By Tim Baffoe–
(CBS) The message of Nationals slugger Bryce Harper — or at least that of the cap in his locker — is important. Baseball has suffered of late due to increasing fascism of the Fun Police.READ MORE: Chicago Sky Win First WNBA Championship As They Top Phoenix Mercury
There are the Adam Sandler movie antagonists like Jonathan Papelbon and Brian McCann. Then you got the Geese returning annually from their winter homes in Dementia Springs. Major League Baseball implements draconian Internet video laws that restrict its product from young people and claims it wants speedier games with superfluous stoppages for “God Bless America.” Add in the fans who still passionately make terrible cases for pitchers batting, paint their doors with livestock blood to ward off sabermetrics demons and chide broadcasters for mentioning in-progress no-hitters, and it’s no wonder the average MLB TV viewer is old and Little League participation is dropping.
But damn if the Chicago White Sox aren’t trying to buck that MLB trend and make the experience that’s a baseball game less of a three-plus-hour seminar on ethics. With the LaRoche Family Saga hopefully behind them, the team has started strong out of the gate, winning five of their first seven games and four of five on the road. New roster additions like the gregarious Todd Frazier and “Canadian Fire” Brett Lawrie have added personality to a team that a year ago wasn’t only frustrating on the field but fairly dull otherwise. The White Sox are interesting now, and that’s crucial for the organization regarding both wins and attention spans.
For a long time, the team has bent over backwards to not only get butts in seats but also make the experience one which you want to revisit.
“Our goal with our 81 games, and hopefully more, is to wow somebody every single time they come into the ballpark,” Brooks Boyer White Sox chief market officer Brooks Boyer told USA Today. “You try to make winning and losing as moot of an issue as possible.”
The food at U.S. Cellular Field is established Chicago pro sports’ best. But unlike some ballparks that roll out affronts to the colorectal gods for the purposes of morbid American gluttony/curiosity than actual taste and sanity, food at The Cell is constantly evolving without needing to be freakish. And the park appreciates problem drinkers like myself with a variety of interesting potent potables.
Maybe no other Chicago team caters to kids as much as the White Sox do. Family Sundays that include autographs sessions with players are great, the Fundamentals area in left field is a must for any little kid in attendance and the team has a history of working with the Chicago Park District and youth baseball organizations to promote the game with the ebbing young fan population.
But Chicagoans have known that for a while, even the ones who like to poke fun at old Sox fan stereotypes the organization has very much worked to dissolve. It’s not all about the ballpark experience, though.
Young blood — and more importantly, fresh perspective — has been injected into the TV broadcast booth. Jason Benetti now does play-by-play during White Sox home games, and anyone who’s been listening either during spring training or during the recent series against the Cleveland Indians definitely has noticed — let’s call it a different feel to the broadcast. There are fewer awkward silences, not as many “back in my day” sessions, no throwing holy water at the encroaching advanced stats hell-beast.
Instead, there’s a lot more humor — especially self-deprecating — and making in-game parallels that go past the death of the cassette tape. The Benetti broadcasts with color analyst institution Steve Stone are more, well, fun and should bring back and keep several viewers who have long sighed over the chore that watching Sox TV broadcasts had become in recent years. And that’s besides the gravy of Benetti’s background story being really awesome.READ MORE: Jubilant Fans, Booming Businesses Near Wintrust Arena As Chicago Sky Win WNBA Championship
The coolest and definitely most fun move made by the Sox this year, though, has been partnering with rising hip-hop star and Chicago native Chance the Rapper. If you want fun smeared all over the crusty faces of the game’s old guard and making a move that makes the ears and eyes of young fans and those not insulated from the real world perk up, it’s naming Chance a team ambassador.
“Chance the Rapper is proud of his South Side Chicago roots,” noted Keith Reid-Cleveland for Black Youth Project. “His lyrics are riddled with references to his hometown and he can be seen wearing a Chicago White Sox fitted baseball cap most of his appearances over the past few years. So his recent team up with his local baseball team is a no-brainer.”
Chance is the epitome of cool right now, an artist beloved in the Chicago music scene who recently performed on Saturday Night Live with fellow Chicagoan Kanye West. With lyrics that show a pride in his city and a concern for social issues affecting the South Side, Chance is an effervescent presence in rap who has drawn listeners across demographics. And he’s taken his trademark wearing of a Sox cap to designing Sox caps himself.
“For anyone over 28 years old, they’re thrilled that Frank Thomas is back with us (as a special consultant),” Boyer said. “But we want to talk to those who are even younger, to develop interest from the Hispanic and the African-American markets. Chance resonates with them.”
Who he doesn’t resonate with is sentient jar of mayonnaise, Phil Mushnick. To call Mushnick “out-of-town stupid” would be an injustice to the national dimwits who try annually to find new ways to ask if Jay Cutler has lost the locker room. Mushnick, snow globe from hell and tabloid hack at the New York Post, is simply an awful human being who every few months goes to the same well and scares everyone’s racist aunt and uncle with a fifth-grade reading level who fancies the Post into taking a big gulp, but under the guise of keepin’ it real about sports and its media.
This time around, Mushnick took an obviously positive thing in the Sox-Chance relationship and scare-quoted and coded and dog-whistled all over it. This ignores not only Chance’s actual music but also his community service who people in Chicago — and maybe not white beards in New York — are quite familiar with.
But then again, fun in the form of someone like Chance or a differently abled young broadcaster or the mythic land that is Chicago’s South Side — a place that only exists for some even in the 773 area code on the news — has always bothered the likes of an Officer Mushnick and his twirling nightstick of antiquity.
The Sox and the neighborhood they call home often don’t get the attention of other parts and aspects of the city unless something tragic happens. But if we’re going to start examining baseball and the new revolution against the Fun Police, it has been and continues to be right near the Dan Ryan Expressway that has grown to be a Chicago social metaphor itself.
Baseball — the fan experience of it — isn’t trying to be made fun again with the White Sox. That renaissance has been going on for a while.MORE NEWS: Jewelry Merchants Robbed Outside Hotel In Naperville
Tim Baffoe is a columnist for CBSChicago.com. Follow Tim on Twitter @TimBaffoe. The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.