Stately, plump Terry Bevington stood by the batting cage, leaning against the chest-level bar across the back, until the White Sox were through with batting practice and it was the Cubs’ turn to hit. Then, with a few halloos to friends on the Cubs, he crossed the field and descended into the Sox dugout and clubhouse. As batting practice continued and the gates were opened and the stands began, slowly, to fill, the public-address system played the familiar theme to Jurassic Park, which baseball has unofficially adopted as its anthem. I thought how silly it was that this game accused of being a dinosaur should appropriate the sound track of a dinosaur movie.
Yet what better way to honor Bloomsday–June 16, the day in 1904 when James Joyce’s Ulysses takes place, with its connotations of all time recast in the here and now–than to attend a “Turn Back the Clock Day” game between the Sox and Cubs? It was a day replete with history, but also with the unusual, as it was the first of the new interleague games between the two teams, the first time they had played a game with real consequences since the 1906 World Series (in which the White Sox “Hitless Wonders” beat the highly favored Cubs of Frank Chance, Johnny Evers, Joe Tinker, Harry Steinfeldt, and Mordecai “Three Finger” Brown, a team that had won 116 games). Ergo, the two teams on this afternoon were outfitted in uniforms modeled after the ones they wore in 1906–the Sox all in white, the Cubs all in navy blue–with maybe a little synthetic fabric woven into the cotton for comfort, and if it wasn’t quite 1904, it was close as one could get in 1997.
We had come down to Comiskey Park on public transportation, the el now rather than the trolley, and the cars were packed not with men in suits and boaters but with fans clad in the jerseys of their favored teams, be they the Cubs or Sox. One conflicted guy wore a present-day Cubs road cap, blue with red trim, nattily matched with an early 70s Sox road jersey, robin-egg blue with red lettering. Earlier in the day I’d left the Bulls behind, watching their Grant Park rally on television, and by the time I reached Comiskey, with the teams taking batting practice and Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” appropriately enough, on the PA, it felt like the glorious afternoon following that brief last day of school–one of many time warps that day. If the Bulls’ playoff run had been all nerves and concentration, baseball suddenly seemed a summer reverie.
Not all the associations were pleasant, however. While watching Ryne Sandberg take batting practice, I suddenly realized that the scouts are right: he has indeed lost some bat speed. Sandberg, 37, was one of the bigger disappointments of the Cubs’ woeful start, and for a while he was even benched. He’s since recovered his regular job and reestablished himself as one of the better second basemen in either league. His .250 batting average going into this week was at least respectable, as were his 30 runs batted in. Yet he’d hit only three home runs–a telling indication of lost bat speed for a man who hit 40 earlier in the decade and 25 only a year ago. Even after he slugged a double down the left-field line off the Sox’ Jaime Navarro in the third inning of that Bloomsday game, he labored into second base, leaning forward all through his run as he rounded first. It was a distressing sight when one considers his erect carriage running the bases in his prime, all churning legs and pumping elbows and neatly trimmed arcs around the bends. Still, just as I was mourning Sandberg’s decline he got on again in the eighth, slapping a Navarro fastball into center for a single, then he steamed around from first to third on a Kevin Orie trickler to third base, scoring on a single by the next batter, Scott Servais, to make it 7-1 Cubs. Present-day savvy can, in some instances, be an adequate substitute for the energy of youth.
If that seems a rationalization, well, rationalization is the chosen idiom of almost any Cubs season. After their 14-game skid at the beginning of the year, the Cubs eventually climbed back into contention in the National League Central Division (or “Comedy Central,” in the words of Barry Rozner, Cubs beat writer for the Daily Herald) at a mere four games out of first when they closed to nine games under .500 at 23-32. Yet a blown save in Philadelphia by soon-to-be-deposed closer Mel Rojas sent the Cubs on another six-game skid, followed closely by a five-gamer. When the Cubs entered the week at 31-48, mired in last (though a mere seven and a half games out of first), the reasons were obvious and familiar, as old as the ivy at Wrigley Field: inconsistent pitching, especially from Rojas and starters Frank Castillo and Steve Trachsel, and an utter inability to accept a base on balls. The Cubs entered last Saturday’s game against the division-leading Houston Astros (in first place at only two games under .500 to start the week) with a .317 on-base average, 13th in the league, leading only the miserable Philadelphia Phillies. The main culprits: leadoff man Brian McRae at .299 (a decent leadoff hitter has a .350 OBA, a good one .400), Sandberg at .310, and Sammy Sosa at .303.
