The Last Days of Old Comiskey

IT is a few minutes past four on a steamy Saturday afternoon in late August when I walk up the ramp between home plate and visitors' dugout and take my first long look around the inside of Comiskey Park. And I smile - a broad and involuntary smile. In fact, it's all I can do to stifle a little whoop of delight. I have just driven a thousand miles with my eight-year-old son to see a baseball game at Comiskey Park before they tear it down this fall. The trip is an act of lunacy that friends and family members all seem to envy, yet not altogether understand. Funding for the trip has come from rolling and cashing in the nickels, dimes, and quarters that I have been saving in jugs and bottles for just such an impulsive odyssey.

And it has been worth it, and never more so than at the moment our eyes first sweep across the inside of old Comiskey Park. My son's grin is as wide as mine as we make our way down to the rail to watch the White Sox batting practice.

At first blush, Comiskey, too, is a little haggard and bedraggled. The white paint on its fa,cade is chipped and peeling; and in the rotunda under the grandstand, the pictures of Nellie Fox, Luis Aparicio, and the other White Sox heroes of the past are faded and torn. It is understandable, perhaps even forgivable, this neglect. After all, you do not wash and wax the car before sending it off to the crusher. Nonetheless, it is a sad reminder of the melancholy fate that awaits Comiskey at the end of the season.

I find it hard to stay melancholy in Comiskey Park, though. There is a pleasing countenance to this oldest of major league parks, even as it awaits its date with the wrecker's ball. Everything feels right about this place, acutely so in these last days. Inside, mostly empty of people two hours before game time, it is a wash of green - the emerald of the field, the institutional gray-green of the walls and roof, the vivid St. Patrick's Day green of the seats.

We watch batting practice from the box seats as the P.A. system plays John Fogerty's ``Centerfield'' and my son joins a chorus of young voices beseeching Ozzie Guillen for his autograph. After batting practice, we take our time getting to our seats in left field, exploring the nooks and crannies of Comiskey. We pass the Greek and Mexican food stands, the Old World Sausage Stand, the pizza and hot dog and hamburg stands - Comiskey Park may be Chicago's most eclectic restaurant - and peer out from the field-level picnic area in left field.

We pause next to organist Nancy Faust's cubicle, slightly incredulous to find it nestled there right in among the seats in the upper deck. And we linger for a moment on the ramps next to the centerfield scoreboard, overlooking the splendor of the old Comiskey and the imposing form of the new Comiskey, rising above the old from across the street at the southeast corner of 35th and Shields.

Comiskey Park opened in 1910, the first of the ``modern'' concrete-and-steel parks that replaced the fire-trap wooden grandstands that the burgeoning game of baseball had so badly outgrown. When Charles Comiskey's brethren in the game saw the splendid edifice he had wrought, baseball went on a building spree. The ballparks that rose in the wake of Comiskey still define baseball for anyone who grew up in the first three quarters of the century - their very names still possess a magic of eternal youth and endless summers: the Polo Grounds, Ebbets Field, Fenway Park, Briggs (now Tiger) Stadium, Wrigley Field, Crosley Field, Forbes Field, Shibe Park, Sportsman's Park, Griffith Stadium. All but Fenway, Wrigley, Tiger, and - for two days more - Comiskey, are a memory.

It is a memory that has tugged me toward Comiskey. Long ago, in that summer of the Mets' glorious ineptitude, my father had taken me to see them at the Polo Grounds. My memories of the park itself are a little hazy, and probably culled more from pictures I have seen than from my one visit there. But I cherish having been to the Polo Grounds; and I cherish having been there with my dad. ``Watch the second baseman,'' he'd say (second base was my Little League position). ``See how he gets ready before the pitch is thrown. See how he gets right in front of the ball.'' (To this day I have not fully overcome my fear of a sharply hit ground ball.) Taking my son to see Comiskey in its last summer is a way of thanking my dad for that trip to the Polo Grounds 28 years ago.

The magic in baseball, I decide as this weekend passes, is in the spell that it casts on young children, and in the way that this rapture can tug at the heartstrings of adults. The fans in front of us this Saturday - two men and a woman in their 30s - were smitten by the precise and meticulous scorecard my son kept. Throughout, they'd turn to him with questions that allowed him to demonstrate his baseball wherewithal; and they'd smile at his answers and wink at me, their enjoyment of the evening undeniably enhanced by bearing witness to my son's obvious pleasure.

The sweetest part of attending a ballgame is not the towering home run or the well-turned double play or the tense late-inning confrontation between slugger and bullpen stopper. It is happy children. Fathers sharing in their children's wonder, even as they remember and recapture their own. Historic old ballparks like Comiskey aren't necessary for this sort of bond, for this sort of generational continuity. But they are a nice complement to it. On Sunday afternoon, as we were leaving Comiskey, a man in front of us paused and pointed to a seat two rows behind the White Sox dugout. ``That's where I sat for the first game of the 1959 World Series,'' he told his son. Next year, his seat will be a parking space, and his son's imagination will have to be a little keener.

From all indications, the new Comiskey Park will be a splendid ballpark, possessed of a fa,cade evocative of the original, seats close to the action, and real grass. Much of the dirt, in fact, will come from the old Comiskey, as will home plate. But it won't be the same. For while they can transplant the sod, they cannot transplant the character; and the millions of memories will now be orphaned.

The money men and the politicians and the White Sox owners all insist it was necessary. For all of the charm of the old Comiskey, they say, it had structural problems and it didn't have luxury boxes, and if the White Sox didn't get a new park they were going to move to Florida, and isn't losing a beloved ballpark better than losing a beloved team? They are probably right; the pragmatists generally are, as surely as they are the bane of sentiment and romance. The only ones who can argue convincingly on behalf of the old Comiskey are the poets - and in the cacophony of our times the poet's voice is scarcely a whisper.

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