posted: April 1, 2017
tl;dr: It was easier to make my choice than to explain why I did, which I try to do here...
When I moved to Chicagoland, which is fortunate to be one of four major metro areas with two MLB teams, I was faced with a choice: White Sox or Cubs. I am often asked why I chose the White Sox and find myself unable to answer in a sentence or two. Hence this blog post, in honor of Opening Day 2017.
I had long ago given up on the team I rooted for as a boy, the Boston Red Sox, after they blew the 1986 World Series while up three games to two and by two runs with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth, in the infamous meltdown capped by the ball going through Bill Buckner’s legs (someday I’ll write a blog post about the managerial mistakes in that game). I grew up in an era before satellite TV, MLB TV, and the Internet, all of which now make it possible to closely follow the same team no matter where one lives. So when I lived in different parts of the country over the course of my life I followed the song’s instructions to “root, root, root for the home team”. Chicago, however, has had two home teams for more than 100 years. For me, my choice was an easy one, as I explain below. Caution: Cubs fans are not going to like everything I say here.
Pitchers can’t hit
Growing up in the Northeast, where the baseball scene is dominated by the Yankees vs. Red Sox rivalry, I was accustomed to American League baseball which, of course, has the designated hitter (DH) rule. Even as a boy it seemed strange to watch a National League game and see the pitcher in the batters box to lay down a bunt, or more often flail weakly at the ball and strike out. As I became a student of the game and learned more about it, the DH rule made more sense to me, because with a few exceptions (such as Madison Bumgarner), pitchers simply cannot both pitch and hit at the major league level. Traditionalists say that the DH rule perverts the game and simplifies strategy, but I argue the opposite: pitchers are such bad hitters that it means there are two or three innings per game which are effectively two out innings, which perverts the game; and having pitchers hit simplifies strategy in the pre-bullpen innings because if the bottom of the lineup is mounting a rally, you can just pitch around the number eight hitter to get to the pitcher. Traditionalists are on the wrong side of history here: the DH rule has been adopted by most levels of organized baseball, and with continued specialization and the injury risk of having pitchers stand in the batters box to face 100 mile per hour fastballs, I think the National League will eventually cave and adopt the DH.
Carlton Fisk changed his socks
My favorite Red Sox player as a boy was Carlton Fisk, a New England native playing for New England’s team. Like almost all Red Sox fans I was aghast when the Red Sox front office failed to renew his contract in time, making him technically a free agent which allowed him to sign a big dollar contract with the White Sox. Half the fan base, myself included, blamed the Red Sox front office for yet another management blunder (there’s a pattern here), which the other half blamed Fisk (unjustly, I felt) for taking advantage of it. I got the chance to ask Fisk about this episode recently, and he still holds a grudge and feels the Red Sox front office wanted him gone because they didn’t like him. At any rate Fisk successfully changed the color of his socks, reversed the digits on his uniform number from 27 to 72, concluded the second half of his Hall of Fame career in Chicago, got himself a statue that resides on the concourse of White Sox Park, and today still resides in the Chicagoland area and occasionally shows up at White Sox events. I figured that if Carlton Fisk could successfully transition from the Red Sox to the White Sox, so could I.
Night baseball means working folks can actually attend games
For a variety of geographic and socioeconomic reasons, the White Sox have always attracted more of a working-class crowd. To cater to their hard-working fans, the White Sox long ago installed lights in old Comiskey Park and play almost all of their weekday home games at night. The Cubs were the last MLB team to install lights, in 1988, and even today play most of their home games during the day. This means that attending a Cubs game is usually an all-day affair requiring one to either skip work, be a tourist on vacation, or not have a job. This latter point was made very profanely years ago by Cubs manager Lee Elia in an infamous NSFW tirade captured on tape after a tough loss. There’s no way I can top what Lee Elia had to say about Cubs fans, but as for one White Sox fan, when I worked in the west suburbs I could still put in a full day at work, drive to Sox Park via expressways, park in one of the plentiful parking lots, and be in my seat in time for the first pitch a little after 7pm.
Stadium technology has advanced in the past 100 years
Wrigley Field is the most beautiful of baseball’s old stadiums, and I strongly recommend that every baseball fan visit it at least once to soak in the history and atmosphere. But if you plan to attend many games there, its shortcomings become painfully obvious. People were smaller 100 year ago, so the seats are cramped with no legroom; the current stadium renovations are not going to fix this problem. Going to the bathroom and stopping by a concession stand can take two innings; in Sox Park I can often accomplish this in between innings. Sox Park has parking lots and escalators to quickly whisk patrons to their seats. There is ample space for food and beverage facilities, leading to some of the best ballpark food anywhere: my memory of the smell of sliced onions simmering on the open air grills at Sox Park is causing my mouth to water as I type this. By contrast patrons of Wrigley are advised to eat outside the stadium before attending the game.
Obama was right: White Sox baseball is serious
There are differences in the fan bases between the two teams, which were eloquently summarized in 2008 by presidential candidate and White Sox fan Barack Obama. All generalizations are somewhat flawed because there are always exceptions: I do know some very serious Cubs fans, and I have seen people at White Sox games who spend most of the time fiddling with their smart phones. However, because the White Sox’s stadium by itself is not a baseball shrine the way that Wrigley Field is, because the bleacher scene at Sox Park is not a popular singles bar the way that it is at Wrigley (true story: Cubs owner Tom Ricketts met his wife in the Wrigley bleachers), and because few tourists and visitors to Chicago have the south side on their list of must-see attractions, a greater percentage of the fans who do show up for White Sox games are serious baseball fans.
