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"Your Phone Is Your Ticket," says the sign, assuming, of course, that every fan brought their cellphone to the ballpark. And if, heaven forbid, you don't own a cellphone, you're out of luck as far as seeing the best team in town.
That was the message last Thursday afternoon as we stood in line to enter The Grate for what turned out to be a 4-2 White Sox victory over the Minnesota Twins. In the 20 months since I last watched the Sox in their home park, not only have some of the rules of the game changed, but the fan experience is a clearly different as well.
Of course, much of this has been due to the worst pandemic in 100 years, but I'm curious just how many of these changes will become regular practices once COVID-19 recedes into history. For instance, I don't imagine anytime soon we'll see extra innings begin with the bases empty, and I highly doubt whether we'll ever see ticket stubs again.
As kids growing up, tickets to a ball game were something tangible. We held them in our hands, and the usher at the turnstile tore the ducat in half, handing back what was called a rain check, redeemable for another ticket in case the game was rained out.
But that stub possessed additional significance. It was a record of the games we attended. We saved those stubs. Assuming that our parents neglected the opportunity to trash our memorabilia once we moved out of the house, to this day we can view those ancient ticket stubs when everyone called it Comiskey.
We can see the numbers for seat locations, and the image of the old park comes alive again. Box 1 occupied the right field corner, with increasing numbers until you reached the corner in left field at Box 99. If you were fortunate to sit in Box 50, you were right behind home plate. Upper deck boxes used letters while less expensive seats in back of the boxes were labeled "Grandstand," first come-first served.
Using the marvelous data of Baseball-Reference, we even can go back and check the box scores of those games to jog our memories. Taking a screen shot today might be the only way that youngsters- perhaps oldsters as well - can think, "Ahh, yes, that was a good seat. Right behind the plate. And the Sox even won!" Unfortunately I'm not aware of any bar code collectors.
At the risk of overdosing on nostalgia, collecting the players' autographs also has lost some of its appeal, even though I haven't sought a signature from José Abreu, Yoán Moncada, and others recently. As a matter of fact, players can't sign today because of COVID. Who would supply the pen? What if the player or fan isn't masked? You get the picture.
In the past I have seen kids gleefully examine autographs from their favorite players, showing them off to their friends, siblings and parents. The only problem is that years from now, if the cursive has been saved, those future adults won't be able to decipher exactly whose signature they collected. Autographs today are mere scribbles. Some respectful ballplayers will at least add their uniform number as a means of recognition.
The old guys left nothing to chance. Stars like Mickey Mantle, Jackie Robinson and many others, whose signatures adorned the barrels of Louisville Sluggers, took as much time signing for kids, duplicating their careful handwriting, so that Little Leaguers had no trouble telling one from another.
Of course, change is inevitable, although one new twist from last Thursday won't be around for long. We entered the parking lot with the attendant asking to see proof of ticket purchase on our phone. Once he was satisfied, we were waved through and, with just 25 percent capacity allowed, we parked maybe a hundred yards from the gates.
Prior to the pandemic, parking cost $23, except on Sunday when the bargain price of $20 was charged. Apparently the rule against exchanging cash both inside and outside. The Grate dictated that parking was free. We'll see how long that lasts once more restrictions are lifted.
One requires a credit card for all transactions inside The Grate. We split a beer and a hot dog for $17.25, a savings of $5.75 when you factor in parking. The aisles were clear of vendors, a sad reminder of the Age of COVID. A friend who went to a Brewers game in Milwaukee reported that vendors were absent there as well. although watching a game from Seattle last week, I noticed one vendor walking the aisles.
I hadn't seen as many zip ties since January 6 at the Capitol as almost 30,000 seats were secured so that no one could sit in them in order to observe social distancing.
Nevertheless, there were open chairs in the sun which warmed the announced crowd of 8,188. Between innings the bathroom was filled with guys, some masked, some not, lining up at the urinals with no regard for keeping distance from one another. This team has become so exciting that taking a leak as quickly as possible and getting back out to the seats is the goal.
