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Crosstown Classic's Cupboard Bare

You look and listen for the smallest signs, the indicators that provide a speck of hope that we're turning the corner. Rarely can you find them on TV or the newspaper where information about vaccines and remedies for this monster virus are slow to develop and are months, if not years, away.

So the other day when I looked from my fifth-floor balcony at the basketball court across the street, I stopped and made sure I wasn't being deceived. But there they were. After being summarily removed months ago along with all the other hoops around the city, the rims and nets hung conspicuously from the backboards. It was as though they had reappeared by magic, clandestinely in the night or certainly at a time when no one was watching.

There was no announcement. A crowd didn't gather. If the mayor had made any proclamation, I hadn't heard it. But there was no mistaking what I saw.

Was this a sign? Did this mean that social distancing protocols could be relaxed? In the few days since the rims were reinstalled, the sounds of bouncing basketballs, though far fewer than in recent summers, had filtered into the air. Can normalcy be far behind?

Answers are scarce these days, and if you were depending on the weekend's intercity series - the Crosstown Classic or whatever you want to call it - between the Cubs and Sox, the cupboard was bare.

Some aspects were very familiar, especially leading up to Friday's first pitch on the North Side. Because the games meant something for both clubs, the series was receiving almost as much attention as the Bears' prospects at tight end with the addition of Jimmy Graham.

The Cubs were leading the Central Division of the National League by four games over the Cardinals while the surging White Sox had just swept a four-game set from Detroit, in which they outscored the Tigers 31-9 while banging out 12 home runs. Sox pitchers chipped in with an ERA of 2.00 in the quartet of victories.

NBC Sports Chicago ran clip after clip of past highlights. I kept wondering if A.J. Pierzynski's jaw was sore all over again for all the times I saw reruns of Michael Barrett punching him. Homers by Pierzynski, Paulie, and the Big Hurt pervaded my viewing experience. And, of course, no publicity for the weekend series could be complete without Eloy Jimenez's ninth inning, game-winning, two-run homer a little more than a year ago at Wrigley.

No one needed a reminder that the trio of games would be played in an empty Wrigley Field. Acres of deserted seats have become a staple of sporting events that are played in the Pandemic Era. The ghost-like cutouts, sprinkling the box seats, are a stark reminder that we're living in a time none of us could have conceived less than a year ago.

Nevertheless, an hour before Sunday's tense 2-1 Cub victory, the souvenir stands around the ballpark displayed their inventories, albeit much different than usual with Black Lives Matter banners, masks, and a few White Sox items in addition to Cub paraphernalia. Party buses pulled up to dispense patrons intent on paying hundreds of dollars for a rooftop seat. Corner lots still wanted $20 for parking spaces that normally would have gone for three times as much. A smattering of fans, both Cubs and Sox, partially filled the surrounding watering holes and eateries.

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The marquee at Clark and Addison informed fans as it always does, Cubs vs. Sox at 1:20 as though 40,000 fans would be filing through the turnstiles. But, of course, they didn't come. The gates were locked.

The White Sox did everything in their power - and I mean power - to add to the weirdness of the times. A team that ranked 25th in home runs last season set all kinds of milestones and records last week. They hit 27 dingers in seven games going into Sunday. No team had ever done that. They homered six times Friday in thrashing the Cubs 10-1. The next evening they slugged four more, including three from José Abreu in as many at-bats in the late innings of a Sox 7-4 win.

The Cuban first baseman took Yu Darvish deep in his first at-bat Sunday for four straight. It was the team's lone marker after scoring in bunches during its seven-game win streak.

Darvish, who taunted the Sox with an assortment of breaking and off-speed pitches, managed a smile as Abreu circled the bases with the ball settling just below the left field video board. "How you get this sumbitch out?" he seemed to say.

My friend Steve, whom I've known for 50 years and has been a Cub season ticket holder since the Pleistocene Age, e-mailed, "If Abreu isn't put on the seat of his pants next time up, Ross should be fired tonight."

Sorry, pal, guys are swinging at 3-0 pitches in the late innings with the bases loaded and a seven-run lead. Pete Rose punishing Ray Fosse at home plate in that All-Star Game is ancient history. Players from opposing teams routinely have friendly conversations at first base. Bob Gibson is enjoying retirement in Omaha. Darvish's first pitch to Abreu in the fourth inning was a swinging strike, low and away. On the third pitch, Abreu grounded out to second. It's a kinder, gentler game.

Abreu's homer Sunday was the 55th the Sox have hit. Only the Dodgers with 59 have more. As entertaining and titillating as this power barrage has been, it's also unsettling for those of us who have watched the White Sox for decades. Can this really be our team?

In my lifetime, which is markedly longer than most people reading this, the Sox - at least when they've been most successful - have been built on pitching, defense, speed and execution. This home run stuff is foreign to this franchise.

When the team has thrived, the arms of Wynn, Pierce, Peters, Horlen, Dotson, McDowell, Buehrle, Hoyt and many others have led the way. Guys like Fox, Aparicio, Berry, Lemon, Agee, Landis, Ventura, Rowand and Uribe made the pitchers better by picking up the ball behind them. Of course, we were thrilled when Frank Thomas or Paulie hit one far into the night, but that was frosting on the cake.

However, winds blow from different directions. No one could have predicted that baseball would be played this summer in vacant ballparks. We knew the Sox offense had been upgraded, but the prognosticators never envisioned what we saw last week.

At the same time, this is an unfinished product. Due to injuries and Michael Kopech opting out of the season, starting pitching is almost non-existent after Dallas Keuchel, Lucas Giolito and Dylan Cease. Rookie centerfielder Luis Robert has been a boon to the defense, but recent lapses like Yoan Moncada's two errors on one play Sunday indicate that improvement is required.

Meanwhile, we seem to be living inside a giant overinflated beach ball, bursting at the seams. The big stuff remains sequestered inside while small amounts of what we know and trust, like some of the scenes from last weekend's ballgames, are escaping along with an isolated basketball hoop across the street.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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