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The South Side of Chicago is tough working class. U.S. Cellular Field is surrounded by 16 lanes of Interstate and commuter rails on one side and massive stockyard railroad tracks on the other.
The South Side of Chicago is tough working class. U.S. Cellular Field is surrounded by 16 lanes of Interstate and commuter rails on one side and massive stockyard railroad tracks on the other. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld) Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld

Tough town

Despite being in first, White Sox just cannot win

By Stan Grossfeld
Globe Staff / July 21, 2005
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CHICAGO -- If you ask White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen about the Curse of the Black Sox, he'll give you a smile and a curse in return.

''You want to know my honest answer? It's a bunch of [expletive] people come up with."

Out toward center field there's a lonely white 1917 World Championship flag flapping atop U.S. Cellular Field. It looks like a surrender flag but it commemorates the last time the White Sox won it all. Four years later, eight members of the team were given a lifetime ban from baseball for allegedly throwing the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds in the infamous Black Sox scandal. Since then the White Sox have been to the World Series just once, losing to the Dodgers in 1959. They have lost in the playoffs three times since. In their latest appearance, in 2000, they blew leads in all three games in getting swept by Seattle.

''If I see one of my players [talking] that [expletive] I'll be [ticked], because that's just an excuse," said Guillen, a three-time All-Star as a White Sox shortstop. ''We lose because we've had a [expletive] team for a long time."

Not this year. With strong pitching, aggressive base running, great defense, and just enough hitting, the White Sox posted the best first half in franchise history. They have the best record in baseball but they are still the second team in the Windy City. They average just over 26,000 spectators per game in a 40,615-seat stadium.

''It's a Cubs town and it will always be a Cubs town," said Guillen.

The cross-town Cubs haven't won it all since 1908. But they play in ivy-covered Wrigley Field before near-capacity crowds in a better neighborhood before a nationwide audience. They are on track to draw three million fans this year. Their curse is better known, too.

''Billy Goat is a bunch of [expletive]," said Guillen, referring to the supposed curse placed on the Cubs in 1945 after a local tavern owner and his goat, both of whom had tickets, were forced by the team's owner to leave Game 4 of the World Series.

And with the Red Sox in town tonight for a four-game Battle of the Sox, don't ask Guillen about the old Curse of the Bambino, either. ''The Red Sox were a bunch of losers till last year," he said. ''They're a great team. They deserved to win and they did a great thing for baseball. But that curse, that's a bunch of [expletive]."

So why are the Cubs packing Wrigley Field and the White Sox playing to an almost half-empty stadium?

White Sox center fielder Aaron Rowand's theory can be summed up in three letters. ''WGN," said Rowand. ''The Tribune Company owns [Superstation] WGN. They own the Cubs. They get more air time than we do. When the Cubs got on WGN regularly that's when they stacked up their fan base and now that's what we have to deal with. We're trying to win over fans."

Still, the fans are slow to respond.

''I wish I knew the answer," said Don Zimmer, who was the National League's Manager of the Year with the Cubs in 1989 and is now a bench coach with Tampa Bay. ''It's hard to figure out. This is a helluva team right now and not only a helluva team, it's an exciting team. I mean, Ozzie's liable to do anything out there. To me that's great. I know if I was a fan I'd love to come out and watch this team play. Part of it is Wrigley Field. I guess if [the Cubs] lost 38 in a row they'd have a full house. It's hard to explain how that could be."

The players say they don't care who shows up.

''Honestly, I gave up a long time ago on trying to figure out why we don't have more fans in the stands. That's a marketing department question," said All-Star first baseman Paul Konerko. ''It doesn't even register with me. I don't pay attention to it. I don't care if there's a hundred people here tonight or a million. Our job is the same. To go out and play. We just flat-out don't care about that stuff. We gotta play tonight either way."

Mark Buehrle, the winning pitcher in last week's All-Star Game and tonight's starter, agreed. ''I could care less. I'm the type of guy that doesn't need recognition, media coverage, and stuff like that. I just like to go out there and do my job and stay under the radar. But it's always been out there. Guys kind of realize it's going to be that way no matter what. It's bad but it's a lot of parents growing up their kids to be Cubs fans."

Shedding a stigma
The White Sox gave out baby blankets to newborns and free tickets to their parents. They sell $1 hot dogs. Monday games are half-price and Tuesdays are 2-for-1 ticket days. They also have beautiful women in hot pants tossing T-shirts into the crowd. They have acres of parking.

