Take A Knee: He's Come Undone

I sat in stunned disbelief in my gut-rehab condominium, wearing nothing more than a pair of designer-brand boxer shorts, 3.2 miles from Wrigley Field, on a couch bought from Ikea and built by myself, next to the woman I married who sports the body of a bleacher babe, clutching a cat for solace.

I was as devastated as a North Side yuppie could be. Only chugging a beer with too many umlauts on the label while screaming into my cell phone at a bar with a $20 cover would have enhanced the caricature.

The White Sox had just smothered their way through the first two rounds of the Major League Baseball playoffs with pitching, managing and all-around dominance that was everything the Cubs expected of themselves since 2003.

The next few hours felt the same for me as it did days after the Sept. 11 tragedy. I’m not comparing this to the monumental loss of life, but instead to the feelings many of us, especially us with no connection to anyone or anything in the attacked regions aside from shared patriotism, had in the days following the attacks: a loss for words, heightened sensitivity, the elimination of satire for an indefinite period of time.

What the White Sox had done with merely a trip to the Fall Classic, even before winning or losing the series, was end the eternal pissing contest Cubs and Sox fans had been locked into during the last 46 seasons. Any argument between die-hards of the two could be concluded with a statement along the lines of “Well, neither team has won a pennant since Mrs. O’Leary’s cow signed the Geneva Convention to end the Civil War, so what does it matter?” The verbal sparring had to stop there – and both sides knew it. Comiskey/US Cellular vs. Wrigley, The Hawk vs. Caray, Reinsdorf vs. the Tribune Co. – the dividing lines that had no substance in baseball terms but carried with them plenty of ammo for inane banter, and certainly nothing to do with a measurement for success, had been eliminated.

But as Paul Konerko made the final put out to set off 46 years of pent up celebration throughout the South Side, the two teams had been split off in one untouchable pair of extremes, one line that could not be crossed without the yuppies appearing dim-witted or infantile, the argument that can’t be argued until the Cubs equal or better the feat of a pennant:

Winners vs. losers.

In a very yuppie sort of way, I asked Jori to switch the TV to the public television restaurant review show I knew was down the dial, but I kept telling her to switch back to the White Sox celebrating on the Angel Stadium field so I could find out who was named the series MVP. Back and forth, back and forth, 12, 11, 12, 11, rivals celebrating, overpriced sushi joint, rivals celebrating, overpriced sushi joint. She finally threw down the remote, left the living portion of the room to the dining portion, and read a magazine at the table. I spread out across the Ikea couch horizontal, still clutching a cat and screamed at Joe Buck to announce the MVP so I could attempt to move on with my life.

Much like after 9/11, I was emotionally off kilter the following day. Sleeping on and off for just a couple of hours didn’t help any. Finally, I left bed to face the day destined to be full of bandwagon hoppers, harassment from my Sox friends, questions from loved ones and friends alike asking what I thought about the whole thing, being the biggest Cub fan many of them knew.

What I couldn’t figure out is why I felt as down about this as I was. I’d seen the White Sox in the playoffs before this year and could usually let it run down my back as if they were the Expos or the Dodgers – out of the Cubs’ division, no harm done, who cares. Obviously, winning the pennant was a historic accomplishment. They beat the Cubs in an inept footrace, but I shouldn’t have be sweating it the way I have. I always took pride in being a hardcore Cub fan with total indifference to the White Sox while allowing myself an occasional chuckle at some of their zanier mishaps (see White Flag trade in 1997).

I took on the mission to figure out what had caused my deep feelings of sadness the week leading up to Game 1 of the World Series.

At first, I worked under the theory that the Sox had won the fans that were always split between the two Chicago baseball franchises. Then, after hearing so many people claim to be a “Chicago fan” that I honestly believed the rock fusion band from the 60s and 70s were on yet another reunion tour, I knew the Sox could keep all those people that irritated the bejesus out of me whether one of the teams had success or not. Even second base deity Ryne Sandberg announced he would be rooting for the White Sox to win it all, as should all Cubs fans, because when (or if) the Cubs ever made it to the big dance Sox folk would cheer on the Cubbies. I began to wonder if Ryno ever read a newspaper or spoke to people not employed by MLB while spending 15 seasons in Chicago. I also wondered if he would have said that if he experienced more interleague play during his career.

