The period just before opening day was a time of gloom and doom for Chicago’s baseball teams–especially for the White Sox. Not only did no one pick them higher than fifth in the American League West, but most large-circulation magazines–where the supposed experts weigh in–picked them last. Meanwhile, the papers were rife with rumors that the Sox were headed toward a new stadium in Saint Petersburg, Florida, next season. It is testimony to the resiliency of baseball and its fans that, once again, opening day shone on the city; not only did the Sox’s fortunes suddenly seem better than they had appeared, but all the other problems seemed trivial–so much winter nattering, which failed to survive the warmth and clarity brought on by one of the first (and few) Chicago spring days. Baseball, as usual, breeds a dangerous sense of satisfaction, from its earliest moments of the season.
Because everything–our emotions as well as batting averages–is more volatile early on in the season. Baseball’s league leaders began appearing in the papers this week–only a week after the season started, in fact–sprouting up like crocuses, far earlier than we think they ought to be out. Of course, batting averages were limited to players with ten at-bats, to keep the cheapskate banjo hitters out of the picture, but still figures of .600 and .636 were leading the leagues. This is a high region of very low oxygen that will catch up to any batter over a period of, say, five more at-bats, but it reflects how quickly our mood can swing, early on; on opening day, the tone shifted not from sunrise to sunset but from inning to inning, from batter to batter.
We were downtown, making bank transactions, at the start of the day, so instead of riding the old, dependable Jackson Park-Englewood line to the park we got on a Lake-Dan Ryan train; it was the first time I’d taken this route to the ballpark (I’ve never minded walking the extra couple of blocks along 35th Street, so I’ve never bothered to change trains in coming down from the north side). Its different vistas seemed to present nothing less than a new way of looking at the entire experience. As we crept out of the Loop and picked up speed we saw the back side of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (or is it the front?) appearing between the skyscrapers; then we moved on down along the edge of Chinatown before descending to the ground and crawling, past the construction crews working on the expressway.
Comiskey looked as fresh as ever; above, the clouds were breaking, and the wind was blowing warm out of the south. And inside, of course, were the White Sox at batting practice. The pace, however, was slow and leisurely–the sounds a bit flat, like the pop of an already-opened bottle of champagne. Three left-handed Sox were batting, and none hit the ball particularly crisply, although newcomer Dan Pasqua did land a windblown blast on the right-field roof. It wasn’t until the trio of Carlton Fisk, Ivan Calderon, and Kenny Williams came to the cage that the pace seemed to pick up with the persistent sharp cracks of bat against ball. They were all swinging well. Williams, after a series of low line drives, hit a high, arching shot that barely cleared the center-field fence. “Blow on it, man,” Fisk said with disdain. Calderon then hit one that caught the lip of the left-field roof, a shot that no one bothered to comment on.
From behind us, the smell of hot dogs sifted up the grandstand stairs, wafted by the wind, and out beyond the right-field seats came the sound, somewhere, of a bass drum calling a marching band to order, soon joined by a series of snares. It was as if opening day were flooding our senses, pouring in from all angles.
The California Angels came out and began warming up, and their manager, Cookie Rojas, came over and was greeted warmly by our Jim Fregosi, a warmth that must be based either on a natural managers’ camaraderie or on a recent friendship, because as players Rojas moved from the National to the American League just about when Fregosi was making the exact opposite journey. The Sox went to the clubhouse and the Angels took their licks, with Wally Joyner showing the same swing he has had since he was born, probably, and with the ancient former member of the White Sox, Brian Downing–with his wide-open stance–spraying line drives all up and down the left-field line. The stands, by this time, were beginning to fill, especially in the areas down along the playing field, and more than a few were challenged to dodge line drives of mid-season quality, with only one gloved fan responding with a high, stretching, elegant, nonchalant catch, which the rest of us applauded.
It was that one moment before the start of a dreaded season that is worth treasuring, as if standings and wins and losses are about to muck things up and it is best to stay right here and just watch the game, in and of itself, in its rituals and rites. Across the street, however, McCuddy’s was filling with fans celebrating, it seemed, the end of the millennium. The bar was packed, and the beer garden spilled open into an alley and parking lot, it was so crammed with people. All around, there were hums of new stadiums–whether the Sox move to Florida or simply a few yards to a new stadium here, there are changes on the way–and a few fans came prepared with painters’ caps marked with “St. Petersburg White Sox” on the forehead, outlined in red with the universal “NO” crossed circle. These fans–without the benefit of already sampling a little baseball during batting practice–were in a foul mood. One woman, wearing shorts and one of the “No St. Pete’s” caps, was so riled up she even insulted me for wearing socks under my loafers, the first time I’ve ever run into that particular prejudice.
