May 17, 2005
Mondays are Half Price Night at U.S. Cellular Field, and so Meghan, Luke, Lorrie, Swami, and I hopped on the El earlier tonight and went down to the park for the Sox-Rangers game. We got there an hour before the first pitch, bought five right field seats at 13 bucks a pop, and went to enjoy a night of baseball.
While many White Sox fans are rabid Cub-haters, Cub fans are generally pretty genial when it comes to the Sox. You’ll see a few “SOX SUCK” t-shirts at Wrigley every so often—or even the delightfully clever “SUX”—but that’s about it. I would never wear one of those shirts, as I have never been anti-Sox. Frankly, I really don’t care what they do. If the White Sox are having a good year, I usually get into them somewhat, because the more you watch a team the more you come to appreciate them, and since the Sox are a Chicago club I’m always up to date their doings. If they’re winning, let ‘em win. It doesn’t bother me. And if they’re losing, I just don’t pay much attention. It’s not like with the Cubbies, who are my team. Going to a Sox game is like going to any other game in any other city, like when Meghan and I went with J.R. to the Oklahoma State game. You enjoy the experience and unless you’ve got some kind of beef with them or a prior team obligation, you root for the home team. That’s how I look at going to White Sox games.
That being said, I know how White Sox fans feel about the Cubs, and since I didn’t much feel like getting into a big thing over it, I decided to just wear my blue and white three-quarter length baseball shirt over a red t-shirt instead of my SANTO jersey, though both were quickly covered up by the Northwestern hoodie due to the cold weather. It was 51 degrees when we got to the park at six o’clock, and when the sun went down the temperature dropped to about 40. Still, it was a nice night for baseball, and it was nice to get out to the Cell for a ballgame. This is my first trip there since the name change and renovation, and it really is a nice looking park with great new features. While the girls are out getting hot dogs, Luke excitedly takes me around the park, showing me all of the new aspects of the Cell. Above the left field stands is a deck called “Fundamentals” where parents can take their kids to work on their baseball skills—hitting, pitching, fielding—and down below the right field stands is a new bar called “the Bullpen” which is basically the same as Fundamentals but for adults, which means that adults can work on their arcade game playing, their speed pitching, and perhaps the biggest baseball skill of all, their drinking.
“I don’t think I’m going to go for my usual beer an inning,” Luke announces as we get back to our seats. He’s already had one, grabbing a PBR at the Bullpen for $5.75.
“A beer an inning?” Lorrie looks perplexed. “Isn’t that a little much?”
“Not really. You just have to stay consistent.”
“Yeah but isn’t it hard to keep up? I didn’t think that innings were that long.”
“Well, it depends who’s pitching. If you’re watching a guy who gives up a lot of walks and lets loose on a lot of big innings early, like, oh, I don’t know…”—he shoots me a look—“…Kerry Wood or somebody, then it’s pretty easy. You can do a lot of drinking with a wild pitcher on the mound, because the innings drag on and there are pitching changes and stuff. But if you’re watching Buehrle against Mark Mulder, then you could be in trouble. With those guys, you’re probably only gonna finish one every two innings, or maybe one every nine outs. Something more reasonable like that. But it also depends on how much you’re willing to push yourself. One sec.” Luke spots a vendor. “Beer!”
It’s a college crowd out tonight, as one would expect with the cheaper tickets. Fans are still filing in during the National Anthem, but by the time White Sox starter Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez throws the first pitch of the game, the stands are pretty much settled. Of course there are still boat loads of empty seats up in the upper deck, but the lower area of the stands is packed. All things considered—the Cell’s usual low attendance, and the cold, and the blasé opponent—it’s a really good sized crowd.
Luke is sitting on the aisle, and as he takes his beer he puts his lips up to it and tilts it slightly to keep it from overflowing, and once he’s got it corralled he places it in the cup holder so that he can watch the first at-bat. It’s a walk to Texas lead-off man David Delucci, but Delucci gets pegged trying to steal second, and that’s the first out of the game. Having seen that, Luke picks his beer back up, but before he has a chance to take his first big gulp, the second Texas batter of the game sends a ball into the left field stands for a home run. 1-0 Rangers. Sox fans begin booing—it’s pretty much a gag reflex for them—but El Duque settles in and gets out of the inning with just one run allowed.
