The Internet Comes to Armor Park
by Gregory Pratt, BaseballEvolution.com
August 1, 2008
"My name is Dougly. As in 'ugly.'" I think "goofy" is a better description of the man standing two feet from me, but who am I to argue with a legend? Dougly is about six feet, two inches tall, but he slouches forward about two inches, and that tired posture, combined with his half-open eyes, give the impression of a man asleep on his feet. He is wearing an open White Sox jersey and a White Sox shirt underneath it, and I imagine that there is layer upon layer of Sox gear underneath that. Watching him walk reminds me of "Goofy" from "A Goofy Movie" and listening to him talk has the same effect. "I'm just like Jim Thome," he says with a small laugh. "I strike out or I hit the ball."
We are standing between two baseball fields and a small infield that used to be reserved for softball games but is now colored with small blades of grass, likely the result of neglect. It has rained hard all morning, right up to the moment when I stepped off the Red Line train at the Sox/35th CTA "El" stop, but it is now clearing up and the storm appears to have passed. There is some concern that the day's scheduled games will have to be canceled or postponed, but the organizers of today's matchup insist that it is still on and that the strongest rain of the day has passed. At this moment, the sun is out and the sky is clear; the only evidence that it was raining just five minutes ago is in the wet grass and muddy infield. Of course, this is Chicago, where the local folks have a saying about the weather: "If you don't like it, wait five minutes and it will change."
This park is called Armor Park and it is not even a full city block from US Cellular Field, the home of the Chicago White Sox. It is just north of Parking Lot B at "the Cell." It is a small city park, cleaner than most Chicago parks, and hidden in the parking lot's armpit. Today it is playing host to two teams from two distinct White Sox websites as they play their second-annual softball game. I arrive just a little before one o clock in the afternoon so that I can have time to stretch and interview players, as the game is scheduled to start at two. I am alone for only a couple of minutes before I notice this lost-looking man approaching from the parking lot. I ask him if he is here for the game. He is. He tells me who he is, and I tell him who I am.
"Who are you playing for today, Dougly?"
"Oh, I'm a member of both sites," he says, sheepish. "I can play for either."
"Weren't you banned from SoxTalk dot com?"
"Um, well. I was suspended." He pauses. "Indefinitely. I don't know what for."
The Chicago White Sox fanbase is often characterized as being flaky and surly. Richard Roeper once wrote that Cub fans go to games and enjoy the experience, win or lose, while Sox fans go home complaining that they paid to watch a loser. Cub fans are admired around baseball for their loyalty to the feckless franchise, and they have been known to tell Sox fans to "love your team as much as you hate ours" in any given argument. For years, Sox tickets were the easiest to score in town, at bargain-bin prices, but that is no longer the case, and it changed overnight or, in baseball terms, overseason, as the Sox victory in the 2005 World Series brought a trophy to the South Side of Chicago and bandwagon jumpers. Some people trace the development of the White Sox fan base not to the expansion of its ranks following the World Series but to the 2005 All-Star game, when Sox fans elected Scott Podsednik to the game on the final-man ballot, and followed it up the next season by electing one of baseball's least popular players, AJ Pierzynski, to the 2006 All-Star Game. Although they failed to get Jermaine Dye elected against Evan Longoria this season -- something that many Sox fans blame on a rigged-vote by Major League Baseball, refusing to believe that they were undone by a team which, they say, has no fans -- they have established themselves as a force to be reckoned with, in terms of attendance and general presence, a necessary term meant to reflect the nature of the Sox fanbase outside the ballpark. Much of their dominance at the ballot box, for instance, has to do with the team having a strong fan presence online.
