A tale of two teams winds through Loop

The White Sox finally threw off their losing burden last year, but they're still second in Chicago's heart to the luckless Cubs.


They are tied together by geography, history and, until last season, a long period of misery. The two major league baseball teams that share the city of Chicago come into the 2006 season from directions as disparate as their fan base.

The White Sox will open before their mostly blue-collar fans at home tonight at U.S. Cellular Field against the Cleveland Indians as World Series champions for the first time since 1917, looking to prove that last year's fast start and near-perfect postseason were merely the prelude to a potential dynasty.

The Cubs will begin on the road tomorrow against the Cincinnati Reds much as they have in recent years, as wounded wannabes hoping to bring an end to baseball's longest championship drought while starting another season without injured pitchers Kerry Wood and Mark Prior.

If anyone understands the dynamics of these two franchises, it's Jerry Hairston. Having grown up rooting for the White Sox, the team his father, Jerry Sr., and grandfather, Sam, played for, Hairston is now in his second year with the Cubs.

Watching his favorite boyhood team sweep the Houston Astros in the World Series last year from his offseason home in Scottsdale, Ariz., was certainly an interesting experience for Hairston, more sweet than bitter, but also a bit strange.

"It was weird for me, because if I was still with the Orioles, I would have rooted for the White Sox 100 percent, being in the American League and knowing [owner] Jerry Reinsdorf," Hairston said before a spring training game in Arizona last month. "They have a great organization over there.

"I was happy for him, but I want to be happy for my owner here in Chicago with the Cubs. We want to do that for them, because we know that the front office works extremely hard and the players work hard and we want to get to that point."

It appears as if the White Sox will get back to that point - possibly this season - before the Cubs end a streak that is two years away from hitting the century mark and a curse that has endured everything from goats to black cats to a poor soul named Steve Bartman.

With the return of two prominent free agents - captain Paul Konerko and 18-game winner Jon Garland - the addition of Javier Vazquez as the No. 5 starter to a pitching staff that held its postseason opposition to a paltry .202 batting average, as well as slugger Jim Thome, the White Sox are favored to repeat.

"My philosophy is give me the best pitching staff you can give me and everything else we can figure out," said manager Ozzie Guillen, the first Latin American to lead his team to victory in the World Series.

"When we signed Paul Konerko back and Garland signed back, that was the top of my career because I know I have two guys that want to play for us."

Said general manager Ken Williams: "It sends a message to our fans that we want that sustained success."

Thome, limited to a career-low 59 games last year in Philadelphia after undergoing elbow surgery, has to prove he is still capable of producing close to the 41 home runs he averaged over the previous nine seasons, and that at age 35 he is not breaking down.

"Every year you play the game, you always have great expectations. For me, I was injured last year. I have those expectations that I make sure I stay on top of everything and try to be what they wanted me to be when I came here, that's fit in the middle of the lineup and be that kind of guy," said Thome, who will be used almost exclusively as a designated hitter.

Guillen doesn't expect this season to be a replay of last, when the White Sox pulled away to a 15-game lead by Aug. 1, saw Cleveland claw within 1 1/2 games in late September, then settled themselves to win the division by six and take 11 of 12 games in the postseason.

"When we had meetings with the players, I tell them, `We're the 2005 world champions, not 2006,' "Guillen said before a spring training game against the Oakland A's in Phoenix. "This is a new season. The only nice thing that we have is a nice ring. Besides that, we've got to compete. We're going to be the target of everyone."

Said Konerko: "Obviously, the first time you go through it, because of the unknown, there's kind of an energy there that you can't get the second time. But there's something to be said for experience, as well. If you're good and have the talent to win, it's not unheard of to repeat."

Guillen has not seen any complacency, though he recently questioned the commitment of 270-pound relief pitcher Bobby Jenks to getting in shape. The 25-year-old right-hander who started the year in Double-A and finished it as the first rookie to record a save in a World Series clincher, will figure large, literally and figuratively, having taken over from Dustin Hermanson as the team's closer.

Is another hot start necessary?

"I always believe that the way you start is the way you finish," said Guillen, who silenced those critical of his loose and loud managerial style by winning the World Series.

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