Thursday, July 30, 2009

A.L. phenomenon returns to Chicago, but does it really matter any more?

It’s a special four-day weekend beginning Thursday on the South Side, as one of the longest-running trends of baseball is scheduled to be here.

The Yankees are coming.

SURE ENOUGH, THE New York Yankees are in town to play a four-game series against the Chicago White Sox, meaning they’ll be adding to the decades-long trend of infuriating White Sox fans by their very existence.

This isn’t a unique Chicago/New York phenomenon. It is the reaction the Yankees create whenever they go anywhere. The team of Ruth and DiMaggio (one where the great Mickey Mantle has to settle for being second-best at center field) is here to rub their smugness in our faces.

And if by chance the “home” team manages to do something of significance, it gains all the more significance because it came against the Yankees.

In short, these will be four games that will draw significant attention – even if by chance the activity on the playing field turns out to be a complete dud.

IT HAS TO do with those years when the Yankees truly were dominant (particularly that era from 1949 to 1964 when only twice did they fail to take an American League championship). For that older generation, ’64 was particularly infuriating because the White Sox didn’t “choke,” they just got outplayed by New York.

In the case of the White Sox, that coincides closely with an era in which the team had winning records every season (1951-1967). But all that translates into is a whole lot of second- and third-place finishes while the Yankees won the pennant each year.

I literally knew someone who once told me of how he did the math to figure out how the White Sox actually had a better overall win-loss record from ’51 to ’67 (those last couple of seasons were next-to-last and last-place ball clubs in New York). But the bottom line is 14 league championships for the Yankees, with one for the White Sox (and all too many baseball historians remember 1959 more as an off-year for the Yankees rather than anything significant by the White Sox).

So there is that 50-and-older generation of baseball fans in Chicago who will view this weekend as war. Their sentiments are shared in other long-time American League cities such as Detroit and Cleveland, where local baseball history has many instances of the home team being overshadowed by the Bronx Bombers.

I WONDER AT times if the sentiment has developed in a place like Seattle, where the Mariners put together some strong ball clubs from 1995-2002 but have nothing to show for it, while the Yankees of that same time span have five American League championships.

Even in 2001 – the year that the Mariners set the league record for the most victories in the regular season (116, tied with the 1906 Chicago Cubs of the National League), history will record that the Yankees won the pennant that season, not Seattle.

For those of us who are younger, it is a little bit different.

I can remember the teams that won championships in the 1970s, and the late 1990s into the 21st Century versions of the Yankees are still fresh in my mind. But those teams took on a certain negative aura from other fans because of the perception that they were willing to spend big bucks to buy top talent from other teams.

TAKE THOSE “BRONX Zoo” Yankees of 1977-78. They won the World Series both years, and two of their key players were Bucky Dent and Rich Gossage – both of whom were products of the White Sox scouting and minor league affiliates of the early 1970s.

Both of them were lost to Chicago because of the financial issues – the Yankees were able to pay them more in line with what their athletic skills were worth.

So some of us resent the Yankees as the big brooding “thief” of ballplayers.

I can’t say I really feel that way. A part of the baseball fan in me has some grudging respect for that number “26” (as in the number of World Series won) and even 39 (American League championships).

A PART OF me even remembers that day in October 1978 when one-time White Sox shortstop Dent forevermore earned an obscenity as a middle name in the minds of Boston Red Sox fans because of his home run that wound up boosting the Yankees into that year’s division title (and the Red Sox wound up with nothing).

I can’t share in the enmity of Red Sox fans because I see Dent as a Chicago guy worth rooting for.

In fact, I can’t say I hate the Yankees. It just seems to me like a wasted emotion.

It’s particularly wasted because of the modern-day composition of the ballclub, which has become so dependent on giving professional ballplayers their big payday for things they did for other teams that the Yankees have almost become generic.

THEIR BIG FREE agent acquisitions this season were pitcher C.C. Sabathia and first baseman Mark Texiera – who I will always think of as members of the Cleveland Indians and the Texas Rangers, regardless of what they may ever become in the Bronx.

The Yankees have almost become the American League “all-star” team, rather than a real ball club put together in an effort to win a championship. Perhaps the real All-Star Game would be a more interesting affair if the A.L. all stars took on the Yankees, rather than wasting time with the National League.

In all, it makes it difficult to hate the Yankees. I think people who get that bent out of shape about the team these days are being absurd.

At times it seems like the Yankees these days are shortstop Derek Jeter and some generic ballplayers to surround him. It is not like that strategy has worked well in recent years. The Yankees’ last league championship was 2003 (and the last World Series title was 2000).

SO FOR THOSE people who will trek out to U.S. Cellular Field today through Sunday, they will see the vaunted pinstriped uniforms that bring to mind ballplayers such as Yogi Berra, Paul O’Neill and Lou Piniella (whom I will always think looks ridiculous in Cubby blue).

Perhaps if one closes their eyes and stretches the imagination, they can get all worked up into a frenzy over the thought that the Damned Yankees are in town. Because otherwise, it’s just four more ballgames for the White Sox who need every victory they can get after having slumped during their two most recent series against Detroit and Minnesota.


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