The main arteries leading to Bill Veeck Stadium were clogged with traffic before the start of game one of the American League Championship Series. Cars inched their way toward parking lots that were already filled. Ticket holders who had managed to ditch their cars somewhere along the route strutted past the traffic in a way that must have truly infuriated those who were simply, hopelessly stuck. Not me. I parked on Halsted north of 35th, locked the doors, and fed the meter to get it at least close to the 9 PM cutoff. Then I walked down to Kattouyia’s Hot Dogs for a killer Polish sausage (literally: it was deep fried and made my heart murmur with surrender even as it went down). Then I walked across the street to Puffer’s, a delightful little Bridgeport tap, where spots were opening at the bar as local ticket holders left for the game. The televisions were tuned to the pregame coverage, but the sound was down; Tito Puente was on the bar stereo. “George Bell would feel at home here,” said the bartender. In spite of the October cold–a cozy, homey sort of baseball chill, in contrast to the brisk ripeness of opening day–the front windows were open. The whole neighborhood was buzzing with good wishes and high expectations. It was there I heard that Michael Jordan was retiring from basketball.
A Tribune article on where to watch the playoffs lumped Puffer’s in with other Bridgeport sports bars, but that was wrong, a misguided journalist’s attempt to grant the place some instant stigma. Puffer’s is a natty, neighborly little shotgun tavern, with a wide wooden bar and, opposite, small and intimate tables rather than booths, an arrangement that gives the place a deceptive width. It is owned, in part, by a high school friend of a friend of mine, and it has a selection of beer and spirits to shame any north-siders who think they have a lock on the city’s alcoholic sophistication. I started with a Fuller’s, a heavy Scottish ale, and moved on, before the night was over, to a Golden Prairie, a malty, pleasantly busy lager from a microbrewery on Clybourn, and Legacy, another local lager, somewhere between the previous two in taste and texture. The bartendress asked if I wanted a “Smoke a Jay” button, referring to the White Sox’ opponents, the Toronto Blue Jays, and for a dollar I bought one and pinned it on. Down the bar, a few regulars clinked glasses with the toast “To ourselves.” Up the bar, under the television, another regular caught a glimpse of a helicopter shot of the area surrounding the ballpark, and slipping into a hokey, self-deprecating accent said, “There it is–Da South Side.” A scalper wearing a CCCP warm-up jacket wandered through selling tickets at face value and found no takers. The bartender caught sight of a meter maid sauntering past, eyeing a car parked right in front, and shouted, “Hey, who’s got the white Taurus? Anybody got the white Taurus? You gotta feed the meters till nine o’clock.” A few people scuttled out of the bar to their cars, and the meter maid shot the bartender a hostile glance. On the television, they showed a quick replay of Michael Jordan throwing out the first pitch.
In hindsight, giving short shrift to the ceremonial first pitch was the blunder of the night. This was Jordan’s first public appearance in Chicago since his father’s death, and it was loaded with drama–even before the heart-stopping report that would follow within two hours. A friend of mine at the game said later that even those in attendance had been surprised by the brusqueness of the ceremony. He noticed a curious applause in the moments before the game was to begin, and suddenly looked up to see Jordan on the field. To sustained cheers and clapping, Jordan made the toss, turned down Ron Karkovice’s request that he autograph the ball (it was later reported in the newspapers), and was gone. Back at Puffer’s, I wrote in my notebook: “MJ relegated to replay. ARGH!”
The music was turned off, the TV sound was turned on, and Jack McDowell got leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson to fly to right for the first out. There were cheers and clapping, and a guy down the bar said, “Twenty-six more to go!” The Sox threatened early, but couldn’t push a run across. Robin Ventura struck out with Frank Thomas on third in the bottom of the first. “Ohhhh,” went the sound of the bar. Ellis Burks popped down the left-field line with runners at second and third to end the third; Henderson caught the ball next to the stands and shook it at nearby fans.
Then came the three quick punches of the game and, of course, the knockout of the night. The Jays scored in the fourth on a two-run, two-out double by Ed Sprague. The Sox came back in the bottom of the inning on a two-run single by Ozzie Guillen, who stole second and scored the go-ahead run on a single by Tim Raines. Then the Jays counterpunched. They scored three runs in the fifth, the big blow John Olerud’s two-out, two-run double to center. As with Sprague’s double–and as with several of the Jays’ big hits in the series–it seemed the result of a Sox scouting report that was accurate and detailed, but out of sync with itself. The Sox, as always, had their defenders placed where the odds said the Jays would hit the ball. The Sox pitchers were throwing the ball where the Jays didn’t like it. But, with the pitches where they were, the Jays were hitting it where they usually didn’t. Sprague dropped the bat on a low, inside McDowell split-finger fastball and sent it down the right-field line; Burks, shading him to center, just missed catching up with it. Olerud laced a McDowell pitch to right center; Lance Johnson had been shading him to left, and again just missed catching up with it. Then CBS’s Pat O’Brien and Jim Gray broke in, from one of the photographers wells along the field, with the report that Jordan was retiring.
