Friday, September 30, 2005

Flags Fly Forever!

The White Sox took their first division title in five years with their victory yesterday in Detroit. Some might think it's weird that people could get so high on the exploits of a bunch of hired men who try to execute a series of nonsensical activities "better" than anyone else in the world. They are right--it's really weird. Nonetheless, I'm utterly ecstatic. There aren't too many baseball flags earned since 1920 being flown in Chicago, and it's just nice to be around masses of people who are extremely happy. I wish as communities we united more often and even if it's around something meaningless, it sure feels like a good start when you are immersed in the middle of it.

Liz and I got a preview of this when we saw what might have been the most important game for the Sox this year. Last week on the twentieth, we went on "buy one get one free Tuesday" to see the Sox play the team pursuing them, the Cleveland Indians. The Sox had lost the previous night leaving them (90-59) just two and a half games in front of Cleveland (88-62) making this game vital for their hopes to hold on to what was once a fifteen game lead in the division. Jay Mariotti, the Sun-Times infamous Fifth Columnist of Snark had proclaimed the division lost and written the Sox off as "chokers" (a column he's recycled 5 times over the course of the season--real tough job he has, huh?)

Before hopping on the El, I stopped at the corner Mexican bakery and grabbed a 12 ouncer of Pepsi, since a Pepsi product is a prerequisite for the Tuesday free promotional tickets. That fifty-cent is literally the first money I've spent on Coke or Pepsi products in five or six years, so Liz and I actually argued on the phone for a minute or two about who would have to take one for the team by purchasing the accursed beverage.

On the train, I sat next to the cutest kid and her father. The kid looked about three or four. The father was Asian American and his wife, a Caucasian American woman was seated across the aisle. The family was awesome for countless reasons--the guy was real good looking, it was the rare mixed family of Asian American male/White female variety, the kid was sitting with the dad instead of the mom and the mom didn't seem worried or even interested and the dad was just awesome with the kid. When the dad started talking to the kid about the game, I asked him if they were headed down there, and he said, "Yeah, you too?" I told him that the wife and I had decided to go last minute because the Sox never lose when she goes and they sorely needed a victory. He said that he worried that him and his wife were the opposite--the Sox always lost when they went, but they really wanted to take the kid to a ballgame.

We chatted a bit more. I wanted to give him props on his AM/WF family, but that sometimes weirds people out and since Liz was meeting me at the ballpark, it would be a little more awkward without the context.

We wished each other luck on enjoying the game and I left them with the mom trying to help the dad get the carrier on while the kid looked at the graffiti on the train platform. I watched them for a second, but my phone was ringing--Liz had beat me to the park.

I found her camped out on the other side of the street from the station talking on her cell phone to her sister. We hiked up to the box office and waited in line. They had extra security to keep people from passing the Pepsi products down the line to get extra discounts. (It's interesting how a lot of the strategy of promotions is to assume that people will forget to bring the item for the discount.) The security guard in our line was this up-beat African American woman who was effectively multi-tasking between enforcing the Pepsi code and chatting it up with this cute African American dude in line. We got to the window and asked the guy to hook us up since we didn't know where the best seats on the promotion would be, and eighteen bucks on the plastic later we had our tickets in hand. As we left line, I flipped the Pepsi to the security guard--she was like, "What's this?" I smiled and said, "We don't drink the stuff--have a good shift!" She smiled, said, "Thanks!" popped it open and went back to chatting with the guy while swigging the Pepsi.

Before hitting the escalators to the upper level, I begged Liz to buy me a scorecard. I hadn't kept score since I was a kid when I would keep score to the Nintendo MLB game I played in my basement. It was quite a colossal undertaking--the AI was terrible so I would often send 15-20 batters to the plate each inning and would use several scoresheets each game. As the vendor passed over the glossy cover of Mark Buehrle, Liz asked what the point of the things were. I told her that it helped you follow the game and that a lot of folks said that it was a way to meet interesting people at the game. She said, "What you mean they just start talking to you?" "I don't know--we'll see..."

When we finished the climb up to the nosebleed section of the ballpark, I caught batting practice as Liz went to grab some food stuff. We weren't in a section to catch any balls (we were up the third baseline, but still blocked by the batting cage), but the section was filling up pretty quickly, so it was already pretty lively. She came back just before the singing of the Anthem with a kosher dog, polish sausage and some churros. That's straight up Chicago there.

The Anthem was well performed so not too many people sung. As Liz explained, "If the singer is good, everyone is scared to put their voice out there too and fuck it up."

The game was an incredible back-and-forth affair. Buehrle was not at his sharpest as he allowed the Indians to take the lead in the 2nd, 4th and 7th on homeruns by Aaron Boone, Travis Hafner and Casey Blake. But each time, the Sox came back with tying runs in bottom of the inning or the following inning. Each time it happened, the crowd became more confident and rowdy, especially in our section.

