The White Sox saved their best game of the season for their last night at home before the All-Star break. Coming off three straight two-to-one series victories--the home-and-home meetings with the Cubs sandwiched around a series in Minnesota--they were now trying to complete a three-game sweep of the Twins, their archrivals in the AL Central, at White Sox Park. The Twins scored two in the first on a home run by Torii Hunter--a foul-pole shot disputed by Sox manager Jerry Manuel, who got himself tossed out of the game--and added two more in the third off Sox starter Dan Wright. But then the resurgent Frank Thomas, once again showing form worthy of the nickname "Big Hurt," got the Sox comeback started in the bottom of the inning with a two-out, two-run homer following a walk to Jose Valentin. The Sox tied the game in the next frame on a two-run homer by Brian Daubach, the left-swinging first baseman who has usurped the slumping Paul Konerko, and went ahead in the fifth on a two-out double by Magglio Ordonez that again scored Valentin.
Manuel's Sox have never shown much of a killer instinct, however, and this night was looking like no exception. Reliever Rick White allowed a leadoff double to Bobby Kielty in the seventh, and lefty specialist Damaso Marte couldn't keep him from scoring, allowing Hunter's two-out single. The score remained deadlocked at five into extra innings, and Sox bullpen-ace-by-default Billy Koch gave up the apparent game-winning run in the top of the 11th when Luis Rivas tripled over the head of newly acquired center fielder Carl Everett and scored on a hit by the pesky Kielty. In the bottom half, needing a run to tie, Everett and Carlos Lee hit easy outfield flies, and then Konerko was summoned from the bench to bat for Daubach against Eddie Guardado. Mired in a season-long slump, Konerko responded with a game-tying homer, looking for one brief moment like the confident basher of years past. The not quite 20,000 fans in attendance greeted him with the familiar chant of "Paulie! Paulie!" when he took the field in the 12th. The Sox won it in the bottom half. With two out and a man on, Thomas fell behind 0-2; but starting with a long foul that curved down the left-field line, he kept spoiling good pitches and taking close ones in working the count full. Then he dropped the bat with a swish on a low pitch and sent it soaring up and out, true to course this time, into the left-field seats. Konerko, Thomas, Valentin, Ordonez--all the Sox stars had a role in the victory--and the winning run was scored by the newly acquired Roberto Alomar, who'd walked ahead of Thomas.
The Sox had drawn about 30,000 each of the previous two nights against the Twins: the first a half-price Monday, the second with half the crowd showing up to buy tickets at the gate and welcome Alomar and Everett. The series opener began with Hunter making one of his trademark leaping, momentum-crushing catches at the wall to rob Valentin of a homer, but Joe Crede then blasted a drive to left field that no one could catch--no one in uniform, anyway--and the Sox went on to pummel the Twins. After the sweep the Sox were back at .500 at 42-42, only a game and a half behind the Twins and three games behind the Kansas City Royals, a young team no one was expecting to last through the season's second half. It was as if a week of fireworks had exploded among Sox fandom in an ecstasy of renewed passion.
Then the Sox went on the road to play the two worst teams in the league, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and the Detroit Tigers, and lost five of six. The skid was triggered when Koch blew a ninth-inning lead in Tampa on a sayonara, a three-run walk-off homer, and hit bottom as the Sox were swept by the miserable Tigers, who'd been on pace to break the record for losses in a season set by the New York Mets in 1962, their first year. Renewed passion? This was as crushing as a new lover who suddenly can't find time to meet, write, or even call.
After salvaging a pair of wins in Cleveland, the Sox staggered home to hit the All-Star break at 45-49, seven games behind the Royals. It was small solace that they'd passed the Twins, who remained on the canvas after the Sox put them there.
