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Beyond The Cell

I've lived here for more than six decades, yet driving around the South Side on Saturday, I felt more like a tourist than a Chicagoan. Yes, our city is one of neighborhoods, but leaving yours and investigating others leaves one with a sketch of the lives and experiences so different than our own. I'm confident this is a good thing.

With the usual 6:10 starting time for Saturday's Sox game, which turned out to be a 4-3 victory over Houston thanks to a surprising and welcome scoreless three innings from an inconsistent bullpen, my pal Tom suggested that we check out a summer festival in Calumet Park before heading to The Cell.

Along with my wife Judy we navigated unfamiliar territory on our way to the festival which invited us to "See the Cyclone Grill in Action." Anytime the word "grill" is used to advertise an event, I have more than a lukewarm interest. We discovered that the grill was four Webers on a circular platform with the ability to rotate. Unique to say the least, but the nearby church outing with a couple of 55-gallon converted drums with sizzling chicken, ribs, and pork butts had the Cyclone beat hands down.

Driving along the side streets of the South Side, Tom mused, "These must have been steelworkers' homes," which made sense as we stood on Calumet Park's beach with the haunting sentries of the closed mills standing guard across the water.

I thought about being in Tel Aviv 40 years ago with another wife as pedestrians and cars whizzed by, and she whispered in my ear, "Is everyone here Jewish?" As we passed those houses on Saturday, I wondered, "Are Sox fans in all these houses?" Different time, different place, but a similar question.

Looming overhead was the Skyway. Trying to calculate how many times I've driven across that bridge is fruitless, but it must be in the hundreds. However, this was the first time I had ever been under the bridge, observing who my fellow Chicagoans are and how they live. Should I feel out-of-touch, naive, or ignorant? Possibly. Nevertheless, I was grateful to be standing there looking up at the roadway rather than driving across it.

This is close to the end of the city where Ewing Avenue dissolves into Indianapolis Boulevard as it leads into Indiana. The other end - Howard Street - is very familiar, but the two boundaries are about as similar as Ronald Belisario is to Mariano Rivera.

In his book Baseball Palace of the World: The Last Year of Comiskey Park, UIC historian Douglas Bukowski, who grew up a South Sider and a Sox fan, wrote, "On the North Side, old factories and warehouses metamorphose into lofts and the new SoHo; on the South Side, they stand abandoned until gutted by scavengers. The service economy enriches the North Side; the South Side hemorrhages blue-collar prosperity. The hautes - cuisine and culture - rule the streets north of Madison; to the south, people like to dress up to go out to eat or to the show. Entrepreneurs live on Lincoln Avenue, union stewards on Archer Avenue. People on both sides of town clip coupons, but South Siders do it daily, not quarterly."

The White Sox marketing department has to be well aware of the zip codes of the fans who walk through the turnstiles every season. As we watched the game on Saturday, three of the announced crowd of 28,210, I wondered how many were from 60617, home to Calumet Park.

While not assuming that affluent families live only on the North Side, Sox tickets priced as low as $5 have to appeal to some of the folks who live in the neighborhoods where we passed earlier that afternoon. Sitting among people of all ages, sizes, colors and ethnicities creates the belief that what Sox attendance may lack in quantity is balanced by diversity and quality. There were thousands of kids at The Cell over the weekend, and watching them watch the game continues to grab my attention. Of course, hot dogs and cotton candy are part of the appeal. However, little kids focused on the action on the field with an apparent understanding and appreciation of every situation indicates that there is another generation for whom this game has genuine attraction.

Leading by a run going into the ninth on Saturday, for some inexplicable reason, the lower deck erupted into a massive Wave that made its way around the park five or six times. The crowd appeared oblivious that Jake Petricka had walked the leadoff man before giving up an infield hit after one out. With the indefatigable Jose Altuve - Houston's five-foot-six second baseman is leading the league in hits, stolen bases and batting average at .336 - walking to the plate, it looked like the bullpen was going to blow another one. And yet the Wave continued.

The crowd seemed to fire up the Astros, while the Sox might have been asking, "Why aren't you watching the game?" Altuve has struck out just 34 times this season in 432 plate appearances, but damn if Petricka didn't catch him looking at a 1-2 pitch for called strike three.

Using his closer-by-committee mentality, manager Robin Ventura - without a reliable left-hander in his bullpen - then opted to bring in Zach Putnam, a righty, to pitch to left handed-hitting catcher Jason Castro, a .226 hitter. Why not have Putnam pitch to Altuve when Petricka was struggling to close out the game?

Ventura didn't exactly answer that question later when he said, "Unfortunately, I don't have a guy that you're just going to leave out there, saying that's your closer. I like Put's swing-and-missability with some lefties and that's the reason."

With two outs and the game on the line, the Wave mercifully ceased. As the crowd stood in anticipation of a Sox victory, Putnam responded by striking out Castro. We'll never know, but I'm convinced that Castro would have gotten a hit if the crowd kept Waving.

On Friday night the bullpen trio of Daniel Webb, Belisario, and Putnam didn't allow a baserunner over the final four innings as they salvaged a 3-2 win for Jose Quintana. The last 22 Astros who came to plate all were retired.

Furthermore, Tyler Flowers, who was mired in an unbelievable 12-for-117 slump, doubled in the eventual winning run in the seventh inning. He did it again on Saturday with a two-bagger in the fifth to complete the night's scoring.

Illustrating just how difficult it is to sweep a weekend series, the Astros banged out 17 hits on Sunday as they scored four times off Webb on the seventh to leave town with an 11-7 win. Altuve's two-run homer in the third made it 3-0 although the little guy's error in the sixth let the Sox tie the game at 7.

Monday night will be the100th game of the season for the South Side Sox. They continue to struggle to reach .500, but there is nothing dull about this bunch. At times they play like division-winners; often they resemble the team that dropped 99 games just a year ago. But they remain interesting regardless of which side of town you live.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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