Saturday, May 21, 2005

White Sox 5, Cubs 1

Posts have been in short supply here, mostly because I've been short on time. I've still been watching a lot of White Sox games, but I haven't had the time to watch and write about them. That's still the case, but for something as big as the Cubs-Sox series, I just had to make time.

Despite my life-long loyalties to the South Side, I had never hated the Cubs with the fiery passion that burns inside of most White Sox fans. That is, I never did until the winter of 2003-04.

The Sox had at least been fringe contenders for the better part of the previous dozen seasons. They had very good teams in 1992 and 1993, and a team many felt was World Series-bound before the 1994 season was cut short. After scuffling in '95, the Sox hung around in '96 and '97, even blowing the Wild Card the last month of the season. That mercifully cost then-Sox manager Terry Bevington his job.

After a modest rebuilding project from 1998-99, the Sox were back with a division title in 2000. That followed a string of second-place finishes that continues today.

While coming thisclose so many times has been frustrating, Sox fans have at least been able to enjoy a team that hopes to contend almost every year.

Not so for the Cubs.

After a division title in 1989, the Cubs finished fifth, fourth, fourth, fourth, fifth, third, fourth and fifth from 1990-97.

Behind Sammy Sosa's historic 1998 season, as well as brilliant pitching from some rookie named Kerry Wood, the Cubs would overcome a Brant Brown gaffe that cost them the last game of the season by beating the Giants in a one-game playoff to win the Wild Card.

The Cubbies would appear overmatched on paper in their first-round matchup against Atlanta. That still looked to be the case when the game was moved from paper to grass with the Braves taking Game 1 by a 7-1 score .

But then in Game 2, Kevin Tapani, who switched directly from the South Side to the North Side two years earlier, pitched brilliantly. He took a 1-0 lead into the final inning and looked like he would tie the series at one game apiece. With Wood going in Game 3, Cub fans had reason to be hopeful.

That was before Javy Lopez erased the shutout, and most of the Cubs playoff hopes with a ninth-inning blast. The Braves scored one more off Terry Mulholland in the 10th and went on to sweep the series with a 6-2 win the Game 3. Greg Maddux was the winning pitcher for Atlanta.

The Cubs stayed in the race the next season until going into a full-out death spiral that began with a sweep at the hands of the Sox in June of that year.

So outside of one surprising season in the sun, the Cubs had been a non-factor in the pennant race for almost 15 years.

Then came 2003.

Behind a quartet of aces, led by Wood and second-year hurler Mark Prior, the Cubs pitched their way into an NL Central title and the postseason. They again faced the Braves, only this time came out on top 3-2 in the series -- even beating Maddux once along the way.

Anyone paying attention to Chicago baseball knows what happened next: The Cubs come within a few outs of the World Series, at least until an Alex Gonzalez error and Dusty Baker's decision to leave Prior in too long derail their chances. Oh, and some Bartman guy caught a foul ball.

Despite throwing Wood and Prior in games 6 and 7, the Cubs never recovered. But that winter, they did reload for 2004. Maddux, who left the Cubs with some acrimony back in 1993, just as his run of dominance was beginning, returned as the fifth(!) starter. Derek Lee, who helped sink the Cubs in the '03 postseason took over at first base. Aramis Ramirez would be around for a whole season. LaTroy Hawkins would give the team a reliable setup man. Todd Walker would give it depth at second base. And everyone else would be back, healthy and happy.

At some point that winter, confidence turned into arrogance on the North Side. Wrigleyville was flooded with irrational exuberance. And the smugness of of Cubs fans became unbearable.

I couldn't go anywhere online without being flamed by a Cubs fan. I couldn't go to work (I'm a sportwriter) with hearing about how the Cubs would soon end their World Series drought. And the White Sox, they'd say... just a bunch of jokers that keep trading for Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett.

Cubs fans, who had seemed until then to be just happy-go-lucky baseball watchers that enjoyed the beer and the sun more than the baseball, suddenly seemed full of themselves. That so many wanted to use their fleeting moment to take digs at my favorite team, the long-suffering but unloved White Sox, really forged the fires of hate that still burns in my heart for all of Cubdom.

