White Sox may be No. 1 in majors, but in Chicago, they're only No. 2


July 29, 2005|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

This will all sound very familiar to Baltimoreans used to being overshadowed in the national consciousness by their swankier neighbors in Washington.

The Chicago White Sox have the best record in baseball. They win with versatile offense, deep pitching and a pepper-tongued manager - the type of ball that appeals to a no-frills fan base.

But they just can't get a lick of attention compared with their richer, screwier neighbors to the north, the locally and nationally beloved Cubbies.

In Chicago, by all accounts, you can't fancy both baseball teams. And Sox people say brick, ivy and tradition be damned, they'll take their lot in life.

"It's an either-or thing," said Scott Reifert, vice president of communications for the White Sox. "It's where did your grandfather live? Where do you live? What's your mind-set? We like to think we represent the work ethic of Chicago where you just show up every day and work hard."

White Sox fans could blend right into Baltimore, said former Orioles general manager Roland Hemond, who has spent much of his career in Chicago.

"They're very loyal, they know the game, they study it very well," he said, "where the Cubs appear to be more of a social event than about the game itself."

And like Baltimoreans dissing the District, Sox fans love a little reverse snobbery toward the often hapless but always popular Cubs. "We think there's absolutely nothing lovable about losing," said lifelong Sox rooter Brett Ballantini.

The White Sox are one of baseball's best stories this year. Stripped of sluggers Carlos Lee and Magglio Ordonez, they seemed an unlikely challenger to the divisional kingpin Minnesota Twins or the up-and-coming Cleveland Indians. But these Sox are not only winning, they're also lapping the field.

The Cubs, by contrast, are a mess. Their pitching aces can't stay healthy, supposed star of the future Corey Patterson has been so bad he's now toiling in the minors and manager Dusty Baker's job appears in jeopardy.

None of that seems to matter when Chicagoans parse out their baseball loyalties.

The Cubs sell out virtually every home game, while the White Sox draw a mediocre average of 28,000. Cubs games routinely pull 150,000 more television viewers when the teams play at the same time. Forbes estimates the Cubs' value at $398 million compared with $262 million for the White Sox.

The Cubs win the national attention game as well. Even with the White Sox in first place, you're more apt to read about Kerry Wood's latest arm woe or Derrek Lee's Triple Crown chase than to see a profile of, say, White Sox ace Mark Buehrle.

Though the Sox have been the bigger draw at times - in the 1950s and 1960s and as recently as 1992 - history has seemed to conspire against the franchise.

With spitballer Ed Walsh racking up 400 innings a year, they were one of the strongest clubs of the early 20th century. But the Cubs were mightier, posting the best record in history in 1906, winning four National League pennants in five years and inspiring the poetic double-play refrain "Tinker to Evers to Chance."

Then, when the White Sox seemed set for pre-eminence behind second baseman Eddie Collins and left fielder "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, a gambler named Arnold Rothstein came along and coaxed the players into perhaps the greatest scandal in sports history, the alleged fixing of the 1919 World Series.

Eighty-six years later, "Black Sox" remains a term of infamy.

The White Sox were rarely either good or interesting in the decades after the fix, and when they finally became a winner again (17 straight seasons better than .500 starting in 1951), their run was obscured by the New York Yankees' juggernaut.

Division titles in 1983, 1993 and 2000 led to nothing but quick playoff exits.

When the franchise opened a new park in 1991, it managed to be the last to construct a 1970s-style oval before Camden Yards ushered in a wave of downtown retro parks.

Frank Thomas seemed like the second coming of Ted Williams - until he became a testy occupant of Sammy Sosa's shadow, cast from the other side of town.

The South Siders have never even gotten to be the sport's leading Sox, what with the tragic preening (and recent euphoria) around the Boston version.

Part of the disadvantage comes down to setting.

The White Sox play in a nondescript park bordered by a historically tough neighborhood, railroad tracks and sprawling interstate.

Of U.S. Cellular Field, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Rick Telander once wrote, "It's not exactly sterile, but it has roughly the charm of a clean utensil drawer."

Wrigley, on the other hand, is one of baseball's old jewels. Brick fences covered in ivy, beer in the sun on a Friday afternoon, Harry Caray singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," Ernie Banks drawling "Let's play two" - these are the idyllic images that guarantee Cubs sellouts no matter what the team does on the field.

It's clear which park draws the tourists.

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