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Welcome to another chapter of "The Making of a Chicago Sports Fan." This episode, titled Early Impressions of the National Pastime, is brought to you, as always, by Beachwood Reporter Enterprises.
Last week I wrote about the development of my basketball fandom with memories of my first decade or so (from when I was 9-years-old in 1975 'til I was 19) of living and dying with the Bulls, then DePaul, then the Bulls again.
At some point I'll write the next installment of that story, starting with a certain star from North Carolina shooting into our incredibly lucky city via the first round of the 1984 NBA draft (after the goofy Portland Trailblazers took Sam Bowie with the second pick, enabling the Bulls to make the obvious choice at No. 3. Hakeem went first btw).
But I thought that given this is the week that Major League Baseball should be opening (if not for the virus and if not for goofy owners in recent years moving starting dates back to the first days of the last week of March) I'd switch to the national pastime this time around.
I'm still good with calling baseball the national pastime even if it isn't nearly as popular as it once was. When I think of a pastime, I think of something more chill than a hobby. I think of it as relaxing first and foremost. In fact, watching baseball is too relaxing at times, especially in this day and age of the ever-lengthening average game. Watching basketball and especially football is far more energizing.
Let me weigh in on the "length of games" controversy for a moment. There is no reason - none - why the average game shouldn't be closer to two-and-a-half hours than three no matter how often the players' union beats its chest about how the sport is that much more special for not having a clock. The NBA felt its game had stagnated in the late '90s and early '00s. They made some fundamental changes to their rules regarding what was allowed defensively (primarily making all hand-checks illegal) and their league has grown in popularity with young fans for two decades now. Baseball can do the same!
Change whatever rules you have to change to make it faster. Bring in a pitch clock, only allow hitters to step out of the box once per at-bat and yes, establish a rule disallowing the dreaded Tony LaRussa inning.
That is the inning when the uber over-manager would have one reliever face the first hitter. After an out, LaRussa would stroll out to the mound to bring in a second reliever. After fans sat through that guy's warm-up he would then face one guy and as often as not get him out. And then here would come LaRussa making his long, slow, attention-grabbing walk again. By the time the third guy got the third out, we'd been sitting there for 15 minutes when it should've taken three.
Of course, other managers do this as well. In fact at times it has seemed like White Sox manager Rickey Renteria was ready to make a run at LaRussa's all-time record. Thankfully, a new rule that will go into effect when this year's season finally starts in the summer forcing relievers to either finish an inning or face at least three batters will save the South Side skipper from himself as far as that goes.
So, going back to when I was young and more often than not games were conducted in a brisk fashion, my first memory is of trying to decide which team I should support. My take on the whole "You cannot be a fan of both teams in Chicago" is pretty simple. "Fan" is short for "fanatic." You cannot be fanatic about the Cubs and the White Sox. You can be a supporter of both teams. Of course that does make you an athletic supporter. Get it? You're a jock strap? My younger self would have loved that one.
Anyway, my dad had grown up on the South Side and he would tell you he was a Sox fan if you asked. But he and my mom did decide to live on the North Side.
When I tell people my dad grew up in the vast expanse that is the South Side of Chicago (you could fit all of San Francisco inside just that portion of the city) and they say, "Oh really, where?" I always feel like they are disappointed when I reply: "Hyde Park." It may be due south of downtown but that neighborhood is a little too fancy, what with the university and all.
Despite where he grew up, my dad didn't care which team became my brother's and my favorite (at some point he decided he was all about participatory sports and had no use for spectator ones). We flirted with the White Sox for a while (my earliest baseball memory is of sitting in the upper deck at Comiskey, hoping for a foul ball to be hit our way and then cowering when one actually was), especially during 1977, the year of the Hit Men.
But then in the off-season Richie Zisk signed with another team and then so did Oscar Gamble, and we weren't thrilled by the attempted compensatory signing of Bobby Bonds. In fact I vaguely remember doing a school project in which I drew a picture of a cover of Sports Illustrated with Bonds swinging and missing and the sub-head reading something like "The Over-The-Hill Gang Comes to the South Side." I will readily acknowledge I was a weird kid in certain ways.
I'm pretty sure our mom started letting us go to Cubs games by ourselves in 1975 or '76. We would take the 22 bus up to Clark and Addison, walk around to the bleacher entrance and pay, what, a buck-fifty to get in? There were always plenty of seats available in the left field bleachers but we chose right-center to be near our favorite player - Rick Monday. We couldn't have been happy when Monday was traded away in the '76-'77 off-season and maybe that was a factor in our South Side flirtation but soon enough we were all about the Cubs, even if they were even worse than usual from '78 to '82. That stretch was capped off by Lee Elia's memorable rant about Cubs fans. If you don't know what I'm talking about I can't imagine you've read this far so let's just proceed.
The White Sox' magical season of 1983 didn't influence me and I think that was at least in part because I went to St. Ignatius College Prep from '80 to '84. The high school located at 1076 West Roosevelt Road attracted students from all over the Chicago area and it was there that I first encountered members of the Inferiority Complex Sox Fan Club. The ICSFC guys in my class at Ignatius were not shy about their primal hatred of the Cubs. In fact, I came to realize that many of them were happier when the Cubs lost than when the White Sox won.
Jerry Reinsdorf is a proud ICSFCer. As initial proof, I offer up stories of Reinsdorf seeking out members of the sports media who he knew were Cubs fans during the 2005 World Series (won, of course, by the Sox) and asking them, "How did the Cubs do today?"
And yes, there are plenty of Cubs fans who hate the Sox. But the aggregate local National League team follower antipathy for the South Siders pales in comparison with that which goes the other way. If the White Sox continue to ramp upward in the next few years that will lessen, but not much.
I left for college in the fall of 1984 but I had enough time in the summer to attend plenty of games capped off by a couple during the Cubs' four-game sweep of the Mets in the late summer that made the dream of a pennant so much more real. I then took in the series with the Padres with some sports fan friends I had made at Haverford, a small liberal arts college outside of Philadelphia.
That, of course, was the series the Cubs dominated in the first two games at home but then choked away the last three in San Diego. The Padres went on to get crushed by the Tigers in the World Series.
My new friends thought it would be funny to try to torment me by rooting for the Padres, especially after they fell behind. Then when Steve Garvey and all those other assholes engineered the unlikely comeback and the last out was finally recorded at least one of them said something along the lines of, "Wait, I didn't actually want the Padres to win."
Jim "Coach" Coffman welcomes your comments.
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