A Day Of Weather, Baseball, Barb, Beer and Books: My Life In A Nutshell

I have a pretty wide range of interests and keep myself very busy pursuing them. But it’s rare for me to pack quite as many different elements into a single day as I did yesterday. There was weather wonkiness and baseball, both experienced with Barb at U.S. Cellular Field, where we ate some pretty decent ballpark food and got to spend time with a Michigan State friend. Then in the evening, I attended an event staged by the ChicagoSide sports website featuring Jim Abbott, whose new autobiography focuses on his inspiring success at overcoming a significant disability to star as a baseball pitcher in the 1980s and ’90s. Craft-brewed beer was consumed at both venues.

Add in a couple of purring sessions by Gracie the Cat, and I think you’ve pretty much got my life in a nutshell.

Tuesday happened to be Weather Day at the stadium with the tongue-twisting name that I prefer to call Sox Park. The featured speaker was Tom Skilling, the popular veteran chief meteorologist for WGN television here in Chicago.

Although Barb likes baseball and grew up south of Chicago as a White Sox fan, there usually has to be a persuasive reason for her to actually attend a game. The presence of Tom Skilling — of whom we are both fans and on whose forecasts we relied for years in planning our many trips to and from Chicago — was justification enough.

Skilling did a talk, accompanied by videos played on the outfield Jumbotron, about how everyone in the Midwest needs to be aware of the destructive capacity of tornadoes, and warned that while twisters are rare within the city of Chicago, they can occur.

The audience was mainly young children on class trips, and we were among the few adults who were not either teachers or chaperones. That made the event even more fun, though, as long lines of kids queued up to ask Skilling some really bright questions. It was clear that these students had been well prepared for this weather chat.

Now before the event started, Barb availed herself of the opportunity to have her photo taken with Southpaw, the team’s mascot. It’s not quite clear what Southpaw is, but when the team name is the White Sox, the options for a more literal-minded mascot are pretty limited.

One thing we quickly learned, though, is that Southpaw is incredibly fickle.

U.S. Cellular Field, opened in 1991, lacks the charm of ancient Wrigley Field on the North Side (to say the least), but its seats are more comfortable, the sightlines for the game are decent, and the food at this ballpark lives up to its reputation as being among one of the best in major league baseball. We both had hearty barbecue sandwiches (one brisket, the other pulled pork) with kettle chips, and enjoyed one of Sox park’s more esoteric treats: elote, a Mexican street food made up of fresh cooked corn kernels stripped off the cob and flavored with butter, mayo, lime juice, salt and chili powder. As good as the sandwiches were, I could seriously eaten that elote all day.

This was washed down by an excellent Mad Hatter IPA from the New Holland brewery in Holland, Michigan. One area in which Sox Park has it all over Wrigley is in its offerings of Midwest microbrews.

We were joined for a couple of innings by Courtney Cawley, one of my colleagues on the board of the Michigan State alumni club of Chicago, who works at U.S. Cellular Field for its  catering company, Levy Restaurants. I mention this mainly to provide a shameless plug. Courtney is a planner who stages great events at the ballpark’s restaurant facilities, so if you have a conference, wedding, bar mitzvah or other big to-do coming up, contact her.

Now as far as the ballgame itself… my favorite kind of game is well-pitched and played at a crisp pace. Unfortunately, Tuesday’s game, which ended with a 10-8 victory for the visiting Detroit Tigers, was anything but that.

The White Sox actually built a 6-0 lead after five innings as Tigers starter Max Scherzer, who is off to a rough start this season, continued his struggles, throwing 99 pitches before he was pulled two batters into the Chicago 5th. Here the Sox have the bases loaded in the first inning, shortly before veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski singled home Alejandro De Aza and Gordon Beckham with the game’s first two runs.

Sox batting star Paul Konerko, who is leading off first base in the photo, was left stranded that inning, but took matters into his own hands in the 3rd by belting a home run, his seventh in a season in which he has a sparkling .344 batting average.

