Passion for Cubs-White Sox showdown threatens to boil over
The stands in the old ballpark on the north side of town will be filled all weekend long, and the beer will flow and the insults will follow and somewhere, amid all the cursing and the sweat, three games will be played in Chicago this weekend. More importantly, considering that two first-place teams are playing, the games will be packed with significance that goes far beyond mere bragging rights.
Yes, this weekend's series between the Cubs and the White Sox is just about everything that Bud Selig dreamed interleague play would be. It's a natural rivalry between two very good teams in front of thousands of throaty fans. It's limited to only a few times a year, just enough to whet the appetite and stir up the passions, yet not so much that it feels ... unbalanced. Cubs-White Sox, along with Yankees-Mets, Dodgers-Angels and a few other truly built-in rivalries are in large part why interleague play exists in the first place. Don't like it? Well, I can think of three packed houses of ticket-buying crazies in Wrigley Field this weekend who would love to shout your butt down.
Still, this particular interleague battle is tip-toeing dangerously on the border between wildly entertaining and just too much. More than the Subway Series in New York, and way more than the Freeway Series in L.A. or any of the other name rivalries -- really, the Battle of Ohio? -- Chicago's Crosstown Classic (or Crosstown Showdown or Crosstown Series or Red Line Rivalry or Windy City Wackiness or whatever you want to call it) matches two franchises and two sets of fans that barely want anything to do with each other except to see the others beaten and ridiculed. This series can get ugly, on the field, in the bleachers and even outside of the stadium.
"Me and [manager] Ozzie [Guillen] were talking the other day, and we said, 'If we win, we can go out to dinner. If not, we've got to eat in. Fire up the grill,'" says Kenny Williams, the White Sox's general manager.
He waited a beat or two. He wasn't laughing.
"I'm not kidding about that," he insists. "People in Chicago aren't shy to tell you how they feel."
This particular interleague passion play is serious business, made moreso this time around because of the two teams' positions. Not since interleague play's inception in 1997 have both teams met while in first place in their respective divisions. The Cubs have the best record in the National League. The Sox are 23-11 since falling two games under .500 in mid May.
Throw in all the other parts that make this the rivalry what it is -- North Side and South Side, NL vs. AL, the designated hitter against hitting pitchers, the Cubs' 1908 and the Sox's 2005, scrappy Cubs manager Lou Piniella against yappy Sox skipper Guillen, yuppies vs. working class, superiority complexes vs. inferiority ones, respect issues, stadium jealousy, curses, job pressures, Michael Barrett's fist to A.J. Pierzynski's jaw in 2006 -- and Cubs-White Sox is a powder keg of emotion. "The only thing that has matched it here," says Williams, "is Game 1 of the World Series [in '05]."
But is all this good for interleague? Is this good for the game? Is it good for Chicago? Many argue that the Crosstown Series unnecessarily inflames a baseball-loving city that runs too hot anyway. It gets so wild that the White Sox have said that they're planning on bringing some of their own security staff the eight miles up the Red Line to Wrigley Field this weekend, just to help keep the crowds in order. Some openly fret about a bunch of beered-up fans with a whole day to satisfy their thirst, descending on the North Side for Sunday night's televised game.
Tickets going for hundreds of dollars over face value for a midseason game. An online contest to see who has the hottest fans. A general manager (Williams) joking this week that a wall needs to be built to separate the city. A player (White Sox pitcher John Danks) saying of beloved Wrigley Field in the Sun-Times, "that place is a [bleep]hole."
Yeah, this is the Crosstown Circus.
"A lot of people ask about the New York series," Guillen told reporters earlier this week. "I don't think the New York series is bigger than this series. With all the respect to New York fans, this series here, I can't believe it's that important to the fans."
Much has been said about the good and the bad of interleague play. The unfairness of it all. (The Indians, Twins and Tigers don't have to play the Cubs in interleague six times every year, for example.) The number of bad series that inevitably are played beside all the marquee ones. (This weekend, don't miss the Giants at Royals; lots of tickets available there.) The way it lessens the impact of the World Series.
For the next two weekends (the Cubs play at the South Siders' U.S. Cellular Field starting next Friday), much of that good and evil will be tightly wrapped up in interleague play's most overhyped, overheated, over-the-top series. It could be compelling stuff. It could be embarrassing. It will be, almost undoubtedly, too much at times.
But this is Bud's baby. Some hate it, some lap it up. And at least somebody will be able to eat out in relative peace this week in Chicago. At least until next weekend.