Part of the problem is the perception that the South Side of Chicago is a bad part of town and White Sox fans are thugs. There was the father and son who beat up Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa in 2002 and a fan who tried to tackle an umpire in 2003 but was beaten back by players and security. People still talk about Disco Demolition Night in 1979, when rioting fans forced the White Sox to forfeit the second game of a doubleheader against the Tigers.

''They're doing a lot to make it better here," said Buehrle. ''I think before it was kind of a bad area but they're doing a pretty good job cleaning it up and making it safer for fans to come out."

There are more reasons to come out, too. This year's team is a remake of the 1959 ''Go-Go" Sox, the last White Sox team to reach the World Series. Speedster Scott Podsednik is leading the majors in stolen bases and raises absolute hell on the basepaths. He's old school. He sharpens his bat three hours before game time in a deserted ballpark. Podsednik labored nine years in the minors before breaking in full time with Milwaukee in 2003. Acquired for slugger Carlos Lee last offseason, Podsednik is now an All-Star, beating out Derek Jeter in Internet fan voting for the last roster spot, leaving him ''in awe." He still calls reporters ''Sir." His teammates love him so much that as the last All-Star spot was going down to the wire, they left a laptop computer hooked up in the dugout and clubhouse so players could vote early and often for him.

Podsednik insists he likes the South Side of Chicago. ''I'm a blue-collar kind of player," he said. ''I have to earn my way around the bases. Some of these leadoff hitters like [the Devil Rays'] Carl Crawford, they can pop the ball out of the ballpark. I'm not going to do that very consistently. I'm going to have to work my way on and work my way around the bases."

Podsednik doesn't believe in any Black Sox curse. ''It gives you guys in the media some literature to write about but as far us players go, it's what you do between the lines," he said. ''Some teams get good breaks, some bad."

And he believes Shoeless Joe Jackson received a bad break for his role in the 1919 scandal, and subsequent exclusion from the Baseball Hall of Fame. ''What proof do they have to say he took money?" said Podsednik.

Jackson admitted to a Cook County (Ill.) grand jury on Sept. 28, 1920, that he took cash to help throw the World Series. ''They promised me $20,000 and paid me $5,000," Jackson said. But Jackson also testified that he played to win in all aspects of the series, that he wanted to blow the whistle on his teammates but was afraid of being ''knocked off." He hit .375 against Cincinnati (with the only homer of the series and six RBIs) and was flawless in the outfield. Babe Ruth said he modeled his swing after Jackson and Ted Williams campaigned until his death for Jackson to be a Hall of Famer. Podsednik believes in Shoeless Joe, who died in 1951.

''If you ask me he should be inducted. No question," Podsednik said. ''The guy's got like the third-highest [career] batting average [.356, behind only Ty Cobb and Rogers Hornsby]. He stole a ton of bases. I heard he played pretty good defense. Why should a guy like that not be in there?"

In the upper deck at U.S. Cellular Field, Sparky Prisby, a nuclear plant engineer, wears a 1919 Shoeless Joe Jackson replica uniform. Jackson, he correctly points out, was never convicted in a court of law. The eight players were acquitted in court, with the jurors lifting the men on their shoulders. ''Shoeless Joe is a Hall of Famer, for sure," said Prisby.

Fractured factions
Prisby, who grew up near Comiskey Park, has his own theory on baseball in Chicago.

''At Wrigley they go to meet a girl, here they go to see a ballgame," he said. ''And if [the White Sox] don't win they don't go.

''At Wrigley, they can walk to the game from Yuppieville. But that's not the case here. The region has changed. Most of the low-rise housing projects have been torn down. I don't have a problem bringing my kids to a game."

The South Side of Chicago is tough working class. U.S. Cellular Field is surrounded by 16 lanes of Interstate and commuter rails on one side and massive stockyard railroad tracks on the other. Most of the bars surrounding the old Comiskey Park have disappeared. Conversely, there are dozens of restaurants and bars around the Friendly Confines of Wrigley. It is Baseball Disneyland.

Several blocks from ''The Cell" is Jimbo's, where there are pictures of former White Sox stars such as Nellie Fox, with the ever-present golf ball-sized tobacco wad in his cheek. Fans here drink shots and beers.

''Wrigley's nice but it's too crowded, especially if you've got to get out of your seat," said Sean Callahan, 33, a construction worker. ''Here it's roomy. They still have the [bleacher] shower, the fireworks after the home runs. The food's way better and there's parking."

Fans walk around with anti-Cubs T-shirts that read, ''Chokers since 1908." For fans who grew up in households with divided loyalties, that meant trouble.

