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Home Field Hankering

Missed the Saturday dance
Heard they crowded the floor
Couldn't bear it without you
Don't get around much anymore

- Music by Duke Ellington, lyrics by Bob Russell

I find myself mouthing the words to this old standard with near shocking frequency these days because, I suppose, I actually don't get around much anymore. And when I do, I'm careful to mask up and social distance. I've always enjoyed the song, but nowadays those lyrics have far greater significance than when they were written in 1942.

Take Friday night, for instance. The White Sox were returning home a game ahead in the AL Central Division. They had won 17 of their last 22. Everything was pointing to the playoffs. A hint of fall was in the air, yet these late summer evenings remain blissful now that the 90-degree heat and humidity have bid us adieu for the season. This should have been the perfect night to watch the most exciting team in years on the South Side, not on television but at the ballpark.

Last season when the Sox lost 89 games, 20,026 fans showed up for the only Friday night game in September. We'll never know, but my guess is that the gate would have been as high as 30,000 for the Sox' exciting 4-3 win over Detroit last Friday.

Fifteen years ago as the Sox were streaking to a pennant and eventual World Series championship, they drew more than 28,000 on two September Fridays and 36,000 for a mid-week game against pursuer Cleveland.

Similar to that gleeful 2005 season which keeps shrinking in our rear view mirrors, the 2020 edition of the ballclub on 35th Street already has surpassed all expectations after Sunday's 5-2 conquest of the Tigers, earning the Sox a three-game sweep and an astounding nine victories in 10 games against the Motor City Nine. The Sox are 21-3 when facing the Tigers, Royals and Pirates.

Sunday's win came on the heels of Saturday's 14-0 pasting of Detroit in which José Abreu launched two three-run homers to further his bid for Most Valuable Player. Of course, that was exhilarating, but being in the ballpark, drinking a beer or two to wash down a red hot with mustard and extra onions, celebrating with folks whom you've just met, and watching those missiles settle into the outstretched arms of bleacherites is one of life's pleasures for those of us who bathe in this kind of exuberance.

A slap back to reality reminds us that people are dying, the West is on fire, millions are out of work, and serving something for dinner other than breakfast cereal have become daily nightmares for far too many folks. Surely the chance to witness a big league ballgame in person doesn't even make the Top 100 of issues that need solving. But that's just it. What we have always taken for granted has been robbed from us.

Perhaps we should be thankful that we have any kind of baseball this summer. The cruel coronavirus could have put the brakes on all competition on the field of play. The stadiums not only would be empty, but NBC Sports Chicago would have been featuring Larry King infomercials. We all should be grateful that not only are we witnessing 60 games, but our highest aspirations for our talented athletes are being realized.

But still. As illogical and self-serving as it sounds, Friday got to me. I wanted to be there.
This hankering, if you will, to be able to buy a ticket and spend three hours or more in a major league park most assuredly is felt by many fans. What's interesting is that the home teams, judging solely by their performance, couldn't care less.

By that I mean teams playing at home have been winning at about the same pace this season compared to past years when thousands of fans were cheering for them from their stadium seats throughout the land. In their entertaining book Scorecasting, Tobias Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim, the former a professor of finance at the University of Chicago and the latter a sportswriter for Sports Illustrated, pointed out that between 1903 and 2009 (when the book was published) home teams were victorious 54.1 percent of the time.

As of this morning, clubs playing at home with zero fans have posted a winning percentage of 54.4 percent.

In other words, those silly cutouts, piped-in crowd noise, walk-up songs that only the players hear, and all the other gimmicks apparently have been more than sufficient to spur on the home team to victory. Who needs 30,000 people roaring their approval?

Moskowitz and Wertheim investigated a number of factors which might explain the home teams' advantage. Aspects like sleeping in one's own bed, being with family, and not having to travel were discarded when they looked at intercity series' like the Cubs versus Sox, where each team enjoyed the comforts of home. Across all the major sports, the team playing in its own stadium or arena won at the same clip as when entertaining out-of-town opponents.

Familiarity with their own ballpark and teams tailored to perform in those parks also diminished in relevance when the authors pointed out that the majority of players perform equally well (or poorly) both at home and on the road.

Case in point: the Sox this season. They've actually played a bit better on the road with a 16-7 record while going 14-9 at home. But offensively they're about even in stats like batting average (.278 road; .270 home), runs scored (123 home; 130 road) and home runs (43 home; 35 road). However, Sox pitchers have been somewhat more effective on the road with a 3.15 ERA compared to 3.91 at home.

After examining mountains of data, Moskowitz and Wertheim wrote, "What we've found is that officials are biased . . . but they're biased not against the louts screaming unprintable epithets at them. They're biased for them, and the bigger the crowd, the worse the bias. In fact, 'officials' bias' is the most significant contributor to home field advantage."

Then are we to believe that without the possibility of home fans' displeasure, umpires have retained their home team bias? Those cutouts are mute as far as I can tell.

If the home team does get an edge from the umpires, it couldn't come at a better time this week with the powerful Twins, still one game behind the White Sox, invading The Grate for four games starting tonight. However, Minnesota is a subpar 9-13 playing on the road. This will be interesting.

Regardless of this week's outcome, the two clubs will continue to tangle amid lonely seats. Long balls will echo off the bats, cheers will emanate only from the dugout, and foul balls and home runs will bounce aimlessly in the stands before resting alone in the aisles.

Bill Veeck perhaps summed it up best 35 years ago while sitting in the centerfield bleachers in an empty Wrigley Field while being interviewed for A Man for Any Season, a TV show produced by my friends Jamie Ceaser and Tom Weinberg.

"I guess I have seen everything in this country that is known to be one of the unusual things of nature," Bill began. "Whether it'd be Yosemite, Old Faithful, or whether it'd be the Grand Canyon from the bottom or the top, Bryce Canyon, the Natural Bridges, the Painted Desert, even the Empire State Building and the Statue of Liberty. I've seen them all. [But] . . . the most beautiful thing is a ballpark filled with people. Other people can have great acts of nature. That's mine. And the next most wonderful thing is a ballpark half-filled with people."

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

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