The White Sox have saved the franchise again. This is an almost endless loop going back to the aftermath of the Black Sox Scandal.
The World Series victory in 2005 put them on the map for good. They have carved a firm niche in the market. Yet off the first two months, there was a dent in that niche. The team sagged. The recession battered disposable income in an era when baseball ticket prices have risen to uncomfortably high levels. Crowds at The Cell dipped into the mid-teens on spring nights. The rest of the summer did not look promising for the gate. A drop under 2 million was possible.
Then came the 11-game winning streak broken Sunday by the Cubs' tag team of Tyler Colvin and Ryan Dempster, who spoiled the party and prevented the Sox from creeping to within a half game of the Minnesota Twins, conveniently in their worst slump of the season. The usual 39,000-strong sellouts packed The Cell for the three Cubs games. But the most telling comment was a Sox official saying they'd have drawn fine crowds over the weekend if the Cubs weren't the opponent.
Now, with the Sox promising to dovetail with first place and the Cubs an unattractive alternative for the fair-weather baseball consumer, the team should benefit from both increased advance sales and walkup attendance. The big attractions kick in during August, with crucial series against the Twins, Tigers and Yankees. That should pack 'em in. If not, then a seismic change in consumer sentiment can be definitely proved.
The more interesting attendance watch should be with the Cubs. Bob Brenly spoke for most fans when he termed the North Siders a "dead-ass team." Night games Monday and Tuesday against the Pirates, a sad-sack outfit against everyone but the Cubs, will be interesting to see if crowds dip close to the 30,000 mark. Amazingly, the Cubs are offering bleacher seats for just $10 apiece Monday through Thursday for those who type in the name "SANTO" (the team is commemorating the 50th anniversary of Ron Santo's big-league debut) on the team website. I cannot remember the Cubs peddling discount bleacher seats in early summer, when demand typically is highest even in the worst years.
Despite the brave front put on by key Cubs such as Dempster after the Sunday victory, they are headed for a sorry fate for this season. The fan reaction to further team foibles with the Cubs buried far under .500 should be telling. If Jim Hendry thought LaTroy Hawkins was booed out of town in 2005, what will be the fate for other under-achievers making even more money this season?
I suggested to another Sox official that the Cubs season stinks of 2006 and a 95-loss pratfall. He was incredulous. His logic: a team with Dempster, Derrek Lee, Aramis Ramirez and other pros would never be that bad. Guess what? They were, in '06, with all the above names.
To get the most bang for their bucks, fans ought to slip out to The Cell. Ozzie Guillen has his team running at every opportunity, a sight rarely seen in Wrigley Field. The starting rotation is finally pitching up to its preseason projections. For anyone who appreciates the nuances of good baseball, all the elements are present on the South Side.
The days when both teams made the playoffs in 2008 seem like a decade ago, not two short years. As Lou Piniella himself said, baseball is a cruel game.