For the rest of the week I was bombarded with exciting announcements coming from Sox fans from all over who were enjoying this entire period. Fortunately, none of them were showboating to a weary Cubs fan, and I, part to avoid giving those fans any satisfaction and part trying not to ruin the moment for my friends, I kept my discontent to myself. Adam Kirby, from Milwaukee, regaled me with stories of his weekend watching the end of the LCS with friends and family in various south side bars, how his emotions finally got the best of him on his drive back to his home in Milwaukee and his dilemma of whether to use his single ticket for Game 6 or stay home to watch a possible clincher with friends and family.

The Sox half of my best man duo, Mike LaRocco, by far has had the best experience I have heard of to date. His loaded uncle/boss sent him to the Comiskullar armed with a credit card to take advantage of the 2006-season-tickets-equals-World-Series-tickets program to buy four 2006 season packages and four tickets to the four Sox World Series home games. While in line, he chatted up a security guard who mentioned they were letting fans take photos with the AL Championship trophy earlier in the day. Although it had been put away, Mikey sweet-talked the head of security into bringing the trophy back out for him to get a shot of him holding the prize that hadn’t reach Chicago in generations.

Back on my side of the Mason-Dixon, I wasn’t finding many who empathized with my feelings of despair until I spoke with Chris Dabe, one of the angriest and most faithful Cubs fans I have ever met. This nut job had discussed shaving his head like the 2000 Cubs because they went on a winning streak and had a chance at the playoffs in an abysmal NL Central division while five games under .500. That is some impressive optimism.

Via email, I asked him how he was holding up, and his response started off:

The pain increases with each post-season game that passes since Game 6 of the 2003 NLCS. At the beginning of the playoffs, I was taking in the high road and wishing the Sox well. By the time they were five outs from the World Series, I was in agony. I must be a masochist.

I could feel that, and the 2003 NLCS brainfart was at the root of this depression I felt. This postseason run for the White Sox was everything the Cubs were supposed to be doing for years and years to come. It wasn’t sympathy I felt for players who were trying their darnedest and still coming up short.

It is the fact my squad’s tortured history carries on when the opportunity to reverse all fortunes was handed to the organization on an ivy-covered platter. No matter what is said about that year’s team, they choked. Franchises aren’t “cursed” with four stud starters at their disposal. They mismanage the talent at hand, which leads to choking.

The Cubs lost their chance to make this the century when the barrel was

flipped upside-down and the crème de la crap had its day. Boston, however, took that opportunity and put a stranglehold on it and the White Sox look ready to do some suffocating of their own.

Which leads to the one thought that played through my head until the first pitch of Game 1 Saturday evening. It is the same thought that, without provocation, Kirby admitted had him crying on the way back to Milwaukee, and, with provocation, had my own father tearing up at his work computer.

The White Sox managed to turn their own versions of the phrase “wait till next year” into “I wish (name of deceased loved one) was here to see this.” These fans hugged their elderly family and friends a bit harder than considered healthy, sent their children to school groggy in the morning for a chance to see the final out and adorned the graves of those who couldn’t hold on with the swag of champions.

We, the Cub faithful, are stuck with the hopes our own loved ones will hold on, that we won’t have to celebrate in a cemetery and it will be our children who are sent to school a bit sluggish and cranky in an October sooner than later.

The World Series will come and go. In my mind, it won’t matter who wins because the pennant in this success-starved baseball town was the ark of the covenant, and Indiana Ozzie already found that relic. I’ve watched the first two games of the Classic like it was a movie rated ‘NC-17’ for nudity: there would be better things to do with my time and I would feel guilty for enjoying it. But as the magic continues for the Sox, I can’t get the stench of mortality out of mind, and I wonder who’s graves I will have to visit before bundling up in mid-October en route to Wrigley.

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