First are the blogs, like "South Side Sox," a Sox blog and community that hosts "game threads" and features much useful statistical analysis. Then there is Sox Machine, easily my favorite baseball blog on the Internet and one that everyone could learn something from, whether they find it in "State of the Sox," which features game recaps, or in the author's general musings on the team's construction and progress. But the Sox fan base is unique in having a rigorous intellectual presence on the Internet in addition to a sometimes-adoring, sometimes-bitter, always-opinionated-and-informed general public on fan message boards. The two most significant sites are SoxTalk.com and WhiteSoxInteractive. These sites are generally similar, but only in that they play the same game. It has been said that politics make for strange bedfellows, and the same can be said for sports.
SoxTalk.com is a ribald forum, frank. It was founded in 2001 and has numerous college students serving as moderators, with many young posters, too. Until about a year ago it had no formal set of rules, and even now there is nothing rigid, although administrators and moderators make more of an effort to keep civility and are tougher on "troublemakers" than before.
WhiteSoxInteractive, on the other server, is known for its tight regulation of PG-13 content, at least on the boards and especially as it relates to criticism of the White Sox. (One SoxTalk administrator remarked on a thread months back that certain negative threads make him have a lot of respect for the way WSI handles things.) Despite the loose atmosphere at SoxTalk, however, the website is a great place to catch all news and rumored-news relating to the White Sox, and most of it relating to other teams, too. There is always someone listening to the radio and hanging around SoxTalk at work, and he is happy to bring home the turkey and the bacon and complain that Kenny Williams doesn't know how to cook. WhiteSoxInteractive is just as good a source for keeping one's self immersed in baseball, even if SoxTalkers and other members of the general Sox community occasionally mock overly-positive posters by telling them to go to WSI if they want to wear rose-colored glasses (WSI's slogan is "Totally Biased").
WSI was founded in 1998, and it is conservative about protecting its image while SoxTalk isn't because WSI seeks and receives more media coverage. But the press is not the sole reason, as there are significant differences in the manner board members treat each other on each site. WSI has more in common with a small community than it does with a message board or a coffee shop, as they have a "drinking team" and an accompanying "Drinking Team" t-shirt with a flying beer mug; the front-page features a "Flying Sock" logo and t-shirt that its citizens proudly wear; a photo gallery that WSIers gladly upload pictures of themselves and their WSI friends to; and a collection of articles and interviews exclusive to the site. That isn't to say that SoxTalk is ignored by the press: a few years ago, Sports Illustrated created a frenzy when they cited a rumor started by SoxTalk that Roger Clemens had flunked a steroid test. (That's why SoxTalk features the phrase "As featured in Sports Illustrated" in its "Diamond Club" subforum.) But at the end of the day, most SoxTalkers are more willing to chat in the SoxTalk chatroom during a game than meet up for a beer or two.
Last year, the two websites met for a softball match at Armor Park that SoxTalk won 24-12 despite the fact that only five people showed up to play for the SoxTalk team (SoxTalk had to recruit two ringers at the park and still had an incomplete roster). WSI had nine players and a few more non-players show up. As both teams took batting practice, fielding practice and stretched, a couple of WSIers snickered "Where's your team?"
Dougly and I are sitting on a park bench having a conversation about softball when we notice two men across the park, just beyond the local swing set, walking toward us. Dougly has flown in to Chicago from Minnesota for the weekend series against the Kansas City Royals and, as luck would have it, this year's softball rematch is scheduled for this date. Dougly returns to Chicago every year in the summer to watch his favorite team play a game or two, and he figured that he should stop by for the game. He stays in shape in Minnesota by playing twelve inch softball, mostly. Dougly removes his spikes from his backpack and shows them to me. I take mine from my own backpack and put them on for the first time in over a year. We run short routes in the spongy grass together, quick sprints largely so I can try out my legs. We are about to start running again after a small break when the two men approach us. They are about the same height, but one of them walks about five feet behind the other and looks over the surrounding area carefully, as a stranger in a strange land would.