The White Sox get two quick outs in their half of the first, but then things pick up. Rowand singles to get things going, and then two straight walks to Konerko and Everett load the bases for Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski. Whenever the bases are loaded, fans always expect a grand slam, and with that in mind the crowd gets to its feet and begins applauding Pierzynski. Some fans to our right on the other side of the aisle start a chant, yelling “A.J.! A.J.!” over and over, and motion to other fans to join them in their support.
“He’s gonna pop up,” I say.
But I’m wrong, and Pierzynski smokes one over the right field wall, sending the ball into the crowd and giving the Sox the lead at 4-1. Whadya know. Grand slam. Luke is going berserk, jumping up and down and carelessly high-fiving the four of us and anyone else he sees. The “A.J.!” chant resumes, although this time much louder and with more participants, and the guys who were doing it before the hit high-five and congratulate each other on having started a cheer that led to a grand slam. The Rangers get two in the second, the Sox don’t score, and it’s 4-3 “good guys” going into the third.
At this point in a Cubs game, fans at Wrigley would be zoned into the game, and excited about the 4-3 lead. We really wouldn’t be too concerned with much else. But this is a Sox game, and so with the momentum from the grand slam dying down, the home fans focus their attention on people to yell at, namely Cub fans. The blue stands out from the black and grey of Sox colors, and fans quickly spot some and begin yelling. A guy in a Cubs hat is sitting in front of the “A.J.!” guys, and along with their friends they begin yelling at him. “Cubs suck!” “Go back to Wrigleyville!” “Boo this man!” Even with some profanity and vulgar name calling that I’ve left out, it’s all pretty harmless, and as the man heads to the aisle and up to the concourse, fans yell at him, but with a smile. He smiles back and doffs his cap in a respectful show of rivalry and competition. Sox fans are laughing with each other while they yell at him as he makes his way up between the stairs, and a few Cub fans cheer him on in support, though I stay quiet, not really feeling like getting into the banter.
Filled with energy from the grand slam and the Cub bashing, and fueled by alcohol, the “A.J.!” guys and their friends decide to start the wave. Actually, they decide to organize a wave. That’s really more appropriate. A big guy in the third row decked out in a Pudge Fisk jersey and a throwback Sox hat stands up, wobbles around, and then begins directing the fans.
“OK, OK! We’re gonna do a wave. OK? Everybody ready? 1, 2, 3…” With that, he and his friends and some other fans seated around them stand up, and the wave spreads slowly outward, stumbling, quickly dying. “OH COME ON! We can do better than that. OK! Hey! Listen up! OK! OK! OK we’re gonna do a wave. Starting here, heading that way,” he says, pointing towards left field. “Ready? 1, 2, 3…”
The wave has a bit more momentum now, but the wall in centerfield poses a large problem, and two or three times it kills the wave. “OK, OK,” our wave coordinator begins again, finally figuring it all out, “we’re gonna try something else. We’re gonna do a wave, but we’re gonna do it that way.” Hearing this, the fans further down in right field cheer, and prepare for their chance to do the wave. Meanwhile, the Rangers have just scored the game’s tying run on a double from Hank Blalock. “OK, 1, 2, 3…” The wave moves down towards right field, and dies out just before reaching the fair pole. “OK! OK! That was good. We can do better. Everybody ready? OK! 1, 2, 3…” This time, the wave gets its strongest start, heading quickly past the fair pole into foul territory and curving around before dying out on its way towards the infield. Meanwhile, Soriano singles, scoring Blalock and giving Texas the lead. Soriano steals second, Hidalgo walks, Nix strikes out, and the Rangers have first and second with two outs and a 5-4 lead.
