postseason. I haven’t thought too much about the Cubs lately, and it’s gotten to the point where I’ll miss the whole game and just catch the score on the radio. If they win, awesome. If they lose, who cares? I’m watching the playoffs.
Of course, reality was always there…somewhere. And I knew that very soon, I would be forced to face it. So I enjoyed the Bulls to my fullest, and now…well, now I’m returning to discover what every other Cub fan already knows: the wind is blowing in, the vendors are out of beer, and we’re down ten runs with two outs in the ninth. Oh, and by the way, the White Sox have the best record in baseball.
There was some good news today. The Cubbies beat Philadelphia 2-1 behind Carlos Zambrano to prevent a Philly sweep and stop the bleeding on a seven game—SEVEN GAME???!!—losing streak. The White Sox also have a streak going, one they extended today with a 5-4 win over Toronto, and while their streak has lasted eight games instead of seven, it’s a different kind of streak. They are in the midst of what is commonly referred to as a “winning streak.” Eight in a row, 16 of 19, an MLB-best record of 24-7. The White Sox.
So that’s reality, and all things considered, it’s rather surprising. What’s not surprising, however, is the lack of excitement over the Sox’s hot start. If the Cubs were running away with the division at 24-7 behind a fun manager and good pitching, the city would shut down. People would have watched the Bulls’ Game 6 meltdown and said, “Thank goodness, now we can finally watch the Cubs with no distractions.” But that’s not the way things go on the South Side, where even a first-place club can’t sell out its own park. The announced attendance at Wrigley today was 38,656, which according to ESPN.com makes our park 97.7% full. In the White Sox’s most recent home game—a 2-1 win over the Royals on May 5th that finished off a series sweep of Kansas City and gave the Sox five wins in a row and a mark of 21-7—the announced attendance at The Cell was 15,389…which, if you were wondering, leaves two-thirds of the stadium’s newly painted seats empty.
The Sox have now won three more games to boost their streak to eight. When they return home on Thursday the 12th they will more than likely still be baseball’s best, and what will the best team in baseball probably get upon returning to their home city and their home stadium and their home fans?
Approximately 30,000 empty seats.
It doesn’t matter what the Sox do. U.S. Cellular Field, in all of its renovated glory, will always be empty. And the Cubbies, those darlings of baseball, will always take the field in front of nearly 40,000 screaming fans. And that, my friends, is what our parents meant when they looked down at us all those many years ago and shocked us with the three words we’ve all learned to accept: “Life isn’t fair.”
Do not be amazed by what I am about to say. Do not read into it or look for deeper meaning or attempt to figure out what kind of mental state I am in as I write it. I believe this through and through: The Chicago White Sox are hands down the saddest franchise in all of sports. People talk and talk and talk about the Cubs and the Red Sox, about curses and what ifs, about a routine ground ball that scooted under the first baseman’s legs and a routine foul ball that was knocked away by a fan. People talk about Bartman and Buckner, about Bucky Dent and Brant Brown and Aaron Boone. They talk about the Evil Empire and the ’69 Mets, about incredible starts and legendary collapses. They talk about a goat—a GOAT—that wasn’t allowed into a stadium, and a very good but still mortal pitcher sold to a rival and then blossoming into a cultural icon and Hall-of-Fame slugger. They throw around words like “epic” and “tragic” and “fate” and “curse,” and they make movies and write books and produce television programs that document the pain and suffering of Cub fans and Red Sox fans, and they do all of this without looking for one instant at the saddest team of all.
The Cubs last won a championship in 1908, the longest title drought of any professional sports team. Until last fall, the Red Sox were high on that list, having gone 86 years without a title. 86 years is certainly a long time, but do you know what’s longer than 86 years? 87 years, as in 87 years since the last time the White Sox have won a title.
So the Cubs haven’t won a title since 1908. OK, that sucks. But the White Sox haven’t won one since 1917. 1908, 1917. 97 years ago, 88 years ago. Get the point? If there is an emotional difference for a fan between going 97 years without a title and going 88 years without a title, then I would like to know it. Even as I sit here and consider the remote—and, quite frankly, hilarious—possibility of a 95-year-old Cubs fan in a nursing home somewhere being teased mercilessly by his 95-year-old Sox fan roommate, I still can’t say that one is any easier than the other. 1908, 1917, 1918…they’re all interchangeable.
I understand the discrepancy. The White Sox have the misfortune of being bad without style or drama. Sure they have the Black Sox scandal, which some refer to as the Black Sox curse in an effort to gain some notoriety and sympathy, but they haven’t lost in shocking and dramatic ways. Bartman sticks his hand out, people say, “Oh, it’s the Billy Goat.” The ball goes under Buckner’s legs, people say, “Oh, it’s the Babe.” The Sox get swept in the 2000 ALDS, or lose to Toronto in six games in the 1993 ALCS, and they just got beat. No myth. No curse. No Shakespearian collapse. They lost. That’s it.
