By: Bill Renje
I recently had lunch with one of my best friends who bleeds Cubbie blue and is probably the most knowledgeable Cub fan I know both from a contemporary and historical perspective. He has the complete Topps set for every Cub team from the 1950s – 70s. As for me, I like to consider myself a South Side Chicago fan – someone who roots for those teams with Chicago on the front of their jerseys; meaning the Cubs just as long as they’re not playing the White Sox.
As we sat there looking forward to and analyzing the upcoming season, my friend said something that I’ve quite frankly never heard and never thought I’d hear – that he’d rather take in a Sox game at U.S. Cellular right now than a Cubs game at Wrigley. Ultimately for him, the mystique of Wrigley has faded and the despair surrounding the Cubs is just too much to bear right now. The Sox, on the other hand, are fresh, vibrant and full of hope while playing in an underrated and fan friendly ballpark since undergoing its facelift nearly a decade ago.
Whether you consider his shift in ballpark tastes to be treasonous or not, it underscores the outlook and optimism couldn’t be more different for both teams right now both on and off the field. As such, the opportunity has never been right for Chairman Reinsdorf’s organization to seize back the dominate market share he lost to the North Siders 30 years ago. People lose sight that there was a time when the split between Chicagoans allegiance was close to, if not right at 50/50. But all that began to change when Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn bought the Sox before the 1981 season. Spurred on some of the goodwill left over by Bill Veeck combined with some big free agent splashes by the new ownership, the signings of Carlton Fisk and Greg Luzinski, the Sox outdrew the Cubs annually from 1981 – 84. The culmination for the South Side took place in 1983 when Comiskey Park hosted the 50th Major League All-Star Game and the White Sox won the AL West.
But one move, one disastrous overreach by the Sox new ownership in 1982 set in place a course over the next three decades where Cubbie Blue would be the dominant color on Chicago’s baseball canvas. For those of you old enough, harken back to SportsVision – Reinsdorf’s brainchild that charged fans a monthly fee to watch the Sox, Bulls and Blackhawks. Simultaneously, WGN became one of the first cable superstations and Harry Caray left for the significantly bigger audience the Cubs provided and the rest was, as they say, history as ‘Cable Cub Fan’ became a catch phrase in the 1980s.
Fast forward to 2011 – the number of Cub games on WGN has continued to dwindle for the last 15 years (mainly because of restrictions from Major League Baseball to maximize revenue through its satellite and cable packages) thus leveling the exposure playing field with the White Sox. Upstairs, the Sox, a stale franchise a decade ago, now has an “All In” owner who has completely reinvented himself into a loving grandfatherly figure as well as a general manager always playing for this year’s World Series. But most of all, the Sox enjoy a “one of us” presence on the field. Ozzie Guillen has been a face for this franchise for the better part of 25 years. Franchise cornerstones Mark Buerhle and Paul Konerko are “one of us” as is A.J. Pierzynski.
For the Cubs, Harry is long gone and the mystique of Wrigley, judging by the empty seats late season has faded. Fans don’t really know new owner Tom Ricketts or new manager Mike Quade while preferring they didn’t know GM Jim Hendry. If you’re a diehard Cub fan, who do you look at the way you once looked at Ryne Sandberg or Mark Grace and say “he’s one of us” – Soriano? Fukudome? Zambrano? probably none of the above. Maybe the day will come and the bonds built with Ricketts, Quade and young guys like Tyler Colvin, Starlin Castro and Andrew Cashner will link back to a storied past of fans and players feeling like family. But until that times comes, ‘All In’ for the Sox has as much to do with what happens on the field as it does with trying a recapture its share of a Chicago fan base once though irrecoverable.