Commentary

My love letter to Chicago sports

Sox World Series, Cubs close calls part of city's story

Updated: November 5, 2009, 7:21 PM ET
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- People tell me I'm too negative.

[+] EnlargeAP Photo/David Banks
AP Photo/David BanksThe sight of fans at Wrigley Field cheering at the ballpark is a sight to behold.

Sports fans don't like to be beaten down with negativity, I've been told, especially in Chicago, where they are forced to suffer reminders of how much their teams stink on a regular basis. How many years has it been since the Cubs won a World Series?

My job, of course, is to be critical. When you write about Chicago sports, it helps to have a sense of humor and an appreciation for the peculiarities of life.

Right now, there is no shortage of problems. We have the Bears' anemic red zone offense and Swiss cheese offensive line, the Cubs' Milton Bradley fiasco and nightmares about the White Sox's defense.

You have two Blackhawks dressing in near blackface on Halloween (the pictures are online), and even though there was no malicious intent, it seems like this team on the upswing is always dealing with little issues that prick at a franchise's now-golden image. Even Derrick Rose, the hometown guy made good, had to deal with negativity over the summer, from a goofy picture to a serious academic charge.

From Orlando Pace's lost steps to Illinois' lost season, there is plenty to be negative about in Chicago, not including the Cubs' plans to raise ticket prices. Again.

When it comes to Chicago teams, I root, root, root for the story, regardless of the outcome. That's an old sports writing canard that is, by and large, true. Sometimes you also root for your deadline, which always trumps a narrative arc.

But with all the dark clouds perpetually situated over our city, there is a lot to love about Chicago sports too, from Gordon Beckham at third base on the South Side to Kevin Coble at the 3-point line in Evanston, and everything in between and farther north, south and west.

Call me a sap, but I love looking down at Wrigley Field when the place is full, and the ball leaves the yard like it's on a laser. There is nothing like 40,000 people crammed into a 95-year-old park erupting in unison. You can feel the stands shake. We look at one another in the press box like, "I really hope this place doesn't fall apart the day I'm working."

One of my favorite Wrigley moments came as a fan in the waning days of 2004. It was just before the team collapsed, and the Cubs and Pirates were locked into an extra-innings duel. The other three people I was with all left. I sat there, in these great seats, and even though I'm a Pirates fan, I stood up and applauded when Corey Patterson hit a home run to win it. Yes, Corey Patterson. Everyone has his day.

Whenever I'm bored asleep at a mid-July game against the Royals at the Cell, I think back to 2005, and the way the Cell seemed to swell to double its capacity. As luck would have it, I returned to my seat in an unfinished suite down the left-field line just as Paul Konerko's grand slam went flying in our general vicinity. I have never heard a crowd roar like I did that night. For two nights, the South Side was the place to be in Chicago, and if you didn't buy in that fall, I feel bad for you.

The first Bears game I went to, I saw the immortal Jonathan Quinn throw a pass so far off-target, the entire press box laughed. Things are different now. (Pre-Grossman/Orton quarterbacks were so bad, I lump them all together. For years, I told people Chad Hutchinson threw that pass, until I looked up the box score.)

[+] EnlargeJay Cutler
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhQuarterback Jay Cutler's gutsy move in the Detroit Lions' game let Bears fans know they had finally found their franchise quarterback.

I hate a Cutler news conference, but I loved watching him helicopter in the end zone against Detroit, a purely instinctual move that only real athletes can pull off, and only selfless competitors -- not selfish Denver fans -- will attempt. At that moment, I believed the Bears finally found the right quarterback after decades of searching. Now if he just learns to operate a red zone offense before the offensive line gets him killed.

I loved it when Devin Hester would break a return, and the past tense is intentional there because we haven't seen it in a while. Finding a return man like Hester is like getting a 7:30 p.m. reservation at Joe's Stone Crab downtown. It's rare.

Hester almost broke one last week against Cleveland, but Browns punter Dave Zastudil caught him flush with a tackle. I love that I went to college with Zastudil, and was probably one of a dozen non-Browns at Soldier Field who know he's a legit athlete.

I love the Chicago Marathon, because it happens during my favorite season, the meaty part of the fall when the air is crisp and redolent of crunchy leaves. I watch on my balcony as the runners go down Sedgwick and onto North Avenue. In 2005, as my then-girlfriend (now wife) and I were walking north to catch her friend running, Konerko was walking south, trying to catch a cab to the Cell for a playoff practice. "Do you know who that is?" I asked my girlfriend, a die-hard Cubs fan. "He looks familiar," she said. "I think I went to Indiana with him."

That was four years ago, a lifetime in sports time, in which "What have you done for me lately?" is a natural state of mind. I remember what the city was like in early October 2003, when the Cubs seemed destined for the World Series. I had just started a new job, signed my first apartment lease, and everything was possible. The moment was so big that I felt small that night when it all fell apart, watching in a corner bar, wondering whether to laugh or to cry. I had no dog in the fight, but I felt like I did.

I loved watching college dance teams with a now-retired sports writer who admired their moves with a tactician's eye.

I love watching Derrick Rose dunk with athletic grace and Joakim Noah and Tyrus Thomas dunk with elongated ferocity. I really love Rose's crossover. His game is almost as immaculate as Vinny Del Negro's haircut. I love that we still see Michael Jordan regularly enough that I can make fun of his outdated hoop earring and 1995 wardrobe and not feel sacrilegious. I hated Jordan's speech at the Hall of Fame, but I loved the short one he made at Johnny "Red" Kerr's night last season.

I like a good impression of Lou Piniella, Jim Hendry or Ozzie Guillen. Reporters are often the best impersonators. There should always be a place at the table for the erudite, funny beat writer who watches way too much sports and spends too much time burnishing his gallows humor. I love sharing space with authors of two of my favorite sports books, Sam Smith and Rick Telander.

[+] EnlargeChicago Blackhawks Fans
Icon SMIHawks fans in the 300 section of the United Center are also one of the reasons to love Chicago sports.

I love checking out the 300 level during a Blackhawks game. Everyone, and especially their mom, is wearing a red Hawks jersey. At the home opener, I could have sworn they were 75 percent Patrick Kane. When my wife went a few weeks later, she said everyone -- everyone -- had a Jonathan Toews jersey on. The Wirtz family, and the NHL, love your support, Blackhawks fans. Just keep demanding they earn it.

I love that Curtis Granderson and Dwyane Wade are from Chicago, because they represent what this city is about so well. You don't have to be rich or go to the right school to make it. You don't have to be recruited or take payola to be great. And you don't have to be a jerk once you get there.

I love that Dick Butkus and Juwan Howard went to the same high school, Chicago Vocational. I love that my old college friend, Dontrell Jackson, who played for the undefeated Chicago Slaughter last season, backed up Antwaan Randle El at Thornton High School, and used to imitate my favorite rapper, Lupe Fiasco, freestyling in the lunchroom. I loved watching Jon Scheyer become more popular on the North Shore than Northbrook Court. I love that the original Heisman Trophy (which wasn't even called the Heisman) resides at the rec center at the University of Chicago, a school more known for Nobel Prizes.

I love a Lincoln Park sports bar on a Saturday afternoon, with every fan from every college trying to recapture a familiar feeling, be it from a year or a decade gone by. Sports brings people together far more than it drives them apart.

I love that I'll be at Soldier Field on my birthday Sunday. Even if the Bears couldn't score in the red zone against the Chicago Bliss, there is no bigger game in town.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at jgreenberg@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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