CHICAGO - If baseball is your thing, Chicago is your kind of town this weekend.
Four excellent teams played on the North and South Sides: the last three World Series winners - the Red Sox, Cardinals, and White Sox - and the team that hasn't won in 100 years, the Cubs. The games brought a legion of Red Sox and Cardinals boosters to town, two fan bases that often travel to other cities.
The matchups featured four excellent and colorful managers in Ozzie Guillen, Lou Piniella, Tony La Russa, and Terry Francona (OK, the Red Sox' skipper is the least colorful of that group).
Wrigley Field, on a pristine Friday afternoon, was one of the most perfect baseball settings ever witnessed. At a time of year when Chicago usually is smoking hot, there were sunny skies and little humidity.
We saw firsthand the civility of the Cubs-Cardinals' rivalry, in which fans from both cities are ardent about their teams but can have a beer afterward.
"It's fun and intense and a great atmosphere," said Cardinals righthander Chris Carpenter, who grew up in New Hampshire, "but it's a lot different than Red Sox-Yankees."
Friday's game at Wrigley was an 11-inning affair in which Jim Edmonds, the former Cardinal, smacked two solo homers to aid in the Cubs' 3-2 win. Edmonds and La Russa left on poor terms, so Edmonds, who said all the right things after the win, had to be ecstatic. The Cardinals whacked around Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano yesterday for nine earned runs in a 12-3 win.
"It doesn't get any better than this, does it?" offered Piniella. "You've got four teams that are right in the thick of it. Great players, great fans. This is what it's all about. When you're in this type of situation, you want to put on a good show for the fans, and hopefully we can do that."
The Cubs sure did Friday. The White Sox weren't too shabby that night, either, defeating the Red Sox, 5-3, after being outscored, 46-7, in a four-game series here last August. But last night, the Red Sox beat the White Sox, 6-2, as Jose Contreras ruptured his left Achilles' tendon. The game featured three hits and three RBIs from David Ortiz, who had gone 2 for 20 in his previous five games. No click in his wrist last night.
The subway ride Friday from Addison at Wrigley to 35th Street at U.S. Cellular was jam-packed with fans who were taking in both games.
As the stops got closer to U.S. Cellular, families dressed in White Sox gear got on to head to the ballpark, as did businessmen from the Boston area, some dressed in suits and wearing Red Sox caps.
The White Sox' park has always been rather nondescript. It surely doesn't have the charm of Wrigley, but it has a lot more room and is more comfortable. The White Sox never did develop the area around the stadium as much as was planned when it first opened.
For that reason, the crowd at U.S. Cellular is usually late-arriving, because there's no reason to be in the area other than to take in the game. That's a far cry from Wrigley, whose area watering holes have lines out the door before and after the game.
White Sox general manager Ken Williams was sitting on the dugout bench yesterday afternoon sipping a cup of coffee, happy about Friday night's win but holding his breath about the future.
"I have all I can do to help keep this together," he said. "We're in a tough series with one of the best teams in baseball. We're all focused on winning all the time, but the Red Sox are here and we have to be very good to beat a team like that.
"I'm sure for the city it's great. I mean, how many thousands of people will be in this city this weekend to watch the games here? I think that's great, but I usually don't pay much attention to what's going on over there [with the Cubs]."
There are certainly visions of an all-Chicago World Series. They are legitimate, not pie-in-the-sky dreams. The White Sox are very good. The Cubs, so far, are the class of the National League.
"Not thinking that far ahead," said Williams. "We've got to win our division and keep our players healthy and thriving.
"We're trying to get through each series, hoping that our pitching is strong and we get Scott Linebrink back soon to shore up our bullpen.
"We've done some things to shore up our team and we've done them for a reason. We're hoping we see the benefits of that."
The Cubs brought in Edmonds and he's given them quite a boost. Williams brought Ken Griffey Jr. aboard, hoping for the same spike.
"Brought Griff in for the offense he could bring, but also because of the hunger factor," Williams said. "He and Jim Thome have never won a championship. I think that desire and hunger will hopefully rub off on the rest of our guys."
Any Chicago baseball weekend offers the chance that Guillen and Piniella are going to do or say something humorous, or explode at an umpire. There are no more entertaining managers in the game.
In talking about how Juan Uribe has become the starting third baseman for the White Sox, Guillen said, "When he's hot, he can carry a club, and when he's cold, you want to kill him."
On weekends like this, baseball is fun here. It's rare that the Chicago teams have played here at the same time when they're both in first place this late, playing contenders.
It's weekends like these that make those of us who are too young to have watched the Braves in Boston wish there could be two teams in Boston again.