They also have the misfortune of playing baseball in the same market as arguably the most popular franchise in all of sports. The Cubs dominate this city in just about every possible way imaginable. It’s not even close.
1. Ballpark- Wrigley Field vs. U.S. Cellular Field
Explanation: On its own terms, the Cell is a terrific park, and though I dislike the name change, I must admit that the sight lines are great, the food is better, and the new fan-zones that they’ve built look awesome. That said, you just can’t top Wrigley Field. The park is an attraction in and of itself—Comiskey may have been, though to a lesser extent, but the Cell definitely is not—and when you add to that park the surrounding neighborhood of Wrigleyville, it’s a lethal combination.
2. Legend- Billy Goat Curse vs. Black Sox Scandal
Explanation: The Billy Goat Curse is so ridiculous that it’s fun. Fans enjoy it, because they know that it’s kind of absurd. I mean, the guy wanted to bring his goat into the park and couldn’t. On the other hand, eight guys lost the World Series on purpose.
3. Perception- Lovable Losers vs. Losers
Explanation: Again, pretty self-explanatory. The Cubs trademarked the “Lovable Loser” schtick, making it nearly impossible not to have fun at a game. As I explained earlier, there’s more to it than that—being a Cub fan is about appreciating the good things in life, so winning is sweeter and losing is just a part of the game—but the perception is that the Cubs are fun no matter what. The White Sox, on the other hand, don’t have a schtick. They just don’t win. And maybe even worse than that, they’re rarely awful. The Cubs have had some pretty incredibly awful seasons, seasons in which you would go absolutely insane if your emotions were tied to wins and losses. So Cubs fans makedo by accepting losing as a way of life, and once we do that we’re free to simply enjoy a nice day at the ballpark.
White Sox fans don’t have that kind of mentality, because they’re always a lot closer to winning. Take the 1990s, for example. The Sox won 816 games in the ’90s, good for fourth in the decade behind the Braves (925 wins, 8 postseason appearances, 5 pennants, 1 World Series win), Yankees (851, 5, 3, 3) and Indians (823, 5, 2, 0). But the Sox’ 816 wins yielded only one postseason appearance, a division championship in 1993. While the Cubs had their moment in the sun in the one-game playoff win over San Francisco at Wrigley in 1998, the Sox played no top shelf memorable games in the ’90s. Not one. In fact, all of their most memorable moments were bad. In 1991 they moved into New Comiskey, which was the last of the big ballparks. In 1992, Baltimore moved into Camden Yards, setting off the current trend of small retro parks built in the mold of Wrigley and Fenway. In 1994, the Sox were building on their 1993 success with a 67-46 record when the strike wiped out the rest of the season. In 1995 while only 3 ½ games out of first place, the Sox orchestrated the infamous “White Flag Trade” in which they sent Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez, and Danny Darwin to the Giants for six minor leaguers, effectively giving up on the season.
Sure the trade ended up being a positive one for the Sox with Keith Foulke and Bobby Howry helping them to an AL-best 95 wins in 2000, but nobody knew that then and the move sent Sox fans up in arms. The 1990s typified the marketing problems that face the White Sox today: teams that were good enough to compete but never dominant and rarely memorable mixed with bad luck, bad timing, and bad public relations. All of it adds up to a squad that is second fiddle in its own city.
So, which is a sadder story? Is it the Cubs, a baseball team that hasn’t won a title since 1908 but compensates that with a great ballpark that is always full, a great fan base, and a fun-loving reputation? Or is it the White Sox, a baseball team that hasn’t won a title since 1917 and is strapped with an out-of-date ballpark in a lousy neighborhood with teams that are just good enough to give fans a whiff of winning while never dominating and rarely leaving a lasting impression, and on top of all that a team faced with in-city competition from arguably the most popular franchise in sports?
To me, the answer is simple: life is much better on the North Side than it is on the South Side. We have it great, as do the Red Sox, even without their title last year. Even if the Yankees had finished off their sweep of Boston in the ALCS and gone on to win another meaningless championship, Red Sox fans would still have it better than White Sox fans, and for lots of the same reasons that Cubs fans have it better than White Sox fans. Red Sox fans have an identity, and a team that has given them lots of memories. Sure they’re unpleasant memories, but they’re memories just the same. Losing makes winning better, and losing dramatically makes for better stories than losing normally.
