The Chicago White Sox are the best team in the majors, with no idea what second place is like this year. They're a likable, entertaining bunch, and their manager is one of the most colorful in the game. Anywhere else, they'd be the toast of the town, adored by casual fans and diehards alike. But the White Sox are the second team in the Second City, consistently underappreciated while their neighbors on the North Side are showered with love no matter how dismal their record.
This article is by Nancy Armour*, who's made something of a career of writing about how everybody loves the Cubbies.
With more than 7 million people in the Chicago area, though, there should be more than enough fans to go around for both teams. Yet here the White Sox are, with a seven-game winning streak and a 49-22 record, and they're still trailing the Cubs in attendance.
And, predictable as the tides, here come the attendance complaints, the last refuge of the Cubs fans. The usual tropes as to why there's such an imbalance in attendance are trotted out: the Cubs play in a "shrine" (because, of course, all shrines stink of piss and feature decaying, crumbling infrastructure), the Sox play in a ball-mall, the Cubs are "America's team", the Sox threw the World Series (and, you know, fans today are just furious about what happened in 1919). What goes unmentioned as always: the fact that there is a direct and unmistakable correlation between the Cubs' always-a-sellout attendance stats and their purchase by the Tribune Company. But I'm sure it's just a coincidence that, despite the fact that they still played in the same "shrine", their attendance in the 1970s was utterly dismal and only became massive when they were bought by one of the biggest multimedia/marketing empires in the world.
"The Cubs, they draw regardless of what type of team they put on the field," said White Sox slugger Frank Thomas, who qualifies as an expert after spending his entire career on the South Side. "It's always more of an event over there to see a ballgame," Thomas added. "Over here, it's about winning. When we win here, we draw very, very well. When we don't play well over here, we don't draw well. That's just the way it's been."
Novel concept, that: fans will come see you when you're doing well. Surely that applies to the North Side as well, though, right?
The White Sox have gone almost as long as the Cubs without a World Series title — 1917 to 1908 — but the Cubs were so inept for so many years that fans couldn't help but root for them. They weren't just losers, they were lovable losers, and the curse of the billy goat only adds to their folksy charm.
Ha ha! See, it's FOLKSY CHARM that they suck year after year! They were so bad for so long that YOU COULDN'T HELP BUT LIKE THEM! Ha ha! Maaaaaan. If there's one thing I'll never, ever get about Cubs fandom, it's this. I just...don't...get...it. How on earth could anyone say, "Oh, this team stinks so much, I can't help but love them!"? Losing isn't cute. I don't watch sports to be miserable and depressed all the time. I want my teams to win. (Unspoken question: so why do you root for the perennial almost-made-its like the White Sox and Suns? Yes, I am a big fat hypocrite.)
Attendance has picked up lately. The team averaged almost 31,000 fans over the last five games, and they're sure to get another bump with this weekend's visit from the Cubs. But on a warm, sun-splashed afternoon, only 24,544 turned out for Wednesday's 5-1 victory over Kansas City. While that's the largest crowd the White Sox have drawn on a Wednesday this year, it's still well below the 39,000-plus who were at Wrigley a week ago.
Another difference between the Sox and Cubs these articles never mention: Sox fans work for a living. The reason most of our games are at night is because unlike the yuppie stockbrokers on the North Side, we can't just afford to take off at 11AM on a Wednesday to go to a baseball game. We have jobs, and not ones where we can not show up because we want to go hit on that one girl with the cute cell phone**. The percentage of people who can be at a mid-week day game at Wrigely vs. the percentage who can be at a mid-week day game at White Sox Park is pretty imbalanced, and there's a reason for that.
When the White Sox traveled to San Diego and Colorado earlier this month, left-hander Mark Buehrle was stunned at how many White Sox fans they saw — and heard. "We'd be coming around the bases and we'd be like, `Are we at home or on the road?'" Buehrle said. "You're seeing more Sox gear, more stickers on cars, people wearing shirts and hats."
It's almost as if, living outside the constant-Cubs-media-saturation of Chicago, you might actually discover which team is doing better***.
But to win over a city like Chicago, the White Sox know their best bet is to just keep doing what they're doing. "Our fans, much like us, we're tired of second place. We've got to prove to them they're coming out to a see a winner," general manager Kenny Williams said. "That's something to aspire to."
The always-underestimated Kenny Williams: he gets it.
*: This is not the same Nancy Armour who makes paintings of wild ponys:
**: One of the crowning ironies of Chicago baseball is that it's the Sox who play in a park sponsored by a cell phone company, when it's Wrigley Field where you can't even hear the lineups being read over the PA for all the guys yelling "DUDE! GUESS WHERE I AM!" into their Nokias.
***: Lest you think it's only the Cubs who are the recipients of staggering media bias, witness the deathless Red Sox/Yankees bias of most of the sports media, where disproportionate numbers of writers and talking heads are from the East Coast. Just yesterday, a bunch of ESPN tools had a very serious discussion about how sure, the White Sox SEEM to be good, but they're going to have to "get past" the Red Sox and Yankees to get to the World Series. Okay, fine, Red Sox -- they're the defending champeens, after all, and are only one game out of first. But last time I checked, the Yankees are in a distant third place in their division, fifth overall in the wild card chase, and playing like a bunch of underacheiving, overpriced middle-of-the-packers. It's too early to count the Yankees out, just as it's too early to count the White Sox in, but we no more need to "get past" the Yankees than I need to "get past" the Eiffel Tower to get to work every day. They're as much of a threat to the Sox as are the Tigers or the Blue Jays (and less of a threat than the Indians or the Rangers). But the talking heads can never, ever let anyone forget the Yanks are there.