“Damnit!” Luke yells as Blalock crosses the plate. “Come on Sox!” Luke was into the wave, but now he is focused on the game, and when Soriano is called safe at second and Hidalgo walks, Luke slaps his hands together and leans forward and directs all of his energy towards the Sox.
Base hit. Soriano scores. 6-4 Rangers.
“Oh come on White Sox!” The booing starts up again, but then the wave coordinator stands back up.
“OK! OK! Let’s try it again. You guys in the back,” he says, pointing at the back of the section, “you guys need to get up.” No one seems to notice that after only two and two-thirds innings, the Sox are going to their pen. Luis Vizcaino relieves El Duque, and while some fans are booing at the pitching change, the “A.J.!” guys and the wave coordinator and all of their friends seem intent upon getting the wave to head all the way around the park. “OK! You guys in the back! Seriously! Let’s go here! It’s wave time!”
“HEY!” One Sox fan in the back starts yelling. “Check out the scoreboard! It’s 6-4, and my team is losing, and our starting pitcher just left, and I’m pissed off! Now I’m not going to do a fucking wave, so shut up! Sit your ass down and watch the game!”
The wave coordinator gets the message, and has a seat. A few fans applaud the guy in the back, and a guy in a Rangers hat sitting in the front row stands up and joins in the applause. Early thirties, maybe, short dark hair, glasses. Everything’s fine, but then he starts waving his Texas hat in the air, and when Sox fans grumble a collective “finally” after Vizcaino strikes out the next Texas batter to end the inning, the Rangers fan stands up again, waving his hat around and pointing to it.
“Sit down you asshole!” yells someone from the crowd. And with that the Rangers fan sits down and drinks his beer.
The temperature continues to drop as the sun goes down, and fans are now nestled into their seats trying to keep warm. I put my hood up over my ears, as do a lot of other people wearing hoodies. Some people wrap themselves in blankets, Luke takes off his jersey and pulls a sweater out of his back pack, and vendors start carrying coffee and hot chocolate to compensate, though beer is still the drink of choice. In the fifth, Scott Podsednik scores for the Sox on a Rowand double, and as the fans cheer the Rangers fan stands up again and immediately begins waving his hat and yelling at Sox fans while pointing at the scoreboard. He’s got a cocky grin on his face, and when Konerko strikes out to end the inning he points to his Rangers hat, and then begins waving it again.
“Go back to Texas!” The crowd is angry, swaying. “You fucking homo! Fuck you!”
He remains standing, waving his hat and egging on the crowd a bit more.
“Man, I’d like to kick that guy’s ass,” says a guy in front of us.
Texas comes to the plate, and the Ranger fan sits down. The Rangers don’t score in the sixth or seventh, and after the Seventh Inning Stretch with the White Sox still down one, the Rangers fan starts waving his hat again and barking at the Sox fans, doing it all with a smug smile smeared across his face. The crowd digs in. They’ve forgotten all about the Cubs fans. “You suck man! Texas sucks! Texas sucks!” A cheer begins, as “Texas sucks!” echoes in the outfield, but unlike the Cubs-bashing there’s a tinge of real anger to this cheer, and fans are now focusing their attention on this Rangers fan, who turns around and gives them a “what did I do?” shrug. Out in left field, a fight breaks out, and security runs over to break up the scrum and kick the fighting fans out of the ballpark.
“Hey, now’s our chance!” Someone yells, half-joking, half-not. “All of the security guards are over in left field. Let’s kick that guy’s ass!”
“You suck man! You suck!”
