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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Why Sox Park is Rockin'!
by Hal Vickery

Not all that long ago it was pretty much accepted that the White Sox had lost touch with their fan base. A lot of fans felt alienated by a lot of things, from the 1994-95 players strike that many Sox fans blamed on Sox Chairman Jerry Reinsdorf to the White Flag Trade of 1997 – and just about everything in between.

The Sox marketing department was so inept, that they took a mediocre campaign slogan, “The Kids Can Play,” and beat it to death for two years. The radio commercials featuring some fiddler playing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” were a joke.

Numerous attempts to “enhance” the fan experience such as the hiring of a DJ who basically went out on the field and made an ass of himself day after day didn’t help. Who can forget the memorable promotion where fans in a booth in centerfield had a chance to win all the “Comiskey Cash” he or she could grab while it was blown around them. I seem to remember that gimmick on a revival of the old game show Beat the Clock.

The Sox had received praise for the work of organist Nancy Faust over the years, so naturally “Sox officials,” thinking that ninety-five percent of the audience felt that “she stinks,” reduced her role while putting blaring music on the PA system, making any conversation between innings impossible.

To make matters worse, the Sox regressed after their 2000 division title to a team that hovered precariously around the .500 mark. Sox attendance dropped from a high of 2.8 million in 1991 to somewhere in the range of 1.6-1.9 million.

It also seemed as if the Sox were ashamed of their history. Perhaps it was just an attempt to join the “Foxification” of baseball, in which the history and traditions of the game were ignored in favor of hype and glitz. Despite criticisms of Comiskey Park, the Sox pointed to marketing surveys that supposedly showed that fans loved the place just the way it was.

Then suddenly things began to change. The Sox made the first of a series of renovations on their own and then made a naming rights deal with U.S. Cellular that resulted in drastic changes to Comiskey Park, now renamed U.S. Cellular Field. The Sox began by changing the alignment of the bullpens and adding more seating close to the field. After the U.S. Cellular deal was inked, the top of the upper deck was shorn off, the concourses in the club level and upper deck were improved immensely, the Fundamentals area was added, and seats behind home plate were changed into premium “Scout Seats” complete with wait service and a pre-game buffet.

The next important change occurred when Brooks Boyer was brought over from the Bulls to take over the marketing department. Boyer began by surveying Sox fans to find out what they thought was important. One of the things he found out early on was that Sox fans were nothing like Cubs fans. They cared about winning more than anything else. (Or as we’re fond of saying around here at WSI, “Sox fans hate losing.”)

The immediate result of this was the now-famous “Us vs. Them” commercial that played to standing ovations on the scoreboard. A change in advertising agencies led to a more aggressive sounding campaign. The desire of Sox fans for a team that would play hard and win was addressed in the current “Grinder Rules,” rule number one of which is “Win or Die Trying.” These rules are prominently posted on the exit ramps of the ballpark.

Boyer’s surveys also showed that Sox fans take pride in having the best organist in baseball, so at a time when other ball clubs are firing their stadium organists, Boyer approached Nancy Faust and asked her if she’d be willing to have a day in which she would play the only music heard before, during, and after the game. Nancy consented, and the result was “Nothing But Nancy Day.”

The Sox got all kinds of great publicity as camera crews from all the local television stations interviewed Faust. About the only negative to come from this event was a comment by John Jukovich on the sportsblab radio show he hosts that this was the equivalent of the Sox giving Nancy a gold watch before being shown the door.

Boyer himself has said that Faust can stay with the Sox as long as she wants. Faust has expressed her gratitude that Boyer has emphasized the things about the Sox experience that are unique. One person familiar with the Sox has said of Jurkovich’s speculation, “That would be the worst PR move the Sox could ever make.”

Based on his track record, we don’t think Boyer is going to make too many PR blunders of that magnitude.

Of course all of the marketing in the world isn’t going to pay off if the Sox don’t perform on the field. Reinsdorf and Williams addressed that situation before the 2004 season when they hired Ozzie Guillen as manager.

Dismissed by many in the media as a clown, misinterpreted by them in early comments about Frank Thomas, and called a big mouth by many of them, Guillen has turned out to be just what the Sox needed. Ozzie likes to talk, but Ozzie has a lot more going for him than his mouth. Ozzie has always been a student of the game. Had the media types paid attention to him in his time here as a player, they would have realized that.

Guillen was the onfield leader of the Sox when he played with them in the early ‘90s. He was the veteran, and he was the captain in all but title. He studied the game. As a coach he’d discuss decisions with his managers, filing their answers away for the day he would manage.

Ozzie made it known what kind of team he wanted, but he didn’t have it in 2004. So this past off-season, Williams went out and got him the types of players he felt they needed. You can’t underestimated the importance of two of those players, Scott Podsednik and Tadahito Iguchi, to the club’s success.

Podsednik is a smart baserunner who has a book on every pitcher. He knows what moves by each pitcher to look for before he takes off. The obvious result is that he is on a pace to break Rudy Law’s club record of 77 steals. The less obvious result is his effect on pitchers who concentrate on him instead of the batter.

That batter is usually Iguchi who must lead the league in productive outs, often sacrificing himself so Podsednik can steal. Iguchi may be the best number two hitter the Sox have had since Hall-of-Famer Nellie Fox.

Adding A.J. Pierzynski to the mix has helped the pitching staff no end. He knows how to handle pitchers, and the results show. Jon Garland has blossomed this year. One reason is that he is throwing more on the inner half of the plate. Pierzynski has been credited convincing Garland to make this change.

All of this has been a wonderful confluence of events. The Sox marketing department appeals to the pride of the fans and points out that the team is made up of their kind of players. The club has put together a team that can be marketed that way. And best of all that team is winning.

Result: The Cell is rocking with over 30,000 fans showing up for games on a regular basis for the first time in several years. Sure, some of those are bandwagon jumpers. Others are idiot Cubs fans who come to games dressed in Cubbie blue to make asses of themselves. But most of them come away knowing that they were entertained, and that will bring them back.

And that will lead to more revenue that the Sox can spend to improve this club even more.


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are not necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at hvickery@svs.com.

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