The home-and-home series between the White Sox and the Cubs were meetings of the tribes–and not in a good sense necessarily. By the time the teams were done with each other Sunday night, both seemed diminished. The Sox had “won” overall, four games to two, but they’d enhanced their reputation only in the minds of their most xenophobic, Cubs-hating fans.
The Cubs had been 32-24 and leading the National League wild-card race before the Sox swept them at Wrigley Field in June. A monthlong swoon followed, and though the Cubs saved face by salvaging the last two games against the Sox last weekend, they went into the all-star break in last place in the NL Central Division at 41-44. The Sox clinched the season series by winning the opener of the three-game rematch at Comiskey Park last Friday, but the losses that followed dropped them to 43-44. The games evoked rabid interest on both sides of town; for the first time the Sox sold out their park for all three games of a series, producing a record three-day attendance of 131,276. Yet it seemed a tribal battle, while the real baseball action was taking place far away. The truth is, neither of these teams is going anywhere this season.
If the Cubs went to the south side snorting fire, pawing at the dirt, and seeking revenge, the Sox had the perfect weapon waiting in the person of Mike Sirotka. The placid left-hander, who could be played by Edward Norton in a biopic–the scrawny Norton of Rounders, not the built-up Norton of American History X–is fast becoming my favorite pitcher in town. Every time I watch him work I admire him a little more. He has a simple rock-kick-and-deliver motion and a standard array of pitches, but the way he uses them is a pleasure to watch. One would be tempted to call him a crafty southpaw, except that he’s so deceptively crafty he doesn’t even seem to be outsmarting the hitters–he’s simply letting them get themselves out. On Friday night the Cubs found he’d added a wonderful curveball to his repertoire since stumping them with fastballs, sliders, and change-ups at Wrigley Field. “It’s really come around the last four, five starts, and I made it a point to throw it more,” Sirotka said of his curve after the game. He put it to especially good use his second and third times through the order, spinning Sammy Sosa around on a wonderful first-pitch curve in the fourth. The whiff sent Sosa’s helmet swirling from his head and brought chortles, guffaws, and hoots from Sox fans all through the stadium. Sirotka then got Sosa to ground out on another curve.
That inning, the fourth, was Sirotka’s best of the game; he worked through the heart of the Cubs’ batting order–Mark Grace, Sosa, and Glenallen Hill–in eight pitches, while retiring eight straight hitters from the third into the sixth inning. By that time the Sox were up 2-0, on a double by Paul Konerko scoring Magglio Ordoñez in the second and a double by Ordoñez scoring Frank Thomas in the fifth. The Cubs got to Sirotka in the sixth on a double by Jeff Blauser and a run-scoring single by Grace, but Sirotka worked out of the jam by striking out Sosa on three pitches. That sequence was essential Sirotka: a first-pitch slider followed by a big, bending curve and then–as a distracting peanut bag wafted down between the pitching mound and home plate–a high fastball Sosa just plain missed. That’s what I mean by Sirotka being deceptively crafty: it was almost as if he’d seen the peanut bag floating down from the upper deck as Sosa stepped to the plate and planned his pitches accordingly. He wasn’t so lucky in the next inning, when the Cubs pushed a run around on three hits, but he stayed out of the big frame by making a nice play on an attempted sacrifice by Benito Santiago with two on and no outs. The bunt was good, but Sirotka was cat quick coming off the mound and he nailed the lead runner at third. The Cubs tied the score on a single by Curtis Goodwin, and Bill Simas came on for the Sox to strike out Blauser to end the inning. Simas kept the 2-2 tie in the eighth, and bullpen ace Bobby Howry did the same in the ninth. The Sox won it in the bottom of the inning with some help from the Cubs’ Manny Alexander.
The Cubs had been scraping by on mediocre and injury-prone pitching all night. Starter Kevin Tapani gave up a run and left after two innings with a bruise on his pitching hand sustained on a hard grounder by Sox catcher Mark Johnson. Matt Karchner came on and gave up another run before an aggravated groin strain sidelined him. Ray King, a lefty newly arrived in the majors who throws over the top with a big leg kick, held the Sox for an inning plus, and then Terry Adams came on. Adams worked two good innings but ran into trouble in the ninth–his second time through the order. The hot Ray Durham opened with a single, the eighth time he’d reached base in the last 16 innings that he’d led off. But on a doubly bad play, rookie Chris Singleton struck out trying to bunt him over. Singleton moved his back foot out of the batter’s box and almost onto home plate, then jabbed at the pitch before pulling the bat back. The ball kicked into the dirt and bounced to the screen. Singleton–who should have kept his mouth shut–claimed the ball had hit his foot (replays showed a wild pitch). The umpire both called him out for swinging and ruled the ball dead for hitting Singleton outside the batter’s box. So Singleton was out, and Durham–who’d gone to second on the wild pitch–was sent back to first. Thomas coaxed a walk after fouling off a tough Adams pitch on a full count, and then came the play of the game. Ordoñez–he has been in the middle of almost everything bad that has happened to the Cubs against the Sox this season–grounded up the middle. Alexander grabbed the ball and staggered for second base trying to turn a quick double play. But his scuffling feet almost tripped him on the way to the bag, which drew the umpire’s attention to the fact that he just plain missed it, stepping off to the side as he threw to first. Not only did Ordoñez beat the throw, Thomas was ruled safe at second. Though Grace was irate, replays showed the ump had made the correct call. Alexander was charged with an error, and Durham scored the unearned game-winning run moments later when rookie Carlos Lee hit a sacrifice fly to center–a fly that should have sent the game into extra innings. Instead, it sent Sox fans singing “Na Na Hey Hey (Kiss Him Goodbye)” into the night.