The Rangers fan gives them another shrug, and then points to the scoreboard, and then as the crowd continues yelling at him he takes his hat off and waves it some more. Then it happens. Somebody a few rows up throws a plastic bottle at him. It’s one of the “A.J.!” guys. The bottle misses, but the guy in the Rangers hat tells security. Earlier this week, New York Yankee and former Oakland Athletic Jason Giambi was hit with a beer flung by a fan in the Oakland Coliseum, and with the incident at Fenway Park between Red Sox fans and Gary Sheffield and the cup throwing incident at the Pistons-Pacers game that incited a player-fan brawl, security is much more tuned into that kind of behavior and where it can lead. A security guard comes down to talk to the Rangers fan, who promptly points out the “A.J.!” guy as the culprit. The security guard removes him, and as he walks up the stairs he is visibly upset. Sox fans applaud him, and his buddies follow shortly there after, not wanting to leave their friend out of the park on his own. The Rangers fan lifts his hat and waves it, and waves goodbye at the three guys leaving the park. One of them, the biggest one, sees it, and yells at him.
“If I see you outside the park I’m gonna kick your ass!”
Now Sox fans are really mad. They continue booing the Rangers fan as he provokes them, pointing at the “T” on his hat and waving goodbye to the “A.J.!” guys. The focus on the Rangers fan has now extended outward towards center field and the other way towards foul territory, and having just seen one of their own fans tossed, Sox fans are really digging into this guy.
“This is bad,” I say, getting really uncomfortable. There is a big difference between fans of opposing teams engaging each other in a sporting kind of way and one fan purposefully provoking an entire crowd to the point where somebody gets thrown out of the game. And then, when you wave goodbye at the fans who you have fingered to security while smiling and waving your hat…
The game moves on to the eighth inning, and when Texas fails to score Sox fans start yelling at the Rangers fan again. He turns around and smiles, and one of the guys right in front of me throws another plastic bottle at him, but this one sails over his head and lands in the Rangers’ bullpen. The bullpen security guards get on their walkie-talkies as their eyes dart around the stands in the area of where it was thrown. The guy in front of me is ducking down behind the seat in front of him. Another bottle is thrown at the Rangers fan, this one hitting him, and since security has now been watching our section they quickly find the bottle thrower and remove him. Everyone is screaming at the Rangers fan, and security looks helpless. The whole section is standing up, yelling and pointing and cursing at the Rangers fan, who gives another innocent shrug and yells something to the bullpen security guard. It looks like he’s professing his innocence, but the security guard knows better, and I see him say “Sit down!” The Rangers fan does, but soon after he’s leaning over, saying something to the bullpen catcher. Someone nearby hears what’s going on, and yells back that the catcher told the Rangers fan to shut up. At that, the fans cheer. The security guards are on their mikes, listening intently to their ear pieces and moving their eyes over our section. Someone throws a balled-up napkin, and then another bottle, and the Rangers fan turns around and says “Hey! I’m not doing anything!” and then waves his hat around some more. Three security guards come down, and remove some more Sox fans. They talk to the Rangers fan, trying to get him to leave with them as his escort, but he refuses, choosing instead to stay in his seat, which technically is his right. The fans wait to see what will happen, and when security leaves and he stays, the Sox fans boo. “Hey man!” one of them yells. “You’ve got a long way to walk before you’re out of here!” I look at one of the security guards. She looks nervous. The other two guards are just shaking their heads as they walk away.
The Rangers are retired in the top of the eighth, and now the White Sox come to bat in the bottom half, still trailing by one. The crowd is really getting rowdy now, and when Tad Iguchi hits a pinch-hit home run to tie the game, everyone starts cheering. But then the joy from the home run turns to anger and revenge, as Sox fans in the outfield again turn their attention to the Rangers fan. “Yeah! Yeah! What’s up now?” He waves back, giving another innocent shrug, and another wave of his hat. He sits back down, and leans over to say something to the bullpen catcher, and as he does his hat falls off and drops into the bullpen. The fans go nuts. People are yelling and cheering and laughing, everyone is standing and pointing at him and waving their arms. Rowand grounds out. Konerko grounds out. Fans continue yelling. Voices and arms and Fuck-you’s all around. Someone in the pen throws the hat back up to the Rangers fan, who promptly waves it around at the Sox fans. The place is shaking. Everett grounds out. The inning is over. Security again offers to escort him out, and he again turns them down.
