As I stand here on the wooden "L" platform at Addison Street, peering between a pair of three-story buildings at empty Wrigley Field, this is what I think: If a fired-up Sammy Sosa batted left-handed with a stiff breeze out of the Iowa cornfields, in the heat of midsummer, he could launch a ball that would soar over the rightfield wall and Sheffield Avenue and the bleachered roofs of these brownstones and land at my feet.
Why not? Once, in a breeze, Cubbies slugger Dave Kingman smacked a home run ball that cleared the ivy-leafed leftfield wall, crossed Waveland Avenue and hit the first house on Kenmore Street, perpendicular to Waveland.
Lefty-hitting Billy Williams routinely broke apartment windows along Sheffield. His righty pal Ernie Banks broke them on Waveland. It's just a few more feet to hit the train stop where I stand. O.K., maybe a hundred feet. Maybe 150.
But Sammy—the god of rightfield-bleacher worshipers, the chest-thump, finger-kiss, point-to-the-fans ambassador of happy—what couldn't Sammy do?
Ah, Chicago baseball. It is like a drink that makes you laugh, then cry, then babble. Hope springs eternal in Chicago. It springs insane. This same train line that can carry me south 13 stops to 35th Street and the home of the White Sox, Comiskey Park-excuse me, U.S. Cellular Field—ties together those two pockets of hope like a bungee cord. WHAT DO SOX AND CUBS FANS HAVE IN COMMON? asks the placard inside each car. THE RED LINE.
But they have so much more than that. Start with the hope. A lot of knowledgeable baseball people have picked the White Sox to win their division this year. This is a team that finished .500 last season. This is a team that hasn't won a playoff series since 1917. The Chicago Tribune's Phil Rogers has the Sox going all the way to the World Series. "There," Rogers gasped in his March 27 column. "I actually wrote the sentence and haven't yet turned to stone."
And the Cubs. Dear God, this is the team that hasn't won the World Series since 1908, the longest stretch of futility for any continuously active pro team in any sports league in the history of North America. And yet Cubs fans are fired up. There's a new manager in town, toothpick-twirling Dusty Baker, direct from the San Francisco Giants and their 2002 Series appearance. Baker hasn't managed a losing team since 1996, and he has a kid, four-year-old Darren, who looks so sweet in his miniature Cubs uniform that he could be replicated as a good-luck dashboard ornament. Yes, the Cubs finished 67-95 last year, 30 games out of first, but they've got Sammy, who through Monday was one homer short of 500 (and didn't he almost destroy the Miller Field scoreboard at last year's All-Star home run derby?), and a young rotation that is headed by 25-year-old fireballer Kerry Wood and includes three other twenty-somethings—Mark Prior, Matt Clement and Carlos Zambrano. The bullpen may be suspect and the defense dubious, but what does that matter if you're a Cubs fan feeling macho in your WE'VE GOT WOOD T-shirt?
"I was looking for a team that could be this year's Angels," says ESPN.com baseball analyst Jayson Stark of his assessment of which formerly bad team could turn it all around, the way the '02 Series champs did. "The Angels finished 41 games out of first in 2001, you know." So Stark eliminated teams based on various criteria and private theories and, as he says, "there I was with the Cubs and the White Sox." After further review, he eliminated the Sox, and voila! He was left with the Cubs going to the World Series.
"I recognize how much money I could have lost on the Cubs over 80 years," he says. "Nevertheless, starting pitching, Dusty, the fact that Sammy will be good, Moises Alou can't be worse, the NL Central's nothing special, so...." He seems to be recalculating, like a mathematician stunned by his own equation. "Why not?"
By such ringing endorsements are Chicago hearts inflamed.