It began and ended with a bunt, and in between were more bunts–some fielded cleanly, many not–as the interleague series between the Cubs and White Sox two weeks ago harked back to the 1906 World Series in the dead-ball era, when the Sox’ “Hitless Wonders” upset one of the mightiest of the great early Cubs teams. As in that matchup, the Sox came into the first of this year’s two series with the Cubs as upstarts determined to show they belonged; the Cubs had seemingly proved everything they needed to by sweeping their National League Central Division rivals the Saint Louis Cardinals at Wrigley Field just before the trip to Comiskey Park. The Cubs came in having won 15 of 16, including 12 in a row, and in first place with a five-game lead over the Cardinals. The Sox, meanwhile, were recovering from an abysmal start; though still in third place in the American League Central, a full 12 and a half games behind the Cleveland Indians, they had won 11 of 13. Something or someone had to give, and it was the Cubs, who were outplayed in each of the three games and were lucky to salvage the middle contest.
Still, each game was a tight, tense battle played in what Sox catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. called “a postseason atmosphere” before record crowds at the remodeled Comiskey. The baseball wasn’t always pretty but it was constantly compelling.
It helped that the dank, cold spring finally broke in time for the series, with the weather–typical of Chicago–advancing straight into summer. Friday’s opener was played in idyllic conditions, under a pale blue, cloudless sky with the wind wafting in off the lake. Sunday’s finale was genuinely steamy, with Nancy Faust summoning up “Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer” on the Comiskey Park organ and a nasty sirocco blowing straight out of the west to left field.
As in all city series, scenes of fraternizing mixed with scenes of rancorous conflict. On my way to Friday’s game, walking to the park from the 35th Street el stop, I saw a guy in a Magglio Ordonez Sox jersey walking hand in hand with a gal in a Mark Grace Cubs jersey, and Sunday on the train I saw a guy in a Sox cap sitting alongside a gal in a Cubs cap. (A woman nearby sported a Cubs cap, a Cubs jersey, a Cubs handbag, and Cubs Christmas ball earrings; no Sox fan had the nerve to sit next to her.) On the field, before the opener, Sammy Sosa met Ordonez and Carlos Lee for a little pregame conversation out beyond second base as they ran sprints. Yet Sox starter David Wells buzzed Eric Young with the first pitch of the series, and some Sox fans wore T-shirts that said, “Cubs: Completely Useless By September.” At least one Cubs fan responded with the banner “It’s OUR time!”–playing on the Sox slogan that this was to be their year, after last season’s promising but playoff-aborted campaign. In the fifth inning of the opener, a fight broke out down the right-field grandstand when the Sox rallied to tie the game. Sox fans outnumbered Cubs fans, so cheers mixed with boos when Wells took the mound, and boos mixed with cheers when Sosa came to the plate. The only source of agreement was slumping Sox shortstop Royce Clayton: everybody booed him.
If the Sox came in determined to show up their high-flying rivals, they got off to a terrible start. Wells, brought in to be the Sox ace this spring, had seen his role change to trade bait as the team’s fortunes faded, but he drew the start in the opener. After buzzing Young he was awful. Young dumped a beautiful bunt in front of the plate, and when Wells skipped his throw to first past Paul Konerko, Young went on to second. Cubs manager Don Baylor had second hitter Miguel Cairo bunting also, and Wells skipped that throw too, putting runners at the corners with no outs and Sosa coming up. Wells went 3-0 to Sosa, who smashed the next pitch foul before walking to load the bases. Sox pitching coach Nardi Contreras came out, and Wells, displaying rude behavior even by his standards, turned his back and sat on his haunches. Yet it turned out he wasn’t being rude; he was suffering from back spasms. He allowed one-run singles to Ron Coomer and Rondell White and then he was done, leaving the bases loaded and still nobody out.