The Sox might have felt confident, and perhaps a bit overconfident, with the 6-0 lead they built, since their starting pitcher was Jake Peavy, the one-time ace of the San Diego Padres who had been making a smart comeback early this season after struggling with injuries during his first two seasons after being obtained by the Sox. But Peavy, who weaved his way out of trouble at times earlier in the game suddenly lost it in the 6th…in which the Tigers piled on eight runs to take the lead.

It started innocently enough with a single by the Tigers’ Andy Dirks, but then slugger Miguel Cabrera broke the ice with a bomb of a home run deep into the left-field bleachers.

After a double by prize free-agent acquisition Prince Fielder, Peavy got a ground out, but then hit Brennan Boesch with a pitch. That set up the moment that showed the wheels had totally fallen off, as Tigers second baseman Ryan Raburn — sporting a batting average in the .140s with no home runs and two runs batted in on the season — blasted a three-run homer to dead centerfield to make the score 6-5. Peavy was left in to face one more batter, Jhonny Peralta… who he made his second Hit By Pitch of the inning.

While many in the stands scratched their heads about why first-year manager Robin Ventura left the fading Peavy in for so long, the subsequent performance by journeyman reliever Will Ohman may have provided an unfortunate explanation. Ohman continued the bizarre sequence by hitting the first batter he faced, pinch-hitter Delmon Young. He then squandered the little that was left of the Sox’ lead by surrendering a three-run home run to Tigers centerfielder Austin Jackson, the fifth of what has been a breakout season for him so far.

Ohman finally put this fire out, but started another in the 7th inning by putting two runners on with one out. Singles by Raburn and Peralta plated the Tigers’ final two runs of the game.

The Sox did manage to make it interesting by scoring two runs in the bottom of the 9th on a two-out double by shortstop Alexei Ramirez that brought home Konerko and Pierzynski and put the potential tying runs on second and third. But a flyout to right by Dayan Viciedo ended a long and frustrating afternoon for the Sox.

The win brought the Tigers, struggling to justify their pre-season hype as the prohibitive favorite to win the American League Central, back to .500 at 18-18, two games behind surprise division leader Cleveland. The Sox were 17-20, in third place, three and a half games behind the Indians.

I’ll follow up with some words about Tuesday night’s Jim Abbott event, but I’ve got to go now…. so I can stroll over to Wrigley Field for tonight’s game between the Cubs and Philadelphia Phillies.

I do love me some baseball.

White Sox Baseball: A Day In ‘The Cell’ Was No Ordeal

No one who has been reading this blog will be surprised when I say that I’ll be spending a lot more of my baseball time and money at Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs, than at U.S. Cellular Field, home of the city’s other major league team, the White Sox.

I have loved going to games at Wrigley, a quaint baseball antique, since I attended my first game there nearly 30 years ago, so much that somewhere along the way I started rooting for the Cubs. The Cell, as the successor stadium to the Sox’ old Comiskey Park is known, opened in 1991 and seriously lacks the charm that makes the nearly century-old North Side ballpark a major tourist attraction.

Then there is the convenience factor. It is sheer coincidence that we ended up moving so close to Wrigley Field, but I can take a leisurely 15-minute stroll there and go to a baseball game. Or I can walk one block short of Wrigley, get on the Red Line train at the Addison stop, and take a 10-mile schlep through downtown to Sox Park (a tag favored by many over the tongue-tying name that resulted after the U.S. Cellular phone company bought the naming rights years ago).

If I hadn’t arrived in Chicago pre-packaged as a Cubs fan, the easy access to Wrigley Field probably would have been the tipping point.

But now I’m going to say something that some might find shocking. I do not hate the White Sox, although I may be required by statute to do so if I want to call myself a Cubs fan for the rest of my life.

And I had a nice time at this year’s first U.S. Cellular experience, Saturday’s game in which the White Sox defeated the Detroit Tigers, 5-1 (though admittedly this was enhanced by the fact that it was a field trip organized by the Michigan State University Alumni Club of Metro Chicago and I was surrounded by fellow Spartans, most of whom grew up in or near Detroit and were rooting for the visiting team).

