JUNE 18, 1997
WHITE SOX 3 CUBS 0
At the risk of sounding like this post is being ghostwritten by John Smoltz, I’m going to start with a curmudgeonly hot take…
I deplore interleague play.
Even 25 years later, it still feels like a gimmick concocted by Bud Selig in a flop sweat-laden attempt to solve baseball’s attendance problems stemming from his cancellation of the 1994 postseason. Interleague play has made both the World Series and All-Star Game less special in favor of endless variations of Orioles vs. Rockies. And every season, it gifts the Cardinals two series against the Royals, providing them a built-in advantage as long as MLB continues to forbid the Cubs from scheduling the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.
At some point during my airing of grievances, just about every interleague play supporter will interject, “But what about Cubs vs. White Sox?” Which is a bit like asking “Isn’t a colonoscopy worth it for the photos?” Come to think of it, I’d choose intestinal footage over the Crosstown Classic since there’s less chance of it being narrated by Hawk Harrelson.
My antipathy toward interleague play began when I attended the final game of the very first “this time it counts” Crosstown Classic in 1997. Simply put, it was the most miserable I’ve ever been at a baseball game from first pitch to last. And well beyond the final out, too.
As you might expect, there was a good amount of hype leading into these three games. The White Sox program boldly declared “It will be a baseball civil war”– which was quite a metaphor to describe a game between fifth place and fourth place teams that were collectively 18 games under .500. To the rest of the baseball world, it must’ve looked like what would’ve happened if a civil war broke out on Guam.
But to me, it meant a lot. This was the one year where I bought into the hype. After a decade of being emotionally beaten down by Sox fan bullies in school and watching the early 90s Cubs steadfastly avoid competence while the South Siders made annual runs at the division title, I wanted payback.
I pictured watching my heroes vanquish my tormentors in their own backyard and doing a full-on Vince McMahon strut into the Comiskey Park front office, where I could finally receive an in-person apology from Jerry Reinsdorf, Hawk, Ribbie, and Roobarb. I even picked the rubber game of the series for maximum drama and when the Cubs and Sox split the first two games, it felt like the stars were aligning. Which were a lot of expectations to put on a team that started the year 0-14.
My dad and I got to Comiskey early and even though the Cubs had been hopelessly out of the pennant race from the first pitch of the season, there was still a genuine sense of anticipation in the air. I was anxious and excited to see what the next nine innings would bring. We were here for history!
The same could be said for General Custer.
With two outs in the top of the first, the Cubs mounted a rally on a Mark Grace single and Sammy Sosa walk. Up to the plate strode Ryne Sandberg, playing as a DH for the only time in his career. My favorite player of all time had a chance to give the Cubs the lead right away and if he drove in the first run, I was going to break into the scoreboard control room and set off the fireworks myself.
Sox fans were already unloading a full-throated “BOOOOOOOO” as Ryno’s name was announced. While I knew every Cubs star was going to hear it, there was still something jarring about Sandberg getting heckled in the city I love. To my self-righteous 18-year-old ears, this felt wrong — like Chicago booing cholesterol. I guess I should’ve expected it when I saw how the Sox listed his name in the program:
No big deal. Just a future Hall of Famer and Chicago sports legend. Apparently, the Sox word processor’s spellchecker was set to “Mount Greenwood accent.”
With a chance to strike first and give Cub fans a chance to make ourselves heard, Sandberg popped out to first and the rally was snuffed. Sox fans cheered like they’d clinched the pennant and I was dejected. It felt exactly like junior high.
Incidentally, did you notice how the Cubs got a runner in scoring position that inning? Well, I hope you enjoyed it because that was the last time that would happen all night. Sox starter Wilson Alvarez was in total control for the entire evening, throwing a complete game shutout and allowing only three more singles to Brian McRae, Grace, and Sandberg. And two of those hits were erased on the basepaths. There were only two innings where Alvarez faced more than the minimum. Ye gods, the 1997 Cubs were an abomination. It was one of those nights where I was dying to get one “Let’s Go Cubbies” chant going to drown out the cacophony of South Side schadenfreude but after that briefest of first inning rallies, the Cubs gave us literally not one single moment of hope.
Meanwhile, the Sox jumped on Terry Mulholland right away in their half of the first with a two-out two-run double by Lyle Mouton and…that was all they needed for the entire night. Mulholland was actually quite competent, throwing his own eight-inning complete game. But that didn’t matter during a contest where the bats were so impotent, there should’ve been a commercial with Kevin Orie and Rey Sánchez sitting in outdoor bathtubs while a voiceover rattled off two minutes of side effects from watching the Cubs offense. The Sox were going to win the first interleague series from the moment this game began and there wasn’t a thing any of us could do other than wait out the bleakness. This was a nine-inning Sylvia Plath poem with fireworks.
As the game trudged to its inevitable conclusion, I took a look around and became more and more aware of how much hatred was flowing through the stands. The crosstown series had brought out the type of fan who looked at the infamous Daily Southtown “Cubs lost. Sox won. What a great day” billboard and thought, “What a great worldview!” They were in full glory and wanted to let us hear it all night. I fought back the only way I knew how: by writing comments like “Chicago White SUX” on my scorecard where absolutely no one else could see them. Jesus, everything really was like junior high. Including my wit.
At some point in the middle of the game, a fan threw a stuffed bear Cub with a noose around its neck on the field. As Comiskey roared, a Sox employee walked over to pick it up. Hearing the crowd go off, she held it aloft and started swinging it around her head as the cheers crescendoed into an uproar.
Fun series, huh? There was so much loathing of all things Cub in the building, not even Teddy Ruxpin was safe.
Mercifully, the game was a quick one and after Grace grounded out to end it, we got the hell out of there as fast as possible while Sox fans serenaded us with another chorus of “Na na na na na, hey hey hey, good-bye.” That was a joyless slog through the valley of the shadow of death but at least it was over. All that was left was a long silent car ride home.
Except the Sox then decided to celebrate South Side culture by turning every parking lot into the Dan Ryan at rush hour. We were hopelessly stuck, nobody was moving, and I just wanted the night to end. That’s when I heard a solitary voice shouting through the gloom of the Bridgeport night…
Some random jackass probably just had too much to…
OK, I get it. Your team won the series and you’re rubbing it…
“CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK!”
Finally, I saw him. My brain has repressed exactly what he looked like so my memory is of a 250-pound human mustache in an Albert Belle jersey leaning out his truck window in a stiflingly motionless parking lot. And every time somebody in a Cubs shirt walked by, he’d pierce the night air with a voice that could only be described as the answer to the question: “What if an Italian beef sandwich had a larynx?”
“CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK! CUBS SUCK!”
Over. And over. And over. For 45 unrelenting minutes. I can’t say that I’ve looked into the seventh circle of hell but I have heard the soundtrack. I mean, it was nice that Mayor Daley wanted to communicate with his constituents but still…
Thanks to getting to know several genuinely awesome Sox fans since then, I’ve tried to evolve past this stupid tribalist phase of my baseball fan life. But this game really made it hard. To this day, when I think of interleague play and the Crosstown Classic, my brain instinctively shouts out, “CUBS SUCK!” That guy is the poster child for Cubs vs. Sox.
I haven’t been to a game at Downward Pointing Arrow Field since.