Wednesday, August 8, 2012



Some people call themselves cultural Catholics; i.e., they were born and raised Catholic but no longer go to Mass or have much at all to do with the Church, other than perhaps going to Mass on Easter if sufficient pressure is applied from still active members of their family. Yet they still consider themselves Catholics. By that measure, I am what you would call a cultural White Sox fan. Explaining this phenomenon takes some background.

I was born to parents who both grew up within walking distance, albeit long walking distance, of Comiskey Park. My father saw Babe Ruth play at Comiskey when he (Dad, not Ruth) was a kid. And he remained a Sox fan until what I still refer to as the new ownership pulled what seemed at the time to be perhaps the most bone-headed move in the history of sports: taking the Sox off free TV because one of the owners (Eddie Einhorn) was a pioneer in cable television. This induced legions of fans, including my Dad, to become Cub fans because perhaps more salient than my Dad’s enthusiasm for the Sox was his legendary tightness with a buck. (And, no, the apple doesn’t even fall off the tree, let alone fall very far from it.) My Dad took to watching the Cubs, which he could do on good old free Channel 9, WGN, for years. When he finally broke down and subscribed to cable, mostly at the behest of my Mom, his allegiances had changed permanently. While he would still follow the Sox box scores the day after the game, and perhaps even genuinely tried to relight the old flame, it was too late: my Dad, the kid born on 41st and Artesian and who spent all his formative years within a three mile radius of Comiskey Park, had become a Cub fan and remained one until the day he died. Very sad, but this was in keeping with the desires of the new ownership: when they bought the team, they made statements to the effect that they had little use for the old blue collar legions of Sox fans; they were aiming their promotion at the upscale North Shore/Hinsdale/Gold Coast crowd, the type of fan who is willing to spend real money, as they said.

My Dad did pretty well in life despite his very modest (Today we would call it “underprivileged” or point out correctly, that he had been raised in a single parent household. In an even earlier time, we would call his background “hardscrabble.”) upbringing and lack of much formal education. Eventually, after years of working at some not at all glamorous jobs in and around the Stockyards, he and a group of partners owned a couple of (what else? This was Chicago in the ‘50s and ‘60s.) meat packing plants, the larger of which, a half block south of the southern border of the old Stockyards at Racine Avenue, enters into this story later. For now, the relevant aspect of this story is that the business had six tickets to the Sox games, upper deck, first row, right behind the visitors’ dugout on the first base line. Forget behind the plate or the first row behind the Sox dugout (the Mayor’s seats), and all that nonsense; M&D Provision’s tickets might have been the best seats in the ballpark, at least from a true fan’s perspective. The great part of this story for yours truly was that, when "no customers wanted the tickets," the employees or the partners got to use them to take their kids to the ballpark. So I started going to a few games a year when I was about four or five years old, when I couldn’t seem to make it to the end of the game and had to ask my Uncle Tony to wake me up when the fireworks started. (Bill Veeck had by then sold the Sox to the Allyns, but one of his legacies, the Friday night post game fireworks shows, had remained.)

Going to the occasional game at Sox Park was only part of my Dad’s efforts to insure that his love for the White Sox endured at least until the next generation; he was nearly as assiduous in this insistence as he and my Mom were that I go to Catholic schools and attend Mass at least each Sunday. So I grew up completely imbued in both the Church and the Sox. A few weeks ago, I amazed a buddy who grew up within easy walking distance of Comiskey, and hence spent much of his youth there, with my knowledge of the ‘60s Sox and the largely fruitless exploits of Minnie Minoso, Luis Aparicio, Pete Ward, Gary Peters, Ron Hansen, Moose Skowron, Hoyt Wilhelm, Pete Ward, J.C. Martin, Smokey Burgess, Nellie Fox, et. al. I grew up actually thinking that the White Sox were the big team in Chicago and that the Cubs were the “other team,” the team that would have been perennial cellar dwellers had it not been for the New York Mets. This distortion of reality should give any Chicagoan, forever subjected to the endless news of the futile efforts of the Lovable Losers while the always in the race Sox get the benefit of an afterthought, at best, even in the local news, an idea of how deeply imbued I was with all things White Sox.

This love of the White Sox started dying out in high school and was briefly awakened in the late ‘70s when Bill Veeck bought the team again and gave us the South Side Hitmen. The season I most remember was the ’77 season, when I was 20, the drinking age was 19, and Comiskey Park was dubbed by their then broadcast team (the very greatest of all time, bar none) Harry Carey and Jimmy Piersall “the world’s largest open air saloon.” But there were other attractions besides beer. At one point in the season, the Sox had 8 guys who were batting .300 or better, a couple of sluggers like Oscar Gamble and Richie Zisk, and absolutely no pitching. The result was plenty of games with scores of 15-12 or 18-10. Plenty of excitement in what I was increasingly seeing as a boring game.