As ever, the Cubs have produced a couple of decent rookies to maintain fan interest. Third baseman Orie has a crisp, short swing; he entered Saturday’s game with a .380 OBA, trailing only Mark Grace and part-timer Dave Hansen. Pitcher Jeremi Gonzalez, meanwhile, arrived from AAA Iowa on May 27 and excelled in each of his first seven outings save one: the second game of the series with the Sox, which the Cubs lost 5-3. He’s a wide-bodied pitcher, in the mold of the Sox’ departed Alex Fernandez, with textbook mechanics and a pointed-toe leg kick reminiscent of Tim Belcher (nothing is new under the Wrigley Field sun). Orie has been even more impressive in the field than at the plate, and in that Bloomsday game he made a run-saving, rally-quashing, inning-ending diving stop down the third-baseline to throw out Albert Belle at first, preserving what was then a 6-1 lead on the way to an 8-1 final.
A humiliating 7-1 loss in the second game of the 1906 World Series inspired the “Hitless Wonders” to come back and win that series, and in many ways the Sox’ 8-1 rout sent them off on a similar tear. They won both of the last two games against the Cubs, with Doug Drabek beating Gonzalez and then Wilson Alvarez outdueling the Cubs’ hard-luck Terry Mulholland. Then they lost the opening game of a Comiskey Park series against the Minnesota Twins before ripping off seven straight victories. That pushed them back above .500 for the first time since the opening days of the season, and even though the streak ended with a loss Saturday in Minnesota, the Sox still opened the week at 39-38, a mere two games behind the almost equally underachieving Cleveland Indians in the almost equally comical American League Central.
The key to the Sox’ revitalization has been the return of Frank Thomas from a strained side muscle that kept him out of the series with the Cubs. Thomas, a slugger unlike any who’s ever played for the Sox, is having yet another stellar campaign: a league-leading .383 batting average going into the week, with 16 homers and 59 RBI. After a slow start Albert Belle has been solid as well, having pushed his average up to .294 with the help of a 27-game hitting streak in May; he entered the week with 18 homers and 66 RBI.
Yet the Sox still lack the pitching required to make them a legitimate contender–that is, a legitimate contender anywhere else but in either league’s central division. Navarro has been maddening but never more so than in that game against the Cubs, when he allowed two runs in the first, three more in the second (starting with three straight hits by the low third of the Cubs’ batting order and then another by McRae), and finally another in the third on a two-out, two-strikes, no-balls single by number-nine hitter Ray Sanchez. (One can only imagine what a manager like Leo Durocher would have thought of such an occurrence back in the days when throwing one anywhere near the strike zone on 0-and-2 was taboo; no doubt the Sox’ own Kid Gleason would have regarded it as evidence that the fix was in.) Navarro straightened out to work on into the eighth inning, but the damage had been done–and has been done on a consistent basis throughout the season. He entered the week with a 6-6 record and a disgraceful 4.91 earned run average. Drabek has been even worse (his outing against the Cubs aside), 6-5 but with an even more atrocious 6.83 ERA. On the offensive end Ray Durham has struggled with the responsibility of batting leadoff since the Sox traded Tony Phillips, and even another good year by Harold Baines (hitting .303, with his favored month of July only beginning) hasn’t been enough to make up for the inconsistency of the pitching, both among the starters and in the bullpen.
The one encouraging sign was that the Sox drew full houses for the last two games of the Cubs series, both of them night games, both with fans crammed into even the Bob Uecker seats in the corners of the upper deck. If anything the Cubs-Sox series reminded the city’s baseball fans that the new Comiskey Park can be a pleasant place to see a game, even genuinely atmospheric if the crowd is into it. At one point in the Bloomsday game Dave Clark came to the plate for the Cubs and Nancy Faust–the most reliable (and sometimes only) source of personality on the South Side–played “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady. Think that one over for a moment, and remember that the people who complain about Faust are the ones who never hear her brilliancies. It reminded me of the time Howard Johnson got a hit at the old Comiskey when he was playing for the Tigers and Faust played “Heartbreak Hotel.”
Sox fans and Cubs fans, South Siders and North Siders, have been fighting it out in this town since the White Stockings arrived on the scene in 1900. The two teams haven’t met in a World Series since 1906; the Sox haven’t won a World Series since 1917 (two years before the Black Sox scandal) or competed in one since 1959, nor have the Cubs won since 1908 or competed in one since 1945. Generation to generation, mediocrity is passed on, and fan displeasure manifested itself in a strange fashion in that Bloomsday game at Comiskey. As both teams were introduced, those making the effort to boo each player always seemed to outnumber those cheering him. History, it seems, is a nightmare from which all Chicago baseball fans are trying to awake.