“This guy’s gonna get his ass beat,” Luke says matter-of-factly. “I’m actually really impressed by the crowd’s restraint. I’m surprised nobody’s taken a shot at him.”
But it’s close, and I’m getting more and more nervous, so I head up to the stairs to find a security guard to talk to.
“Excuse me, there’s a Rangers fan down here who’s going to get killed. He hasn’t done anything wrong, technically, but you’ve got to have better sense than to purposefully provoke an already angry home crowd.”
“That guy down at the end in the blue hat?” he says, pointing.
“We’ve asked him if he wanted to leave, and he said no.”
“I understand that, but you can’t kick him out?”
“It’s his seat. There’s nothing we can do.”
“OK. But with each Sox fan that gets tossed instead of him, these guys are getting more and more pissed off. If the Sox lose this game…I mean, he’s all the way at the bottom of the section. He’s got to pass by all of these people before getting out. That’s a long walk when you’ve pissed off a bunch of angry Sox fans. Can’t you boot him for his own good? They’re gonna riot.”
“We asked him if he would leave, and he said no. He knows what might happen. I’ll put a camera on him and have security watch him. That’s all I can do.”
“Well, thank you.”
I walk back down to our seats. It’s the top of the ninth, the game is tied, and with one out Kevin Mench comes to the plate for Texas and jacks one over the fence for his second of the game. Home run. 7-6 Rangers. Everyone goes ballistic. A few guys have taken their shirts off for some reason, and they walk to the end of the first row on the other side and start yelling at the Rangers fan. A few more people start throwing things at the Rangers fan—plastic bottles, napkins, cups, garbage, whatever—and the security guards in the bullpen keep watching the scene, sending other guards down to grab the throwers while keeping a close eye on the antagonist. The inning ends, and we move into the bottom of the ninth with the Sox down 7-6.
“Hey,” says one of the guys in front of us to his buddy, “after the game ends, let’s go kick that guy’s ass.”
Luke interjects from over their shoulder. “That’s a bad idea. Come on guys, don’t do that. We’re above it. Sox fans are above that kind of stuff. You know?”
“Seriously. We’re better than that. Let him take his sorry ass back to Texas. Eh?”
“Yeah! He sucks!”
“Yeah! You suck!” Luke yells at him, not loud enough so that he can hear it, but just so the drunk guys in front of us will see he’s on their side. “Go Sox, huh buddy?”
“Yeah! Go Sox!” Luke high fives the guys in front of us.
“Nice work,” I say.
But fans are still going nuts, and there’s one out in the inning, and everybody’s screaming, yelling at the Rangers fan, who still “doesn’t realize” what he is doing and continues to smile all smug and coy, and there’s two outs, and just when I think that the fans are going to jump him, he puts his hands up in the air—“OK, I give in”—and he and his buddy leave the park. Some fans cheer, others yell, and I wait for somebody to pop him in the jaw as he walks by, but no one does. The Sox lose on the next at-bat, and while we’re disappointed, we’re mostly relieved. All in all, it was an incredibly impressive show of restraint by Sox fans, and as we leave the park I’m happy to have gotten out of that section without a fight. This would not have been just two or three drunk fans going at it and then being removed; this was hundreds of angry Sox fans being provoked by one jerk Rangers fan, and had it progressed, had one—just one—Sox fan gone over the edge and pushed or punched the guy in the Rangers hat, the whole thing would have exploded into an all-out beat down. One push, one punch, one more nasty exchange or a spit in the face or a “well at least we beat you,” that’s all it would have taken for the thing to boil over and blow up. That’s all it would’ve taken to get the thing on SportsCenter, in the paper, on the national news. That’s all it would’ve taken, just one more smug look and hat wave met with just one physical encounter, and there would have been a slew of fists and kicks and maybe a dead Rangers fan lying in the stands. All of the incidents that make the news, the fights and brawls that leave pundits and newsmen wondering how something could get so far out of hand, they all start like this, with all of the elements that were there tonight, just waiting to be pushed out. But Sox fans showed restraint. This time.