Things were little better for the Cubs. I'd thought the losses to the Sox would rouse them to a renewed sense of purpose, but it wasn't to be. They lost three of four in Philadelphia and returned home to lose two of three to the hated Saint Louis Cardinals. Along the way they lost something much more precious: center fielder Corey Patterson, out for the year after tearing ligaments in his left knee in a freak play in which he twisted to evade a tag while stepping on first base. My recent prediction that the Cubs would make the playoffs was based on their talent, and the Cubs' season suddenly seemed over--their strength, behind their starting pitching, had been the outfield of the matured Patterson, the revitalized Moises Alou, and the slumbering Sammy Sosa, who was just beginning to get his timing back after a toe injury and the corked-bat suspension. The Cubs took two of three from the Florida Marlins last week, finishing with a complete-game victory by Kerry Wood for their first series win in almost a month (since before their first meeting with the Sox), but immediately lost two straight to the mighty Atlanta Braves. In the second game the Cubs looked truly snake-bitten. Pitching ace Mark Prior, running from first base, collided with Atlanta second baseman Marcus Giles as Giles tried to field a slow roller up the middle and landed on his right shoulder. At first it looked like a separation. Giles was actually hurt worse, receiving a concussion, while Prior went back out to pitch, but he was shelled in a 9-5 loss. That dropped the Cubs to .500, and there they remained, at 47-47, after splitting the next two games with the Braves. They were just three games behind the Houston Astros and two behind the Cards, but suddenly they didn't seem to have the talent or the temperament to continue to challenge.
The tremendous optimism I'd held for both teams after their interleague series was spent. I went out to last Thursday's Cubs game, a 13-3 shellacking at the hands of Greg Maddux that didn't feel much like a pennant race. It was like seeing the Cubs of old. There were 38,756 fans on hand--including groups of kids in their camps' color-coded field-trip T-shirts in the upper deck--and no one seemed to mind the beating. It was a day of sunny splendor; we'd given up on the Cubs but the day itself was sufficient.
That lingering mood of placid acceptance in the wake of squandered opportunity in some ways diminished the All-Star festivities at Sox Park this week. The stadium looked marvelous in its new gray trim--as if it were wearing a tuxedo--but there was a distinct lack of intensity. The "futures game," featuring some of the most promising players in the minors-- from polished, ready-for-the-show Stephen Smitherman (stuck behind the talented and cluttered Cincinnati Reds outfield) to the Cubs' raw, slap-hitting, 18-year-old Felix Pie--was a disarming distraction on Sunday. Both teams, one of U.S. natives and the other of imports, scratched out runs in the first, and then it became a home run derby, with the U.S. team blasting two solo shots--the game winner by Smitherman--to one for the world team to claim a 3-2 win. Each homer was greeted by fireworks, which pleased the crowd. However, the ensuing softball game between celebrities and old-timers was neither distracting nor disarming.
The next night was the real home run derby, pitting eight sluggers against one another in a batting-practice display of power. But this crowd-pleasing tourney--which in many ways has transcended the All-Star Game itself as the marquee event of the midsummer break--has become a bloated, ad-fattened, made-for-ESPN show. No home run derby was necessary when the Sox last played host to the All-Star Game in 1983 at Comiskey Park, and it was a humbler affair, won by Ryne Sandberg with a mere three homers, in 1990 at Wrigley Field. This time eight players took more than two hours to be pared down to a winner, and it was, for the most part, a tedious affair. The exception was the semifinal where the Cards' young Albert Pujols went up against the New York Yankees' Jason Giambi. Pujols made an "out"--i.e., failed to homer--then mashed three straight, and when he really got going he bashed a pair back-to-back 454 and 478 feet. He finished with 14 against 10 outs--tying a record set by Giambi himself two years ago--and the packed crowd rose to its feet. Giambi, who picked through pitches like a shopper selecting tomatoes, had the pressure on when he came to bat. He started with four homers against eight outs, but then he hit five straight to get back in it and rouse the crowd. He finished with 11, 3 short, but the fans loved it.
In the end, however, slow and steady won the race. The Anaheim Angels' Garret Anderson advanced to shave Pujols in the final round, 9-8. But it all seemed so insignificant, while the seasons of the Sox and Cubs lay out there somewhere, wounded. And as the baseballs soared into the stands--unaccompanied on this evening by any fireworks--I heard the echoes of skyrockets that had mattered flickering in the memory like faded love.