(Above: The Crucible)
Despite the recent White Sox World Series victory, Chicago baseball remains a desperate crucible of confusion and failure. Its atmosphere and history of confouded expectations, on-field sins, front-office atrocity and in-stands stupidity can only foul all it touches and reduce every sparrow’s chirp of April optimism to a sperm whale’s bellow of August gloom.
That this crucible’s molten spatters this year land not in our own laps but those of our midwestern neighbors is little consolation. Nobody likes to see baseball talent reduced to acts of violence and cannibalism, no matter how hungry Prince Fielder gets. And when God abandoned the Detroit Tigers by sending His messenger to the Yankees for Kyle Farnsworth, it was with something like regret that we foresaw the Tigers’ mercy seat lay at 35th and Shields.
Of course, the weltschmerz transformed to plain old schmerz when Gavin Floyd (4 1/3 IP, 4K, 8H, 5R) gave a lead-off walk to Granderson and followed that with a lifeless toss to Placido Polanco who crushed it to the left center stands for his first of two that night. Mindful of the Sox’ tenuous grasp on first place, nervous eyes at the Cell drifted to the AL board for hope of absolution in the Twins/Mariners game. It hadn’t started yet.
It would almost end before the five-hour spectacle before us did.
The underwhelming Robertson’s stuff (6 2/3 9H 4R 3K) was enough to keep the Sox well-suppressed through five, giving up only two RBI. Ken Griffey Jr. in pacticular was baffled by Robertson’s specialty offering, called a “fastball” which accounted for two of his three Ks.
The Tigers 4-run 5th kicked off with Griffey booting a Polanco grounder into a triple. Watching Junior’s inauspicious home debut with some degree of exasperation, I asked the guy in the seat next to me what he thought Billy Beane wanted for Duchsherer, anyway. A blank look and a mother’s protective embrace of her seven year old son was all the answer I got. After Guillen drove in Polanco, interim skipper Joey Cora pulled Floyd and put in Ehren “Oh, No” Wasserman, whose whipcrack delivery got into Pierzynski’s glove fast enough to gun down Guillen’s steal attempt. The bad news came in the form of a walk to Sheffield and an RBI for Raeburn. When the inning was over, the Sox had only answered with a single Carlos Quentin RBI.
The bottom of the 6th found, finally, some wisdom in the decision to keep Konerko off the bench, as his two-run shot sent both his average north of .210 and Robertson packing. But the truly epic confrontation came in the 8th with bat-width 2B Alexei Ramirez vs. ex-Yankee Kyle Farnsworth. Seeing the Cuban Cigar face (possibly for the first time?) that overrated purveyor of dead fastballs gave me a funny feeling and I swear I blurted “He’s gonna take him yard!” right before he did just that, tying the game 6-6. The resulting bedlam not only shut up the Tigers fans two rows back, but, joy! The AL scoreboard reported the Mariners had also decided to play baseball that evening and were leading Burl Ives and his Twins.
The next five innings were scoreless essays on relief and defense, including yet another highlight reel gem for 3B Juan Uribe. Knocked flat on his ass by a Magglio rocket shot, the seated Uribe nonetheless gunned down Gullen at second to end the half. Fernando Rodney vs. Octavio Dotel and Matt Thornton produced a stellar set of extra innings until the 14th.
Matt Thornton gave up a single to Renteria and then gave Polanco his second homer, a crushing of both the faithful crowd and an errant slider. As 14th-inning stretches go, I’ve participated in happier. And when I say that, I mean I’ve never participated in one at all, ever.
Under a midnight sky, the growing number of empty seats exposed the preponderance of orange shirts and the understandable Tiger fan unwillingness to return to their urban train wreck. To make matters worse, echoing their joy was the AL board, as the Twins managed to get one up on the Mariners in the 8th. As Joel Zumaya (L) came to the bump in the bottom of the 14th with a two-run lead, the prospect of a second-place White Sox began to settle in and the crucible resumed its familiar, eternal churn.
Then Zumaya gave up a grounder single to Orlando “Not Miguel” Cabrera followed by a double to All-Star Carlos Quentin. Jermaine Dye’s grounder to Renteria was bobbled and drove in Cabrera to pull within one. A Jim Thome strikeout left the Sox with only the son of a Cub to hold on to the division lead. Only Nick Swisher, Son Of Steve.
I don’t tell a lot of people this, but when I was seven years old, I was a Cubs fan and a Sox fan. By the time I was eight, I had walked away from the Cubs, and it was due to #9 Steve Swisher. It was late in the ’74 season and the .214- batting catcher had a 1-out chance to avoid a sweep by the Pirates. He turned in a double-play instead, and in disgust, I walked away that afternoon from the blue and toward the red and haven’t looked back since.
So when Nick Swisher got under a Zumaya sinking fastball for a walk-off three-run blast, a sense of inevitability came over me. The disbelieving oaths and epithets from the visiting Tigers fans seemed small and insignificant, like their AL Central hopes. They had been burned by the crucible. In the end, nothing gets in the way of Chicago baseball.