Commentary

Crosstown Classic? Not so much

Cubs-White Sox could represent last gasp for meaningful Windy City baseball

Originally Published: September 2, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

How do you know the Cubs are done?

When a popular Cubs blog, desipio.com, changes its focus overnight to the Bears, complete with a new tag line, "The Bears, helping us forget baseball since 1922." All the stories and graphics on the front page have been switched from baseball to football. It's quite ingenious.

How else do you know the Cubs are done?

When a local recreational sports league sends out e-mails to past participants that offer two free tickets to a September game when you sign up for a football or softball team. Remember when Cubs tickets were harder to obtain than a cushy no-show city job? This smacks of a White Sox marketing partnership.

How else do you know the Cubs are done?

When everyone is thrilled that rookie Randy Wells got his 10th win, because it's also the team high! Of course, Ted Lilly tied Wells, the Cubs' only legitimate feel-good story this season, at 10 on Wednesday, a red-letter day in its own right. It marked the first time in two weeks that both Chicago baseball teams won on the same day. Catch the baseball fever!

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Jamie Squire/Getty ImagesTo burnish interest in Thursday's game, perhaps Sox fan and a Cubs fan can be chosen at random to manage their favorite team.

Those things are all true, no "You might be a Cubs fan&" hyperbole. And the White Sox are even worse, a defensively challenged, sub-.500 team that just gave away two respected veterans for minor league spare parts.

For a city comfortable with long championship droughts and empty Octobers, why is this all so depressing? Maybe it's the tease that has gone on these past five months as both teams have balanced themselves on the precipice, inviting teams to knock them off, but never quite capitulating.

It isn't as though the Cubs and White Sox are bottom-of-the-barrel, everyone-is-losing-their-jobs bad, they're just mediocre baseball teams with the talent and infrastructure to be better. It's enough to drive someone to drink -- or worse, get excited to watch preseason football.

A month ago, Thursday would've made for a banner sports day in Chicago. Watch the Cubs and Sox duke it out in a makeup game in their annual series, hang out for an afternoon in Wrigleyville, then head down to Soldier Field to watch the Bears' last exhibition game. Now, fans are more apt to skip the game that still, technically, means something for the one that doesn't.

After all, the Bears game is a precursor to a season of change, a chance to see a real, live quarterback (no offense Henry Burris) line up behind center and be able to see the safeties (no offense Rex Grossman), and then fling passes more than 25 yards (no offense Kyle Orton). OK, I'm talking about Caleb Hanie. Jay Cutler probably won't play, and if he does, it'll be a quick cameo. But still, you can see him on the sideline making snarky faces. That's better than watching Lou Piniella put his head in his lap for three hours.

All this wretched baseball game can remind you of is a wasted summer full of 65 degree days and parking tickets.

They should dub this the Fall-Down Classic, presented by Medic-Alert bracelet. To burnish interest, the teams should let a Sox fan and a Cubs fan, plucked randomly from the crowd, manage the game. Make the real managers the bench coaches. Or don't. Doesn't matter. I'd say let a fan broadcast the game, but they've already got Hawk Harrelson and Ron Santo doing that.

Back when this game was rained out in June, on the super-fun day Sammy Sosa was named on a list of players who reportedly tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs, tickets for this makeup game could've fetched double their face value on the open market (and for some Cubs fans, the market is always open). Now, scalpers might as well offer a fifth of whiskey to dull the pain from watching these teams go at it.

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Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesChicago baseball fans have become entitled to winning recently, a notion that would've sounded ridiculous even 10 years ago, especially on the North Side.

Actually, that's not quite true. The pain won't be from watching the teams play. In fact, the game itself could be quite fun aesthetically and emotionally. The pain of watching these teams play is knowing that the outcome is essentially meaningless.

I was joking with someone as I was writing about how funny it would be if the Sox's 4-2 comeback over Minnesota on Wednesday to close out their Metrodome nightmares catapulted this team to an eight-game winning streak and, thus, put them back in the playoff hunt.

I can see it now: White Sox general manager Kenny Williams would hold court in the Sox dugout, sipping his coffee, reminding everyone to "stay out of White Sox business." A.J. Pierzynski would not-so-casually mock all the writers and columnists who wrote the team off. The White Sox perpetual shoulder chip would be back. Crazy as it sounds, it's still possible with six games remaining against the AL Central leaders, the Detroit Tigers.

Alas, I don't see that happening. It was cool that the Sox ended their horrific 2-8 road trip with a win in Minneapolis before they stop playing baseball in the Metrodome, but this team is still hurting from a lack of defense and offensive shutdowns.

As for the Cubs, they won a series over Houston, at home, but at 67-64, they were still 10 games back of division-leading St. Louis (before the Cardinals' night game). Entering the day, they were trailing four teams in the wild-card race.

For the lucky fans attending this game, I was going to suggest a silent protest of donning Bears jerseys en masse to remind the players this game doesn't mean anything. Or maybe everyone should wear Milton Bradley jerseys to show him he's not hated at home after all, at least by Sox fans. (For the record, Bradley has hit much better at Wrigley this season than on the road, and quite well during the day too, making his protests over his treatment and inability to adjust to a different schedule a lie or a poorly worded excuse.)

But what is there really to protest? The players and coaches from both teams haven't given up in a literal sense. Derrek Bell isn't out there with his 2001 "Operation Shutdown." You have two playoff teams that just didn't mesh this season. No one was really cheated out of their ticket money. No one has to rescind their fanhood.

Chicago baseball fans have become used to winning recently, a notion that would've sounded ridiculous even 10 years ago, especially on the North Side. Both teams, from an organizational standpoint, have done their part to be competitive, spending nine figures (or thereabouts) on annual payroll and acquiring players at the trade deadline to fill holes or spark the imagination. But we expect better now that the Sox have won a World Series and the Cubs have started spending money like a big-market team and made the playoffs in consecutive seasons.

Fall baseball is a wonderful thing when it means something, but that train has pretty much left the "L" tracks. Fall baseball, when nothing is at stake, is a lugubrious grind. This game, for all the fun you can make of it, could be the last gasp for September baseball in the Windy City this year.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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