It was a beautiful day for a wake–and for a birthday, our friend Neil (now and forevermore 39) reminded us as we drove down to Comiskey Park last Sunday morning. There wasn’t a cloud in the pale blue sky, only a certain cool slant to the sunlight, reminiscent of college football games. On the way, along Monroe Harbor, we passed the festive balloon arches of the AIDS Walk Chicago–an occasion in keeping with the spirit of the day even if it wasn’t on our agenda. We arrived early in the Comiskey neighborhood, shortly after 11, more than two hours before game time; but the streets and sidewalks were already bustling, with a hive of activity just north of the stadium, near a tent put up by SportsChannel to both encourage and monitor the celebrations. We parked in one of the new lots surrounding the new ballpark, then walked back past the tall, nut-brown stadium–still under construction–to the center attraction, Comiskey Park.
Comiskey’s last days elicited such a range of responses that it was sometimes hard to believe everyone was referring to the same place. There were the usual complaints about obstructed views, about the awful sight lines from the corners, about the wasted seating in the upper-deck bleachers, as some adopted an attitude of “glad to see it go.” Others went too far in the other direction, taking Comiskey as the be-all and end-all, the Platonic form upon which all other stadia should be modeled, while turning a blind eye to its obvious faults. The Tribune’s Alan Solomon took both sides, saying Bill Veeck “corrupted” it with his concessions to the masses–the exploding scoreboard of his first administration and the “fairgrounds” atmosphere of his second–and harking back to when Comiskey was an unsullied ballpark. The truth is that skinflint Charles Comiskey cut corners on his “Baseball Palace,” just as he cut corners on all things, and that he, himself, is responsible for most of the park’s inherent design flaws–which date back to its opening in 1910. (Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, built within years of Comiskey, managed to avoid many of the same sight-line problems.)
It was, nevertheless, built to last, and last it did, and that became its main charm. Viewed from the traditional spot, behind home plate in the grandstand, Comiskey had the solid, unadorned look Chicagoans have come to take a perverse pride in: the way the blocky, two-tiered bleachers fit into the grandstand gave the stadium an appearance of wide shoulders, and, as those seats were always so difficult for batters to reach, the park always seemed big, as big and boxy as one of Al Capone’s suits.
The response most often triggered by Comiskey’s last days, however, was simple reverie, of days gone by and occasions remembered. What could we say about the place where we saw our first baseball game? It was a night game in 1968, so hot and muggy the Baltimore Orioles’ first baseman, Boog Powell, sweated right through his heavy gray road jersey and had to change into another in the seventh inning.
There was that peculiar mix of smells found in the picnic sections, where the aromas of cut grass and fried food moiled, and where before a game the pitchers would trot past so close we could hear the crunch of their spikes on the gravel of the warning track. There were 50,000 people filling the place for a bat day double-header–25,000 of them kids tapping the bats persistently against the concrete, demanding a rally. (How did our parents endure that?) There was the night when Baltimore pitcher Jim Palmer changed speeds so adroitly, spun his curveballs and sliders so sharply, that what was so difficult for the batters to fathom suddenly became obvious to us, and a whole new realm of the game opened up.
On one of Bill Veeck’s “fairgrounds” nights, when tickets were available for half price for anyone with a musical instrument, we drove up with a rebellious high school friend, we with a harmonica, he with a comb and a piece of paper, and the man at the window made him play a little on it before selling us seats three rows behind home plate for what must have been $2.50 or $3 apiece–still some of the best seats we’ve ever had for a ball game.
And armed with a press pass, we’d enter the ballpark early, with the ushers and the vendors, and watch the Sox take batting practice–savoring the extracrisp sound of bat on ball in an empty stadium.
There were the wonderful winning ways of the 1983 Western Division champs, ending in the playoffs with the greatest game we’ve seen, Britt Burns’s tragic masterpiece, marred by Jerry Dybzinski’s seventh-inning baserunning boner (the Dybber Fuckhead Catastrophe) and the tenth-inning homer by Baltimore’s Tito Landrum. There was the best game we’ve seen pitched, LaMarr Hoyt facing 27 Yankees in 1984, with a bloop single by New York’s Don Mattingly (erased by a double play) the only blot on the scorecard.
Comiskey’s last days prompted similar thoughts on the part of all Sox fans; it triggered a process in which they tried to define themselves, determining what made them different from fans of the Cubs. This produced a real consensus, quite unlike the varying feelings about the ballpark itself. Sox fans came to describe themselves as baseball connoisseurs, intolerant of losers, people able to appreciate a well-pitched game stressing speed and defense. Comiskey–no matter its faults–was celebrated, quite rightly, for emphasizing those qualities.
