And no, I'm not slamming the White Sox here, in fact, that's intended as a compliment.
The atmosphere at the Cell was electric last night; fans were jumping up and down screaming for their team even during the pre-game warmups and announcements. They saved their biggest boos for their opponents, the Angels, particularly Vladimir Guerrero, the Angels' best player. Their cheers got louder and louder for their heroes, the loudest for the manager, Ozzie Guillen.
I happen to be a sucker for pre-game playoff hoopla; I love when the players line up along the foul lines, and some medium-to-largely famous musician sings/plays the National Anthem (OK, so it's arguable how famous Alice Peacock, who sang last night, is outside of Chicago, or even IN Chicago, for that matter). They set off a few fireworks after the anthem, and that revved up the crowd even further.
And looking around, I kept thinking:
"Man, I wish this was us."
It hasn't been that long -- only two years -- since it WAS us, right there in a league championship series, so yes, I do remember how it feels when your team is the one on whom you hang your emotions on every pitch.
For me, and Mark (whose only other postseason game was, um, this one -- you know the one, I don't think I need to mention which one any further), it was just a chance to soak in that atmosphere, to watch a ballgame and be part of another important day in Chicago sports history.
I'd never seen the lower concourse at the Cell so crowded; we walked over from our LF bleacher seats to where Mark's friend Mitchell was sitting with his dad in the lower boxes down the RF line, and then tried to make our way through thousands of people milling around in the food lines. That took about 15 minutes, far longer than it would on a "normal" day. In fact, when we stopped to get some food, Mark, observant kid that he is, noticed the concession workers wearing Miller Park caps. Why? Sportservice, the concessionaire, had brought some Brewers employees down from Milwaukee to help out on this busier-than-usual night.
We ran into Mike; this time it wasn't possible to switch seats so he could sit with us, and his seat was in the right-field lower reserve.
Which is why I'm still waiting to hear back from him as to how close he was to Garret Anderson's second-inning HR that gave the Angels the lead they would wind up never relinquishing, and the supposedly-jet-lagged Angels beat the White Sox 3-2, taking a 1-0 lead in the series.
UPDATE [2005-10-12 09:16:13 by Al]: Mike e-mailed me about the Anderson HR:
That home run, and the two runs the Angels scratched out off Jose Contreras in the third inning, took the crowd right out of the game. It shouldn't have -- 3-0 isn't an insurmountable lead -- but for some reason, it got more quiet than it ought to be at a playoff game.
There was a fine mist falling at game time and it continued to fall off and on throughout the game, but it was never hard enough to stop play, or even be noticeable, for that matter; most of the time, you'd never even have known it was raining if you didn't look up into the lights and see the "mist-drops" reflecting off the light. The game-time temperature was 61 degrees and from our seats, we were fairly well blocked from the wind, and for mid-October it was actually quite a comfortable evening.
Despite this, the White Sox sent out vendors with hot chocolate, and since I wouldn't let Mark get cotton candy (he tried to negotiate his way out of that by saying it was "Magic Floss", which is what it said on the bag, but I wasn't having any of it), he talked his way into having one of those.
I asked him whether he was cold, or just wanted the chocolate. Got an honest answer, too: it was for the chocolate, of course!
Meanwhile, the crowd was awakened, however briefly, by Joe Crede's home run that was the White Sox' first hit off Paul Byrd.
I've seen Byrd throw against the Cubs before, since he spent the bulk of his career in the NL with the Mets, Phillies and Braves (and not very well, either -- 1-3 in 10 games with a 9.64 ERA), but I didn't remember him with the old-fashioned, Milt Pappas-style windup, with his arms flailing down to his knees, then up over his head.
This seemed to have the White Sox off-balance for most of Byrd's six innings, and he might have stayed in longer (he threw only 73 pitches), except that his seventy-third pitch hit Aaron Rowand to lead off the seventh, and apparently Mike Scioscia decided that he'd trust his bullpen.
That was a smart move, and it's one of the things that has brought the Angels this far -- they have an excellent bullpen. Scot Shields got out of the inning with a fielder's choice, and then something happened that, when the history of this series is written, may turn out to be the key play of the entire series.
A. J. Pierzynski, who has to be one of the slowest players in the game, and who has stolen six bases in his career in nineteen attempts (and no SB since 2003), took off for second base, and was thrown out easily by Bengie Molina.
During the post-game press conference we listened to on the radio driving home, Guillen confirmed what Mark and I (and all the fans sitting around us) thought: that someone, likely Pierzynski, missed a sign. That had to be a blown hit-and-run, though Guillen also suggested that Pierzynski might have been "trying to make something happen" and just went on his own.
Not too smart, if that was the case.
The White Sox made some noise in the 8th inning too, with a pair of singles, and with Paul Konerko up, the crowd came alive for what would turn out to be the last time. Konerko slapped a couple of sharp foul balls and then hit a lazy fly ball to Steve Finley in CF.
I was shocked to see what happened next. People started leaving the ballpark. I couldn't believe it. A one-run playoff game, that actually was moving along fairly quickly -- it was barely past 9:30 at the time -- and you're leaving? There were large blocks of empty seats in the upper deck for the 9th inning.
Speaking of which, I was surprised to see Jose Contreras sent out to start the 9th; props to Contreras, who threw another nice game. After the Angels made it 3-0 in the third, Contreras retired 11 in a row until Darin Erstad's single in the seventh. When Bengie Molina singled in the 9th, on Contreras' 102nd pitch of the day (see, I told you guys last week -- Contreras seems to turn into a pumpkin right around 100 pitches), Neal Cotts came in and kept the White Sox in the game. Contreras left to a standing ovation, including applause from Mark & me -- he did a terrific job.
It wasn't enough, because the guy known as K-Rod from his great 2002 postseason, Francisco Rodriguez (and think about it -- he's a World Series hero, and one of the game's top closers for three full seasons, and he just turned 23) -- came in to finish it off, and the White Sox played right into his hands. After Chone (and how on EARTH can you figure a way to pronounce that name "Shawn"?) Figgins booted Carl Everett's leadoff grounder, Rodriguez got two easy outs and then up came Crede... who not long ago hit an extra-inning, game-winning homer against the Indians.
Rodriguez is known as K-Rod because, well, he strikes out a lot of guys (322 in 243 career innings), and he throws 97-MPH fastballs.
And Crede is a dead fastball hitter.
And Rodriguez wouldn't give him one. He kept bending off 81-MPH breaking balls; nearly had Crede struck out on a 1-2 splitter, and then got him on the 2-2 pitch. Gutty pitching, actually.
The White Sox, thus, have lost four in a row to the Angels, dating back to a three-game sweep the Angels put on them in early September at the Cell, and with it they also lost their home-field advantage in the series.
Finally, I should note: I didn't hear one "Cubs suck" comment, and only a scattered anti-Cub piece of clothing spotted around the park.
Credit to the Sox fans. That's the way it should be -- they were passionate for their team, and into the series.