The White Sox are Chicago’s team
Outside of Chicago, including on a national basis, there is no doubt that the Cubs are by far the more popular Chicago baseball team. The smartest thing the Cubs ever did was to televise their home day games on superstation WGN in the early days of the cable TV industry, which exposed millions of kids to Cubs baseball from beautiful Wrigley Field after coming home from school. The White Sox in that timeframe were trying to establish their own premium sports TV channel before the technology and the market was ready for that business model; this actually caused them to disappear from the screens of many of their hardcore fans.
That nationwide fan base for the Cubs persists to this day. Those folks will have a hard time believing the following: multiple surveys over the years that I’ve lived in the Chicagoland area have shown that the White Sox are slightly more popular than the Cubs within the city of Chicago itself and Cook County. In the immediately surrounding counties, the split is north-south, reflecting the longtime homes of the two teams on the two sides of the city. There are fans of both teams among the power brokers in Chicago, but because of the Daley family, which put two family members in the Chicago mayor’s office for decades, the power structure seems to tilt towards the White Sox. (The Daley’s White Sox season ticket seats, by the way, are right next to the Sox dugout, to allow the Daleys to offer in-game advice to the Sox manager.) A White Sox fan was just President of the United States for eight years, whereas a Cubs fan, Hillary Clinton, failed in her bid for the presidency. To be fair, the Cubs do have their fans among the Illinois and Chicago political elite. A Cubs fan was elected governor during my time in Chicagoland, although he is now serving a prison sentence for attempting to sell the aforementioned White Sox fan Barack Obama’s U.S. Senate seat: that Cubs fan is Rod Blagojevich.
The White Sox are family friendly
This again is going to sound strange to folks outside Chicago whose only news about the south side of the city is an endless stream of gang violence, but there actually are relatively safe parts of the south side of Chicago: White Sox Park, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the University of Chicago among them. White Sox ownership and management is family-oriented, and they’ve taken concrete steps to attract families to the ballpark: there’s a huge baseball skills and play area in the left field concourse, there are kid meal options, every Sunday is family day with specially priced tickets and an opportunity for kids to run the bases, there are lots of autograph opportunities, and mascot Southpaw is always around to entertain the kids (the Cubs just recently created their first mascot, Clark, who has been criticized for not wearing pants). The White Sox do lots of charity work in the community and sponsor inner-city youth baseball teams. The atmosphere at Cubs games, to put it politely, is not as family friendly: there is much less for kids to do, and much more of an adult beverage consuming scene.
The White Sox have to win
When I moved to Chicagoland in January 2005, both teams were suffering through multi-generational World Series droughts: the White Sox hadn’t won in 87 years, and the Cubs hadn’t won in 96 years. Both teams were supposedly cursed, the White Sox by the Black Sox scandal of 1919 and the Cubs by a long and growing list of curses that included a goat, a black cat, and a fan doing what fans do, i.e. try to catch foul balls. The Cubs, however, were the Lovable Losers, a team whose fans seemingly enjoyed drinking beer in the sun at Wrigley regardless of the ineptitude of the home team. The corporate owner of the Cubs, the Tribune Company, appeared to be happy just to have the Cubs filling up airtime on their WGN radio and TV stations, generating advertising dollars. The White Sox, by contrast, needed to win more than the Cubs did, to get fans to show up and buy tickets. During my lifetime the White Sox had in fact won more than the Cubs did, and I had respected them for years, especially when they nabbed Carlton Fisk. I decided that there was no way I could bring myself to choose the team known as the Lovable Losers, to join the fan base of the team suffering not only the longest World Series drought but also the longest championship drought in any professional sports league anywhere in the world, a team that reminded me too much of what I had walked away from in giving up on the Red Sox years ago: a team playing in a cramped, old, falling down stadium, run by somewhat incompetent management that didn’t appear committed to winning.
Note: the previous paragraph has been rendered mostly irrelevant by what transpired in the 2016 baseball season.
Immediate validation of my choice
In January 2005 I chose the White Sox. When the 2005 season started, the team went on an immediate tear, grabbing first place in the AL Central Division on Opening Day and building a commanding lead. The pitching was excellent, the defense made amazing plays, the hitters could score in a variety of ways, both long ball and small ball: it was clear that something special was happening. Baseball, when played well, is the most beautiful sport to watch, and the White Sox were playing beautiful baseball. There was a bit of a concern towards the end of the regular season when the team went cold at the same time that the Cleveland Indians got hot, but the White Sox resumed their winning ways towards the end of September and then went on one of the most amazing MLB playoff runs ever, winning 11 of 12 games, often in dramatic fashion: a controversial dropped third strike, four consecutive complete-game victories, a walk-off World Series home run, a 14th inning home run in the longest World Series game ever played to that point. The White Sox won the World Series, ending their drought before the Cubs did, and I knew I had definitely made the right choice for me.