Chicago Hope

The two baseball teams in the Windy City are headed for the postseason. Could this be the year of the El series?

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Cross-town rivalries are an essential part of baseball lore. During the '50s, the World Series often came down to a matchup between the Brooklyn Dodgers or New York Giants and the New York Yankees. The Bay area has had its two teams, the San Francisco Giants and Oakland A's battle in the World Series in 1989, and the two current New York teams, the Mets and Yankees, dueled in October 2000.

Even the prospect of a cross-town World Series spices a baseball postseason as the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and Los Angeles Dodgers both reached the postseason in '04 or the many times that both New York teams and Bay area teams have reached the playoffs.

Chicago has been left out of this conversation. The Cubs and White Sox met in the first cross-town World Series in 1906 but spent much of the ensuing decades playing crabs in a barrel. Following the White Sox World Series title in 1916, the city went 89 years until its next title, the White Sox again in 2005. As has been often mentioned, the Cubs last won a World Series a whopping 100 years ago. St. Louis, which last had two teams 54 years ago when the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles, has hosted a cross-town World Series much more recently than Chicago.

During this, um, dry spell, there have been a frustrating number of missed opportunities. The White Sox were closing in on the World Series in '67 but faltered at the end. And many a Sox fan will cringe in pain at the mention of 1983 when the White Sox may have run themselves out of a chance to advance to the October Classic with ill-advised base-running gambles. The Cubs infamy is worse. In addition to collapsing down the stretch in 1969, the Cubs blew seemingly insurmountable leads in the '84 and '03 League Championship Series.

That's what makes this year so interesting. Both the Cubs and White Sox among the game's elite and until recently, talk of an "El" series, once the province of pipe dreams, seemed downright sensible. Then came the events of the last few weeks, and it has seemed like the specter of '67 on the South Side, where the White Sox play, and '69 on the North Side, had risen again. As of Thursday, the Cubs have lost eight of 10; meanwhile, the White Sox, who have a much smaller lead in their division, have dropped three of four.

Are the sporting gods playing another joke on the baseball fans of Chicago? It's happened before. In 1977, both the Cubs and White Sox led their divisions through the heat of the summer only to fade badly as the pennant races heated up. Most Chicago fans—I'm one of them—who grew up on the South Side during the '60s and early '70s have a reflexive cynicism about their teams; it's as if we're being set up for the grim pain of watching our representatives fail. The flipside is that Chicago fans have a sort of bruised but unflappable pride and loyalty to their teams. I moved from Chicago when I was 14 and the thought of transferring my loyalty to the teams in either of the cities I've lived in since—Dallas and New York—is unthinkable.

Even better is that the Cubs and White Sox recent struggles have less to do with the supernatural than they do with injuries and scheduling quirks. The Cubs have been playing without their two best starting pitchers, Carlos Zambrano and Rich Harden, both of whom were sidelined with minor injuries. Each is expected to take their next turns in the rotation. The White Sox lost American League home-run leader Carlos Quentin to a wrist injury that will sideline him for the rest of the regular season, and then his replacement in the lineup, Paul Konerko, suffered a mild sprain of his left knee. Konerko is due back soon.

The White Sox have had to play Toronto, the hottest team in the league right now, while the Cubs are tussling with Houston, the best team in the National League since the All Star break. This time of year, teams run a bit hotter and colder than usual. The Blue Jays and Astros have lifted themselves from mediocrity to the fringe of playoff contention; many other teams have packed it in and are using the games as a showcase for their talent from the minor leagues. So wins and losses tend to come in bunches for all teams this time of year.

The folks at Al Yellon's blog, the biggest Cub fan community on the Web, have noted that most of the recent World Series winners went through a dry spell in September before pulling it all together for the postseason run. White Sox fans have been uncharacteristically philosophical about their team's fortunes. Many appreciate that no matter what happens down the stretch, this has been a phenomenally successful year for their club. The White Sox went into this campaign hoping to coax a good season out of the aging nucleus that won the '05 title; instead, a new group of young players, Quentin, outfield/first baseman Nick Swisher and pitchers John Danks and Gavin Floyd have emerged as all-star-caliber studs.

Back in April, I thought the Cubs were World Series bound for the first time since 1945. And as long as Zambrano and Harden are something near 100 percent, I can't see anyone thwarting them. The White Sox's road to the October Classic is more difficult. Their season will probably come down to three games in Minnesota next week against the Twins, their principal rival for American Central Division title. And if the White Sox reach the postseason, the Angels, Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays will all present more formidable opposition than any team the Cubs will face.

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