Back inside, we again went somewhere we were hesitant to go before: back behind the screen, high up in the lower grandstand. There, we got a good look at the pitchers but a poor look at the pitches; the screen disrupted our view, so that it was hard to tell pitch from pitch, a curve from a slider. Our opening day starter was Rickey Horton, a soft-throwing pitcher acquired from the Saint Louis Cardinals last winter in the Jose DeLeon-Lance Johnson trade. He is the epitome of what is meant by “a crafty lefthander,” with an oddly twisted motion resembling that of Scott McGregor–the jerky pitcher with the Baltimore Orioles who seems to pause in a flamingo stance in the middle of his motion–only smoother. Horton is a fine major-league pitcher, but in the past he has been something of a fifth wheel or, in baseball terms, sixth starter–never good enough to earn a starting role with the Cardinals, and not the sort of power pitcher a manager usually picks as his bull-pen closer. In short, Horton has always gotten by on his wiles and has always pitched rather well; he is not the sort of pitcher one imagines as the ace of a staff, however.
He ran into trouble with the very first batter, allowing a solid double to left. An out and a small single later, Wally Joyner drove in the run with a sacrifice fly, for all intents and purposes ending the rally successfully. In the third, Johnny Ray–who a year ago was considered one of the best second basemen in the NL, and who now patrols left field for the Angels–smacked a Horton pitch into the left-field seats. The Angels had a 2-0 lead. Opening day was becoming all too real.
The Angels’ starter, the windmill right-hander Mike Witt, looked as impressive as ever. He has an excellent fastball and a sharp-breaking curve, and on this afternoon he was mixing these pitches up with a good, hard-breaking pitch, a slider or split-finger fastball. The first time through the order, the Sox couldn’t touch him. Witt threw a perfect game in the last game of the season a few years ago, and I was wondering if he weren’t going to collect the other all-so-rare bookend on this afternoon. Fisk hit a loud foul in the second but then struck out. Pasqua worked a full count to open the third but then popped to shortstop. Johnson was overmatched by a pitch, checked his swing, and grounded to second to open the fourth. With two out in the fifth, only two of Witt’s 50 pitches had left the infield. Then, however, Fisk marred the magic with a double dropped down the left-field line, and Pasqua followed with an RBI single. Williams then hit a monstrous home run into the left-field upper deck. We heard fireworks (too far under the upper deck to see them) and all of a sudden all was rosy, the Sox were fine, and, as their motto suggests, anything could happen.
Williams, however, soon went to pot in the field. He is making the difficult transition from outfield to third base (the problem position for the Sox since the formation of the American League), and in the sixth he made it look more difficult yet, committing an error that led to a game-tying run. In the seventh, two Williams mental errors put the Angels ahead. Catcher Bob Boone led off with a double, and the following batter bunted down the third-base line. The Sox were in a sort of zone defense for the bunt: the pitcher, first baseman, third baseman, and catcher all take a zone, and if the ball is bunted anywhere but the third baseman’s zone, he then drops back and covers third. Williams misjudged a ball that was clearly bunted into his area, and when he returned to third the ball rolled up the line and came to a stop–runners at the corners and no outs. The next batter grounded to Williams, who both looked the runner back to third and then went for the double play. Not only was the throw late to first, but the runner on third–the slow-footed Boone–came in to score. The Angels had the lead.
Yet, just as George Bell’s 11 errors in the outfield last year didn’t hurt his arbitration case because he hit like a wild man in those games so that not one error was instrumental in a loss, Williams defended himself, too, with his bat, coming through with a two-run double in the bottom of the inning to put the Sox ahead. A Wally Joyner error opened the gates for Williams and eventually two other White Sox to score, padding the lead. Horton tired in the bottom of the ninth and, of course, Bobby Thigpen came on to retire three in a row and save the game for the Sox.
All was happiness and light. We even managed to laugh when, along about the eighth inning, a pair of fans got up a few rows in front of us and paraded down to the main aisle around the field, carrying a banner reading “Trade the Owners.” At any other event–involving any of the other owners of the city’s sports teams–we would have been approving but stern, regarding the banner as a call to arms. On opening day, however, it was another cause for glee, and we clapped and cheered, as other fans did all up and down the grandstand. If the Sox had lost maybe things would have been different.