''My dad was a diehard Cub fan. The first time I came home with a Sox cap on I was a teenager. My dad said, 'Kid, there's going to be problems in this house,' " said Perrie Stanisavlevic, a waitress at Jimbo's. ''South Siders are rude and crude. It's an absolute civil war, civil unrest." When the Cubs invaded The Cell last month and took two out of three, ''There were fights breaking out in the alleys all the way to the ballpark," she added.

Downtown hotels are flooded with Cubs souvenirs but not a stitch of White Sox apparel. The Cubs have a special CD collection in the music store windows of Michigan Avenue. The White Sox have the not-so-inviting lyrics of Jim Croce's oldie ''Bad, Bad Leroy Brown," with the opening line of ''Well, the South Side of Chicago is the baddest part of town . . . "

Three blocks from The Cell on a sun-drenched afternoon Renee Walker is watering the dusty concrete outside her apartment on 37th Street in her pajamas. Other doorways are boarded up.

''I'm a White Sox fan, always have been, always will be," said Walker, who has four children, ages 7, 11, 20, and 21. ''The problem here is you get people that don't work, that do other things, and it makes it harder to survive. If you mind your business and do the right thing, this ain't no badder than any other part of town."

Nearby are huge parking lots surrounded by chain-link fences and strategically placed barrels for charcoal disposal. Tailgaters cook hot dogs by the package and talk about affordability. If you venture too far in the wrong direction an SUV with linebacker-sized security will ask if you need assistance.

''[The Cubs are] sexy, we're not," said Bill Melton, a former White Sox third baseman who led the American League in homers in 1971. ''It's got to be disappointing for the players."

Bill ''Moose" Skowron, who grew up in Chicago and was the first baseman on the great Yankee teams of the 1950s and '60s, agreed. ''They don't get the exposure they deserve," said Skowron, who does community relations for the White Sox.

But the Chicago Tribune, which owns the Cubs, insists it is fair with its coverage of the White Sox.

''We try to play it right down the middle," said Dan McGrath, associate managing sports editor. ''This year they've actually led the section more than the Cubs have. In nine years not once has someone in the [Tribune] tower interfered. They outdraw the White Sox almost 2 to 1 and their TV ratings are double."

The Cell a tough sell
Some White Sox fans also blame the low attendance on owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who helped engineer the last baseball strike in 1994, when the White Sox had the best record in the AL Central. Reinsdorf also threatened to move the team to Florida in the 1980s.

''It's been bad since the strike in '94 getting the fans back in the ballpark. Even in 2000 when they won [95-67] they didn't come back in droves," said Harold Baines, the White Sox' bench coach whose No. 3 was retired by the team 12 years before he retired.

The Sox moved out of old Comiskey Park in 1991. The original site is marked by a replica home plate and batter's box in the asphalt parking lot outside The Cell. The new Comiskey Park, which was renamed U.S. Cellular Field in 2003, drew nearly 3 million in its first season, but the stadium was universally disliked. The Sox had to lop off the last eight rows of the vertigo-causing grandstand, change the roof, and have made $80 million in renovations in the last five years.

This year they opened a three-tier baseball arcade section in left field called Fundamentals that features batting cages for kids, radar guns, and a timed race against a cardboard cutout of Podsednik.

Next month the White Sox are unveiling a life-size statue of Carlton Fisk, who went into the Hall of Fame wearing a Red Sox cap despite playing more games for the White Sox.

Guillen is downplaying the series with the Red Sox. The White Sox have two All-Star pitchers in Buehrle and Jon Garland, who is tied for the major league lead with 14 wins. Their closer is former Red Sox Dustin Hermanson, who has converted 22 of 23 save opportunities. Frank Thomas is healthy again after ankle surgery and 12 of his 23 hits this season have been home runs. Another former Red Sox, Carl Everett, is contributing more than he is talking.

''I don't know how we match up," said Guillen. ''We didn't play them all year. We didn't play them in spring training or in the regular season so far. If you're not from my division I could care less what you guys do."

The White Sox expect a big turnout. Buehrle admits a hometown crowd helps him on the mound, especially when he's getting tired in the late innings. ''It's definitely nice when the fans show up and they're out there. If we keep playing the way we're playing they'll show up."

And when he sees the Dynamic Dominicans, David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, striding to the plate, the lefthander might feel a little cursed. What will be going through his mind?

''You're in trouble because you look at the RBI leaders and both of them are up there," said Buehrle. ''So pretty much the chances of getting both guys out are pretty tough. If guys are on base, one of them is going to get the job done.

''You're pretty much screwed."

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