"Hello, Pratt!" says the lead fellow, who is about five feet ten and fit, not muscular but in shape, with tanned skin and a four-leaf clover Notre Dame cap he wears for luck. "I'm Jason Gage." His friend is about five nine and wafer-thin, not at all athletic and somewhat sickly-looking until you notice his healthy skin and firm handshake. He is wearing a shirt that advertises for the "center for kids who read good and want to do other stuff good too!" He approaches tentatively: "Pratt, right? Nice to meet you!" He has an accent that I don't immediately recognize. "I'm Andrew Dunn.....The Aussie!" Dunn is a twenty-three year old Australian who goes by the name "DBAHO," which is a play on the Spanish phrase for "from down under." He worked at a low-level for Goldman Sachs in Australia, and is now living in New Jersey for a year as he interns for CitiGroup. This is his first trip to Chicago, but he has been a devoted White Sox fan for much of his life. He follows the team via the Internet, but before he can tell me more Gage interrupts.
"Andrew! Do you know who this is? This is Dougly!"
Jason, Andrew and I are walking to the home of one of Jason's friends to pick up the bases for our game. Andrew did not recognize Dougly in person or by reputation, but I did. I had never encountered his posts on the forums, as I joined in 2006 and I think he was gone by then, but I knew him already. I had first heard of him in the summer of 2006 when I was a first-year SoxTalk member on pace to be awarded "Rookie Poster of the Year" by my fellow SoxTalkers, and I had met a couple of SoxTalk "elders" for a game of catch and a couple of swings at a park on the far-South Side of Chicago. One of them, SoxFan1, whose real name is Slavko, was about to be a high school senior just like me, and his high school's baseball team had recently lost a controversial 1-0 decision to mine. The other man went by the name SoxAce, real-name Gerry, who had recently graduated high school and was working over the summer. We had a good time, playing soccer and baseball; at one point, the soccer ball was kicked onto the roof of a batting cage, which I braved to retrieve the ball and wound up falling through, and Slavo almost cracked my head open with a pitch that got away from him and I had to drop to the ground to avoid. We sat down in the dugout to talk about our lives, online and off, near the end of our day and we conversed as we walked around the neighborhood. At some point in the long conversation we discussed SoxTalk, and gossiped about its more prominent or "significant" members, at which point the conversation turned to Dougly, who was a curious figure admired and teased for his height and name and face.
Jason Gage is, himself, a legend of sorts. Certain members of SoxTalk.com have turned his name into a verb, with "Gageing" meaning to ruin. Look around the forum and you will see talk in all sorts of threads about "The Gagemeister" doing something whacky or other, real and imagined, most of it in jest as most members of SoxTalk like the guy. Gage is an aspiring cyber-media mogul, the proud owner of several websites dedicated to Chicago sports teams. It is the "Talk" network, as in "SoxTalk," "TalkChicagoSports," "TalkCubs," "TalkBulls," "TalkBears," and "TalkHawks." And if that is not enough proof of his status as an Internet celebrity, he'll tell you about the "girls" who "come from all over the world to see him." He's kidding, of course, the braggadocio of a young man enjoying his life, having transplanted from the Midwest to California, where he fell in love with the Angels, though he keeps them behind the White Sox on his favorite teams list. His story is representative of many SoxTalk members, who move away from home and seek to follow the team they grew up loving on the Internet, and it is similar to the stories of countless members who came to love the White Sox from other parts of the country. SoxTalk features prominent members from South Dakota, Kansas, Montana, Texas, New York and Australia, some of whom have never even been to Chicago. Most of them fell in love with the White Sox the same way Andrew Dunn did: hard, while watching Frank Thomas hit like no one before him but Ted Williams had ever hit. Dunn had seen Thomas on Australian TV. "Here was this big black guy, and he's just smashing the ball."
This is not at all atypical. Former White Sox pitching prospect Brandon McCarthy, traded to the Texas Rangers for John Danks and Nick Masset in the 2006 offseason, grew up following the White Sox from Colorado because he admired Thomas.
Seeing as he's from Australia, not the states, I ask Dunn if he has ever played softball. "No." Baseball? "No." Can you hit? "I can probably bunt." There's no bunting in softball! Is there Gage? "Bunting is not allowed." Especially not in sixteen inch softball.
