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Big League Flushers

I picked the right Opening Day.

Was it because I simply couldn't wait four days to see the retooled White Sox? Did I have a premonition that the Sox and Cleveland would play in near-blizzard conditions at The Cell on Friday? Or as the featured match-up between Chris Sale and the A's Sonny Gray was too intriguing to pass up. (Gray got the stomach flu, possibly the first sign that luck just might be on the Sox side this season.)

No, I just happened to be a lot closer to Oakland than Chicago last week, and I'd never seen a White Sox road opener. Nor had I ever visited the, ah, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. I mean, the Coliseum. Correction: the Oakland Coliseum. Possibly didn't pay its bills. Hence the new moniker for the decrepit stadium, built in 1966 for football.

Whatever they call it - since the A's moved to Oakland in 1968, the place also has been the Network Associates Coliseum and the McAfee Coliseum, a salute to nearby Silicon Valley - this is not the place where baseball should be played. You might even declare the venue off limits to children 12 and under.

The plumbing problems at the home of the A's are notorious. I visited the men's room just once to find the Wrigley-like troughs still in vogue. After a June game in 2013, the A's and Mariners were forced to share the locker room of the football Raiders after both systems in the baseball clubhouses were backed up with sewage. The Angels once claimed that E. coli had invaded their training room at the Coliseum.

The cult-like A's fans couldn't care less. No attention is paid to plumbing, bathrooms or sewage. No big deal. This is baseball, and they love their team. A capacity crowd of 35,067 came out last Monday night to watch our White Sox eke out a 4-3 victory, our team's first of four wins last week against two losses. The place was a sea of yellow and green, and the rituals they practiced were in full force. From the drum-beating, flag-waving crazies in right field who have created a folk hero in Josh Reddick to the rehearsed trance that greets closer Sean Doolittle, you have to be impressed with this core of fanatics who are both knowledgeable and frenetic.

(Jimmy Rollins' ninth-inning, game-winning homer off Doolittle on Tuesday night did little to discourage Doolittle's devoted legion.)

Last season the A's and White Sox both attracted slightly less than 22,000 fans per game. Twenty-five teams drew more. Both clubs are second-class citizens, the Sox being runners-up to the Cubs, and the A's to the Giants, who average more than 41,000 a contest across the bay. The Giants have sold out every home game since October 1, 2010. And I'm told the toilets at AT&T Park are big-league flushers.

While our ballclub has participated in the post-season just four times since 1988, Oakland has made the playoffs 12 times, winning the World Series in the earthquake series of 1989. Until the A's faltered to a last place finish in 2015, they were a playoff team the previous three seasons. All with a payroll that never has exceeded $89 million.

Of course, this all has been documented in Moneyball, but observing it firsthand was an eye-opener. It's not so much what's happening on the field. In fact, the A's, the worst defensive team in baseball a year ago, accommodated the visiting Sox with errors and mental mistakes that played a major role in two one-run wins as the season opened.

Despite the ineptitude on the part of the athletes, the fans never stopped making noise. The volume increased at tense moments like when A's pitchers got two strikes on a hitter with men on base. Obviously these folks not only are watching the game, but they also are educated as far as baseball is concerned. What they lack in quantity - Tuesday's attendance was 10,478 - is made up by the quality of their allegiance and knowledge of the game.

Tuesday's contest was noteworthy, not only for Rollins' heroics, but also because the Golden State Warriors had a home game across the parking lot at Oracle Arena. Parking cost $20 for the baseball opener, and tailgaters were out in force. However, the A's sent e-mails to ticket-holders warning them that because of the dual events - to say nothing of the passion the Warriors have created in the Bay Area - parking for Tuesday's game would be $30. Take BART, warned the A's website.

That works alright in terms of arriving in the vicinity of the Coliseum, but the distance along the ramps and corridors leading to the park is enough to qualify for a daily workout. The Warriors drew 20,000 for their overtime loss to the Timberwolves, making one question why both teams were scheduled at home a half-hour apart.

And while we're at it, exiting the Coliseum with 35,000 fellow fans requires time and a level head. There simply aren't many gates leading outside from the dark, foreboding concourses. Being a first-time visitor, panic was at the doorstep. Being jostled by the crowd, I flashed on a similar feeling I once had at The House on the Rock in Dodgeville, Wisconsin, which also requires experience and cunning to escape a challenging maze.

At least the Sox won the season's first two games, but once Gray recovered from his tummy ache on Wednesday, he edged the South Siders 2-1. Carlos Rodon matched Gray's seven innings on a yield of seven hits. The kid looked really tough in a losing cause, walking just one batter while striking out six. Compare that to Rodon's first three starts as a rookie in 2015 when he walked 15 in as many innings.

Before traveling home to Chicago on Thursday, our fellows busted loose in a 6-1 triumph highlighted by Mat Latos yielding just one single to former Cub Chris Coghlan in six innings of work. Latos had a rough spring in three appearances with a 10.38 ERA, but last Thursday he looked like the double-digit winner he was in the National League.

In fact, as a group, Sox pitchers were outstanding in the first week. In 53 innings, they walked only 13 hitters while striking out 52. Their WHIP stands at 1.08.

The promising White Sox offense provided a nice preview on Saturday against Cleveland before Sunday's game was justifiably postponed. Losing 3-2 going into the bottom of the seventh, Robin Ventura's crew put five runs on the board highlighted by Avisail Garcia's three-run homer. It was an impressive outburst and made a winner out of Chris Sale for the second time in the young season.

Forgotten was John Danks' snowy debacle in the home opener. Cleveland had a 5-0 lead after just two innings aided by catcher Alex Avila's throwing error in the first inning that helped the Indians get off to a rousing beginning. The Sox were never in the game, losing 7-1 in front of an announced crowd of 38,019. Considering the outcome and weather, I again was thankful I picked the road opener.

With four wins in their first six games, it is tempting to investigate the last time our athletes were as successful this early in the year. In the famous 2005 season, Ozzie Guillen's crew won six of its first eight. The Sox also matched a 4-2 beginning four times since that World Series season. In fact, as recently as 2013, the team started 4-2, but sadly finished with 99 losses that sad campaign. So getting too jazzed up over the season's start would be folly.

Nevertheless, the early success is a welcome respite from the past few seasons. Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier both have a couple of home runs. Adam Eaton had four multiple-hit games to start the season. No Sox player had done that since Nellie Fox in 1955. The team is 15th in runs scored after being 28th a year ago. As mentioned, with one exception, the pitching has been outstanding.

After a week-long road trip to Minnesota and Tampa, the Sox will return. It will be warmer. There won't be snow and ice. It's entirely possible the team will still be respectable. And thankfully the toilets at The Cell will flush in fine form.


Roger Wallenstein, who was once Bill Veeck's bar buddy, is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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