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It's a Hit, After All

A quarter century ago, the legendary Comiskey Park came down, replaced by an enigmatic newcomer. Over time, though, U.S. Cellular Field has won over a new crop of fans—including the author’s son. Some timely renovations and, oh yeah, a World Series title didn’t hurt. A longtime fan looks back at 25 years of highlights.

SWEET HOME
October 22, 2005: Jose Contreras delivers the first pitch of the World Series.

It’s hard to talk about new Comiskey Park—sorry, U.S. Cellular Field—without a last backward glance at old Comiskey Park. In 1963, I saw my first major-league baseball game there, the front end of a White Sox doubleheader versus the Red Sox, my father’s favorite team. We sat down the third-base line, the better to behold Boston left fielder Carl Yastrzemski—the Yaz!—who would blast a go-ahead two-run homer into deep center field and lead the visitors to an 11-9 victory.

Chicago had the last laugh, however, taking the second game 10-0. The losing pitcher was a 21-year-old tyro named Wilbur Wood; 10 years later, wearing a White Sox uniform, he’d be the winningest pitcher in the American League.

On April 18, 1991, as 42,191 people trooped into the new South Side ballpark at 35th and Shields, there were easily thousands of fans harboring memories similar to mine. For them, it was painful to surrender the past, particularly since, right next door, a wrecking crew was reducing to rubble old Comiskey Park, known when it opened in 1910 (due to its state-of-the-art amenities) as the Baseball Palace of the World. By comparison, new Comiskey, which had witnessed not a single inning of baseball, seemed lifeless and sterile.

The White Sox didn’t help matters by losing that inaugural outing 16-0 to the Detroit Tigers. It was my 18th consecutive Sox home opener, and it remains one of the worst ballgames I’ve ever seen. It was not an auspicious beginning.

ALL THE HITS
The Big Hurt, aka Hall of Famer Frank Thomas, hit just over half his 521 home runs in the ballpark.

But guess what? Since then, 25 years of memories, good and bad, have risen atop that dismal recollection. In hindsight, it’s surprising how so many of the things that I’ve come to admire about the new ballpark were there right from the beginning.

Start with the field itself, its gorgeously groomed grass the horticultural handiwork of The Sodfather, Roger Bossard, head groundskeeper for the White Sox since 1983—and widely acknowledged as the reigning master of his craft. Consider next the broad, open concourse (situated behind and above the lower deck), and you’ve got the makings of a fine setting in which to pass time, national or otherwise. Designed by Hellmuth Obata & Kassabaum, the new park lacked the labyrinthine allure of old Comiskey, but once my children started attending games, I came to appreciate its straightforward layout. Stroll to the lemon-ice stand in distant right field or visit organist Nancy Faust in her perch behind home plate (a ritual I enjoyed as much as my kids) and you’d miss nary a moment of baseball.

The place wasn’t perfect. Following the January 2003 $68 million naming-rights agreement with U.S. Cellular, the Sox lopped off eight rows of seats from the vertiginous upper deck and installed a new roof. It worked: The monolithic park actually assumed a more welcoming demeanor, despite an excess of neon and overly amplified heavy metal—though no one complained when the music was live and performed by the likes of the Rolling Stones (2002) or Bruce Springsteen (2003).

To warrant enshrinement in memory, of course, a ballpark must intersect with people and events. By that criterion, U.S. Cellular Field has succeeded admirably both on and off the field. To wit: On Sept. 14, 1997, my son, Paul, a mere 79 days old, attended his first major-league ballgame as the White Sox retired Carlton Fisk’s number 72. Things came full circle last May when my wife and I took Paul—then 6,539 days old and college-bound—to the Cell, where the Sox retired Paul Konerko’s number 14. Paul-ie! Paul-ie! Paul-ie!

Between those two titans, the Cell served as backdrop for scores of other Sox players. Some savored their cup of coffee and departed; others, with their on-field heroics or outsize personalities, left an indelible mark—men like Bo Jackson (1991 to ’93), Magglio Ordóñez (1997 to 2004), Jermaine Dye (2005 to ’09) and A.J. Pierzynski (2005 to ’12). Black Jack McDowell won the Cy Young in 1993, and Jose Abreu took Rookie of the Year honors in 2014. Mark Buehrle threw a no-hitter in 2007 and, in 2009, a perfect game, preserved by a ninth-inning home run-thwarting catch by DeWayne Wise. Last season, southpaw Chris Sale broke Ed Walsh’s 107-year-old single-season Sox strikeout record with 274 Ks. Two men shone both on the field and in the dugout: Ozzie Guillen and Robin Ventura, though for the moment, having led the Sox to the promised land, the Wizard of Oz enjoys a distinct advantage as manager over his former infield mate.

And finally, let us now praise one of the immortals, Frank Thomas, who earned elevation to the Hall of Fame with back-to-back MVP seasons (1993 and ’94) and a batting title in 1997 (at 6-foot-5 and 275 pounds, the largest player ever to wear that crown). The Big Hurt played his first full season in the bigs in the new place, and he hit the first Sox home run there (as well as the last one in old Comiskey). Before he retired, in 2010, he’d notch 521 dingers, launching half of them—263—at the Cell. Big Frank clearly loved home cooking.

Olympian achievements awe, but in baseball, there’s one ultimate team goal. In 1993, the Sox won the American League West by eight games, only to fall to the Toronto Blue Jays in the postseason battle for the AL pennant. The following year, they appeared destined for another division title, until a players’ strike ended the season in August. Other division titles followed in 2000 and 2008.

All of that, of course, is forever eclipsed by 2005, when the Sox won 99 regular-season games and took 11 of 12 postseason games from the Red Sox, Angels and Astros. Those numbers belie the breathtaking excitement of the playoffs, particularly for those hearts-in-their-mouths fans who had waited 88 years for a world championship.

Two of the grandest moments in Cell history occurred in Game 2 of the World Series: Konerko’s grand slam in the seventh inning and Scott Podsednik’s walk-off homer in the ninth. The Sox completed the sweep in Houston and celebrated at the Cell the following April by unveiling a World Series banner, the team’s third, in a stadium jam-packed with hard-nosed but unabashedly verklempt South Side fans.

Ten years later, April 8, 2016, U.S. Cellular Field began its second quarter-century. Temperatures hovered just above freezing, and all game long, brilliant blue skies alternated with snow squalls. It was my 43rd consecutive Sox opener, and the home team lost 7-1—disappointing, though arguably an improvement over their Cell debut.

And then, exceeding all expectations, the Sox started—and kept—winning, as did a certain North Side ball club whose name shall not be mentioned here. At press time, both teams were tearing up their respective leagues, prompting a few giddy (delusional?) fans to recall 1906 and wonder if 2016 might finally be the year Chicago’s two baseball teams would meet again in the (gulp) World Series—which, for the record, the Sox won in four, 110 years ago. Rematch, anyone?