The Cubs broke through the next day in a nationally televised afternoon game I watched at home in the middle of a yard sale. Jon Lieber, the team’s most dependable starter all season, harnessed the Sox by keeping the ball down, and with Jaime Navarro on the mound for the south-siders the Cubs’ power finally produced in the form of home runs by Hill and Jose Hernandez. It was 6-0 by the time I turned over to the Women’s World Cup final, and Cubs fans in full voice cheered their team to a 10-2 victory.
Sox fans seemed to outnumber Cubs fans at Comiskey, but barely. As center fielder Singleton later said, it’s not exactly the sort of home crowd a player enjoys. When the Cubs took the lead their fans soon dominated, and the same thing happened Sunday night. At Wrigley, Sox manager Jerry Manuel had rigged his rotation to start lefties Jim Parque and Sirotka, and they stymied the Cubs’ right-handed power. This time, Sirotka started the first game, lining up Navarro and the struggling James Baldwin for the next two. The Cubs pounded Navarro for four earned runs in five-plus innings–just about his average–and then brutalized Baldwin, who has been going through something of a crisis of confidence. He walked five in two-plus innings Sunday, and three of the runners scored, two on a three-run homer by Hill. That staked the Cubs’ own struggling Steve Trachsel to a 5-0 lead. He’d entered the game with an atrocious record of 2-12, and when the lineups were announced he was the only player cheered both by Cubs fans and by Sox fans, who were eager to see their team hit against him. Yet it turned out he was a completely different pitcher with a lead.
In fact, Trachsel was a different pitcher altogether. He has always let his arm drop behind his body in his windup, but now he seemed to be curling his wrist a little, in the manner of Rick Sutcliffe, and it added a sudden snap to his curve. He’d also lengthened his stride, giving him better command of those breaking pitches and allowing him to keep them low. Still, none of that showed until the fifth inning. He struggled through the first four frames, allowing the Sox to start a comeback with two runs in the third. “Moment of truth,” I said, as the top of the Sox batting order led off the bottom of the fifth against him. With three days off ahead, Manuel had brought in Parque for the first relief appearance of his professional career in the top of the inning (you just knew Manuel would find some way to get Parque into this series), and Parque had retired the Cubs effortlessly, pitching with that insouciant demeanor of his, slouching on the mound, almost turning his back to the batter in the middle of his windup, and delivering his disdainful array of sloppy breaking pitches. So the Cubs looked to be stuck on five runs for a while when Trachsel went back to the mound. What did he do but retire the Sox in order on seven pitches, with first-pitch outs by Singleton and the uncharacteristically anxious Thomas. This success seemed to jump-start Trachsel’s confidence, and he went on to retire 13 straight batters before giving up a homer to Singleton in the eighth. Terry Adams came on and got Lee to hit into an inning-ending double play, and he retired the Sox in order in the ninth for a 6-3 victory and his fourth save of the season.
Yet the games were in no way pretty–not on the field, where the Cubs’ clearly pressing Sammy Sosa was going a combined zero for ten in their two victories, and not in the stands, where a pretty good fight broke out, apparently between rival fans, down the left-field line in the ninth inning Sunday. It even spilled onto the field with the help of Sox security forces, who dragged out a belligerent fan in a torn blue shirt through an entrance usually used by the grounds crew. The players were so impressed they halted play to watch. “I’ve never seen a fight actually stop a ball game before,” Trachsel said afterward. Outside there was a nasty atmosphere. I didn’t see any more fights, but Sox and Cubs fans seemed willing to bounce up against one another as they poured out to the parking lots. The Cubs had won the second of the two series but the Sox had the season advantage, four games to two. So Neanderthals in both camps could begin the off-season-long battle for bragging rights. But as the off-season looms all too quickly on both sides of town, they’ll be bragging for what, exactly?