Wednesday, October 1, 2008
I've avoided writing about baseball since spring. This was one of those seasons it's best to approach with hushed tones, with disbelief, with the expectation it will all come crashing down. It was an old club that we followed in to the season, but an old club with too many holes filled with question marks. That age, those questions, they were supposed to leave the team in fourth, maybe fifth, lapped by the suddenly free-spending Tigers and the well-managed and intelligently built Indians. It was supposed to be a fight between the toothless Sox and the untried Twins, but a fight for third. The Royals, of course, never win. Those questions loomed large. Could Jose Contreras hold on, could Buerhle re-capture the magic, could Jermaine Dye, Jim Thome, and Paul Konerko remain healthy and productive? And what of Alexei Ramirez, Gavin Floyd, Jon Danks, and Carlos Quentin? Did any of them deserve to play ball, and were there any other options if it proved they didn't? Then they started winning. The Tigers started losing. The Indians fell apart. The Royals were, well, the Royals. Throughout the spring and summer the White Sox won. Buerhle started slow, but Danks was strong and Floyd the stopper. Linebrink was what he was supposed to be, Matt Thornton was the man. The White Sox built up daylight between themselves and the Tigers, watched the Indians flounder. Only the Twins posed a threat, but there was no way they'd stick around. Nick Blackburn, Kevin Slowey, Boof Bonser. Those aren't major league pitchers. Hell, they started with Livan Hernandez anchoring the rotation. I love Livan Hernandez, he used to be my favorite baseball playing Cuban expat, but he's not what he once was. Johan was gone, he was supposed to take the rotation with him. Francisco Liriano returned, but without that fire that had made him even scarier than Santana. The question was always there. "When will the Twins drop back?" As the season got later and as summer moved to fall the answer seemed clearer. "Never." Up on the North Side the Cubs were dominant, on the field and in the news. It was Big Z this, playoffs that, World Series this, 100 years that. That ninety-mile gap between Milwaukee and Chicago was suffocating, especially when the Brewers brought in Sabathia and the Cubs replied with Harden. That was the rivalry of the summer. So close, so hyped. Ken Griffey, Jr. came to the South Side. One of those guys who's name can't be mentioned without the moniker "Future Hall of Famer" attached to the front. One of those guys who can just be called "Junior." It was "Future Hall of Famer" versus "Oft-Injured" at the trade deadline. The F-HoF was the footnote. He went south, not north. The larger world ignored the real Chicago rivalry, the budding story. The Cubs fans can outnumber the Brewers crowd at Miller Park and overwhelm them at Wrigley. There's a reason Milwaukee's home is called Wrigley North. No, that's not a rivalry. The real rivalry requires several more hours on the same road. I-94 might take you from Wrigley to Milwaukee, but it will also take you from The Cell to Minneapolis. Which is where the season nearly ended. Two and a half games up, six games to go, three at the Metrodome. The Sox couldn't win in between the baggies in '08. None of the Faithful had a good feeling. Javy imploded in game 1 amidst accusations that he's not a "big game pitcher." Buerhle battled, but the team fell. G-Floyd helped the White Sox pin on a 6-1 lead in game three, then helped Thornton and Jenks give it back, with interest. The White Sox came back down I-94 down a half a game. I spent the weekend in Kansas City, far from the action even though K.C.'s team held the White Sox' season in the balance. When the games were on my phone was in my hand more often than not. ESPN feed, refresh, refresh, refresh. Thank you, Kansas City, for full 3G coverage. And thank you, Kansas City Royals, for doing what the Sox couldn't. Two wins in the Metrodome. The Sox won one at The Cell. It was enough, maybe. Enough to bring the Tigers back for a rain-delayed makeup of a rained-out game. Gavin Floyd took the mound wearing number 34. A number with history. The pitcher who took the mound for Game 4 in the 2005 World Series, the clincher, wore Number 34 that night. That pitcher was traded to the Phillies before the 2007 season for a young pitcher who'd never lived up to his potential, a move widely excoriated by the Faithful. That young pitcher's name? Gavin Floyd. It's fitting, then, that the Tigers sent a number 34 out to the bump, too. Not just any 34. The 34. Freddy Garcia. Former White Sock. Former World Series Champion. A man with something to prove to his old city, his old team, his old manager. Did I mention that his old manager is also his relative by marriage? In right field stood Magglio Ordonez. It's still hard to see him step up to the plate without hearing Hondo call out, "Oo-ee-oo," and the Faithful reply, "Magg-li-o." Maggs left after 2004. He left after playing in the All-Star