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Sorry, Red Sox rooters. Apologies, Dodgers diehards. Our attention has been pulled elsewhere. This summer the action's in the Midwest, land of cheese curds, pitching phenoms and the American League Central, home to three of the best teams in the game and one doozy of a playoff scramble. Just follow the headlines. TWINS ROOK FANS 12. VERLANDER WINS 14TH. WHITE SOX GRAB WILD-CARD LEAD. It's as if the major league gods folded the country in half and shook all the good baseball into the crease. For those watching from afar, it's hard to comprehend. Isn't this the same division mocked as the Comedy Central a couple of years ago? Are those really the Tigers, the Detroit Tigers, hovering 35 games over .500? What in the name of Al Kaline is going on?
So I boarded a plane from the West Coast and went to find out. I recruited old friend and fellow journalist Pete DeMarco, a Red Sox fan and the type of guy who considers The Baseball Encyclopedia to be bedtime reading. We'd meet in Chicago on Monday, Aug. 7, and make a Central circuit, catching four games in four nights while surviving on a global diet of Polish sausages, French fries and American beer. Each morning we'd find the red veins of another interstate, then follow it to another city and another ballpark full of believers.
Robert Frost wrote, "I never feel more at home in America than at a ball game," and it's hard to disagree. Once my body clock became attuned to the rhythm of batting practices, national anthems and seventh-inning stretches, I couldn't stop. A four-day trip stretched into six because, well, how could I miss a phenom's first start in Minneapolis and, after that, a weekend showdown in Chicago? From an R-rated Ozzie Guillen monologue to the musings of a ballpark Elvis to the footwear preferences of Jim Leyland, we soaked it all in. The games weren't bad either: late comebacks, tape-measure homers, talk of a no-hitter. Postseason fortunes shifted and creaked with each night's box scores. At every ballpark it felt like Saturday night, as if the whole Midwest had been given the week off and gone directly to the ball game. As Twins centerfielder Torii Hunter said when I apprised him of our trip, "Man, you're seeing some good baseball. A couple of years ago teams thought this was a weak division. Now, nobody wants to play us. It's like the playoffs every night out here."
Everywhere we went, that's all people wanted to talk about--who'd be playing where in October--though perhaps that was because everywhere we went had a connection to the game. The exhibit at the Henry Ford Museum outside Detroit was titled "Baseball as America," and it provided an interesting perspective, but what we were experiencing was really the opposite: America as Baseball, the heartland through the lens of its native game.
It's the baseball fan's equivalent of finding a rumpled sawbuck in an old pair of jeans: the makeup game, in this case of a May 11 rainout. Like all the matchups from here on out, it's an important one for Chicago, which is a half game ahead of Minnesota and Boston in the wild-card race and nine behind Detroit for the division lead.
Regardless, the White Sox are still the champs, and it feels like it when we arrive at Sox Park, as the locals call it. (Comiskey works too, but U.S. Cellular doesn't exactly roll off the tongue.) Ticket sales are on pace to hit 2.9 million, not quite on par with the crosstown Cubs, but the highest total since the stadium's inaugural year, in 1991.
From the omnipresent SOXSIDER T-shirts to a shared abhorrence of the Cubbies, it's clear that South Side pride runs deep. This is a working-class neighborhood, and its heroes are blue-collar guys like Bobby Jenks, the hefty, hard-throwing closer, and square-jawed sluggers like Paul Konerko, affectionately known as Paulie. Whereas Wrigley's known as the city's largest singles bar, at Sox Park it's all about baseball. Well, baseball and getting rowdy.
Exhibit A is the Bullpen bar, where we head in the third inning. Buried beneath the rightfield bleachers, it's exactly what it sounds like: a bar separated from the visitors' bullpen by a sheet of plexiglass. This affords two opportunities. First, the experience of standing five feet behind a catcher while a major league pitcher warms up. Second, prime heckling position. "We see it all," says our waitress, Amy Heinrich, who's worked at the bar for six years. "The guys bang on the window and taunt the pitchers. And of course the girls flash their tits so the guys in the bullpen will give them a ball."