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Hero For A Day

Driving down North Avenue on Sunday for the first time in months, I had to double check to make sure that I wasn't on Division or Ohio. New high rises stood in places where taverns and eateries used to dwell. Crossing Elston was a new experience since the fruits and vegetables of Stanley's had turned into a pile of bricks and rubble. Remember that place kitty korner? The one with the surrey out front? Long gone. Thankfully Art's Drive-In remained to slap me back to reality.

And talk about rapid change! On Saturday, Tony La Russa was getting roasted once again for having Danny Mendick bunt in the bottom of the sixth at The Grate. Having just scored two runs to trail 4-3, runners stood at first and second with no outs. Poor Danny bunted into a force at third base, the beginning of the end of the rally as neither team scored again the remainder of the afternoon.

"I think that's the play," said the White Sox skipper later. "I felt really good about bunting them over."

And the Twitter world lit up.

However, after blanking the Tigers 3-0 on Sunday to win the series three games to one, the Sox once again hold a four-game lead in the Central Division of the American League. Not only that, but the victory was La Russa's 2,764th as a big league manager, nudging him past John J. McGraw into second place all-time.

"Won for the Ages" blared the Sun-Times. "For the Books" the Tribune chimed in. The Grate's scoreboard lit up with a tribute to La Russa's feat. The social media fusillade even abated compared to 24 hours earlier.

What didn't change was La Russa's post-game appearance, featuring his deliberate, monotone summary of his feelings, which included, "The most important part of the season so far is the way the players have included me as part of the family."

Huh?

I thought it was the other way around. Wasn't this supposed to be La Russa's show, one in which the players needed to adapt to Tony's old-school world? You know, like don't swing at 3-0 pitches with your team ahead by 11 runs. Change can be so confusing.

This is La Russa's 34th season as the boss in a major league dugout. No matter when he finally retires, and possibly for as long as the game is played, La Russa will be runner-up to Connie Mack's 3,731 for number of victories. After La Russa, the winningest active manager is Houston's 71-year-old Dusty Baker with 1,925, good for 12th on the all-time list. Cleveland's Terry Francona, who is just 62 but has had health issues, is 18th at 1,733.

Did anyone mention that La Russa's 2,388 losses also are second only to Mack's 3,948? This is what longevity can do. Mack had a distinct advantage in this regard since he also owned the club he managed, the Philadelphia Athletics, from 1901 to 1950. He obviously had a high regard for his managerial prowess.

La Russa's respectable .536 winning percentage ranks only 66th all-time despite the fact that his teams have won six pennants and three World Series'. The Yankees' Joe McCarthy (1931-46) is the leader in that department with a mark of .615. McCarthy's New York clubs won the World Series seven times, but his 1929 Cub team also won a pennant before bowing to Mack's Athletics in the Series.

Dave Roberts of the Dodgers is tops among active managers with a .611 winning percentage.

Now that La Russa has passed his milestone, the next time he orders a sacrifice bunt, things once again will return to normal. However, the peaks and valleys of La Russa's return to the South Side are not the only occurrences worth noting.

Now that COVID restrictions are steadily being loosened, fans are returning to the ballpark, but the vibe seems to have changed. A winning ballclub with huge expectations tends to do that. Once again it is hip to be a Sox fan. Along about the sixth or seventh inning of each game, the Wave is created in the left centerfield stands with the entire place usually joining in. We saw this in the past but not nearly as frequently.

During Friday night's seventh inning, when Detroit scored six times to erase a five-run deficit, the Grate was filled with undulating noise as Codi Heuer and Evan Marshall futilely tried to silence the Tigers. The events on the field had nothing to do with what was happening in the seats.

Personally I have little patience for the Wave because my amusement comes from watching the action on the field. I am more amused when the Sox win, but the focus is on the players. Nevertheless, the Wave has been around for approximately 50 years, having originated on the West Coast and at college football stadiums, which says a lot about my aversion to the practice. Using the Wave and South Side in the same sentence seems incongruous to me, but, hey, people want to have fun. Why stop them?

Throwing the opponents' home run balls back on the field is a different story. Again, it's the folks in left centerfield who insist on this distasteful behavior.

There are those of us who have been going to ballgames for 50 or 60 years and never have retrieved a souvenir baseball. You frequently see septuagenarians carrying their baseball gloves through the gates in hopes of catching any kind of ball, be it home run or foul. When the other guys hit a homer, you tip your cap, as they say. Anyone who homers in a major league game deserves respect since few of us can even fathom the idea of homering in a 16-inch contest at the corner park. Throw the ball back? Gimme a break.

Sox management has many foibles, but they're right on top of this one. When Detroit's Eric Haase homered off Lucas Giolito in the fourth inning on Saturday, the jerk who threw the ball back onto the field was escorted from the park by security to chants of "Let him stay" by a good portion of the fans nearby.

I'm not exactly sure how these folks wound up at the Grate, but sitting in the upper deck a couple of weeks ago during the Cardinal series provided a bit of insight. Aside from gingerly navigating what I regard as the treacherous terrain of the stadium's upstairs layout, we were surrounded by young fans primarily in their 20s who were not shy about inhaling $11 beers one after another. They were having a grand time, but their chatter also disclosed a working knowledge of the game, the players, and the situations on the field.

They also educated me about Cup Snakes, a heretofore unknown exercise to this longtime fan. Stacking beer cups into a long, well, snake apparently is the idea, and along about the seventh inning empty beer cups were as common as La Russa critics. Starting at the first few rows closest to the field, the snake inched its way up the bleachers. It was a team effort. Some fans supported the burgeoning stack while others scavenged for additional cups. The longer the snake, the louder the cheers.

"Look, it's just like Wrigley," exclaimed the young female fan sitting behind us. Ahhh, things were beginning to make sense.

Reasonable, thoughtful change is a wonderful development. Football and hockey games used to end in ties. Nothing was decided. The four-on-four overtime arrangement in the NHL is among sports' most exciting changes. The shootout is titillating, though critics may think it's a cheap way to decide a winner. Nevertheless, the losing team still earns a point in the standings.

Same with football. The overtimes at both the college and pro level have created rousing finishes, so that today we wonder why those contests ever ended in a draw.

Organ music was the staple at baseball parks everywhere for decades, and most big league stadiums have retained a certain amount of the old-time music. But rock and hip-hop are the soup de jour nowadays. Remember when former Sox third baseman Todd Frazier used Frank Sinatra's "Fly Me to the Moon" for his walk-up song? Today's players probably have an equal chance of recognizing journeyman catcher Matt Sinatro as Ol' Blue Eyes.

What we can assume is that change will continue to happen. Putting a runner on second base to start an extra inning - I have come to accept this rule, and it's even begun to grow on me - is just the beginning. Let's just hope that future changes won't disguise the game that we love. And puhleeze, if you, or anyone you know, have ever thrown a home run ball back onto the field, promise that it will never happen again.

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

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021