"But I don't buy into this sixteen inch Chicago softball crap. It's a sport for guys who are at least thirty pounds overweight. It takes true athleticism to play twelve inch."
When we return to the park we find that more of our teammates have arrived. There is a big man, over six feet tall and heavyset wearing an Ehren Wasserman # 62 White Sox t-shirt who I recognize immediately as Northsidesox72, or Matt. He is a former police officer who does much traveling for his work, and he looks like John Lackey, though he is not as harsh a sight as Lackey. He lacks the wart on Lackey's face, or the slackness on the one side, but there is a resemblance in the shape of their heads, their faces, their bodies and their bellies. The last time I saw him he was hitting fourth for SoxTalk's winning effort against WhiteSoxInteractive and he was rolling his eyes as I greeted him with a Bash Brothers salute at the plate seemingly every other minute. He was recovering from surgery on his labrum then. He is healthy now, and he has brought his wife to this year's game. She is sitting behind the home-team's "dugout" and is sitting in a folding lawn chair. She is an attractive woman in a plain-stated way, nothing fancy but pleasant. I ask Matt if his wife is going to be playing softball with us and he gives a short-breathed no, sort-of laughing. "She's pregnant, actually, or else I think she'd try it." I ask "how pregnant" she is, and he says "pregnant enough to not be able to play." I'm laughing at my gaffe as I ask him how many months pregnant she is, not "how pregnant" she is.
"Oh, I'm not sure. Four or five months."
A man named Mike who goes by the name of "Southsider2K5" has also arrived, and "Kapkomet" is here too. Mike is a small man from Michigan City, Indiana, who is nevertheless in strong shape, and he has a very light complexion and easy demeanor. He has a tendency to imitate Ozzie Guillen by declaring that he "makes the fucking lineup!" and threatening a "fire sale!" if his team loses. Kap is a man named Bob, white as milk and clean-faced, as if he has the secret to the perfect shave in his bathroom, or has never been able to grow a beard. He is a little less than six feet tall, I guess, and slightly flabby in the way most people who work long hours are. This is his second time on the team, and he has come to Chicago from Dallas to play in this game each year. He is the final returning member from the inaugural SoxTalk team, along with Matt, Mike and I. The other player was a college student who went by the name "Tito," but I called him "Brian" after Brian Anderson -- the Sox centerfielder who can field all day and night but can't hit to save his life -- for his similar playing repertoire. Tito is not here because he was banned from the forums, and consequently does not know of the game or knows about it but is uninterested in playing because he is not a member of SoxTalk anymore. I ask Kap what Tito did to deserve a ban and he sighs. "It's a long story. It always is, you have no idea. You wouldn't believe how much discussion goes into a ban or a suspension."
I have been "in trouble" on SoxTalk before, banned last November, in fact, but Gage allowed me to return to the forums under super-duper probationary terms. (I haven't been in trouble since, and am "no longer" being "watched closely," but I basically post once a day now that I am busy with college and the time-consumption it generates. I had been in trouble for being rude on the political subforum, "The Filibuster.") I have been told stories of SoxTalk's meticulous process for banning or suspending users, where the moderators and administrators have discussions about a user's transgression and then they all have to agree on a punishment for it to be enacted, but I do not believe that there are never grudges that come into play. This prompts a denial from Kap.
"No way! We don't hold grudges. Believe me, if we held grudges you wouldn't be here or on the forums."
Mike laughs and waves me off playfully when I half-jokingly ask him a similar question: do you still want to see me banned? "You're fine."
Kap is effusive in his insistence that SoxTalk is always fair. "Believe me, I've banned myself when I've known that I crossed the lines. Really, I've got the records, where I said that I have to step down and punish myself for awhile. It happened."
The day before the softball rematch, Kap posted on SoxTalk that he had an idea for my article and would share it with me at the game. The first thing I ask him is about his suggestion. "Oh! Well, what are you writing for the story?"
I don't know.
