Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Whereupon, My Voice Was Lost

Game 1 (my recap here) will always hold a special place in my memory. But Game 2 will be burned into my consciousness. It was a storybook game with a storybook ending in storybook weather.

We got to the game fairly early again and tried to go to Jimbo's. Jimbo's had a line out the door, so we figured we would fare just as well by getting into the park very early. We walked around the Lot B tailgate area, smelled some great bratwurst cooking, got the Bears game score (7-0 at the time), and looked for souvenirs. We walked into the park at about 5:30 or so, got some tasty bratwurst, a couple of beers, and we were ready to go. That's about when the rain really started falling - we looked out and the tarp was out on the field, denying both teams batting practice.

[As an aside, I've been looking for the Sox's vest/black sleeve uniform for a while. I could have sworn that when I went to the park last year, they sold a one-piece, black-sleeved jersey at the park. I remember that I didn't buy it because they didn't have it in my size. This year, the black-sleeved jersey is nowhere to be found. Argh.]

First, the crowd. The Game 2 crowd simply was not into it early like the Game 1 crowd. I noticed it in the first inning when no one was standing up when there were two strikes on Berkman, like we did in Game 1. My brother noticed this too, and he commented on how he felt like the crowd should be more into the game (I went with my wife to Game 1, so it was a new experience for him). During the period when the Sox were floundering and the Astros were in the lead, it was as quiet as a church in the park. At one point in the 5th inning or so, I felt like if I yelled really loud, I could be heard all across the park.

To the game. Game 2 really scared me as a Sox fan. Just like Game 1 of the ALCS, everything seemed to be in the Sox's favor. Pettite was 3-6 with a 6+ ERA at U.S. Cellular. Buehrle was 12-2 at home, including the playoffs. The Sox had momentum after winning Game 1. The Sox were essentially supposed to win Game 2. And that is usually when things go wrong.

The game started well, though. Buehrle had a terrific first inning. My brother noted that it took him 20 seconds to throw the first three pitches of the game. From that point on, it was only 2 more minutes until the inning was over. Dye got on base for Konerko, and I was fully expecting the game to be 2-0 with a Konerko first inning home run. But Paulie watched strike three go by, and there was no first inning pick me up.

Ensberg then jumped on Buehrle's first pitch in the second. It had occurred to me that with the Sox's focus on throwing first pitch strikes, a team could essentially sit on a first pitch fastball and do a lot of damage to the Sox. Ensberg did just that, hitting a no-doubter over the left field wall. Some idiot threw the ball back onto the field; the idiot was not booed enough, in my opinion. Why don't the real Sox fans step in and save the ball from being thrown back on the field? I'll never know.

The Sox's rally in the second was fun if awkward. I'm not quite sure what Rowand was doing on AJ's long single, but it struck me that he was thinking that he could tag up and get into scoring position with two outs. His semi-gaffe was mooted by Crede's duck snort into right field. Uribe's "fielder's choice" pop to Biggio followed, and it looked like the Sox might chase Pettite early. By God, maybe the Sox were going to win in the way it was expected.

Of course, that man Willy Taveras interceded again by finding the right field line in the top of the third. The ball took a bounce that really surprised Dye - he did not play it well. That bounce turned out to be the difference between scoring and not scoring; Berkman's fly-out to centerfield would have been harmless had Taveras held at second.

The wheels came off the wagon in the 5th inning, and it started to look like the Sox were going to Houston tied 1-1 in the series. Ausmus stroked yet another lead off double, and then despite Everett and Biggio's best efforts to kill the rally, that many Taveras again came through by hustling out an infield hit to keep the inning alive. Again, I repeated out loud that the Sox should not let Lance Berkman beat them. And, again, Lance Berkman beat them with a two-out, two-run double.

Things got worse in the bottom of the 5th. After Uribe got the crowd back into the game with a lead off double, Podsednik looked terrible in failing to bunt him over and then flying to centerfield [Taveras showed off a pretty strong arm after Uribe drew the throw]. Then Uribe ran himself into an out when Pettite got him into a run-down after snagging a come-backer. I have to give Pettite a lot of credit; he executed that perfectly. He ran directly at Uribe, like every one is tought, forcing Uribe to commit. One throw to second base later, and Uribe was toast. Then Pettite balked picked Iguchi off, killing the inning and making me feel very bad about the Sox's chances.

Another aborted rally in the 6th - this one killed by Pierzynski's first-pitch pop-out with the tying run in scoring position - really brought me down. I even started to wonder whether people might be leaving early from the game if it got to the 8th inning or so.

Then, of course, the seventh inning arrived. Buehrle had picked his game up by retiring the last seven guys he faced. Uribe - the Sox's hottest hitter in the series - then stroked yet another double. Uribe's ball was a rocket that would have gotten out of the park if it had any elevation whatsoever. I still had hoped for it until it caromed off the wall. Iguchi drew a walk after fouling off pitches when he had a hitter's count. Dye went to 3-2 in the same way.

I know Dye's "hit-by-pitch" was a controversial call. It sure looked from where I was in the upper deck that the ball hit his bat - I was shocked that he was sent to first base. But it's also true that the pitch was way off the plate and it was only a fluke that Dye couldn't get his bat out of the way. It was ball four, and by rights, Dye belonged on first base.

