After last year’s fisticuffs between catchers Michael Barrett and A.J. Pierzynski, it wouldn’t have been hard for the first round of this season’s interleague series between the Cubs and the White Sox to have a mellower vibe, and it did. With Sox fans more numerous than ever at Wrigley Field–a lingering effect of their 2005 championship and the Cubs’ persistent mediocrity, which has made tickets to their games easier to come by–the two tribes seemed willing to coexist. Opposing players and coaches fraternized during batting practice–no one more than Sox manager Ozzie Guillen–and I observed more mixed sets of fans than I could remember seeing before.

As usual, the atmosphere at Wrigley tended toward the relaxed and sybaritic. The bleachers filled quickly and the grandstand more slowly, and fans let the play arouse them instead of forcing the issue. The left-field bleacher bums booed the Sox when they took the field for batting practice, but later, during the game, they occupied themselves by batting a beach ball around. When the Sox threatened in the second inning of Friday’s opener, both the chants of “Let’s go White Sox” and the boos they elicited felt perfunctory. Saturday, when a beer vendor hawked his wares with the line, “The beer is cold and so are the Sox,” fans of both teams responded with amused smiles. Which was only fair, given the way the Sox blew the opener.

With the mood in the stadium so playful and peaceful, I decided to venture out into the neighborhoods where the real battle rages for the city’s sporting hearts and minds. What I saw was a remarkable tolerance, especially for Sox fans infiltrating the north side, and a muted rooting interest. Most people had one eye on the games, and only when something dramatic happened did they reveal their allegiances.

On Friday I skipped out of the game with the Sox up 3-1 and Mark Buehrle cruising in the seventh and hit Sheffield’s, a bar on the southern fringes of Wrigleyville. As Buehrle, the bullpen, and the Sox’ fielding all imploded, there wasn’t that much cheering for the Cubs, but the waitresses all criticized the Sox in no uncertain terms, the way only Sox fans do. They sounded like south-siders shanghaied and put to forced labor in the north, but with their native loyalty intact.

I watched Saturday’s game from the Heartland, a Rogers Park bar with a reputation among those in the know as a way station for Sox fans, and, indeed, a Sox 2005 World Champions pennant was hidden on the corner of the mirror behind the booze rack, next to a boycott coke! bumper sticker. The only person watching the game intently, I uttered an involuntary “Ooh!” when Joe Crede tied it with a homer that nobody else seemed to notice. Once in a while somebody spoke up. When Paul Konerko put the Sox ahead, yanking a ball into the left-field seats, the woman sitting next to me, who hadn’t seemed to be paying attention to the game, said, “Ah, the White Sox! Yay!” The Sox’ Tadahito Iguchi doubled down the left-field line in the eighth, and a guy at the corner of the bar suddenly said, “Oh, that’s trouble.” He wasn’t around for the Cubs’ rally in the bottom of the inning, but when Derrek Lee came up as a pinch hitter with the bases loaded and the Cubs already ahead, the bartender said, “Ooh, Lee.” Lee proceeded to hit a grand slam to put the game away, and she went about her work with smiling efficiency.

As someone unapologetically fond of both teams, I found myself feeling sympathy for the Sox for the way the Cubs put the hurt on them. With their offense coming around, the Sox had won four straight series to put themselves above .500, while the Cubs, dipping below .500, had lost a brutal game the day before in New York when closer Ryan Dempster gave up five runs in the ninth to the Mets. But the Cubs won the opener 6-3, and the Sox had no one to blame but themselves. Buehrle invited the seventh-inning rally by walking weak pinch hitter Henry Blanco with two out, and three errors and a passed ball helped the Cubs score three times in the seventh and twice more in the eighth.

The Sox led again Saturday but the bullpen blew the game, ex-Cub David Aardsma getting pounded before Boone Logan gave up Lee’s slam. Cubs manager Lou Piniella got the better of Guillen when he brought Lee off the bench as a surprise pinch hitter after he’d been inactive for days with neck spasms. Barrett homered in both games.

On Sunday the Cubs seemed poised for the sweep. With emotions apparently building–I saw a broom crammed into a flag post on a Sheffield Avenue apartment stoop–Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano was going against spot starter Nick Masset, who was forced into duty because a rainout and a doubleheader the previous week meant that either Jose Contreras or John Danks would have to pitch on short rest. But again baseball proved its utter unpredictability. Masset calmed down after giving up a first-inning run and the Sox chipped away at Zambrano with a pair of runs in the second and then Jermaine Dye’s solo homer into the teeth of the wind. The game fell in on Zambrano and the Cubs in the sixth. Pierzynski–who earlier in the game got back at Barrett, if by accident, by deflecting a foul ball from the on-deck circle into his back–hit a grand slam off reliever Neal Cotts, a former Sox teammate. Nothing could have irked Cubs fans more, and as the Sox saved face with a 10-6 victory the rivalry seemed to be getting warmer. My Sox pal Kate reported from Rogers Park that she was razzed mercilessly when she walked into Duke’s Bar wearing her Pierzynski jersey. Look for things to heat up when the two teams meet again next month at Sox Park. It was in last year’s second round that Barrett punched Pierzynski.

Was It Just Practicefor Next Year?

The Bulls lost to the Detroit Pistons 4-2 in the second round of the NBA playoffs, but the team’s consistency was admirable throughout the season. I don’t mean on the floor. They were maddeningly inconsistent there, as the Detroit series demonstrated–they lost three straight, blowing a big lead at home in the last of those defeats, then won two, the latter in Detroit, and then succumbed back at the United Center. But management was consistent in the way it approached the Bulls’ young roster. General manager John Paxson made the decision at midseason not to trade the future for the present, and coach Scott Skiles, a notorious win-at-all-costs sort, showed the same patience on the floor, letting the young Bulls learn for themselves in the playoffs and giving rookies Tyrus Thomas and Thabo Sefolosha more playing time when it mattered as the Detroit series went on. I don’t know if the Bulls have a championship nucleus yet, but Luol Deng, Ben Gordon, Thomas, and maybe even Kirk Hinrich have enough talent to make their development a pleasure to watch. Paxson and Skiles seem content to stand pat and see how they develop, and the fans aren’t telling them not to.

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): After A. J. Pierzynski’s grand slam May 20 photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images.