After college, my enthusiasm for baseball petered out to the point at which, today, I don’t like baseball at all. In fact, I will do just about anything to avoid watching or going to a ball game. Like the cultural Catholic who says he is Catholic while having nothing to do with the Church, I, a cultural White Sox fan, say, when asked, that I am a Sox fan but can name maybe, on my best day, three guys on the team and probably can’t spell their names. Let’s see: Pierczynski (a name anyone from Chicago should be able to spell), Konerko, and Peavey. How’s that? I digress. At any rate, let’s stipulate that, as much as I once loved baseball, I no longer like the game at all. Others do, and I certainly don’t begrudge anybody his or her pleasures; I like plenty of things that others consider excruciatingly boring. That is what makes a market, as they say. But the gist of what has become a long winded post would remain the same whether I still loved baseball or have the feelings toward the game I do today.

We went to the White Sox game last night because my oldest daughter, who is somewhat following her grandfather’s legacy, wanted to go and it was Big 10 night, so we got a great deal on the tickets. (All five of us went for $65, and the seats, while nothing like those of my youth, weren’t bad.) My children are perhaps the only people who could persuade me to go to a game and pay the still outrageous prices to pay the brobdingnagian salaries of the largely mediocre ballplayers and even more energetically line the pockets of the owners who effectively told people like my Dad to take a hike. My wife could also persuade me to go to a game, though I can’t imagine her wanting to go to a game, and hence making any effort to persuade me, but, again, I digress.

Since I only go to see the Sox when I absolutely can’t avoid doing so or attending the game presents the only opportunity to see friends in town for the day and wanting to see the visiting team (usually the Yankees), I am truly surprised and amazed at what goes on in Comiskey Park (er, sorry, U.S. Cellular Field) nowadays. What is most amazing, besides the prices for everything and the incredibly rude and backhanded way the management treats the fans who inhabit the cheap seats, is that NO ONE watches the game. The “game” is a three ring circus, with grating aural assaults called music (Where is Nancy Faust nowadays?), strange special effects on the scoreboard, “guest” performers who do things completely unrelated to baseball, and other assorted “attractions” to divert people’s attention from what is going on on the field. The ballpark itself is a tribute to nostalgia, to players of the past, many of whom have been named already in this post. The ballpark is also something of a maize, designed to keep the average fan (many, including yours truly, descendants of the “blue collar” fans for which the new management had, and apparently still has, such disdain) away from the truly paying customers. When one is seated in the 500 section, one gets the distinct impression that one is in the steerage section on an ocean liner of the early part of the last century.

What truly amazed me, however, as an economic and financial observer, was how much money was being spent on…nothing. Two examples will clarify this:

First, there were signs, even in steerage, for a bar of sorts that opens “at 11:00 a.m. every game day for ticket holding fans.” There, ticket holding fans can have “their favorite beverage” and watch the game on TV.

What? If one wanted to watch the game in a bar, why wouldn’t one simply watch the game in a bar? Why buy an outrageously priced ticket to sit in a bar in the ballpark and pay equally outrageous prices for drinks? I think beer was $7.00 +, but I don’t pay as much attention as I used to. Thank God; at that price, if I were to keep up the pace of 1977, the beer alone would cost me $63.00. But I digress. I simply don’t understand why going to a bar at the ballpark is any different from going to a bar on Western Avenue to watch the ballgame, except that the bar on Western Avenue would end up costing the patron about one fourth what the bar in Comiskey would cost and that it would be easier to pay attention to the game at said bar.

Second, there is a section of the ballpark called “Fundamentals,” or something like that, in which kids can practice hitting, throwing, pitching, etc. while their parents watch them practice hitting, throwing, pitching, etc.

Huh? You pay the ridiculous admission prices at a big league ballpark to have your kids practice baseball? Why not go the local park? Or, if you insist on being regarded as some kind of big shooter, to some “training facility,” which, despite being a monster rip-off, must still be cheaper than paying to go to a ballpark and paying big league prices for concessions to watch your kids toss the ball around while you ignore the “action” on the field.

Two conclusions can be drawn from these observations:

First, people still have a lot of money to excrete away and simply cannot fathom saving any of it by applying even a modicum of common sense. To do so would somehow, in their minds, make them less important and would deny them an opportunity to display their wealth, faux or otherwise. Thus we are doomed as a society. This is, of course, a recurring theme in all my blogs.

