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My first ballgame was in 1950 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. Our family didn't move to the Chicago area until the following summer, and my dad grew up a Reds fan. The team was god-awful in those days, and no doubt Pop didn't want to suffer in solitude. So he loaded my brother and me into the car for a trip to the ballpark to watch the likes of Ted Kluszewski, Ewell Blackwell, Bob Usher, and Connie Ryan.
Most recently I watched Gavin Floyd tame the Royals last Friday evening at the Cell. Let's just say that between that first game 62 years ago and Friday's 5-0 Sox victory, I've seen my share of baseball games.
Therefore, I think I know when to cheer, when to feel elated, when to keep my mouth shut, and when to head for the exit in the seventh inning, which I did a few weeks ago on a frigid evening with the Sox trailing Boston 10-3.
So when the speakers at the Cell blare, "Everybody clap your hands," or that idiotic chart appears on the Jumbotron purportedly measuring the decibel level from the slightly less than 20,000 in attendance, I become mildly annoyed.
Maybe my age is a factor, although I'm pretty good at keeping it together in rush hour traffic. I'm learning not to seethe when I miss a short putt. I can handle finding the fridge empty when I reach for another beer.
Friday night I instinctively stood and cheered when Adam Dunn smacked one into the seats for a 1-0 first-inning lead. I came to life again in the third inning when Alejandro De Aza - looks like we have a splendid leadoff man - singled, stole second, and scored on Gordon Beckham's base hit. And I was absolutely ecstatic when Alex Rios lined a two-out triple to right center, scoring two runs and giving the hometown boys a 4-0 lead.
Conversely, I mumbled an oath directed at Robin Ventura in the fifth inning of a tight game when Eduardo Escobar didn't bunt with no outs and Dayan Viciedo on first base. The rookie Sox manager didn't fare much better with me when he left the gassed Floyd in the game in the eighth to face the dangerous Billy Butler with the bases loaded. (In the interest of full disclosure, Gavin struck out Butler, and then Ventura removed him.)
Since the directives to cheer occur at the oddest moments, I have to think that Sox management believes that nothing is happening any time the ball isn't in play. They assume that the average fan doesn't see that third basemen are playing on the infield grass when De Aza comes to the plate. They must think that we aren't looking for Alejandro to slap one into left field to cross up the defense.
Dunn went to the plate four times on Friday, and in each situation had two strikes on him before belting a homer, double and walking twice. I'm confident I wasn't the only one who noticed that the Royals failed to strike him out, and I suspect there were more than a few fans who were guessing whether Adam would see another fastball or a changeup.
While my focus is primarily on the field, I understand the appeal of the extracurricular gimmicks. Most of the crowd goes absolutely bonkers - I think it's the fifth inning - when the bouncy, pert Chevy Pride Crew circles the perimeter of the field throwing free T-shirts to the squealing throngs. You'd think they had winning lottery tickets in their satchels. Chevrolet pays for the promotion, which is good business for the Sox even though I do my best to ignore the proceedings.
Then there's the contest an inning or two later where three "contestants" dance for maybe ten seconds apiece atop the visitors' dugout, each looking sillier than the other. Earlier in the game, we have a nine- or ten-year-old kid hitting a wiffle ball off a tee where he's told that a "home run" makes him a winner. Friday night the kid's longest effort was maybe two feet, yet still he was declared a winner. No sense, I suppose, in having him return home minus his self-esteem.
And we have Fan Cams, and Kiss Cams, and now the Mustache Cam where the Sox's love affair with the Blackhawks continues, using a poor excuse of Joel Quenneville's mustache which the Jumbotron operator tries to match up with a variety of unsuspecting fans. Sorry, but this one really does not work.
Of course, the Sox's staff has sold each and every stunt to a willing sponsor, and most elicit a positive response from the crowd. It's all part of Harry Caray's mantra, "You can't beat fun at the old ballpark."
I've tuned out most of these antics, as I'm sure you've already noticed. The between-inning pauses have become redundant. Most were conceived a few seasons ago. I'm beginning to think that innovation and creativity are foreign concepts in the team's promotional department.
For a number of decades the concept of any kind of promotion, other than the game itself, didn't exist at the nation's ballparks. Finally, around 1934, someone got the idea of singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" during the seventh inning stretch. Surprisingly, this standard was written in 1908 by two guys who had never even seen a ball game. Imagine the excitement of having a few thousand people rise to their feet and break out into song. What a novel idea!
Please keep in mind that a fan's connection to the game in those days was via newspapers and radio. If you wanted to see a game, you went to the ballpark. The game was the promotion, and alternative choices - you couldn't even stay home to watch TV - were limited.
Former Sox owner Bill Veeck changed all that while incurring the wrath of baseball's establishment. Paul Dickson has written a rather complete biography of Bill, Bill Veeck, Baseball's Greatest Maverick, which chronicles the life and times of the game's most important and prolific innovator.
"The worst thing we've done is sell the idea that you have to have a winning team," Veeck is quoted as saying. "That dooms 20 of our 24 clubs [obviously today the numbers have changed] to failure before the season even starts. What we have to create is an atmosphere of enjoyment."
Bill always made things enjoyable but never more so than 1959 when the Sox won the pennant and later in 1977 with the South Side Hit Men. These were exciting and successful teams, one of which used speed, defense, and pitching and the other which bashed the ball out of the park. Neither Veeck nor anyone else had to tell us when to cheer.
And, of course, cues weren't necessary in 2005 when the Sox reached the pinnacle of success in that most memorable of seasons. I'm not counting on another experience like that in my lifetime, but that doesn't mean I'll stay away from the ballpark because I truly enjoy the game, and I like it even better when the Sox play well.
I just wish management would stop insulting me by telling me when to cheer.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.
1. From Jim Klein:
Well done, professor. My first game was at Swayne Field - Toledo Mud Hens, 1953, proud member of Junior Knothole Club. George Selkirk was our manager. Braves were the mother team.
I don't like the gimmicks - since I live in a Class A city (Charlotte, S.C.) there are gimmicks galore. I still cheer but only for selected plays and it could be for a visiting player.
I long for the radio broadcasts. When the game is on TV and radio, I turn off the sound on the tube.
2. From Jerry Pritikin, aka The Bleacher Preacher:
Roger, I felt every word of your story . . . it's like reading a scorecard, my own! Your closer has always bothered me. If a fan does not know when to cheer, they don't belong at the ballpark.
About Harry's mantra, I've added "providing you can afford it." I've been priced out of the ballpark at the face value of a ticket. And chances are, once Memorial Day gets here, finding a ticket on the day of the game, at the price printed on it is harder to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! There are no more cheap seats. The Friendly Confines didn't earn that moniker with fans wearing Rolex watches, talking on a cell phone and discussing Dow Jones averages instead of earned run averages.
I always appreciated that Chicago had teams in both leagues. I managed to see many future Hall of Famers and baseball greats. I think of Wrigley like the Grand Canyon - except the Grand Canyon does not have advertisements.
[Bill Veeck] boycotted all but two games in 1985 because the Cubs were selling bleacher tickets in February.
Last year I only went to one game, and I left in the third inning. There were two complete "WAVES" around the park in the first two innings. My 8th Cub-fan-mandment is: THOU SHALL NOT START OR PARTICIPATE IN THE WAVE IN THE FRIENDLY CONFINES, OR YOU WILL BE EX-CUB-MUNICATED!
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