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Wednesday, July 16, 2003
Good game, bad ballpark

By Mike Barnicle
Special to Page 2

Hardball heaven came quickly for Bud Selig Tuesday night, arriving with one swift swing of Hank Blalock's bat and, as the ball disappeared into the noise of the Chicago night, you could almost hear the traditional South Side blues evolve instead into an upbeat chorus of sponsors, shouting out: "This one's for you, Bud."

Hank Blalock
He's no super-hero, but Hank Blalock's game-winning home run in the eighth inning saved the day for Bug Selig and the All-Star game all together.
Selig, the Rodney Dangerfield of commissioners, a guy hammered and scorned for a year after he sat on his seat watching a game -- an event, actually -- end in a tie, bet most of his marbles on a marketing gimmick: that the winner of this year's All-Star game would walk away with home field advantage for their league in the World Series.

Guess what? It worked.

It doesn't matter what the cynics or the purists think, the buzz in the ballpark was real. And it started a few innings before Blalock's bullet landed in the seats.

It got going for real with the appearance of Roger Clemens, a marriage of theater, legend and irony. Tuesday night 'The Rocket" threw aspirins to the plate off a mound with a Viagra sign in the background. Welcome to the 21st Century. Then there was Ichiro, tracking the ball perfectly, reaching out toward the 375-foot marker to stab a double to death, robbing Albert Pujols in the top of the fourth. Great stuff.

Unfortunately, the game -- a good one -- was played in one of the worst ballparks in the land, a remnant of bad taste, greed and poor planning. It might have been designed by some demented Kremlin commissar as a bizarre and foul tribute to the Vet in Philadelphia or Shea Stadium, a hideous place indeed.

Comiskey Park
You don't see the bad neighborhood surrounding US Cellular Field while sitting in the park.
U.S. Cellular Field is surrounded by poverty and bad news. They tore down Comisky and put up a parking lot. The place is located well south of the spectacular skyline of what is arguably our most truly American city -- a town filled with art and argument, politics and passion, sports and all the sentiment that comes with it, all of it packaged within Carl Sandburg's broad-shouldered city where chips can easily be knocked off every block, depending on whether or not someone is a Cubs or a White Sox fan. It's kind of like Bosnia with two Major League ballparks.

So when Hank Blalock swung, it was easy to assume that Bud Selig probably ranked it as the best hit in Chicago since cops swung clubs at demonstrators in Grant Park exactly 35 summers ago during the Democratic Convention. That year, 1968, Nixon was the one. Now, Bud was the one.

Selig sat on the American League sidelines, alongside a politburo of owners like Peter Angelos, Jerry Colangelo and Tom Werner. All of them can add. All of them are aware that their industry needs a jolt if it is to compete in money markets with two leagues that have surpassed them in popularity, the NBA and the NFL.

By the time the ball cleared the rail, though, a funny thing happened. In between the marketing blitz, an actual baseball game took place. There were some nifty plays, the unexpected round-tripper from a somewhat unexpected source, a beef with the umpires, a hideous ball park musical sound track, a totally lame rendition of the National Anthem, one manager whose name ends in a vowel out-managing another on a big stage for the second time in less than 12 months, and a final score that proved this one was not only for Bud but for baseball fans everywhere, because it did indeed count.