Second, the new ownership was right in showing people like my Dad the door. Sure, he was a lifelong Sox fan who, as a kid, would do just about anything to scrape together the pittance it cost at the time to see his beloved Sox from the cheap seats. And, sure, he and his partners were long time box owners…before there were “luxury boxes” and “owning a box” meant owing a block of season tickets. But when he went to the game he would buy maybe a beer or two and coke and peanuts or popcorn for me and my siblings. He was not a poor man by any measure, but he felt no need to play the big guy by buying tons of crap, edible or inedible, to impress people whose opinions meant nothing to him. And he couldn’t imagine paying big money to go to Comiskey to sit in a bar or to watch me take batting practice; he could do the former at West Beverly Liquors and the latter at Kennedy Park. And when he watched the game on free television, he added no marginal revenue to the coffers of Reinsdorf/Einhorn and that despicable crew. So what good was he to the new ownership? It was a good business decision to throw him and his ilk over the side for the gormless types who see throwing money around as an ego enhancing necessity of life.

Despite my feelings regarding what has happened to our national pastime, we had a good time last night. We got into the city early (We get everywhere early when my wife has anything to say about it.) and had dinner at one of our two favorite Italian restaurants, Bacchanalia on 24th and Oakley, about four miles from the ballpark. (The other is Clara’s in Woodridge, which I would love even if it weren’t owned by one of my favorite families in the world and operated by its most culinarily gifted son, who, ironically, lives within walking distance of Sox Park. This talk of Clara’s has nothing to do with this post but I never fail to put in a plug for the place.) The electricity was out, but the great people at Bacchanalia could still accommodate us if we wanted to stay, so we did. It reminded me of that episode in the Soprano’s when the Soprano family went to Artie’s restaurant in the middle of a storm when the power was out, but Artie still took care of them and Tony expostulated on the value of these perhaps little things families do together that give life its sweetness. Since we had plenty of time after eating until the game started, I took the family past some of my favorite places in the vicinity of Comiskey: the house where Richard J. and Sis Daley raised their family and at which the senior Daleys lived until their deaths, the old Stockyards gate and the industrial park that now occupies the old Yards area, what little remains of the old International Amphitheater, site of five national political conventions (including THAT one, the ’68 convention), the headquarters of the 11th Regular Ward Democratic Organization, the site of the church where Susan and I were married, and…the site of M&D Provision, my dad’s old plant on 47th Place just east of Racine. Happily, the site is still occupied by a concern in the meat business called The Chicago Meat Authority.

I wonder if the guys who run the place have season tickets at U.S. Cellular and take their kids to the game when "no customers want the tickets."

For more of my thoughts on politics and the ironies that permeate life, along with a healthy dose of what some call cynicism but I call realism, see my other posts on The Insightful Pontificator.

For more of my thoughts on political issues, see Mighty Insights at Rant Politics.

For some of my thoughts on financial issues, see Mighty Insights at Rant Finance.


mickey said...

Mark--As Ted told Mary, "Don't be such a gloomy Gus." Yes, going to the ball park is more expensive and the clientele is different from the folks who, like my father and his children, could be found regularly in the upper deck grandstand ($1 admission and plenty of room to spread out), but that was a different era and a different ballpark. In the 60s and 70s, an attendance of 1 million was considered people say the Sox are under-drawing if they don't hit 2.5 million. Like you, I like to go to the game to *watch the game,* but when my children were young, they were excited not so much by the baseball as by the event, and the bells and whistles and the vendors' offerings that are a key part of the experience for a child. As much as I wanted to lecture them on the value of being a knowledgeable and respectful baseball fan (i.e., a Sox fan instead of a Cub fan), I decided that the goal was for them to have fun while introducing them to something that, despite all reason, has brought me joy for most of my life.

mickey said...

By the way, not only did you fail your self-imposed Chicago standard for spelling when you missed on Pierzynski, you also misspelled Peavy. This raises the question: If you were a Kansas City Royal fan, how would you spell Mark Quinn (.294, 20 HR in 2000)?

The Pontificator said...

But I'm Irish, so I'm not happy unless I'm gloomy!

I think, given my lack of enthusiasm for the modern game, the name of KC star (or what passes for a star in today's baseball) Mark Quinn is the only ballplayer's name I could spell with any degree of assurance.

Did you sit in the left field upper deck grandstand when you went to Comiskey with your dad, seated so you could look over your shoulder into Armour Park? I spent much of the 1977 season in that part of the real Sox Park.

Great insights, Mickey; thanks for reading and commenting.