In the 2nd, before Boone’s homerun, while Ronnie Belliard was up, the Indians’ first baseman Jose Hernandez was in the on-deck circle. When Belliard lined one off the back screen, Hernandez ripped it out of the air with one of his batting gloved hands. It was dope.

The upper part of our section, being one of the last to sell for the game, was mostly made up of diehard fans, who like us decided that day to take in the game. It was mostly Sox fans, but there were a few pockets of Indians fans who had made the drive over from Cleveland. There was also a mixed group in the row behind us that was partly Cleveland fans but mostly Cubs fans who decided to root for the Indians since their team was already hopeless for the season.

As the game became more intense and the beer continued flowed freely in the section, this got crazier. In the row across the aisle from us and the one behind it were equally rabid and drunk Sox and Indian fans. From the beginning they enjoyed talking smack to each other, and overall it was very good-natured ribbing, but a very drunk Sox fan started from several aisle back passed by while returning from a bathroom break and began screaming at the Indians fan in the most conspicuous Indians garb. Security ambled on to the scene soon after, but basically just stood around and blocked everyone in the section’s view of the game as heckles and jeers cascaded down on them. The drunk Sox fan found his way back to his seat and everything continued as before—the shit-talking, the drinking, and of course the game.

Several aisles in front of us was a large African American family—two brothers, one of their daughters and the kids mother. Both brothers were pounding away brews but as they got absorbed in the game, they ceased taking the time to order beer. Instead the kid, about eight years-old or so on a school night, was assigned the task of summoning the beer vendor each time he made his rounds. Whenever the Sox made a big play, or retied the score, the father turned and shouted up the section towards the pockets of Cleveland fans, “Whatcha think bout that, Cleveland?” The daughter would get up from her chair and dance to the organ music. When the argument ensued and security came, they completely ignored the situation until the Sox fan shouted at the Cleveland fan, “You’re on the South Side now punk!” Instantly, the father, daughter and uncle all turned around and shouted, “That’s right! Let ‘em know! Let ‘em know! South Side baby!”

Further up, toward the guardrail was this giant Latino guy. He was in his seat for about two innings the entire game. Once he got his drink on, he started running up and down the aisle trying to get people to stand up and shouting, “Let’s Go White Sox!” If the Sox scored, he would literally try to high-five everyone in the section including the Indians fans. When they wouldn’t respond, he would look confused, then indignant, and say, “So that’s how it is?” He was the best cheerleader I’ve ever seen, about 1000 times better than that weird green mascot the Sox have that always tries to stick its head in my wife’s lap.

As the game continued, the Cubs/Indians fans behind us were really getting into their role. They would say things like, “Grady Sizemore—he’s the man—my new favorite player, dude.” And were trying to learn all of the Indians players from the Indian fan in the group. One of the dudes was also scoring the game, but he wasn’t quite as attentive, so he would often ask me what happened on the last play—he seemed like a pretty nice guy—the least WASPY of the group.

My scoring was going pretty well, except that I forgot a lot of the official scoring notation, so I had to make up my own symbols a little bit. That’s one of the fun things about looking at scorecards though anyway—each scorer has their own personal style.

When Blake hit his go ahead homerun in the seventh, crowd tensions boiled over again. The same drunk fan that security tried to handle earlier was once again walking back from a bathroom break (moral of the story: don’t over drink if you want to see the game) when an Indians fan up the section cheered Blake’s hit. The drunk guy immediately started running up the stairs past his seat toward the fan. The Indians fan looked really scared—who wouldn’t be. But the rest of the section basically supported the Indians fan. In front of us was an older couple of diehard Sox fans and their daughter who was probably in her mid-thirties. The old man got up and started shouting at the drunk guy, “Sit the fuck down! C’mon!” and above, a line of Sox fans blocked the stairs to prevent the drunk guy from reaching his target. He didn’t give up and ended up chest bumping one of the Sox fans for the better part of a minute. Security was surprisingly efficient this time and showed up minutes later, dragging the offender off to his customary ejection from the stadium.

The Sox finally took the lead in the bottom half of the inning. Aaron Rowand lifted what appeared to be a game tying Sacrifice Fly to right scoring Paul Konerko as the relay was cut-off by Jose Hernandez. But in trying to get A.J. Pierzynski at third, Hernandez tossed the ball into leftfield allowing Pierzynski to score. During the mayhem, while the entire crowd stood on its feet, Pierzynski inadvertently (or maybe intentionally?) stepped on Indians third baseman Aaron Boone while rounding third.

The score held at 6-5 until the 9th when Rowand did something I’ve never seen before—he misplayed a fly ball. It dropped for a double and despite pitching well, new Sox closer Bobby Jenks and his 100 mile-per-hour fastball allowed the Indians to retie the game.

One of the Lincoln Park Indians fans behind us started to get up and cheer and the father in the African American group said, “Hey, we’ve got a silent Indians fan hiding back there!” The guy quickly sat down, but during the break in the middle of the inning, he started singing along loudly to the crappy eighties rock music that they play during the inning. The Latino guy turned around and shouting, “Stop that fucking singing!”

