Series fever rages even in shadow of Wrigley

October 22, 2005|By PETER SCHMUCK

Wrigleyville -- In the neighborhood that surrounds historic Wrigley Field, the souvenir shops have stocked up on gray and black jerseys, even though Sox is supposed to be a dirty word around here.

"That's all we're selling," said Ryan Fay, manning the cash register of Wrigleyville Sports. "If people are looking for Cubs stuff, I'd have to think they are from out of town."

Wait, am I hearing this right? The jersey du jour on Addison Street right now does not have pinstripes and a big "C" on the chest?

Two blocks away at Sluggers, bartender Kathee Clifford is holding up the tiny pink White Sox shirt she says she will wear to work for tonight's World Series opener between the Southsiders and the Houston Astros, and I briefly consider skipping Game 1.

Regular customer Minnie Minoso is due in any minute for a television live shot. Owner Zach Strauss quickly admits to being a Sox fan, and now my head is starting to spin.

Could we be witnessing a case of pennant envy?

Not at all. It's just an example of the strange fan dynamic in Chicago, the city of broad shoulders, the Blues Brothers and the two most futile franchises in the history of baseball.

"When the Cubs play the White Sox, I do shots bets with the Cubs fans," said Clifford, as if there's really any sport in getting a Cubs fan to drink too much.

Across the room, a small group of customers arrives wearing Houston Astros T-shirts and the game is on. Clifford trades friendly barbs with Carlos Garza, who turns out to be the former mayor of Texas City, a small town outside Houston. He and his wife and another couple came across town to see Wrigley Field and figured they would find a warmer welcome from the National League fans on the North Side.

When Clifford returns from delivering their drinks, she gives me a devilish wink and whispers playfully, "I double-charged them."

I don't believe her, but all of my illusions have been shattered.

It is not a normal night in Wrigleyville, of course. The White Sox are preparing to play in the World Series for the first time since 1959. Neither Chicago team has won a world championship since before Prohibition, but the arrival of the Fall Classic on the South Side certainly means different things to different people.

Murphy's Bleachers - recently voted the No. 1 Sports Bar in America on ESPN's Cold Pizza - might be the ultimate Cubs hangout, so there was quite a buzz when Cubs season-ticket holder Joe Pryor showed up the other day wearing a brand new Sox jersey.

"It was just for effect," he said last night. "If you come right down to it, if I had to root for one team, I'd root for the Cubs. But there's another team in town that's in the World Series and I'm rooting for the White Sox a little bit."

Pryor tried to explain that there is a misconception about the fan rivalry in Chicago. It's the White Sox fans who are jealous of Cubs fans. Not the other way around.

"I think the typical Cubs fan is taking the high road," he said. "The Sox fans ... I can't tell you the hatred they have for Cubs fans. They're jealous because we have this neighborhood and this great atmosphere and they just go to the games and go home.

"They have a joke: How many [a derogatory term for gays] does it take to turn over a car? We'll never know because the Cubs will never be in the World Series."

So what was Pryor doing in a Sox jersey?

"I like to think of it as performance art," he said.

Bleachers bartender Steve Szczudlo [don't even attempt it] does not abide such ambivalence. He worked the Happy Hour crowd last night wearing a Cubs cap and promised to complete the ensemble with an Astros jersey tonight.

"I just can't imagine walking into the grocery story in my Cubs hat and having a guy in a White Sox world championship shirt hooting at me," he said. "You know that's going to end up in a fight in the produce section. But there are a lot of people jumping on the bandwagon."

He didn't have to look far for proof. Just a few feet away, co-worker Bridgid Farrell had pulled out a seating diagram to show Pryor the location of her seats for Game 1 at U.S. Cellular Field. Got two at face value.

None of this would come as a shock to Chicago Tribune columnist John Kass, who - when I interrupted his lunch at the famous Billy Goat Tavern earlier in the day - made no pretense of objectivity with regard to the Cubs and White Sox and disputed the popular national perception that Chicago is a "Cubs town."

"You know who considers it a Cubs town?" he said. "All the media who move in from out of town and live in Lincoln Park and think that's Chicago. Wrigley Field is a party. Sox fans speculate that if they turned all the seats at Wrigley to face the wall, they'd still fill the place up.

"On the South Side, nobody thinks that losing is cute."

Kass is part of a decided minority in the Billy Goat, the downtown restaurant whose original owner, William Sianis, placed the "Billy Goat Curse" on the Cubs when team officials would not allow him to bring his goat into Wrigley Field for the 1945 World Series.

The joint has a siren that blares every time a Cub hits a home run, but bartender Jeff Magill promised that if he got the chance he would fire it up when one of the Astros sluggers clears the fence.

"Other guys may fish for tips or be politically correct [by sounding the siren for the Sox]," he said. "It's OK that they're in it. It's more exciting. But I've taken so much from Sox fans over the years, it's just a visceral thing."

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