So when the Cubs choked down the stretch in 2004, blowing their final series against -- you guessed it -- the Atlanta Braves, who weren't playing for anything at that point, I took more than my share of pleasure from it.

Needless to say, I enjoyed Friday's 5-1 White Sox win against the Cubs. What they say is right. When it comes to rooting for one team or the other, there's no middle ground and no gray area. You are a Sox fan or a Cubs fan. Period. And I know which side I'm on.

So here are some observations from the first game of the 2004 intra-city showdown at Wrigley. I didn't have time to dig up a lot of numbers, so my apologies if this reads like a Peter Gammons column -- though I'd be lucky to write as well.


-- In the bottom of the fifth, when Henry Blanco hit a shot down the third-base line, did anyone else think that Joe Crede sure took his time throwing out the Cubs catcher? Not a criticism, in fact, good wrongfully (Not So) Young Joe to know he had plenty of time with a good throw. It just seemed like he fielded the ball, looked at the umpire rule it a fare ball, looked at the ball, and THEN set and threw. Still got Blanco by a long way.

-- The Sox were good, and also a little lucky in the fifth inning when they scored three runs off Greg Maddux. A skillful bunt by Scott Posednik, and solid singles by Tadahito Iguchi and A.J. Pierzynski were supplemented by a seeing-eye single by Paul Konerko. Oh, yea, and Joe Crede drilled one out.

-- When Freddy Garcia stands in at the plate, he looks comfortable like he can hit -- until he swings. Granted, he put down a sac bunt and watched Aramis Ramirez make plays on balls in the next two at-bats, but everything else looks awkward. It's just when he swings, it looks like his hitting mechanics fall apart.

I will say this: Even though Garcia flailed at some stuff a good hitter shouldn't swing at, at least he made some contact, fouled off some balls and saw some additional pitches -- particularly in his third at-bat. And that's worth something. Isn't that why Billy Beane is paying Scott Hatteberg so much money?

Maybe the question should be, how much should you expect from a pitcher's at-bats? Not every pitcher can handle lumber like Mike Hampton, so I guess you take the positives where you can find them.

-- It was only modestly amusing to flip back-and-forth between WGN and Comcast. On my cable system, Comcast has a better picture quality. That would make it an easy call as to which channel to watch, except for the fact that it's the Cubs broadcast team with the call on CSN.

-- I know a lot of people have complaints about Hawk and D.J., but Len Kasper and Bob Brenly are just unlistenable. At least today Brenly was gone. Jeez they suck.
As a baseball fan, I like to catch Cubs games when they're on the tube. But I've been doing that less this season, in part because my time has been scarce, but also because I don't like listening to Kasper and Brenly.

Besides the fact that the Cubs booth is more like a talk show with a baseball game going on in the background, I also can't help by think this Kasper and Brenly tread softly on these Cubs. I guess since the last guy got fired for being to critical, you can't blame them. But do they have to be this weak?

-- Garcia pitched well. Yes, he still nibbled the plate a little too much. Yes, maybe he should have thrown first-pitch fastballs more often. But he still made it through seven innings with just over 100 pitches. That's economical or him.

Though, it should be noted that he faced a Cubs lineup stocked in the last three spots by Neifi Perez, Henry Blanco and a pitcher. Oh, and Todd Hollandsworth batted second for Dusty Baker's team today. That's not good... it's bad and ugly.

-- Iguchi really blew it on the fly ball Ramirez skied into foul territory in the seventh inning. A-Ram ended up on second (man is he not fast) on the error and would later score an unearned run.

I was listening to the Hawk/D.J. team at the time, and Jackson went into his, "Boy, I've been there when you just lose that ball," but it didn't look like that to me. It looked like after making the long run to get to the spot the ball was hit, Iguchi was just to nonchalant when it came to seeing the ball into the glove. It happens. I just wish we didn't have to make excuses when it does.

This is worth a mention. Posednik is getting on base at a .391 clip and is still on pace for a career-best 83 walks.

On Deck:
Jose Contreras against Carlos Zambrano. Hopefully we'll have lots of fun numbers to talk about after this one.