This is part two of a two-part blog. Click here to for part one.
By Daniel I. Dorfman–
CHICAGO (WSCR) — On April 18, 1991, the White Sox were coming off a successful 6-1 road trip to start the season. Moreover, they were just a few months removed from a 94 win campaign when they challenged Oakland for the AL West crown.
The night before the opener, the Sox went to see their new digs. It wouldn’t be a completely different experience as the infield dirt had been moved across the street so the players would have some familiarity.
“We were excited coming from Old Comiskey Park to this park which was like going to the palace.,“ remembered Sox manager Ozzie Guillen.
So everyone was excited, anticipation was high and the stage was set for a new era of White Sox baseball and…the Sox went out lost the first game played at their new park 16-0 to the Detroit Tigers.
With Vice President Dan Quayle among other dignitaries in attendance, Jack McDowell, who would become the ace of the staff for the next three seasons, had one of those days. He couldn’t make it out of the third inning, giving up six runs and then the Tigers pounded the Sox bullpen for ten more in the fourth. Meanwhile, Frank Tanana went on to pitch a seven hitter in a complete game shutout.
“What I remember, he couldn’t get the ball down in the zone,” said Jeff Torborg, who managed the Sox from 1989 to 1991, about McDowell on that Thursday afternoon. “His location was off and they could sit on his fastball.”
Since two decades have passed, there is a little bit of a sense of humor about that day now from Sox officials.
“I already forgot that one,” Guillen says.
“Try as I might, I still vividly remember that first game here in 1991,” added Jerry Reinsdorf. “Thankfully, there have been quite a few great moments over the past 20 years as well.”
Torborg does not think the team of Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, Tim Raines and Guillen, who two years later would be the core of the team that won their division, had butterflies.
“We had already played seven games,” Torborg said from his Florida home. “That club was pretty solid. The anticipation of a new ballpark is something special but I don’t think they were nervous. The Tigers didn’t give us a chance to be nervous.”
The Sox would win their first game in the new ballpark three days later when Guillen started a two out, no one on base rally to plate two runs. The Sox went on to win 87 games in 1991 but fell to the Twins. (A painfully familiar sentence for Sox fans).
At first, there was plenty of praise for the Sox new home, which was the first exclusively new baseball park since 1973 when what was then named Royals Stadium opened in Kansas City.
“It was an amazing structure because there weren’t too many new ballparks at the time,” said Sox infielder Omar Vizquel, who was with Seattle at the time. “This one came out and set the tone for a lot of the new construction that was coming in.”
But the sentiment soon began to change.
While most people were happy with the wide concourses and other modern amenities that were lacking in the old ballpark, criticism began to fly in about many of the park’s other features, including an upper deck which was panned for being too high, especially since fans had to enter at the base of the deck and climb all the way up to the top.
Others did not care for the exterior. When Oriole Park at Camden Yards was christened in Baltimore the next season and new parks opened in Texas and Cleveland in 1994, the complaints about Comiskey Park only got louder as unfavorable comparisons were made.
“This ballpark has come a long way,” Guillen said. “This ballpark was attractive then because it was new, but now I look back at the video and this ballpark was pretty ugly. It was all concrete.”
That attitude could be seen in the number of fans – or lack thereof – coming through the turnstiles. After the novelty of the park wore off following the first few years in addition to the 1994 players strike, attendance began to dip. Even the AL Central division winning team of 2000 failed to bring in 2,000,000 fans.
So the Sox decided one way to change things around was to start making modifications to the park. With the help of a $68 million naming rights deal with U.S. Cellular, the ballpark has undergone massive renovations since 2001 including chopping off the top rows of the upper deck.
“Whoever came up with the idea to knock down the third deck was a genius. It was hard to see baseball from there,” Guillen said. “What they have done here is amazing. How this ballpark has changed. I think White Sox fans appreciate it because all the new stuff is a lot better for kids. I see more kids now at the park now than in the past. That is very important.”
Even former Governor Jim Thompson who as noted in Monday’s entry worked for the floor in the Illinois legislature in Springfield on June 30, 1988 to get the funding, acknowledges the changes have made U.S. Cellular Field a better park.
“I think the critics were correct that the upper deck was too steep so we changed that,” Thompson said. “You always have to listen to your patrons. When government listens to people it should be applauded because too often it doesn’t. With the renovations and the amenities we added, it is just a fan friendly place.”
That doesn’t mean the attendance issue has been solved as the people coming through the gate has shrunk the past couple of years and this year’s slow start is not likely to be helping ticket sales.
While U.S. Cellular Field provided a new home for the Sox, the new park has also changed the way the Sox play the game. At Old Comiskey Park, generations of fans watched a team that based its hopes on pitching and defense and did the best it could on offense. But that changed when the Sox moved across the street. Part of the change is due to home plate being on the northwest corner of the street as opposed to the southwest corner at Old Comiskey, but that was an unknown variable heading into the season.
“We didn’t know how it would play because it faced it the other way,” Torborg said.
The Tigers 16-run barrage in the opener answered those questions.
Detroit’s Rob Deer hit two homers that April 1991 and he predicted a hitter friendly park. “I could see the ball real well and it seemed to jump out pretty good,” Deer told the Score’s Mike Mulligan in Mully’s story for the Chicago Sun-Times on the opener.
Further proof of how the new park has changed how the Sox approach the game comes from the fact that from 1925-1990, the Sox scored 800 runs only twice. Since 1996, they have done that seven times.
Twenty years is too short a period of time to get overly romantic about a ballpark, but no one can deny “The Cell” has seen its share of great moments since it opened. It was the home of Thomas, the greatest offensive player in team history. There were Bo Jackson’s clutch homers, post-season action in 1993, 2000 and 2008, Mark Buehrle’s no-hitter in 2007 and perfect game two years later and most of all, the World Series team of 2005.
“I played here and I was proud and pleased to be a member of that ballclub when we opened this park,” Guillen said. “This city was very excited. This ballpark and Jerry (Reinsdorf) made baseball better because then every city wanted a new ballpark. That started right here.”