Sunday, March 8, 2015

An Underdog When You're Ahead: On Being A White Sox Fan

I grew up in central Nebraska during the 1980s, which meant that when I developed an interest in baseball, the Kansas City Royals were my team.  Sometime in the early 1990s, when I was in high school, that interest waned and I stopped caring all that much about the team.  This apathy coincided with their quarter century in the baseball wilderness, which was mostly likely connected.  When in college, however, I met friends who were big baseball heads, and they helped get me back into the game.  I went to see the Omaha Royals (before their name changes) at the sadly defunct Rosenblatt Stadium, and even road tripped to KC in 1997 to see the first interleague series between the Cardinals and Royals, and to gaze upon Mark McGwire.

Just as my baseball renaissance was beginning, I moved to Chicago to get a master's degree, and was thus living in a big league city for the first time in my life.  This prompted a tough decision: Sox or Cubs.  Most baseball fans in the Chicago area don't have a choice, since geography and family ties usually make that decision for them in their infancy.  I toyed with Cubs fandom at first.  After all, they played in the wonderfully anachronistic friendly confines of Wrigley, they made the playoffs right after I moved in (1998), and Sammy Sosa was setting the nation on fire with his home run prowess.  Despite these facts, I ended up opting for the Sox.  This was partly because I was living on the South Side, and partly because I felt more at home among their fans.  While this faction is a minority of Cub fandom writ large (which is quite broad and diverse), there is a very frat contingent that dominates the culture of Wrigley and the surrounding neighborhood on game days.  Sox fans, on the other hand, tend to be more blue collar, and when they show up to the ballpark are more interested in the game than in taking part in the world's largest open air singles bar.

I also tend to think that my decision reflected my instinctual need to not be on the side of popularity.  I am a bit of a contrarian, to be sure.  The Cubs were and are by far the higher profile Chicago team, and their attendance figures versus the Sox bear this out.  This is partly because there are many fewer Sox fans, that new transplants to Chicago almost always choose the Cubs, that Sox fans are less affluent, and that following from this, are not keen to spend money on a less than stellar team.  As the numbers I quoted show, the Cubs outdrew the Sox even in 2005 and 2006, the year the White Sox won the title, and the year after, when champions tend to get a big attendance boost.  Even when they won the first World Series by a Chicago team since 1917, they were still the second team in the Second City.

The team and its fans are also quite often the target of criticism and the butt of jokes, even among their own.  Fans and outsiders have long ripped on US Cellular Field for being a bland stadium built right before Camden Yards opened up the deluge of retro parks.  In actuality it is a fine place to watch a game (especially since the renovations) and has by far the best food of ballpark I've ever been to, along with great ballyhoo traditions like the Fan Shower and exploding scoreboard.  The horrible attack by two violent Sox "fans" on Royals first base coach Tom Gamboa also gave the team a bad name.  Cubs fans have their own history of hooliganism, but the image of the team as "lovable losers" has never been tarnished. On top of all of this, Ken "Hawk" Harrelson has got to be the most hated announcer in baseball, even though his much criticized homerism is just unveiled honesty, unlike the pretense of objectivity that so many other hometown announcers studiously maintain.

I have begun to relish second class status, however.  By being a Sox fan, I feel like I am not a member of a great mass, or "nation" as Cubs fans brand themselves, but of a tight-knit club.  Sox fans are actually much less obnoxious than those of other teams, in that we don't expect other people to get wrapped up in our drama.  The best example of this came in the team's championship run in 2005, when there was relatively little media attention paid to the fact that the White Sox had gone since 1917 without winning a title.  When the Red Sox won the year before the country was deluged with stories about the "Curse of the Bambino" and fans from Pawtucket to Bar Harbor visiting the graves of their parents and grandparents to tell them the news.  Conversely, when Ken Burns put together his sequel to his series on baseball, he gave the White Sox about two minutes of screen time while lavishing all kinds of Sturm und Drang on Boston's drama and requited agony.  Of course that was an important story, but the fact that White Sox fans had been through similar trials was barely acknowledged.

While that really bugged me at the time, I've come to realize that the lack of recognition for the White Sox' vindication actually says a lot of positive things about us fans of the South Siders.  We were smart enough to know that our team's problems were not down to some vague curse like the Red Sox or Cubs (the famous billy goat, the black cat on the field in 1969, etc.) but to bad management and mediocre play.  If Sox fans were ever angry at anyone, it was at owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who had 1. pushed for confrontation with the players' union, leading to the strike in 1994 while the Sox were in first place and 2. okayed the "white flag" trade of 1997, when he traded top players for prospects down the stretch even though the team was still in contention.  (Apart from Keith Foulke, those prospects didn't amount to much, either.)

This angry feeling towards the team's ownership is less the entitled carping one hears from Yankee fans and more reminiscent of the feelings that most working people have towards management.  It is a healthy distrust born out of the knowledge that the bosses do not have your interests at heart, and must always be resisted.  Other fans seem to interpret this attitude as disloyalty, and continue to show up to the park even when their team sucks.  White Sox fans have a sort of clear-eyed, no bullshit attitude that is ingrained in the South Side and the working class culture of the Midwest writ large.  Living here in the Northeast I pine for the midlands of my childhood and young adulthood, watching White Sox games and hearing the raw cheers of the team's faithful from my living room in New Jersey at least gives me something of that world to hold on to.

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