Street vendors outside Wrigley Field did a brisk business in “Cubs Suck” and “Sox Suck” T-shirts during last weekend’s interleague series between the two teams. It’s a pity they weren’t selling shirts that read “Cubs Suck” on the front and “Sox Suck” on the back: by the time the three-game set began, the high hopes of fans on both sides of town had been dashed by inconsistent play and unaddressed weaknesses.

The Cubs were clearly the worse off of the two teams. They entered the series 26-38, in fifth place in the National League Central Division and ten games behind the first-place Cincinnati Reds. The powerful middle of the Cubs batting order–Sammy Sosa, Fred McGriff, and Moises Alou–and the impressive starting pitching, which was enhanced shortly before the start of the season by Matt Clement and shortly after by Mark Prior, hadn’t overcome the weakness at the top of the order (Sosa had produced a mere 44 runs batted in despite 24 homers because there was usually no one on base for him) and the gaping offensive holes at catcher, third base, and shortstop. The woefulness of this team that had expected to compete for a playoff spot was only aggravated by its occasional flashes of brilliance, such as when it took two of three from the mighty Seattle Mariners in an interleague series a week before the White Sox confrontation.

After winning two straight and three of four the Sox were 33-33 and four games behind the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central. Taking the division appeared to be their only route to the playoffs (the wild card should come from the AL East, where the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees have battled it out for the best record in baseball). The Sox’ fast start ended when top-of-the-order table setters Kenny Lofton and Ray Durham fell into May slumps, causing the offense to sputter like a car in need of a tune-up–shut out one day, roaring off to eight runs the next. Inconsistent pitching and erratic fielding also plagued the Sox, who entered the Cubs series leading the majors with 42 unearned runs scored against them.

The annual interleague series has frequently been the conduit for a shift in fortunes or–as Phil Jackson used to term it–energy between the two teams. The Sox’ surprising sweep in 1999 sent the Cubs tumbling from their 1998 playoff season and boosted the Sox toward the 2000 playoffs. Last year the Sox saved face after an abysmal start by winning both Cubs series, at Comiskey Park and at Wrigley. But how could power be transferred from one team to the other this year, when neither seemed to have any?

The blase response to the series on both sides of town stood in marked contrast to the provincial mania that usually fuels the rivalry. As I crossed Clark Street to Wrigley last Friday alongside a couple of Sox fans in matching hats and jerseys, the bitter response of two Cubs fans on the corner seemed entirely de rigueur. “Look at these Sox fans coming to our ballpark,” one said, and the Sox fans marched past with nary another word spoken. Neither side could muster up the malice to take it any further.

As if to reflect the gloom hanging over the city’s baseball teams, the weather for the first meeting between them was dank and threatening. Dark clouds trailing tendrils of rain closed in on Wrigley until a downpour disrupted batting practice and delayed the start of the game. Later, occasional lines of showers rolled through–a nuisance never enough to delay play. The weather affected both teams, but with the Cubs’ season all but over and the Sox still in the hunt, the Sox came into the series with more at stake; in the mud of Wrigley Field it was only natural for the Cubs to drag the Sox down to their own level.

The Cubs scored in the first off Jon Garland, who’d come in pitching very well of late, lowering his earned run average from almost 6.00 to a respectable 4.20 while improving his record to 6-4. But he didn’t have it this afternoon. Corey Patterson led off with a single, went to third on a hit by Sosa, and scored on a sacrifice fly by McGriff–just the way the offense was drawn up to work when the Cubs filled out their lineup during the off-season. They added another in the second on a single by Todd Hundley, an infield out, and a double by Bill Mueller, one of the Cubs’ many slow starters finally beginning to waken. Then Sosa blasted a two-run shot to straightaway center field almost to the aisle at the back of the lower bleachers, and Hundley followed with a solo shot so effortless–he simply dropped the bat on the ball and watched it go–you had to wonder why he’s struggling to hit .200. Starting against the ineffective Garland, Clement seemed totally at ease in the rivalry game; with his jug ears and moonshiner’s goatee, he looks as if he’d be equally comfortable in the middle of the feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. The only Sox player he couldn’t solve was Paul Konerko, who hit a two-run homer in the sixth and another in the eighth. But Hundley added another solo shot of his own, smashing a flat change-up from demoted closer Keith Foulke onto Sheffield, and the Sox never got closer than 6-4. Everything went right for Cubs manager Don Baylor, who even got a pinch two-run double from Mark Bellhorn that put the game away in the bottom of the eighth and made the final 8-4.

Saturday’s game matching aces Mark Buehrle of the Sox and Jon Lieber of the Cubs figured to be the best of the series. The weather responded in kind, offering layers of clouds that stretched off into the distance to create the heightened 3-D effect of a View-Master; shadows crossed the field like an endless cattle drive. Since the start of last season Buehrle had gone 25-12 and Lieber 24-10, two of the best pitching records in baseball, and they each worked into the fifth inning without allowing a run. Buehrle looked particularly good, with that distinctive pointed-toe kick he throws across his body that gives his fastball and slider extra torque and movement. With two out in the fifth, Lieber cracked, committing the cardinal sin of letting Buehrle slap an 0-2 pitch into left field for a single. Durham followed with a single to right, and Jose Valentin drove both home by hammering a slider off the right-field wall for a double. Let’s go Sox, chanted some fans, who were quickly drowned out by boos and then chants of Let’s go Cubs!