That’s where the Sox’ fortunes changed. Sean Lowe came in with that relaxed stance in which he stands on the mound glove at his hip, like a college student idling on the quad before his next class, and retired the side with a force-at-home double play and a ground out. He allowed the first two Cubs to reach base in the second but again worked out of it, getting Sosa to hit a high fly to left. Two more batters reached base in the third, and another in the fourth, but both times Lowe settled down. After enjoying a three-up, three-down inning in the fifth, he retired to the showers with distinction.
The Sox, meanwhile, got a run back in the first on a Ray Durham double and a Lee single, and tied the game at two in the fifth on a leadoff double by Alomar, who went to third on a deep fly by Clayton, of all people, and scored on a sacrifice fly by Tony Graffanino. The Cubs pulled back ahead with a run in the seventh, but should have gotten a lot more. Sox reliever Matt Ginter loaded the bases with a hit and two walks, then plugged Julio Zuleta to force in a run. Jon Garland came on to get the last two outs. The Sox got even in the bottom of the seventh on a Konerko double and an Alomar single that sent Cubs starter Jason Bere to the showers. Then the bull pens settled in, the Cubs’ long-legged flamethrower, Kyle Farnsworth, dueling the Sox’ tandem of Bobby Howry and Keith Foulke into the tenth inning. Farnsworth left after two-plus innings in favor of Courtney Duncan, who got Clayton to lead off the inning but walked Graffanino, allowed a hit to Singleton, and walked Durham to load the bases. Duncan struck out Ordonez on a beautiful low, outside slider, and threw the same pitch to Lee, who jumped all over it. “Crack!” went that distinctive sound of bat on ball. “That’s the ball game, my friends,” said the Daily Southtown’s Phil Arvia, just to my right in the press box, before the ball had even begun its descent into the left-field seats. The only slightly more explosive sound of fireworks followed as Lee circled the bases, and the record regular-season crowd of 45,936 filed out, many to the el tracks, where they spread the news to friends on cell phones: “Sox won! Bottom of the tenth! Carlos Lee grand slam!” It was that simple. Who needs newspapers in this age?
Throughout the weekend, Jerry Manuel managed as if he were in the World Series, while Baylor managed like it was just another game. Rocky Biddle started for the Sox Saturday and looked great for four innings before leaving with a sore shoulder. So Manuel called on last year’s ace, James Baldwin, who was available in the bull pen after being shelled in his last start a couple of days before. Baylor’s starter, Julian Tavarez, cruised along until he gave up a run in the sixth. Graffanino doubled to lead off the inning; Chris Singleton, of course, bunted him to third; and Durham singled to give the Sox the lead.
But in the seventh Baldwin made a mistake right away, letting White, with his kick-step stride, walk into a high curve and wallop it into the left-field seats. The Cubs took the lead in the eighth when Sox reliever Kelly Wunsch let the first two batters reach base. Howry came in, but he slipped trying to field a Gary Matthews Jr. bunt–the easiest play in the game proved the hardest for Sox pitchers–and with the bases loaded Sosa smacked a two-run single to left, only to snuff the rally by getting caught rounding first too wide. Baylor stuck with Tavarez until he put two runners on in the eighth inning, and when Cubs closer Tom “Flash” Gordon came in he immediately allowed a double steal by concentrating exclusively on the batter. Ordonez then looped a low, outside breaking pitch into left field to tie the game.
The Sox had a chance to win the game in the ninth. Cubs pitcher Todd Van Poppel, having caught whatever bug the Sox pitchers had, muffed a checked-swing grounder by Clayton and then threw the ball away down the right-field line, sending Clayton to third with one out. Van Poppel walked Alomar to set up the double play, and he got it–though not the way he planned. Unbelievably, Graffanino couldn’t get down a squeeze bunt that would have won the game. Then he hit a soft liner on a checked swing that Van Poppel snared, doubling Alomar at first to send the game into extra innings. Worse was to come for Graffanino. Young led off the tenth with a double and stole third as Graffanino took the throw from Alomar standing on the bag as if he thought it was a force play. Young ended up scoring on a sacrifice fly, and Jeff Fassero came on in the bottom of the tenth to earn the save. “Gaffe-anino,” said the Sun-Times headline the following day.