U.S. Cellular Field was the last conventional, big-old-ballpark built before Camden Yards, the Baltimore Orioles’ stadium that opened in 1992, became the template for the more compact and idiosyncratic “retro” stadiums based on old-timey places such as Wrigley and Boston’s Fenway Park. Located at 35th and Shields streets on the South Side, it looms large over the adjacent Dan Ryan Expressway.

There is a big banner on the side of the stadium that salutes the World Series championship that the White Sox won in 2005. Granted it was the team’s first crown since 1917, and the crosstown rival Cubs are still nursing a historic streak of no championships since 1908 (and not even a trip to the World Series since 1945). But there are some folks who believe the Sox and their fans remain a little too fixated on an event that occurred seven years ago now: Ben Strauss of the ChicagoSide sports site has an interesting perspective in his piece, “Excessive Commemoration at US Cellular.”

But the Cell makes up at least somewhat for its charm deficit with a few more creature comforts than Wrigley. The seats are a bit more comfortable, the aisles a bit wider. There are fewer seats with bad sightlines, in part because, unlike Wrigley, there are no steel support posts to create obstructed views. These are among the reasons why Mrs. B — who is naturally inclined anyway to favor the Sox because she grew up in a family of the team’s fans in a town south of Chicago — prefers to go to games at U.S. Cellular than Wrigley, much as it breaks my heart to admit that.

Sox Park has been known since it opened for having one of the better food concessions among major league ballparks, and the selection of beers, including some nice craft brews, is much wider than at the Cubs’ field.

That said, the Cell is a big place and you are likely to feel farther from the action than at the Cubs’ little bandbox. Our seats in the lower level in the left field corner were perfectly acceptable, but felt really far from home plate. The following, which shows Sox pitcher Gavin Floyd throwing to Tigers leadoff hitter Austin Jackson, was as close as I could get even with my telephoto lens maxed out.

We did have a good view of the outfield play. Here’s Jackson settling under a White Sox fly ball in the early going.

Floyd ended up picking up credit for the win by containing a powerful Detroit lineup that includes the massive Prince Fielder, the slugging first baseman who they lured away from the Milwaukee Brewers with a huge contract this past off-season.

Floyd pitched six shutout innings, holding the Tigers to three hits and striking out six batters. He did have to weather some control problems, as he walked three Detroiters and hit three more with pitches.

The Sox are hardly tearing the cover off the ball — they rank 19th in batting average and 24th in run production among the 30 major league teams — but decent pitching and some timely, if very occasional, hitting has them at 5-3 in the early season going, even after the Tigers — the team widely favored to win the American League Central Division that they share with Chicago — salvaged one of the three games in the weekend series with a win on Sunday that put them back in first place with a record of 6-3.

The White Sox on Saturday got three solo home runs, from shortstop Alexei Ramirez, backup catcher Tyler Flowers, and veteran star first baseman Paul Konerko, seen here completing his tour of the bases.

Meanwhile, Adam Dunn chipped in with a double in four at-bats…

… though his performance in the season’s first week has hardly quelled concerns about the multi-multi-million contract to which the team signed him prior to the 2011 season. After averaging about 40 home runs and 100 runs batted in per year from 2004 through 2010 playing for the Cincinnati Reds, Arizona Diamondbacks and Washington Nationals, Dunn was a colossal flop in his first season with the Sox, batting .159 on the season with 11 home runs and 42 RBI.

While his .233 batting average after hitting two more doubles on Sunday looks pretty meh for a player who is being paid big bucks to carry his team’s offense, it is almost half again as high as his season average last year.

But Saturday, a day on which White Sox pitchers held the Tigers to one run on an eighth-inning homer by outfielder Brennan Boesch, was one on which the team didn’t need a ton of offense. Here’s closer Matt Thornton retiring Detroit pinch-hitter Brandon Inge on a ground ball to the mound for the game’s last out.

And the final verdict…