The bottom of the ninth was extremely tense. Carl Everett led off the inning. For those of you who don’t know much about Carl, he’s really famous around baseball for being a total loon. He speaks out strongly against the theory of evolution, which is fine in general, but he backs up his convictions with statements like, “Dinosaurs were not in the Bible, so there’s no way they ever existed!” As a result, some Sox fans have nicknamed him “Jurassic Carl”, one of the finest baseball nicknames of the modern age.

Carl has struggled lately, so he’s caught even more jeers from the home crowd than usually. When he came up in the ninth, I shouted, “Pretend that the ball is the theory of evolution!” It sounds too long and awkward on paper, but it got a good response from the section—the older woman in front of me spit her soft drink out all over. Carl obliged by striking out as usual.

Konerko and Pierzynski followed with singles, so after Dye grounded out, Rowand had a chance to redeem himself. But he didn’t really do anything good or bad as the Indians Pitcher David Riske soundly plunked him. With the bases loaded, Uribe flied out weakly to right field, and the game went to extra innings. I enjoyed the ninth, even though the Sox couldn’t capitalize—the cheerleader was still in full energy mode, and the section was very lively. The only downer was the Cubs/Indians fan behind us, who obsessed with the colossal injustice of being told to shut up, whined about it the entire inning. It’s not that I didn’t agree with him that he should be able to sing whatever he wanted; it was the way he did it. It all smacked of this tremendous entitlement—you know the kind where white guys think that since they can’t see all the ways that the society benefits them, in the one moment where things don’t go exactly the way they want them to, they whine and whine but don’t do anything concrete about it. Basically, he had decided that the best way to deal with it was to talk about how “I should just get up and beat that guys ass” and “All I was doing was singing” and “Do you hear me guys?” while his friends stared at their seventh inning beers wishing that they were full again.

The top of the tenth was more subdued. Dustin Hermanson came on and after yielding a lead-off single to Boone, he got the Indians out in quick succession. The cheerleader guy, now almost three innings removed from his last beer, laid back in his seat quietly enough that I heard the guy behind us saying, “Thank god that guy went home!”

Leading off the bottom of the inning was Joe Crede. Crede had tied the game in the 3rd for the Sox with a homerun, their first hit of the game. Joe took the first pitch and then crushed the second way out down the left field line, over the bullpen to end the game. The crowd erupted into pure delight, as Crede circled the bases. The Cleveland players had already left the field and the entire Sox roster waited for Crede at home plate, ready to carry their hero off into the night.

The Cheerleader did a final high-five run through the section stopping at the row behind us to give the WASPy Cubs/Indians fan some shit. Sensing trouble, I said, “Great game man, and bumped his forearm. He smiled and headed back down the section, high-fiving the older couple on the way.

As we emerged into the main concourse from our section, delirious mayhem enveloped us. There were a couple of older African American men just running aimlessly jumping high in the air screaming in delight, “We won! We won!” Strangers were hooting and hollering at each other and starting “Let’s go White Sox!” chants.

One of the wonderful features of the Cell (the White Sox’s stadium) is the fact that, like many stadiums, the escalators don’t reverse after the game, so if you are on the top section, you have to walk all the way down the handicapped ramps and switchbacks. If they lose, it’s like a funeral march, but when they win, especially in this fashion, it’s electric.

The crowd from our section was still very high energy as we descended the ramp and as we passed each level, more happy waves of humanity would wash out into the ramps. We hooted and holler and dreamed of the pennant all the way down and as we got to the bottom level, I peaked up the at the next level up and caught a glimpse of the Latino Cheerleader guy running laterally on the ramp still revving up people. He leaned over the rail and shouted down and we exchanged a smile.

Emerging from the stadium, we hiked back to the Red Line El station at 35th still enveloped in the crowd. As we passed the parking lot, a large SUV smashed into one of the light polls, but no one was injured.

We pulled out our CTA cards and pushed through hundreds and hundred of people at the station. I brushed up against a couple of guys wearing “Jurassic Carl” jerseys. They must’ve have been homemade since I’m quite sure that the nickname hasn’t caught on with jersey manufacturers. I got out a “Nice jersey gentleman!” and heard a “Thanks dude!” as the crowd through the express lane carried us away.

We walked past all of the happy fans to the spot on the platform where the first car of the train stops. People were sticking their heads out their car windows on the Dan Ryan and shouting “Go Sox!” It was cool to see the diverse, happy people gathered on the platform.

As we boarded the train, the car was empty so pretty much everyone got to grab a seat. The conductor came on the intercom, “Welcome abroad Red Line to Howard. This is will be a particularly festive trip, let’s here is for your Chicago White Sox!” and cheers cut through the train from the first to the last car. So I wasn’t there in Detroit on Thursday afternoon, but I think I might know how it would have felt to be at the Cell for a division-clinching game.

If you get the chance, please join us for a game out at the Cell next year.


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