Second City always first in taking sides

JOHN EISENBERG

October 06, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

CHICAGO -- Q: How can you tell a Cubs fan from a Blue Jays fan on the streets of the American League playoffs?

A: You can't. They're both wearing Blue Jays T-shirts.

That's the latest Second City baseball joke. Only it's a true story.

Ordinarily, a city with a team in the playoffs is a city united. Not this year. Not here.

"A real Cubs fan is heartbroken about the White Sox making the playoffs," Kevin Hickey was saying on the phone last night, before the Blue Jays and White Sox played Game 1 at Comiskey Park. "There's going to be resentment. Jealousy. A few fights."

Hickey pitched in relief for the Orioles a few years ago, and now he works in the Baysox's front office, but his heart will always belong to the south side of Chicago, where, like just about everyone, he grew up cheering for the Sox.

There are two teams in each of the nation's three biggest cities, but only in this one can you break down the cheering along clear geographical and social lines. The Cubs own the north side of town, where, for the most part, the living is a little easier. The Sox are the kings of the working-class south side.

"Cubs fans are more sophisticated," said Hickey, who worked in a steel mill before turning pro. "In my days, they were the ones wearing John Lennon glasses and going to Woodstock. We were the dead-end kids. The angels with dirty faces. We were the Slick Mahoneys. They were 'Mr. Chips goes to Washington.' And we were tougher. Much tougher. You went to a Sox game and you were liable to see policemen dangling from the upper deck."

The only rule agreed upon by both sides was that there would be none of this cheering for both teams. Impossible!

"It's an either-or thing," Hickey said. "One of those blood oath things. Generally you're born a certain way."

Of course, if they ever made everyone cast a ballot, it would be a landslide. The Cubs are the ones with the monied, well-connected fans. The landmark ballpark. The Superstation following.

"Yeah," Hickey admitted, a bit glumly, "it's a Cubs town."

True, the Sox have shot to the top of baseball's merchandising list with their new black-and-white colors, but that's just fashion, not fandom. Even in a championship season, the Sox remain the Second City's Second Team.

In just their second year in shiny new Comiskey Park, they were outdrawn by the rebuilding Cubs, who were out of contention by July and finished in fourth place. Yesterday, Mike Royko of the Chicago Tribune, an unabashed Cubs man, all but admitted he would be cheering against the Sox. "The crosstown rivalry takes precedence over civic pride," he wrote.

The Cubs' overshadowing of the Sox is so institutionalized that only serious baseballers know about the Sox's record of failure. The Cubs, along with the Red Sox, are the game's famous losers, but the White Sox's record is similarly futile.

The Sox haven't won a World Series in 77 years. Only three times in those years have they even played in the postseason. They lost a World Series to the Dodgers in 1959 and threw a World Series to the Reds in 1919, or so the story goes. In 1983 the Orioles beat them in the AL playoffs.

That's a pretty miserable record, but do the Sox have their own curse, as do the Red Sox? Noooo. Their own "lovable loser" reputation, as do the Cubs? Noooo.

Why is this? Maybe because there's only enough room for one loser in a city, even a big city. Or maybe it's that the Sox generally have been more mediocre than downright pitiful. They had 34 winning seasons from 1920-90, 17 in a row at one point, but usually were just lousy enough to lose. Sort of invisible.

That's why the club's current incarnation is such a shock to a home-grown southsiders such as Hickey. There are the uniforms at the height of fashion. The cutting-edge superstars such as Frank Thomas and Jack McDowell. The rich man's ballpark. These are the White Sox? The angels with dirty faces?

"I'm sure there are laptop computers at the new ballpark," Hickey said. "A lot of sweaters."

The real fans, without sweaters, might not be able to get tickets anymore. But they're still out there, Hickey said.

"They're all down at the taverns," he said. "That's my turf. I grew up two miles from Comiskey. Me and the mayor [Richard Daley, a diehard Sox fan]. Those Irish neighborhoods. I know the people there. They're still Sox people."

The luckiest of the fans, new and old, gathered last night on a clear, cool evening to watch the Sox take their latest shot at erasing those years of futility. And the city held its breath. Part of the city, at least.

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