My brother missed all of this. He went to the bathroom before the 7th inning and I sat alone in our seats during the rally. Because of this, I kept saying to myself "Don't come back. Don't come back. They are doing well without you here. Don't come back." Little did I know, but he was thinking the same thing. He reached the tunnel by the time Iguchi walked, and figured that after Dye went to first, he should just stay where he was. He did, and Konerko blasted Qualls' first pitch into the left field seats. Afterwards, he told me that he isn't a superstitious man, but that sequence of events might have made him superstitious.

Konerko's home run was the greatest sporting moment of my life (yes, it topped what followed). Not only was it clutch and gave the Sox a 6-4 lead, but the drama was tremendous. The Sox's best hitter against a fresh bullpen arm. The excitement was built up by the wait as Qualls warmed up. During the warmup, I tried to push all the negative thoughts out of my head - thoughts that had built up through 33 years of being a White Sox fan - and visualized Konerko hitting a home run. Time after time, I visualized him turning on a fastball and launching it into the seats. Sure enough, he did it - it was almost dream-like the way he copied what I had hoped.

I'll never forget the crowd reaction or my own reaction. As soon as he hit it, I knew it was gone (with a brief moment of doubt in which I thought, "that's easily a double over the fielders' heads"). It screamed off the bat, and the only question was where it would land in the seats. From a noise perspective, it was like a hydrogen bomb. The point of contact was the fission-blast, as the crowd screamed in excitement; the point of landing was the fusion-blast, as the crowd lost all control. It sounded like "aaaaaa!!!!!!!!!!!!! . . . AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA!!!!!!!!!!!" It was amazing.

Among the 41,000 or so united in joy, I was hollering my lungs out. Only once before have I let loose a scream that loud - when I was being dropped off the Sky Screamer at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. That time, I was screaming for my life (and providing myself the surest cure for a hangover I've ever had). This time, I was screaming in ecstasy. I was Howard Dean on voice box steroids. For some reason, I turned my head to the sky; it was so that I could force more air out and scream louder, but looking back, the better answer was that I was directing my cheering towards the only Sox fans who knew how I felt - those who were long gone and in Heaven. For those 30 seconds or so, Heaven was on the South Side.

It instantly felt about 10 degrees warmer.

My brother and I chatted about how we couldn't believe Konerko's homer. I said it was the biggest home run in Sox history, and he started talking about how the Astros were not going to come back from that and briefly mentioned how it would be for the Sox to win the World Series. I quickly said that I was still worried about Game 2 and getting the last six outs.

My worries were well placed. After Politte pitched an easy 8th inning, Jenks got to face the lower half of the Astros' order. I figured he matched up well with them, and getting to face Bagwell again would be a good confidence builder. Instead, Jenks' fastball topped out at 97 mph, and most of his pitches were at 95. Bagwell, who is still a great hitter, did what all great hitters do - he timed Jenks' fastball and hit it to center. I thought Rowand was going to catch it, but he pulled up 15 feet or so behind the ball and caught it on a hop. Jenks looked good in blowing away Lane, but bad in walking Burke on four pitches. The tying runs were on base.

Jenks then did a pretty good job on Ausmus, breaking his bat on a slow bouncer to Konerko. Whew. One out away. Then Vizcaino ripped Jenks' first pitch into left, and after Burke beat Podsednik's surprisingly decent throw, we all went into a stunned silence. Ozzie then undoubtedly made the right move by pulling Jenks and going to Cotts.

Cotts then went in the hole to Lamb. I said out loud, "C'mon Cotts, get this guy out, go sit down and you'll be the winning pitcher." He did and he was.

I'm not sure if I can add much to what has already been said or written about Podsednik's home run. I thought it was a gapper, then a double over the outfielder's heads, and then finally saw that it could go out of the park. When it did, the crowd exploded again. All I could think of was Jack Buck's call of Kirk Gibson's home run in the 1988 World Series; "I don't believe what I just saw." I quickly amended my estimate that Konerko had hit the biggest home run in White Sox history. Podsednik had stolen Konerko's crown about 40 minutes afterwards.

After the game, walking away from the stadium, I heard a 20-something Sox fan talking on his cell phone with a friend. The only part of the conversation I picked up was this:

"The $850 [he must have spent on a ticket] looks like a bargain right now."

I couldn't agree more. The memory of Game 2 will be priceless to me no matter what happens in the rest of the Series - and there is a lot more baseball to be played. I'll treasure the ticket stub and the program and the memories as long as I live.

Additional Note - Chicago

What a buzz there was around the city about the White Sox! That was one of the best parts of my trip - I'd never seen the city so excited about my team. After years of being one of the few in the Sox diaspora, it felt so heartwarming to see so many people wearing the Sox colors. It was like coming home after being locked up in a foreign prison for years. It's great to see the Sox flag - which seems to have been at half-mast my entire life - fly so high and so proudly.

Comments-[ comments.]
Wow. Thanks, SuperNoVa. I felt like I was right there next to you.
C in Cairo
Great post.
Excellent post, my friend! And you will be glad you wrote this all down, and so well. Keep it for your kids, so they know why you're a fan.
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