Would Boston’s World Series win last year been as sweet without Bucky Dent and Bill Buckner and Aaron Boone? Of course not. Would they rather lose in obscurity like the White Sox do? Would they rather lose without drama, without remarkable, unexplainable plays that go against them, without the curse of the Babe to fall back on? Of course not. Having a widely-recognizable curse means that a loss isn’t really a loss. It’s just “the way things are.” If you lose with a curse, it’s because your team is cursed. If you lose without a curse, it’s because your team is bad. You’re telling me that Red Sox or Cubs fans would rather be bad than cursed? That they’d rather be regular schmoes like the White Sox or Indians or Giants or Astros or Brewers instead of the Red Sox, a team with a legend and a Shakespearian history? You’re telling me that we would have rather lost a World Series the way Cleveland did in 1997? Game 7 of the World Series, and the Indians—a team that last won a World Series in 1948—headed into the bottom of the ninth with a 2-1 lead on Florida, an expansion team in its fifth year of existence. Instead of holding the lead and capturing Cleveland’s first professional title since the Browns won the NFL Championship in 1964, the Indians blew the lead and ended up losing the game and the series 3-2 in the bottom of the 11th.
How did the Indians lose their lead in the ninth, you might ask? Perhaps it was an easy groundball to first base that went under the legs of Jim Thome and allowed Florida to tie the game. Or perhaps leftfielder Dave Justice was unable to catch a Craig Counsell foul ball because an Indians fan interfered with the play, and with new life Counsell sent the very next pitch into center field for a game-tying base hit. Or perhaps after catching a fly ball in center field, Marquis Grissom trotted absentmindedly towards the dugout thinking he had made the third out of the inning when in fact it was only the second, giving Moises Alou time to tag up at third and score.
Any one of those plays would have signaled an Epic Collapse on the part of the Indians. The play would have gone down in history as another in a long line of unbelievable game-changing plays in sports, leaving Cleveland fans wondering if perhaps, on this night, fate was against them. Losing like that allows fans the opportunity to chuckle a bit at the bizarre twists and turns of life, because those plays turn losing into epic tragedies that extend beyond sports. In a sense, they take the players off the hook.
But nothing I’ve listed above happened in the ninth inning of Game 7 of the 1997 World Series. Nothing spectacular happened, nothing memorable happened, and nothing otherworldly happened. Moises Alou singled, reached third on a hit by Charles Johnson, and scored on a sacrifice fly to right by Craig Counsell. That’s it. Routine baseball. A hit to get it going, another to move the runner along, and a deep sac fly to score him. Get ‘em on, get ‘em over, get ‘em in. Epic? Not even close. Memorable? Hardly. Prelude to Edgar Renteria’s game-winning hit in the 11th? Sure. But legendary? No way. You think Boston fans would have preferred that ending? You think they would have rather seen Ray Knight reach third on Bob Stanley’s wild pitch, and then have Mookie Wilson score Knight on a deep sac fly to right? Come on. (And yes, I know that there were already two outs in the inning when the Mets rallied, but you get my point.) Boston’s tenth inning collapse was incredibly painful, as was Buckner’s error, but by losing the way they did rather than the way Cleveland did, Boston fans were given an opportunity to elevate the play from “Unfortunate But Normal Sports Occurrence” to “Preordained Tragedy,” and in turn elevate themselves from “Unfortunate But Normal Sports Fans” to “Victims of a Cruel Fate.” And perhaps, most importantly of all, losing the way they did rather than the way Cleveland did gave Boston fans a memorable game that strengthened their fandom and ultimately made their 2004 championship that much sweeter.
And really, that’s what you want as a sports fan: memories. Red Sox fans talk about the pain that sprung from Bill Buckner and Bucky Dent and Aaron Boone just as Cubs fans talk about the pain that sprung from the ’69 Mets and Steve Bartman, but along with the pain comes joy, because everybody loses, but how many teams lose the way the Cubs and Red Sox lose? How many teams lose with flair, drama, and a sense of history? How many teams lose in big games with everyone watching, as opposed to in the regular season in unspectacular fashion? There is joy in being a Cubs or Red Sox fan; joy in knowing that your pain makes you stand out, and joy in knowing that you’ve been through something horrible and lived to talk about it. It’s that pain that had people rooting for a Cubs-Red Sox World Series in 2003, and it’s that pain that made the 2004 Red Sox a national story. It’s that pain that makes “Fever Pitch” a hit movie, and it’s that pain that packs Wrigley Field day in and day out, because miserable memorable moments are always better than miserable unmemorable moments.
Here in the early going, in this young 2005 baseball season, the Cubs are floundering and struggling to find an identity. But their ballpark is packed, and if they turn it around and head to the playoffs, ESPN and Sports Illustrated and the Score and every single baseball fan, critic, pundit, historian, and novice on this planet will be talking about the Cubs and their attempt to “reverse the curse” and win their first World Series in almost a century. Meanwhile, on the other side of town, the White Sox have the best record in baseball, and no one cares.
That, my friends, is a painful existence.