The crowd at The Grate last Thursday also seemed a wee bit different than the Sox crowds of the recent past. Certainly more boisterous and vocal. As early as the fourth inning many fans rose to their feet to encourage a Sox hitter with men on base or starting pitcher Lance Lynn as he was trying to escape a jam. Sort of like Wrigley Field, I daresay. In my experience Sox fans have consistently reacted to what's happening on the field. That energy was in full expression last week. This was in no way a docile weekday crowd. I suppose with folks working from home, taking an afternoon to go to a ballgame carries none of the risk of sneaking out of the office without the boss noticing.
And the Sox didn't disappoint as they completed a three-game sweep of the slumbering Twins. Tim Anderson hit the first pitch delivered by Michael Pineda into the left field seats for a lightning fast 1-0 lead, and Jake Lamb, of all people, hit another dinger in the third. In the top of the fourth with the Sox nursing a 2-1 lead and the bases loaded with two outs, centerfielder Billy Hamilton raced to the wall in left center to haul in a drive that would have scored three runs. It turned out to be a game-saving catch.
As long as much of this piece has been devoted to the way things used to be, we should investigate the maneuverings of Sox manager Tony La Russa, who was around in the days of ticket stubs and legible autographs. His lineup Thursday had Andrew Vaughn in left field and Lamb at first base. With the absence of Eloy Jimenez, Vaughn has become the Sox everyday leftfielder, but his true position is first base. Lamb's career mostly has been as a third baseman.
You could say that La Russa had two guys playing out of position. So why not put Vaughn at first and Lamb in left where Tony placed him in three previous games. That way you have only one guy playing out of position. Lo and behold, Lamb was a disaster at first base. He was charged with one error, a dropped throw, and couldn't corral another toss from Lynn, who was charged with the miscue. After five innings La Russa moved Vaughn to first base as Lamb went to the bench.
La Russa looked much better when he pinch hit Yermin Mercedes for Zack Collins in the bottom of the eighth inning with two outs and two men on. This seemed like an obvious move, and the Yerminator responded with a two-strike hit to drive in Abreu, giving the Sox a two-run cushion.
Tony also seems enamored to the sacrifice bunt with no outs to move runners closer to scoring. Twice last week he had Adam Eaton lay down sacrifices, once on Thursday and again on Sunday in the rousing 4-3 walkoff win over the Royals. In the first instance Eaton moved Moncada and Abreu to third and second base, respectively, from where Moncada was driven home by Vaughn's base hit. On Sunday after Anderson led off the ninth with a double, Eaton's bunt advanced Tim to third base, and he jogged home on Moncada's single to tie the score.
The analytics dictate the odds for success in different situations, and in each of the above examples La Russa was banking on Eaton to move runners along. For instance, with no outs and runners on first and second, teams score about 23 percent of the time. But with runners on second and third and one out, that number increases to 27 percent.
Perhaps La Russa is aware of those percentages although we've learned that nothing can be taken for granted with the Sox skipper. What is laudable is that he has a guy, Eaton, who can bunt. He's not asking him to do something of which he is incapable. We've all seen managers who don't know their personnel well enough and become guilty of asking players to perform beyond their ability.
No White Sox Report from last week should close without mentioning the feats of Abreu, who collected nine hits in 19 at-bats, raising his average from .220 to .255. Abreu had a couple of home runs and seven RBIs. But more amazingly, he and Kansas City's Hunter Dozier collided violently in Friday's first game of a doubleheader, and one could only assume that Abreu would join Jimenez and Luis Robert on a months' long trip to the IL.
However, this guy, aside from his intense desire to play every day, is not your normal athlete. Passing concussion protocol, Abreu wanted La Russa to pencil him into the lineup for the second game, which didn't happen. But he was back on the field again on Saturday, and his ninth inning, game-ending dash to home plate on Sunday was an inspiration to his teammates and anyone watching.
I can't say for certain, but if José Abreu signs an autograph that you actually can read, I wouldn't be a bit surprised because nothing seems beyond the reach of the Sox star.
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