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Escalators & Troughs

Life may simply be a series of choices, but some are easier than others.

When I was a just a kid of six or seven, our family moved to suburban Chicago from Cincinnati. The choice of Sox versus Cubs was an obvious one. The Sox were a good team. The Cubs weren't, and we were frontrunners.

For all I know, our dad never saw an American League game until he drove us to Comiskey Park for the first time. Since the Reds were his National League team, he never said boo about us becoming Cub fans even though we lived on the North Shore.

In the grander scheme of things, this sort of choice ranks below choosing a career, how best to parent children, or whether to drink light beer. You might want to put being a faithful, loving spouse who makes healthy decisions in your top two or three.

Nevertheless, picking the White Sox more than 60 years ago clearly goes into my "life-changer" column.

Not all of my friends were influenced by their parents when they were old enough to detect that Mom and Dad were aficionados of either the North Side team or the South Side team. A couple of guys rooted for the Phillies because the brother of one of them signed a contract with them and pitched in their minor league system.

Another pal whose Cardinal hat I still can picture, e-mailed last week, "My dad took me to my first MLB game at Wrigley in 1948. We sat behind the Cards' dugout, and I never will forget seeing those redbirds sitting on the yellow bat on the chests of the uniforms. Love at first sight. My dad said I picked the right team. He disliked the Cubs."

There were plenty of Sox fans on the North Shore as families moved there from the South Side, but the majority rooted for the Cubs. Some of my best friends were Cub fans. There were arguments - who would you rather have, Aparicio or Banks? - but for the most part, we lived in harmony.

In the interest of full disclosure, we Sox fans also went to Cub games. When we were 11 or 12, we could ride on the old North Shore Line, transfer to the El at Howard Street, and go to Wrigley Field. The Cubs played only day games, and management boasted that "20,000 tickets go on sale the day of every game."

They could have said "30,000" on most weekday afternoons and been accurate. We rooted for the visiting team, ate hot dogs, drank lemonade, and basically sat wherever we wanted. Even when the Schuessler brothers and their friend Robert Peterson - boys about our age - were found murdered on the North Side in 1955, our parents never balked when we said we were going to a Cub game. It was the '50s.

Wrigley Field was clean, bright, well-maintained and - how shall I say? - almost angelic. Ernie's "Let's play two!" danced among the mostly empty seats, creating an innocent tableau to match the times.

But Comiskey was another story. The Sox played night games in a stadium with an entirely different aura than the so-called Friendly Confines. A parent was required to accompany us to the South Side where there were Negroes, poor people and neighborhoods that were as different from ours as Target is from Gucci.

Unlike Wrigley Field with bleachers open to the sky, Comiskey's upper deck encircled the entire stadium except for dead-center field where customers sat on wooden planks far from the action. Yet, a Friday night game against the Yankees could draw 50,000, and we often wound up in the dark corners of the outfield gazing down on the emerald field where the games actually meant something in the standings.

The unfathomable happened in 1959 when Fox, Aparicio, Wynn, Pierce and others overtook Mantle, Berra, Skowron and Ford to win the pennant. (The Yankees actually finished third that year.)

Dad, who clung to the notion that the Sox "roll over and play dead" when facing the New Yorkers, vowed that he'd take us to the World Series if the Sox ever got there. That's how certain he was that they'd never make it.

This being Chicago, clout is what counted when Series tickets went on sale, and Pop didn't have enough. But we soon learned that Bill Veeck was selling those 2,000 centerfield bleacher tickets before each game. All we had to do was make sure we were near the front of the line, and, bingo, we'd see the World Series.

Since Dad felt guilty about failing to score tickets, he was easy pickings when we lobbied to roll down (my older friends were 16 and could drive) to Comiskey the night before Game 1 to wait until 8 a.m. when tickets went on sale. Our mother didn't have a chance. Let's just say that none of us slept that night. My parents because they were worried sick, and me and five friends because we were having the time of our lives with a couple of thousand delirious Sox fans lined up outside the left field grandstand.

By the way, tickets cost $2.06.

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So we saw the glorious opening game - an 11-0 pasting of the Dodgers - and returned a week later for the demoralizing 9-3 loss in Game 6 that ended the season.

Sitting behind the Sox bullpen at Wrigley Field last week, I thought about those days when Wrigley was no anomaly. All the ballparks were of the same vintage when I was a child. Wrigley differed because there were no lights. From a business standpoint, that was dumb, judging from the team's attendance. (Of course, a losing ballclub didn't help.)

I watched the Sox beat the Cubs 3-1 and 5-1 from my friend Steve's seat down the right-field line. He's had one ticket for 25 or 30 years, but he was out of town, so I got the seat.

I asked myself, Is this the same place I went to as a kid? The winter-like night on Monday was nothing like those warm summer days full of sunshine, and walking to my seat, I stepped in more potholes than you encounter on Halsted. The concourses were full throughout the game as fans waited in slow-moving lines at the concession stands even though the park was just over half full.

I limited my beer intake as lines in the bathroom matched those for food. And maybe it's just me, but pissing in a trough has never been my cup of tea.

Lights have been around Wrigley Field for almost 26 years, and the field is by far the brightest spot in the building. Seats far back in the grandstand are every bit as dark as those at old Comiskey, and the concourse is enveloped in a dim pall.

Possibly some of what I experienced could be remedied with a potent dose of Ernie's mantra and optimism, the same kind of anticipation gripping The Cell these days. The Cubs finally came to life on Thursday, pummeling the Sox 12-5. Many fans departed when Mike Olt belted a grand slam off the now-departed Maikel Cleto in the top of the eighth.

But the Sox crowd was alive over the weekend at The Cell despite two losses to the Arizona Diamondbacks. When the revered Paul Konerko drove a line drive far over the left field fence on Saturday to bring the Sox within a run, the place was electric.

Paulie came up again in the ninth against former Sock Addison Reed with the tying run on second and two outs. More than 24,000 fans were on their feet. The vision of this White Sox icon performing yet another super feat energized the stands. What if he slammed another one into the seats?

Unfortunately - maybe predictably - Konerko grounded out, the Sox lost 4-3 and then were listless on Sunday in a 5-1 loss to pitcher Chase Anderson, who was making his big league debut.

Filing out of The Cell on Saturday, a ballpark to which I've never felt much attachment, I couldn't help but notice how bright it is. The concourse is airy and wide. An escalator whisked me to street level. I can't say I've ever truly admired or appreciated the place. But after experiencing two nights on the other side of town, this didn't seem too shabby.

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

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