All five stages of death were run through in Puffer’s that night. The first two, denial and anger, came at once. “I can’t believe they’d interrupt the game with that crap,” said the fellow sitting next to me. But CBS showed Jordan leaving the game without issuing a statement. Then came resistance, in the form of rooting for the Sox. But McDowell just didn’t have it, and gave up a two-run homer–again with two outs–to Paul Molitor in the seventh. Then came resignation. “This is weird, man,” said the fellow sitting next to me. “The night is getting very strange. It’s weird.” A bad moon rose over the buildings across the street. And finally came acceptance. Tito Puente went back on the bar stereo. Said the bartendress, as the game ended and the clientele began to leave, “Well, Michael Jordan has fucking ruined the playoffs.”
That might be a bit harsh, but it captured the feeling of many Sox fans I spoke with over the next few days. And the Sox played as if they were shell-shocked the following afternoon. Errors by Dan Pasqua (manager Gene Lamont’s lame attempt at playing a hunch) and Joey Cora (I don’t know how many times I heard him compared to “a deer in the headlights” during the playoffs, but it was at least five, from five different sources) led to two unearned runs, which cost Alex Fernandez the game.
The Sox were reborn in Toronto, winning the third game behind Wilson Alvarez and the fourth behind Tim Belcher out of the bull pen, with unexpected offensive power provided in the latter by Johnson (who gave the Sox the lead with his first homer of the year in the second and their final lead with a two-run triple in the sixth) and long-awaited power from Thomas (who tied the game ahead of Johnson with a homer in the sixth). Yet McDowell was thumped again in game five (newspaper rumors have it that he was tipping his pitches), and the Sox came home facing elimination a week ago Tuesday.
There was cause for optimism. The Sox had their two hottest pitchers lined up, in Fernandez and Alvarez. Yet on the whole, the mood of the city was that of a death watch. A friend called up in mid-afternoon with an extra skybox seat and said I was the tenth guy he’d offered it to (no offense, none taken). And although I had planned to watch again at Puffer’s, I parked for the last time this season on State Street, just north of 35th, in a half-legal spot next to a bus stop, and walked over and met him at the el station.
We were stuck in a skybox with a bunch of suits (my friend had only been offered the tickets himself earlier in the day). I was the only one taking the trouble to keep score, but to their credit they did have the skybox windows open, even on this cold night. (There was no distinction to be made between April and October cold on this evening; it was just plain frigid.) Yet Fernandez, supposedly a cold-weather pitcher, started colder than the weather. He walked the leadoff batter in the second, hit the next man, and following a sacrifice bunt and another walk allowed a two-run single. The Sox countered with two in the third (there was a bases-loaded walk to Thomas), but that’s all they would get while the game was in doubt. Dave Stewart, the old Oakland Athletics ace –even now unbeaten in eight lifetime decisions in the playoffs–looked as if he had been thawed out for the occasion. Returning to the locker room while the Jays batted, checking with manager Cito Gaston that he would remain in the game, he allowed only two hits after the Sox’ third-inning uprising before leaving for the Jays’ bull pen closer, Duane Ward, in the eighth.
Simply put, the Jays proved themselves the better team. Their lineup was solid with all-stars through the seven slot, and eight and nine were filled by time-tested pressure players, Sprague and Pat Borders (he got the two-run single off Fernandez in the second). Gaston used the same nine players in each game and did not make a single nonpitching substitution during the entire series. The Sox, meanwhile, sniped at one another in the media, hit erratically in the clutch, booted the ball around in the field (Toronto’s lead run in the fourth in the deciding game was, of course, unearned), and–with ace McDowell getting bombed in both his games–pitched poorly overall. It was the sort of performance that made one loath even to think about next year.
The fans went silent after the Blue Jays were first to score, and they got involved in the game only sporadically after that. Some booed before leaving. Others remained to the very end, clapping diligently as the Jays celebrated on the field and the Sox relievers and backup catchers trudged in from the bull pen. The season was over, winter was coming, and this year, quite suddenly, there was no Michael Jordan to look forward to.
Losses are not death, not even when they end seasons, and neither are retirements. In general, I agree with the title character in Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter, who thinks that one of the few things to be learned from sports is that “there are no transcendent themes in life. In all cases things are here and they’re over, and that has to be enough.” But Jordan’s retirement had the feeling of a violent or sudden death in that one had to come to terms with the idea that either one had savored Jordan in flight or missed him altogether; there was to be no last opportunity to save up memories, no adequate chance to say good-bye. The greatest athlete any of us is ever likely to see was here, and then he was gone. May he have a long, satisfying, and peaceful retirement. Life goes on; sports goes on. But sometimes “wait till next year” is more hollow than even a cliche has any right to be.