"You could write about how we're all Sox fans coming together."
I tell him that I do not know what he is talking about. "What kind of crap story would that be?"
He shakes his head as he looks at me. "I guess it would be kind of crap. You're right."
I will write about whatever happens, I tell him, but I do not know what that will be. I notice that the clouds are starting to form again, and it is looking as if the rain is on its way back. I know that the day is going to move quickly from this point forward.
Matt pitched last year's game against WhiteSoxInteractive and he did a great job, giving up nine runs despite having a mediocre and incomplete defense behind him. He is scheduled to pitch for SoxTalk again this year, and I make it clear to everyone that I have zero interest in pitching this year. I requested that I be allowed to pitch an inning or two for team SoxTalk last year, and when I was given the opportunity I walked the first two hitters I faced and then gave up a three-run bomb on the second pitch to the next batter, who took a step back and then smashed the ball deep into right field. This is on my mind as that player approaches us, the second member of Team WSI to make it to this year's contest. He is very tall and very fit, strong and muscular, though his face vaguely reminds me of Vince Vaughn's. I ask him what his name is and he says "The Gooch," after former Sox second baseman Tadahito Iguchi. I ask him how he's doing. He says fine, and then walks over to me and looks over my notebook from the side. He doesn't read Sanskrit but he appears uncomfortable with the notebook's presence. "You're not much of a talker," I say to him.
"Sorry! I'm just wondering where my team is."
Team SoxTalk is starting to warm up now, with Gage and Andrew tossing a softball between them across a distance of maybe twenty five feet. I point at Gage and say, "You see that guy right there? He said that sixteen inch softball is crap."
"He's crap," answers The Gooch quickly and clearly.
"Excuse me," I say to him. "Did you say, 'it is crap' or 'he is crap'?"
"He's crap!" Gooch pauses. "I'm working on my middle school comebacks. What the hell are these guys doing? They look like they're trying to throw knuckleballs."
More people are arriving, and they form the background as Andrew and Gage throw to each other, and I watch with The Gooch while the rest of the players stand around on different parts of the park. "Sixteen inch softball takes a different sort of athleticism. You need really good hands. And strength."
We are getting closer and closer to start-time as I recognize a WSI moderator named "DumpJerry" off in the distance. "Dump" took the name in honor of former Sox manager Jerry Manuel. He is an older man, in his fifties, with salt-and-pepper hair and a squat frame, big bellied and slow-footed as he makes his way across the park. He is pitching for WSI this year. Last year's pitcher was a fellow who goes by the name of "FielderJones," and he is a man who has the most uncanny resemblance to Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley. But he is unfortunately not coming because of the rain. I enjoy this as Dump and I have a friendly rivalry that dates back to last year's game, when he served as the official umpire. During my first at-bat I took the first pitch thrown to me and it landed outside the strike zone, but I still gave Dump a dirty look until he asked what I was looking at. I told him to do his job and call balls and strikes and keep his mouth shut. "Don't let your WSI fandom interfere with this game." Then I pointed my bat at him. And probably doubled on the very next pitch.
Two more WSI guys are arriving. One is a man wearing a backward cap and a black shirt with a flying beer mug on the front -- a "White Sox Interactive Drinking Team" shirt -- and he tells me that his name is "Skobabe." He is going to play for WhiteSoxInteractive. I ask him if he played in the inaugural Sox Softball Classic last year. He says "Yes. Did you?"
"Yeah, actually. Last year I busted someone's lip open at first base!"
"That was me!" he says, excited. "I'd forgotten that."
"Oh, you weren't mad about it all year long?"
"Oh yeah. Steaming."