Paul-ie! Paul-ie! chanted Sox fans when Konerko came up with two on, and though the Paul-ies prevailed over the boos, he lined out to end the inning.

Buehrle suddenly lost it in the bottom half. Alex Gonzalez led off with a single and Mueller blooped the ball down the right-field line to send Gonzalez to third. Lieber bunted Mueller to second, Gonzalez holding, and that brought up the weak-hitting Darren Lewis, playing in place of Patterson against the left-handed Buehrle. Lewis quickly fell behind in the count, and looked like a man battling a cloud of gnats as he fouled off three pitches with two strikes. Then he fought off an inside slider, looping it into left to tie the game at two.

The Sox countered right away, as light-hitting catcher Mark Johnson swatted a hanging Lieber slider just inside the foul pole and onto Sheffield to make it 3-2 in the sixth. “Unlikely hero,” I wrote in my notebook. But Johnson’s heroics would soon be forgotten, buried by five Cubs runs in the bottom of the inning.

It was an ugly frame. Alou, like Mueller finally warming up after a season-long slump, doubled to center. Hundley, hearing cheers for the first time in Chicago, slapped a Buehrle slider into left to put runners at the corners with no outs. Gonzalez grounded to third, and Valentin made the disastrous decision to try to beat Alou back to the bag; everybody was safe. Mueller popped out, and it looked as if Buehrle might be able to work out of the inning. Appearing overmatched, Chris Stynes, batting for Lieber, dribbled the ball in front of the plate and it just did roll foul. Then he fisted an inside fastball into left field to score two and put the Cubs back in front, 4-3. They weren’t done, though they should have been. Lewis bounced a potential double-play ball to Konerko at first, but thinking ahead to the throw he booted it and another run scored. Paul-ie! Paul-ie! the Cubs fans chanted. One out later, Buehrle went 3-0 to Sosa and threw a terrific pitch, low and on the outside corner. Sosa threw his bat at it, and as the wood splintered the ball lofted down the right-field line and dropped for a two-run double. It was 7-3, and the demoralized Sox went without a fight after that.

Winning emboldened Cubs fans, who taunted their south-side counterparts more aggressively as everyone poured out of the park. “I’ll bring my fucking broom tomorrow!” shouted one Cubs fan to a bunch of Sox fans. But despite facing fireballer Kerry Wood, the Sox came back determined for the Bloomsday finale. They scored twice in the first on a leadoff walk to Durham and a run-scoring double by Tony Graffanino, who came home when Wood, who was having one of his periodic struggles with his control, threw a pitch into the bricks behind home plate. In the bottom of the first the Cubs took the lead on singles by Mueller and Sosa, a double by McGriff, and a two-run single by Alou, and Gonzalez padded the advantage by blasting a solo homer onto Waveland in the second. In the third Wood walked the bases loaded, starting with his opposite number, pitcher Todd Ritchie. Carlos Lee came to the plate sitting dead red fastball and hit the first pitch off the unsightly windscreen behind the left-field bleachers for a grand slam and a 6-4 Sox lead. Wood responded at the end of the inning by firing his mitt into the crowd behind the Cubs’ dugout. The resurgent Hundley put the Cubs back in the game with an opposite-field two-run shot into the left-field bleachers in the bottom of the inning–after hitting it he staggered to the side like Stan Laurel doing something not wholly intentional. Ritchie was removed in the fourth, while Wood battled on against the Sox and his own control. But when he opened the fifth with two more walks, Wood was done for the day. Carlos Zambrano came in to face Lee, and though he didn’t throw him a fastball his choice wasn’t any better–a shoulder-high slider that Lee swatted into the left-field bleachers to put the Sox up 9-6. The Sox added a run in the sixth, when Johnson walked and scored (the seventh and last Sox player to do that on the day) on a single by Royce Clayton. There was no more struggle in the Cubs, who seemed satisfied with winning the series.

Where previous interleague series have seen the teams exchange momentum, this series merely showed up both as underachievers. Given the Cubs’ starting pitching and power, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t rip off a long winning streak and get back into it; but just as one says that Wood turns in a miserable performance. The Sox bludgeoned the Cubs into submission Sunday, but the way they pitched Friday and fielded Saturday they fully deserved to lose the series. There’s no reason to believe they’ll gain consistency anytime soon–though the opportunity to win the division is still there if they play well in their 19 games to come against the Twins. The Cubs won bragging rights, but what’s there to brag about? The brooms Cubs fans brought to Sunday’s game could be used to sweep up the ashes on both sides of town.