- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Don Mattingly had just left the on-deck circle, swinging the bat over his head, when the night began crackling, and the last stragglers from the rest rooms hurried toward their seats along the first base line at Comiskey Park. Glancing over their shoulders, some stopped in the aisles and sat down on the concrete stairs to watch Mattingly begin the final act of the drama.
It was nearly 10 p.m. on June 29, and the Chicago White Sox were just percentage points ahead of the Oakland A's in the American League West. For seven innings against the New York Yankees, the Sox had nursed a 1-0 lead that designated hitter Ron Kittle had given them in the second inning when he thumped an 0-1 pitch 454 feet into the upper deck in left, setting off the bombs and rockets above the scoreboard in center. Now it was the top of the ninth, and Chicago reliever Bobby Thigpen was pitching to the Yankees' best hitter. Mattingly promptly stroked what looked like a line drive double into the alley in left center.
Left fielder Ivan Calderon sprinted full bore to his left and, at the last instant, sprang forward as if from a high cliff, gliding in the air toward the ball, his body stretched parallel to the ground. Calderon caught the ball in the webbing, at which point a roar rose from the stands, but he landed so hard that the wind was knocked out of him. He lay writhing on the ground as Herm Schneider, the team trainer, rushed to his side.
Holding his ribs, Calderon rose to his feet and returned to his position to rousing cheers. He had barely got back when New York leftfielder Mel Hall cut under a rising Thigpen fastball and sent it toward the lights behind third, in foul territory. Sox third baseman Robin Ventura gave the ball mad chase and finally found it dropping toward him just inside the wall. He overran the ball, then leaped backward for it, snagging it as he fell in a heap on the ground.
A fan by the wall got so carried away watching this that he accidentally spilled a beer all over Ventura as the player went down. Like a boxing referee, shortstop Ozzie Guillen held up Ventura's gloved hand with the ball in it. The umpire pumped his right arm. Another roar went up. Old Comiskey was charged now, with fans everywhere on their feet, and not even catcher Matt Nokes's single to right could break the spell.
Nothing could that night. This was the last year for Comiskey Park, which was only two days shy of its 80th birthday. The stadium would be facing the wrecking ball at the close of the 1990 season. For a brief, electric moment, time just hung there like a fat curve, and it might have been any season, any time the Sox were winning. It could have been 1959, the culminating year of the Go-Go Sox, the last season they won the American League pennant. Or 1972, the year in which Dick Allen, on his way to the league's MVP award, was driving baseballs into the bleachers. Or 1977, the year of the South Side Hit Men, Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble, or 1983, the last year of glory, when Chicago won the Western Division title and the players made a museum piece of general manager Roland Hemond's champagne-soaked suit.
When Yankee rightfielder Jesse Barfield strode to the plate with two out and the tying run on first, that low buzzing began in the stands, and grown men and women hid their faces in their hands. Nick Masterson, a banker, and Jack Knight, a sales manager, both longtime Sox fans, had been witnesses to this kind of scenario many times before, Masterson as long ago as 1940, when his father first brought him to the park. Here he saw it coming again, as fresh as the memory of watching Billy Pierce, the Chicago lefthander, pitch against Whitey Ford when the mighty Yankees came to town in the 1950s. "We'd go into the ninth inning with the score tied, and Yogi Berra would hit ball four into the upper deck," Masterson was saying.
"School is out," said Knight, resigned. "Uh-oh. Good night."
Thigpen delivered. Barfield swung—crack!—and the ball lifted off the pad toward rightfield, rising in an arc toward the bleacher seats, climbing into the blinding lights, looking smaller and smaller. Masterson and Knight and a dancing fan named Herman Little tracked the ball from the stands, their faces up, and Chicago rightfielder Sammy Sosa watched it climb above him. The ball hung for a long time in the warm night air....