The Bears stopped at Soldier Field last week on their way from training camp in Bourbonnais to San Francisco to open the preseason against the 49ers. This midsummer practice session in the home stadium has become an annual event known as Family Night, and last week found it developing a playful, unprepossessing mood all its own. The field just to the south of the stadium was filled with inflated slides and obstacle courses for kids, as well as a stage where a pedestrian band served as a diversion for the adults. Just inside the gates, Bears alumni signed autographs before the current team took the field. With general-admission seating at $5 a ticket, the place, in effect, was thrown open to the fans, creating an atmosphere that made me think of Versailles taken over by the rabble.

These were salt-of-the-earth Bears fans in Bears caps and Bears pants and even Bears masks, but most of all in Bears jerseys–Brian Urlacher jerseys in particular, which must have outnumbered all the others combined by three to one. These fans knew their way around the Soldier Field concourse, but during the season few are privy to the sweet seats in the lower reaches. So they poured in and filled those seats (only the middle level on the east side was roped off for stadium-club members), 22,000 strong up close watching the Bears run through some plays. It wasn’t the most exciting sporting event I’ve ever seen, but it was the most joyful experience I’ve had watching sports in quite a while.

Ushered in by the Bears drum corps, the players emerged from the locker room through the giant inflatable Bears head. Quarterback Rex Grossman, the great hope to convert the Bears from last year’s dowdy, defense-oriented playoff team into bold and bona fide Super Bowl contenders, got a big ovation, but of course not as big as Urlacher’s. Muhsin “Moose” Muhammad, Tommie Harris, and Adewale Ogunleye all roused the fans on their way to the field as if this were a real game, but then things settled into a businesslike calm. It was like a dress rehearsal without the dress, as the players practiced without pads in loose orange shorts and colored jerseys–blue for defense, white for offense, orange for the quarterbacks not to be touched–and their helmets, cleats, and taped ankles were the only signs of game attire. There was little contact or intensity, each player simply following his assignment as designed in the playbook, like an actor hitting his spots and cues but mumbling his lines. Even so, the size, speed, and quickness of the players was evident this close, and quality stood out: Grossman rifling spirals with a flick of his wrist, Urlacher moving quickly into the chaos of the line on running plays or gliding back into pass coverage.

Summer football practice, like baseball’s spring training, is all about optimism, and the fans cheered every good play. The first unit began at its own end zone with a few runs, but when Grossman dropped back and hit wide receiver Rashied Davis in stride with a long pass, fans roared their approval. When Grossman hit Muhammad on a crisp post pattern for an apparent touchdown, only to see Moose drop the ball, fans booed. When new backup Brian Griese passed moments later and Muhammad speared the ball for the score, they cheered as if it had been a game winner. But being Bears fans, they really came to life when the defense broke from the script and disrupted things, and the defensive players never failed to make the most of it. Linebacker Lance Briggs picked off a pass and ran it all the way back, pointing at the grandstand as he galloped. Better yet, Charles “Peanut” Tillman intercepted the ball, ran it into the end zone, and hurled it into the stands–his gift to the great unwashed. As the two-hour practice wound down fans began to entertain themselves with a raggedy-ass rendition of the wave; but the Bears left the field to cheers and the night ended with fireworks–one last present to the easily amused.

Unfortunately, the Bears’ first exhibition game was a dud. Last Friday Grossman looked again like a quarterback just trying to get comfortable after spending too much of his early career on the sidelines with various injuries, and Tillman was burned several times, just as he had been in the Bears’ first-round playoff loss last January to the Carolina Panthers. Still, no game matters for another month, and no one should conclude anything from preseason football, especially not from the first game.

Meanwhile, in games that did matter, the White Sox revived hopes of a repeat championship. Having already bounced back from their post-All Star slump to win three straight three-game series, they won a fourth last Thursday by beating the New York Yankees in the rubber game at Sox Park. Each of those nights offered a packed house and playoff intensity. The Sox won the first game in extra innings after Paul Konerko tied it in the ninth on a homer off feared New York closer Mariano Rivera. The Sox lost the second but at least made a game of it, 7-6, after falling behind early. They won the finale in a manner reminiscent of last year, taking advantage of a pair of New York errors to score four in the second, tacking on an insurance run later, and holding on for a 5-4 victory.

Then the upstart Central Division-leading Detroit Tigers came to town, and the Sox swept them. They dominated the Tigers 5-0 on Friday, as Jose Contreras threw his first shutout of the year, and the Tigers pissed away the next game in the field, allowing the Sox to score only unearned runs in Saturday’s 4-3 triumph. The Tigers came apart in Sunday’s finale. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez was tossed for arguing balls and strikes and had to be restrained by his teammate; then manager Jim Leyland made an ill-advised pitching change in the eighth that pretty much surrendered the day to the Sox. Chicago starter Freddy Garcia staggered through the early innings, but he clamped down on a 4-3 lead, retiring 12 batters in a row before turning the game over to the bullpen. When Bobby Jenks was summoned to quiet a mild Detroit rally in the ninth and preserve the 7-3 victory, fans already waving brooms over their heads had another chance to cheer lustily. The Sox not only cut the Tigers’ lead to five and a half games but also established their dominance over them by winning the ninth of the 12 games so far between the two teams.

The Bears’ midsummer frolic over, they gave up their hold on the city’s sports fans: games of real significance were being played on the south side.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP Photo/Jeff Roberson.