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Knocked for a Loop

For sports fans in the Windy City, it was a turbulent and troubling 48 hours

Any of you sports fans in other cities had a tough couple of days recently? Things going reasonably well for you in New York? Dallas? Denver? L.A.? Seattle? Not bad, you say? Win some, lose some. The usual?

Then maybe you can muster some empathy for the poor fans of Chicago, who suffered through a communal 48-hour seizure last week that you wouldn't wish on your mother-in-law's cockapoo. From Tuesday morning to Wednesday night the City of Big Shoulders nearly buckled from the mantle of gloom and doom that dropped on its back. In short order these were the events that occurred: The White Sox lost Game 1 of the American League Championship Series to the Toronto Blue Jays at home 7-3, with ace Jack McDowell giving up all seven earned runs; young and healthy Michael Jordan, a living legend, announced his retirement from the Bulls; the White Sox, still at home, lost Game 2 to the Blue Jays 3-1; the Cubs announced the firing of popular manager Jim Lefebvre after he had guided the club to only its third winning season in 21 years; in their NHL season opener the Blackhawks, unable to sign or trade popular right wing Steve Larmer, played without him and had to battle back on home ice to tie the expansion Florida Panthers 4-4; Northwestern University lost to Ohio State and Wisconsin by a combined score of 104-17. (Well, O.K., the Northwestern games came on the Saturdays before and after the fitful 48 hours, but those losses, for a team in suburban Evanston that looked to be headed for a big year in the Big Ten, seemed in keeping with the general civilian mood in Chicago.)

There were other, lesser disappointments during those 48 hours too. The normally heroic Bo Jackson snidely said that with the White Sox using light-hitting Dan Pasqua at first base in place of sore-armed Frank Thomas, Chicago was "playing a man short." Hall of Famer-to-be Carlton Fisk, released at midseason by the Sox, was turned away from the team's clubhouse before Game 1 by director of park operations David Schaefer because Fisk had "no tickets and no credentials."

Jeez, Chicagoans wondered as one, if Pudge, the man who caught more games than anyone else in baseball history, can be treated like that, who does have credentials?

Sports, which are supposed to raise us out of the muck of everyday life, had suddenly become the muck itself. So devastated were Chicagoans by Jordan's quitting that on Wednesday morning they could be seen shuffling to work like zombies. Jordan was a three-time NBA Most Valuable Player, a seven-time scoring leader who had just led the Bulls to a third consecutive NBA championship. Only 30, he was at the pinnacle of his game, Babe Ruth after hitting 60 homers. Jordan said he had accomplished everything he could as an athlete. "I'm going to watch the grass grow," he said of his posthoops plans, "and then go cut it."

Chicagoans know that baseball was the sport invented to plague the city with self-doubt. The Cubs, of course, have not won a world championship since 1908, the longest dry spell for any major team in pro sports. The Sox have not won the World Series since 1917, a nice stretch of desert too; but this year there was the slight hope that maybe enough time had passed—penicillin, TV and computers have all been invented since a World Series banner flew in the Toddlin' Town—that history might be rewritten by the Good Guys in Black.

Still, too many people remembered the bad old days and were reminded of them by the Sox's quick failure in Games 1 and 2. There is a hex on the team, veteran journalist and lifelong Sox fan Bill Gleason, 71, of the Southtown Economist reminded Ira Berkow of The New York Times. "Gleason can recite bizarre things that have happened to the White Sox," wrote Berkow before the playoffs began. "It is the only team, for example, to have two players, Moose Solters and Jackie Hayes, eventually go blind from on-field accidents."

But basketball had become the city's rock. When times got tough, Jordan was there to bail folks out emotionally and spiritually. A three-pointer, a jam, a steal, a big smile—you could count on him to instill civic pride. He personified toughness and niceness at once. Why, if the Jordan posters were taken down from kids' bedrooms throughout Chicagoland all at once, whole buildings would collapse.

When James Jordan was killed last July, Chicagoans mourned with the superstar for the loss of a father who had become a sort of dad to virtually the entire city. But now the elder Jordan's son was gone from the arena where so much good had occurred, and the civic ache was palpable. Loss, confusion and emptiness are not a fun trio. Chicagoans had to ask themselves: Is this what it means to be the Second City? To add irony to the painful 48 hours, WLUP AM-1000 radio announced in midcrisis that it had changed its format to all-sports programming and would henceforth be known by the call letters WMVP. Standing for what, cynics wondered: More Victories, Please? Michael Vanishes Prematurely?

But if we've learned anything about sports, it's that rebirth follows despair. Up follows down as surely as a duck follows its bill. And—what do you know!—there were the Sox taking two in a row from the Blue Jays up in Toronto just three days later. Unheard of, yes. But ain't that sports?

In fact, only one big hurt will last beyond winter here in this city so many of us call home. As Chicago Tribune columnist Mike Royko wrote on Thursday, after the 48 hours: "I'm going outside and yell, 'Come back, Michael, we love you.' "