With the series at stake in Sunday’s finale, Faust played War’s “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” before the game. Then Matthews smashed a liner off Sox starter Kip Wells in the top of the first, the ball ricocheting to Graffanino, who threw it away to send Matthews to second. Sosa singled, and Matt Stairs walked to load the bases. But Wells struck out White on a lovely curveball and got Coomer to ground out, and from there on looked composed and in control, every inch the phenom he’s supposed to be. The Sox got him a run in the second when Ordonez singled off Jon Lieber, aggressively took second on a deep fly by Lee, went to third on a grounder by Jeff Liefer, and scored on a two-out single by Konerko–a textbook little-ball run. They got another in the fifth playing big ball. Lieber, working quickly and efficiently, brushed back Singleton and came back on the next pitch with the de rigueur off-speed pitch. Singleton was looking for it and lined it into the right-field seats. That extra run turned out to be critical. White stepped into a Wells fastball and hit it out in the sixth, and the Cubs threatened to tie the game in the seventh after Wells had been pulled for Garland. Matthews walked with two out, and he was coming all the way when Sosa singled into the left-center gap. Matthews rounded second as Singleton fielded the ball, and he steamed around third for home with coach Gene Glynn waving like a windmill in a gale. Clayton had to leap to catch Singleton’s relay in short left center, and he turned and threw home seemingly flat-footed–but somehow with some serious mustard. On one bounce, the ball hopped into the mitt of Alomar standing on the plate, and Matthews crashed into him, bowling him over. “All” Alomar had to do was hold onto the ball and that he did, looking into his glove the whole time until he could get to his feet and show it to the ump. With a nice hook slide, Matthews would have been safe; as it was, he lay prone on the plate and was almost hit on the head when an elated Alomar spiked the ball.
The Sox added an insurance run in the seventh in a fashion typical of the series. Coomer booted Alomar’s leadoff grounder, putting him on. Clayton bunted up the first-base line, and Zuleta grabbed it, tried to tag Clayton, who seemed to run out of the base path, then tossed the ball softly to Young covering first. In the replay, Clayton looked out, and an irate Young certainly thought so, but the umpire–denied the tactic of looking at the bag while listening for the ball to hit the glove–called Clayton safe. Then Graffanino dumped yet another bunt down the third-base line, and Coomer, of course, threw it down the right-field line to score Alomar and send Clayton to third. Lieber toiled on, getting the next three batters to strand the runners, but the damage was done. Garland worked through the eighth, and Howry came on to get the first two batters in the ninth. Then Young tried to bunt–a sound decision, to judge by the series’ track record–into the no-man’s-land between the mound and first base. Howry came quickly off the mound, cut off the ball, and threw to first for the game-winning out. And so it was that the Sox won the series on a well-played bunt.
If that wasn’t the most exciting moment of the day, neither was Singleton’s homer, nor White’s, nor even the play at the plate, though that was close. No, the most exciting moment of the day came when I returned to my seat in the bottom of the sixth, and the moment I lifted my pen, which was holding down the corner of my score sheet, a gust of wind blew into the press box, upset the cups of peanuts and shells also sitting on the score sheet, and wafted it into the air, where it spun tantalizingly out of reach above the foul ball screen. Spinning higher and higher, like a trapeze artist ascending to the heights of the big top, it disappeared into the upper deck. But a moment later it returned, shimmying down back and forth, then rising again on another draft before spinning end over end the length of the press box to settle, like a plane reaching its destination, into the adjoining sky box, from which I was able to retrieve it, allowing me to write this detailed description of the game–to be disseminated the old-fashioned way, not via cell phone, but with consideration, thematic nuances, and style–in the paper, much as it would have been sent out in the 1906 World Series.