Sox fans avid despite disappointment

Sox fans remain avid in tough year

CHICAGO -- The date is June 28, 2007, and the pitcher on the mound is Ryan Bukvich.

A throng of highly supportive and boisterous White Sox fans come to their feet, as the right-hander tries to set down catcher Dioner Navarro for the final out of this particular victory. One member of the South Side faithful proudly holds up a broom as he stands down the left-field line.

But this celebration of a White Sox four-game sweep took place at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla., not in the home environs of U.S. Cellular Field. This series was listed as part of the White Sox road schedule, but there clearly seemed to be more White Sox fans in attendance than Devil Rays supporters.

With just 57 games remaining on the 2007 schedule, and 26 of those games at home -- where the White Sox have a 24-28 record -- the question arises as to how will this strong support manifest itself during the dog days of a disappointing season? Surprisingly, the on-field issues might not dissuade large groups of fans from attending games.

Championship leeway?

Ask most White Sox fans as to where they were when Juan Uribe threw out pinch-hitter Orlando Palmeiro to complete a four-game World Series sweep of Houston in 2005, setting off one of the greatest celebrations Chicago has ever seen, and they probably can pinpoint their location and what they were wearing, as well as who was part of their victory group.

It's that title run put together by general manager Ken Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen that helped the fans get through a rough finish to a promising 2006 campaign. It's that taste of a championship that would seem to have a carryover effect into this underachieving 2007 season. But White Sox vice president and chief marketing officer Brooks Boyer pointed out how the fans are as unhappy with this year's disappointment as the men in charge and the players on the field.

"Oh, no. They are ticked, there's no question," said Boyer, with a smile. "I get the e-mails. I'm now four years into this, and the nice thing is I know some of these people personally. So I have no problem corresponding with them because they are passionate fans.

"There's a guy, Eric, and he has become like a buddy of mine. I respect his opinion. He puts his money on the line to come out there and he wants to see a good product, and we want that too. Nobody is more driven to win than Kenny.

"Our hardcore fans tasted it and we won a World Series," Boyer added. "Now the bar is set so high that you want to get back there. There's nothing wrong with expectations of strong play. That's what people expect, but what we expect from ourselves is to also provide a great experience along with that good product."

Victories drive attendance

For almost as long as Jerry Reinsdorf's group has owned the White Sox, going back to 1981, a defining model existed to describe the attendance patterns for the two baseball teams in Chicago. Cubs fans go to games for the entire experience and old-school ambiance of Wrigley Field. As for the White Sox fans, they only would venture out if their team won consistently.

With the White Sox currently sitting nine games under .500, 12 games out of an American League playoff spot and one-half game ahead of Kansas City to avoid last place in the AL Central, empty seats would figure to outnumber actual fans at U.S. Cellular Field.

So, how does one explain a crowd of nearly 37,000 for Sunday's 4-1 loss to Toronto? How does a White Sox average attendance of close to 32,700 fans per game, ranking fifth-best in the AL, fly in the face of season-long struggles?

A connection to a group of likeable players stands out as one major reason. That bond was in evidence during the huge groundswell of support for Mark Buehrle, when it looked as if a trade of the staff ace was more likely than a contract extension.

The White Sox also have a season-ticket base in the range of 21,000 and remain on target to draw 2.7 million, despite some of the worst early season weather in recent memory.

"April and May ultimately will dictate, at least for us, what your total number will be at the end," Boyer said. "You hope you get good weather and put a bunch of groups out here and then the team carries September on an individual ticket basis.

"If the team doesn't carry September, it's all right because we are going to just continue to work to put groups in here. The experience has become so much better. People enjoy coming out here."

And within Boyer's previous comment lies the biggest reason for a change in the White Sox fan base. U.S. Cellular Field also has become part of the enjoyable baseball experience for people attending White Sox games.

A rejuvenated neighborhood

Countless improvements made to U.S. Cellular over the past half-decade have turned the ballpark into a destination point, instead of a source of complaints because the upper deck sat too high, for example.

"Our park is great, and everyone coming here loves it," said Reinsdorf during a recent interview. "It's a great park, especially for kids."

"We provide one of the best ballpark experiences in the league," Boyer added. "It's about friends connecting with friends and family connecting with family."

U.S. Cellular features Pontiac Fundamentals in left field, a place for youngsters to test their baseball skills, serving as one of the more unique in-game experiences throughout baseball. The overall atmosphere seems to have changed along the way, with everything from Southpaw, the team's mascot, to the Chevy Pride Crew to pregame entertainment, including recent musical sets from Colin Hay and O.A.R.

Of course, an economic upswing in the Bridgeport and Bronzeville neighborhoods surrounding U.S. Cellular hasn't hurt the White Sox cause either.

"Phenomenal," said Reinsdorf, describing the area's growth. "One of the reasons why the Cubs draw so well is because there are a huge amount of people who can get to the park in a half-hour or less. The South Side never had a population density, and now it's happening.

"Look at what's going on by Soldier Field. Look at what's going on at 35th and State. It's all over the South Side. People are coming back here. The area is really developing to our benefit."

Reinsdorf and the White Sox play a significant part in the area's development, just as Reinsdorf did with the city's West Side growth near the home of the Bulls at the United Center. The White Sox also did their own house-cleaning inside Comiskey Park and U.S. Cellular, entirely cutting off the sale of hard liquor, adding more security and cleaning up the restrooms.

"That made it more desirable for women to come," Reinsdorf explained.

"It was the worst behavior I've ever seen in the ballpark," added Reinsdorf of the crowd demeanor when he took over ownership from Bill Veeck, who once referred to old Comiskey Park as the world's largest outdoor saloon. "We adopted a code of conduct for the fans and started putting the drunks out. That's when we started to get more families coming.

"Bill was very proud of the unruly crowd. But Eddie [Einhorn] and I felt that if we were ever going to grow attendance -- and our goal was to someday draw 2 million people -- we would have to attract more than men. Women and children would have to come out."

Winning fans

Despite the changing White Sox fan base continuing to come out in droves, the organization certainly doesn't want to test this support with another subpar season. Williams has assembled one of the best starting staffs in all of baseball, a necessity for success, and has been taking a look at the young talent who should be part of a strong future.

Under Reinsdorf, the White Sox live by the mantra of putting back into the club whatever they make. The continued fan support in the face of adversity gives the organization an extra push to build another champion in 2008 and the years ahead.

"They're more forgiving than I would have imagined if this scenario had played out," said White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko of the fans. "At the same time, I don't want to test them."

"Believe me, these fans aren't easy," Guillen added. "They will support a ballclub. But if they see a lousy team on the field, they aren't the type of fans to show up just because. I don't want the fans to show up just for fireworks or Dog Day. I want fans to show up to watch a good ballclub play their game."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.