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Baseball Fri Jun 20 2008

Cubs vs. White Sox Not Hard to 'Get'

I suppose it makes sense that the actual participants in the annual local baseball orgy known (among other names) as the Crosstown Classic are a little blasé about the whole thing. Listen to sports talk radio or read the papers and you get the idea that baseball Armageddon is on the horizon and nothing less than the fate of the free world hangs in the balance.

But read the quotes from the likes of players like Paul Konerko, Derek Lee, Joe Crede or even Kerry Wood and you get the idea that they’re as excited by the contests as someone having a hangnail removed.

Their opinions usually run along the lines of “: “It’s just another game.” “It means more to the fans than us.” “It’ll be a lot of fun, but…” The Cubs’ Mark De Rosa said as much last week when in an interview he stated, “(I)t has to be viewed as [just] another series. I know it's not. I know it will be hyped up, and rightfully so. It's fun, it's a hot topic to talk about, and they're playing well and we're playing well. But I think it ends there. Six games hopefully won't affect the outcome of either team's division standing.”

Great. Try to stay awake for game, Mark.

Their reaction makes sense when you realize that most (if not all) of them have little connection with the city other than the name on the front of their jersey. Even veteran players who have homes in the city proper still skedaddle to other parts of the country when the season’s over. Without that 24-7 infusion of all things Chicago, it all must look a little silly, this getting giddy about a pre-All-Star break series, even if it is between two first-place teams.

So perhaps they and a few put-it-in-perspective media types are right. Maybe getting really worked up about this three-game series, which kicks off Friday afternoon at Wrigley Field, requires the experience of years of frustration and futility, of being concerned with the nebulous concept of “bragging rights”, of acknowledging and supporting the palpable divide in this city when it comes to all things baseball.

In short, you need to be a fan.

Oh, sure, there are a few participants who “get it”, who sort of understand why millions of people in the city get all hot and bothered about a series that, as of today, has all the significance of a Cubs vs. Mets game or a White Sox vs. Seattle tilt. They’re the ones who know that Chicagoans are generally an amiable bunch but manage to get passionate about three things: the CTA, ketchup on a hot dog and baseball.

Ozzie Guillen gets it. In fact, he can’t seem to shut up about his feelings on the Cubs, on Wrigley Field, on everything north of Madison, actually. Hell, Guillen has been tossing verbal shots at the Cubs even when the series was a distant blip on the radar. So he doesn’t really count.

Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski gets it, and his dust-up with former Cubs catcher Michael Barrett in the 2006 series at U.S. Cellular is Exhibit A. Think that Pierzynski’s barreling into Barrett in the second inning to score and then slapping home plate for emphasis was just a part of Pierzynski’s everyday approach to the game? I’m going to guess that the week of hyped press coverage and a few thousand screaming fans might have had something to do with it.

Cubs pitcher Rich Hill gets it, or rather got it. He called Pierzynski’s play at the plate “gutless” and “pathetic”. Guillen told him to shut up but Hill probably didn’t hear him as he was sent back to the minors (where he currently resides) the day after the incident.

Sox outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher MIGHT get it. His dad is former Cubs catcher Steve Swisher (who, ironically, was drafted by the White Sox), so little Nicky might have been privy to the animosity that exists between large segments of Cubs and Sox fans.

Sox General Manager Kenny Williams gets it. His digs at the Cubs are a bit more subtle and cerebral than Guillen’s (This week he wished the Cubs a “happy anniversary”. Ouch.) but they’re there nonetheless.

Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano gets it. He had to be restrained by teammates in 2006 after he gave up a homer to Pierzynski (there’s that name again) and A.J. gestured to the sky - a not-to-subtle jab at Zambrano who often thanks the heavens after a good inning. Then again, Zambrano, like Guillen, reacts that way about so many things it’s difficult to figure out if it has anything to do with the series.

The media gets it. Special newspaper inserts, stupid contests (Who has the hottest fans? C’mon…), full-color photos and front page coverage, goofy McDonald’s commercials and a national Sunday night showcase on ESPN? Rivalry, schmivalry, it’s all about the money.

Baseball gets it. Think they set up interleague play just so we could see Kansas City vs. Milwaukee? Nope, it’s for match-ups like this that is the real diving force behind the decision to mix it up, leaguewise. Trouble is, there are only a few cities where this natural rivalry stuff works out. Mets-Yankees is a given (their series is next weekend and opens with a doubleheader with one game in Yankee Stadium and the nightcap in Shea, both of which are being replaced next year). Possibly the Dodgers-Angels. If you want to stretch it, perhaps the Giants-A’s. But I’d put good money on the Cubs-White Sox series (which stands at an even 30 wins apiece) being the most passionate of the bunch. As far as I can tell, there’ve been no beach-clearing brawls and threats of bodily harm by star pitchers in any of the other series.

So don’t feel guilty if you find yourself reacting as if this were a subway series with a world championship trophy hanging in the balance. Yes, it’s just a game. And, yes, the chances of three games in June affecting what happens in October is pretty remote. But, still... it’s Cubs vs. White Sox. You get it, right?

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