That story is rather simple: I had hit a ball hard into center-field and Kap had been on first base. I expected him to keep running to third but he held up at second and before I realized it, I had to turn back to first where the first baseman was waiting for me with the ball in his hands. It was my fault, and I felt foolish for not having yelled at him to keep running. I lifted my arms to protect myself from the first baseman's tag and accidentally hit him in the mouth. His lip was cut, not seriously but enough to give me a feeling of guilt and amusement. (At a different point in the game, I caught a line drive to end an inning and ran back to the dugout, but on the way I jumped onto the pitcher's "mound" and spiked the softball as if I were Terrell Owens.) The other WSI poster is a man who goes by the name of "hi im skot," and he is wearing near-coke bottle glasses, blue socks all the way up to his knees and a black Sox shirt. He talks to me briefly but it is not memorable. He is going to leave shortly, without telling anybody, and it will basically go unnoticed. Another SoxTalk user named "RobinVentura23" is here. He is wearing a Sox "World Champions" shirt, with the trophy on the stomach, and his name is Brian. He is a strong-looking man, a little short but strong. I ask him what he wants to achieve here today.
"A win for SoxTalk."
Batting practice is brief. A couple of guys take swings and then ask if anyone is interested in taking a few practice hacks. Matt is pitching. After someone pops up and Matt fails to run underneath it quick enough to catch it I yell out "Where's the hustle?" Matt's wife, Jessica, yells to her husband. "Matt! That's where you're supposed to say, 'In my pants!'" He turns the ball over to Dump so that he can get warm. I decide to take some swings and pick up Matt's wooden softball bat. I pop the very first pitch up and curse. I hit the next two deep into left field and flip my bat. It is antics like these that have earned me the nickname "SoxTalk's AJ Pierzynski." Andrew admonishes me to "just do that during the game." I ask to hear his war cry.
"My what? You mean, like... ... 'Ozzie Ozzie Ozzie oy oy oy'?"
More guys take swings. I take my notebook to Matt's wife and ask how she's doing. She mentions that Matt has told her I'm a "very gifted writer." I tell her that it's sweet of him to lie so kindly for me. "Oh no," she answers. "Matt never lies."
Soon after this it begins to rain hard, and all of us make our way underneath two large trees. There is much laughter in the rain, and everyone is having a good time and a good conversation with their neighbor. This is about when skot and Skobabe are going to disappear. The rest of us head into the field house and talk a little more about baseball. There's a small discussion over whether or not the Sox have a good enough pitching staff to make the playoffs. We don't emerge for half an hour, but when we do, it is no longer raining and we can play our game. It rains sporadically during the game, but it is pleasant. We give a couple of SoxTalkers to Dougly and The Gooch and Dump, and just play.
The Gooch makes a fantastic diving throw to first base at one point; I can't get a grip on the wet and soggy ball, and make error after error. Gage does, too, and says that we are doing our best Jose Valentin impressions at shortstop. Matt gives up eight runs in the first, and it is just the beginning of a rough game. True to his word, Dougly strikes out about four times, although he does have a few base hits. And I robbed him of one when a ball bounced off my knee and I did a face plant into the mud while I threw to first just beating him. Kap relieves Matt at one point and comes in throwing heat, giving up no runs and doing his best Nolan Ryan impersonation. Andrew wreaks havoc on the base paths when he reaches base, and at one point gets all the way to third base on a soft tapper to the pitcher. Brian has a quiet game getting on base but doesn't do much else, as he doesn't get any action in the outfield. Matt hits behind me, but can't grip the bat, and at one point he throws it foul behind first base. Grown men are sliding headfirst past first base taking it with them ten feet up the line. Safe! Dump and I talk trash all game long. Two different women arrive to watch him play. One admonishes him to remember that he is always a moderator and should behave as such even offline.
At one point, I crouch to catch his pitches against Brian, as we have a policy whereby the on-deck hitter plays as catcher, and give him the bird instead of a pitch-sign. He scratches his forehead with his. We wrestle at one point, and I almost bring him down but decide against it because he would have landed on me. I will go four for five against him, but that doesn't matter to him or to me or to anyone else at this moment.
Gregory Pratt is a political science and history double-major at the University of Illinois at Chicago. His political commentary can be found at the Office of the Independent Blogger, and he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.