Star Wars Day at Sox Park

Welcome to the Dark Side
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I decide to go to the ballgame on a whim. It's Saturday afternoon and Chris Sale is pitching. That seems reason enough. Besides, despite being in first place for a good chunk of the season, the White Sox haven't been filling the stands. I should do my part. The train from my place to the park only runs every two hours on Saturdays so I'll be at the ballpark over an hour before the 3:05pm first pitch. On the 99th Street platform I wait for the 1:22 p.m, train, along with two girls in Sox jerseys, both with twelve-packs of Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy in hand. A smattering of others, some in baseball-related apparel, wait as well. A middle-aged guy with a porn-star mustache and a pinstriped jersey tries to chat up the girls. After smiling politely at him for a couple minutes they wander further down the platform.

On the train most of the passengers seem to have bottles of beer open. Sox gear in styles from early 20th Century to present-day is in evidence throughout my car. At the 35th Street/“Lou” Jones/Bronzeville stop we pile out and inch west toward the park, past ticket scalpers and unauthorized peanut and program vendors. How do these folks get by when the place is only two-thirds full on average, I'd like to know. I don't go to as many games as I used to. Years of driving a cab have conditioned me to take in games on the radio while crisscrossing the city, so actually being at the park is a bit jarring. Each time I go back there seems to be a new restaurant, tchotchke kiosk, or beverage-brand-related drinking emporium sprouting out of some corner of the stadium like a garishly-hued mushroom. On this visit it's a Bacardi-themed beer garden. I keep walking to the ticket window. Weekend ticket prices are steeper, so I go with a 500 Level seat for $20.

Though the official name of this place is U.S. Cellular Field, I can't bring myself to call it The Cell, The Joan (after sometime U.S. Cellular spokeswoman Joan Cusack), or even Comiskey. Perhaps successive generations of Yankee Stadia can pass on their noble name, but there's no way this place can pretend to be the old park it replaced. It's an anonymous, utilitarian edifice; the last of the baseball stadiums to be built in the '60s-'70s Brutalist manner. The sightlines are good, the seats are the appropriate width for 21st Century posteriors, and the refreshments won't generally make one feel ill. It's as good a place as any to take in a ballgame, if your intent is to actually watch the game. It'll always just be Sox Park to me.

Climbing successive ramps affords great views in every direction of this sprawling city, a fringe benefit of sitting in the upper deck. It's still about an hour til the first pitch so I wander the concourse, window-shopping the edible and wearable wares. I try on a couple of caps in a kiosk with a friendly clerk, not finding any that fit properly. Further on, I break down and get a cup of unnecessary $4.25 curly fries. It's difficult not to buy something with all those people so eager to sell every few feet. I take my fries and $4.50 bottled water and climb the rest of the way to my place in the nosebleeds.

The day is clear and cool and I'm content to alternately take in the buildings beyond the park's walls and the Sox and Royals players sprinting and stretching below. But before long a garage door in the outfield fence opens, and a parade of costumed men, women, and children starts edging counter-clockwise around the rim of the field. The P.A. booms out that it's Star Wars Day. Squinting in at the procession I see stormtroopers, Leias, and Ewoks, punctuated by strategically-spaced Darth Vaders shepherding their flocks onward toward home plate. Corporate signage and promotional tie-ins are nothing new but this seems like a low blow to me. But I may be biased, I still remember falling asleep in the movie theater during a screening of The Empire Strikes Back. Even as a child, I was unmoved by what felt like an outer-space soap opera to me. The special effects that took a generation's breath away left me cold. To this day I can only appreciate the franchise as a merchandising miracle rather than entertainment. I don't begrudge people their love of Star Wars, but I slightly resent Star Wars creeping into the only professional sport I have any interest in.

Looking around the slowly-filling stands I spot a few shapeless Leias, some kids with toy lightsabers, and one big guy with a little girl-sized Yoda backpack. We all rise for the national anthem just in time to see one of the Vaders throw out the ceremonial first pitch, with stormtroopers scattered around the mound, some applauding, others just looking off into space. On the Jumbotron, the lineups are announced. Each player's face is crudely photoshopped into a scene from The Saga. Bits of audio from the film are used throughout the game to (marginally) comedic effect. One glance at A.J. Pierzynski with Yoda strapped to his back was enough for me, but it appeared on the scoreboard every time the Sox catcher came to the plate.

The game starts and I block out Star Wars. There are more pressing problems than the Empire as Sale drunk-drives through the first three innings, miraculously giving up just one run on a questionable play at the plate. The rail-thin Sale reminds me a bit of Christian Bale in The Machinist from up here in the cheap seats. A scarecrow of a fellow winging the tiny white ball at his far-fleshier opponents. Meanwhile, the Sox have somehow solved the Royals junkballing journeyman Bruce Chen. I can't remember the last time they scored more than a run or two off Chen, but this afternoon balls are flying off their bats and over the fence readily. A birthday party taking up the entire row below mine jump to their feet with every dinger, between trips to the concession stand for nachos served in souvenir batting helmets and spilling plastic cups of Miller. Desultory mentions of “The Force” and “Luke” and “The Dark Side” occasionally interrupt game info over the P.A.

Sale settles into a comfortable auto-pilot, striking out four of the nine men faced in three perfect frames , but because of all the extra balls he threw in the first three, he's out after the top of the 6th. The game is well in hand until the bottom of the 9th when, with two outs, Jordan Danks misplays a sinking liner into a double. The Royals come within a run before Addison Reed, the Sox’s rookie closer, finally puts them out of their misery. I'm all for close games but the ending of this one feels like unnecessarily manufactured drama--something out of The Phantom Menace. Before the long and winding walk back down to the ground, I visit the men’s room. Seeing C-3PO a few urinals over reminds me of the other strange drama tacked onto this afternoon's ballgame. I'm happy the Sox won. I might've been tempted to blame George Lucas if they'd blown it.

With a few minutes to kill before my return train, I stop into the two-story Sports Authority and find a White Sox cap that actually fits my oversized pate. A minor victory in and of itself. On the platform I watch two tattooed bros model the snug t-shirts they got at the same store for each other’s approval. They look pleased with one another's appearance. Far fewer folks get on the train south than got off here before the game. Many are likely continuing their post-game or pre-Saturday night celebrations in the city. No Vaders, Leias, or stormtroopers in sight.

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