Throughout the last month, everyone–from manager Jeff Torborg to the meanest fan–was citing the team’s renaissance this year as the revival of classic White Sox baseball. There was a staff of young, promising pitchers coming of age, a quality of all the great White Sox teams, even the 1977 South Side Hit Men (who included double-figure winners Francisco Barrios, Ken Kravec, and Chris Knapp, as well as 15-game-winner Steve Stone). There was speed up and down the lineup, but most of all in the outfield, where Ivan Calderon, Lance Johnson, and Sammy Sosa all stole 30 bases on offense and stole extra-base hits from the opposition on defense. There was heady coaching by Torborg and his staff, especially defensive spotter Joe Nossek, now the leading in-house candidate for new general manager. The Sox defensive alignment deposed that of the Oakland Athletics as the most unusual–and successful–in baseball. Combined with pitching taught to play to these alignments, the Sox improved their earned run average to one of the best in the league. In one instructive night in Milwaukee, they played their outfield like so against Robin Yount: left field to pull, center field to slice, and right field almost on the foul line. With the Sox pitching him outside, Yount hit a pair of would-be doubles straight at Sammy Sosa, who didn’t have to move a step to catch them.
There were Walt Hriniak slash hitters up and down the lineup, turning good pitches, low and on the outside corner, into base hits by going to the opposite field. There was yet another great season from Carlton Fisk, who in an early season run-in with the Yankees’ Deion Sanders established himself as the definitive professional, part cranky New England Yank, part south-side Chicago curmudgeon. Unfortunately, there was also a stronger, better team in the same division. The distant second-place finish for the Sox, even with their 90-plus wins, sent fans back to the 50s for parallels with the Go-Go Sox, ever overshadowed by the Yankees until 1959. But finally, there was the August arrival of rookies Alex Fernandez–yet another promising young pitcher–and Frank Thomas.
Thomas, a huge first baseman, arrived from Class AA Birmingham with stats that would make him Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year. He got better with almost every big-league game and fixed himself in the cleanup spot for what appears to be years to come. Through the last game at Comiskey Park, he hit .343 with seven homers and 30 RBIs–power figures that translate to more than 20 homers and 90 RBIs over a full season. What was most impressive was his swing. Everything about it seemed an attempt to rein itself in–to not overextend itself–but with his size and strength it couldn’t help being a mighty cut. He began in a crouch, almost hiding, then his swing opened up in the manner of one of those startling bursts of time-lapse photography in which a flower blooms like a skyrocket. His attempts to make his swing both controlled and delayed directed most of his power to right field and right center–Punch-and-Judy power–but last Friday night he turned on a pitch. He watched the Seattle Mariners’ tall and talented lefty Randy Johnson diddle himself behind in the count 2-0 with a pair of off-speed pitches. The next pitch would be a fastball, and Thomas pounced on it, hitting it well up into the left-field lower deck for what would be his first and only Comiskey Park homer–in fact, the last to set off fireworks.
It figured, however, that the last game at Comiskey Park would be a pitchers’ duel. Our Jack McDowell locked up with Seattle’s Rich DeLucia Sunday for five shutout innings before McDowell staggered in the sixth, allowing a triple down the right-field line to Ken Griffey Jr. and sending him home with a wild pitch. Lance Johnson, however, opened the bottom half of the inning with his own triple and scored on a single up the middle by Thomas, who then scored on a bad-hop triple by Dan Pasqua, who slapped the ball into left field, where it bounced up and off the shoulder of Ken Griffey Sr. and rolled to the wall. (Like the White Sox’ father-and-son ballparks, the Mariners have father-and-son outfielders.) McDowell pitched courageously out of jams in the seventh and eighth before allowing Bobby Thigpen to finish. Thiggy came on to earn his 57th save–easily a major-league record.
Afterward, an amazing display of police kept anyone from entertaining any thoughts of getting onto the field. The final out was made, cops poured out of the grandstand from every aisle, the center-field fence opened, and out came more cops on horseback and in paddy wagons to stand guard all around. It was insulting. Sox management was so guarded about keeping its precious ballpark intact–a park it used first as an excuse to threaten leaving, then, this season, as a cash cow–that it took no chances. A postgame video, played on the scoreboard, and the Sox themselves slipping between the cops to get to the center of the field to wave good-bye to the fans only struck us as bones thrown to keep us from charging. Nancy Faust played one final “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Good-bye” and then “Auld Lang Syne” and it was over.
We remember watching on television once when a fire in one of the grandstand grills sent fans out onto the field. The fire was soon put out, but while the smoke cleared the fans ruled the grass, with a line forming to run from third to slide into home. After a few minutes the fans were told to clear the field for play, and the game resumed. In 1983, the Sox clinched a tie for first, and we went out on the field. The Kansas City Royals were the only other team still alive in the West–and they were losing. The Royals’ game was broadcast on the scoreboard television, and when we watched them rally we left the field. If anyone tried to grab a fistful of turf, there was always another fan there saying, “Hey, save it for after the World Series.” That was also the case the following night, when the Sox won to clinch and we went out on the field whooping and hollering and thinking, as we would later joke,
Yes we said yes we will yes.
Not this time. Never again.