Game at The Cell, a game where Buerhle started, our game. When Maggs came up to the plate that night in '04 Hondo called out "Oo-ee-oo" and the Faithful in attendance replied, "Magg-li-o." Then he was gone, replaced by Jermaine Dye. He took I-94 in the other direction, hanging off the bottom of Ozzie Guillen's bus. Maggs had a thing or two to prove, too. In baseball your heroes become villains fast. The 34s dueled, the youngster giving nearly as good as the old hand. The future fought the past and for six glorious innings it was baseball at its finest, nail-biting excitement. Then 34 left with an arm injury. The old 34. Armando Galarraga loaded the bases on a walk to Junior with Alexei Ramirez on deck. He'd hit three grand slams that year. The Tigers went to the 'pen. Most of Chicago started flipping channels. It takes a minute and the game will be there when we get back. We missed it. When I say, "we," I mean all of us who flipped away. That's what baseball is like. You spend two hours watching a game then turn away for a second and miss the one play, the moment, the shot, the K that will be talked about for years. When we left the game was tied at 2. When we came back it was six to two. First pitch, gone. Alexei sent it to the seats. The pitcher? Former White Sock Gary Glover. One more game. Number 163. Three do-or-die games in a row. Three different teams. The Indians in game 161. The Tigers in game 162. The Twins in game 163. Everything came down to this, the rivals fell one-by-one. For one night the baseball world turned on the South Side, one last game, one last party, one last day in a season too good to end. The Twins never gave up, never fell back, never quit, never surrendered. But just like the Sox couldn't win in Minneapolis, the Twins couldn't win at The Cell, especially not this night, this glorious night, our night. The Faithful appeared, all in black, but not the black of mourning, not ready for a dirge. Good Guys Wear Black. We know what it means. The White Sox wear black. It's a little f-you to the Black Sox scandal, a little "So what?" thrown at the North Siders who see us as the Black Sheep. The soundtrack wasn't Bach, it was Journey. Just like 2005, "Don't Stop Believin'." Just hold on, for one more night, to that feeling. Jon Danks took the mound. The question mark was about to become, as I've seen said, the exclamation point. Eight shut-out innings. A ninth pitched by Bobby Jenks. A game that turned on a perfect relay between Junior and A.J. A game that turned on a moon-shot by Future Hall of Famer Jim Thome. The only 1-0 game the White Sox played all season. The Cell didn't empty. The Faithful didn't stop making noise. Not on this glorious night. For this was our night. This was the night that the Black Sheep, the Black Sox, the Good Guys in Black held the baseball world and the city of Chicago hostage. 2005 was special, but not like this. It was an 11-1 romp through the postseason. It was a 3-0 sweep of the Red Sox that ended in Boston, a 4-1 victory over the Angels that ended in Anaheim, another sweep of the Astros that finished in the Houston night. I don't think the Sox even clinched the division at home, I don't even know if they were on the field when it happened. Not every team plays Game 163. Not every team comes in with even the Faithful so unsure. Those other seven Game 163s were epic, but not 0-1 epic, not fierce rivals with bad blood epic. Game 163 was a catharsis. Game 163 was our game. A sold-out crowd, a sea of black, forty thousand voices raised cheering on every strike, booing every bad call, going insane with Junior's throw, Thome's bomb, and B.A.'s diving, impossible catch to end the game. Thursday the season starts over. The White Sox play the Rays, the underdogs play Cinderella. The team that was supposed to be fourth plays the team that's never had a winning season before 2008. The Rays are rested, their rotation isn't in disarray, they have home-field advantage. All the White Sox have is that feelin'. Don't stop believin'. Bring on the Rays. Bring on the Angels. Then -- and god help this city -- bring on the Cubs. And even if it ends with a whimper instead of a bang, we've still got one thing that even the World Series winners won't. We had Game 163. We had one glorious night. We got to believe. Maybe faith is a palpable thing. Maybe it's that tenth man on the field. Maybe the Rays don't know the frustration, haven't built up enough of a faithful to care. Maybe the Angels have a faithful that's too laid-back. Maybe the Cubs have a Faithful that's too concerned about losing and silly curses to actually care about winning. The Sox have a Faithful that gets to say, no matter how cliche it's become, "Nobody believed in us." But if anyone knows what it means to not stop believin', it's that sea of black on the South Side. Don't stop now. Hold on to that feelin'. There are 11 more wins to get. Somehow I think that wins 87, 88, and 89 might actually have been harder. Anything can happen now. Don't stop believin'.