Wanted: Rowdy fans

Paint your face and make some noise, because that's what U.S. Soccer faces on the road.

June 4, 2009, 11:07 PM

By: Wayne Drehs

SAN JOSE, COSTA RICA -- So I guess you had to be there. I guess you had to feel the stadium sway back and forth, see the veins pop out of the necks of the 24,000 screaming fans and hear the nonstop chants supporting the home team to grasp fully the passion that ran through this city's main soccer venue Wednesday night.

It didn't stop. From the moment the United States stepped onto the pitch for warm-ups until the moment the final horn sounded, the Costa Rican fans poured everything they had into supporting their team and harassing the Americans.

Landon Donovan

AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills

Landon Donovan & Co. could use a boost from the Soldier Field faithful.

But come Saturday night, it will be our turn. Literally. Chicago will host the first-ever World Cup qualifying match at Soldier Field when the U.S. Men's National Team faces Honduras at 7 p.m. More than 50,000 tickets have already been sold and the U.S. Soccer Federation is hoping for a sellout.

Wednesday's loss dropped the Americans into second place in the CONCACAF standings, three points ahead of Honduras. Win, and the disastrous performance against Costa Rica will quickly be forgotten. Lose, and the memories of 2001 -- when the U.S. lost consecutive qualifying matches at Costa Rica and Mexico and at home against Honduras -- will come storming back quickly.

It won't be easy. Honduras is the last team to defeat the Americans in a qualifying match on U.S. soil. And the U.S. could potentially be without forward Brian Ching and defender Frankie Hejduk; both missed the Costa Rica match due to injury. The Americans know they won't have the services of injured midfielder Maurice Edu and team anchor Michael Bradley. Bradley picked up his second yellow card of the final round of qualifying against Costa Rica and thus will be forced to sit.

Then there's the fatigue factor. The U.S. will be playing two matches in less than 72 hours, and a handful of players -- Landon Donovan, Jose Torres and Tim Howard included -- will be playing their third match in eight days if they are called upon against Honduras.

And that's where the fans come in. Though the U.S. team spent much of its 60 hours in San Jose downplaying the influence the rowdy Saprissa Stadium fans would have on the game, they know a frenzied atmosphere can work wonders for a team's confidence. And at this point, confidence is just what this team needs.

So now it's time for some sweet home Chicago cooking. Pretend that Honduras is the Red Wings, Packers, Cardinals and Twins all rolled into one. Pretend that the goalkeeper is Brett Favre, the central midfielder Dan Cleary and the manager Tony La Russa. Whatever it takes.

Maybe that means Jim Cornelison singing the national anthem. Maybe that means someone pointing the Hondurans toward a gut-busting pregame meal at the Billy Goat Tavern. Or maybe it's as simple as every casual Chicago sports fan in attendance leaving civility at home and following the lead of Sam's Army, the unofficial U.S. fan club, by wearing red and singing, dancing and screaming the Americans on to victory.

Because that's what the Americans face every time they go on the road. And that's what they will need Saturday night to fight the fatigue and earn the three critical points that would come with a victory.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPNChicago.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com. Follow Wayne on Twitter at ESPNWayneDrehs.

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He did what?

Joakim Noah -- once Chicago's least favorite son -- turned the tide on one unbelievable play

May 1, 2009, 12:56 AM

By: Wayne Drehs

I had but one thought as I watched it all unfold, one sentence that kept pinballing its way back and forth in my cluttered mind as soon as the unthinkable had happened. The voice was that of legendary broadcaster Jack Buck.

I don't believe what I just saw.

Only Thursday night, there was no Kirk Gibson. No Dennis Eckersley. No ball. No bat. And certainly no World Series.

Joakim Noah

AP photo/Nam Y. Huh

So let's get this straight. Joakim Noah steals the ball from Paul Pierce …

Instead, there was Joakim Noah, with his flowing locks and flailing arms, poking a ball loose and sprinting for the basket with the determination of a fat man chasing a dozen donuts. There was Paul Pierce, the future Hall of Famer who seems to doze off for most of the game but always hits the big shot or makes the big play when it matters most. And this was nothing more than the first round of the NBA playoffs, a fact I seem to be constantly forgetting with every minute the Bulls and Celtics continue to play.

There was Noah, the guy nobody in Chicago truly wanted two years ago, making unquestionably the biggest play of his basketball life in the closing minute of the third overtime Thursday night when he gave Pierce, the future Hall of Famer, a basketball lesson.

First he poked the ball away from Pierce, then outfought him for the loose ball and then began dribbling full speed toward Chicago's basket with Pierce following along stride for stride. If you could have paused the game right then and there, the Las Vegas odds on what was about to happen next would have looked like this:

  • Noah loses control, dribbles ball off his leg and gives it back to the Celtics: 3-2

  • Noah loses control, hustles for the loose ball and gets it back for the Bulls: 2-1

  • Noah is fouled by Pierce: 4-1

  • Noah dunks the basketball: 15-1

  • Noah dunks the basketball over Pierce, who uses his sixth foul on Noah, ending his night and giving Chicago the potential for a three-point play: 40-1.

    Joakim Noah

    AP photo/Nam Y. Huh

    … and then dunks on him and draws Pierce's sixth foul?

    And yet 40-1 is what happened. The guy nobody wanted, the guy most Bulls fans have spent the past two years (A) booing and (B) figuring out how to get rid of made arguably the biggest play of the game for Chicago. Sure, Derrick Rose's block on Rajon Rondo was just as key, but if Kirk Hinrich makes his layup, that block becomes irrelevant.

    In a span of a few seconds, the 6-foot-11 Noah was the center of a potential five-point swing. With the game tied, his steal on Pierce kept the Celtics from taking the lead, then his dunk and subsequent free throw put the Bulls up by three, giving Chicago a lead it would not lose.

    Now, suddenly, all that passion, all that energy, all that pumping of the fists and screaming with the apparent intention of popping a vein is perfect. The skipping around the United Center floor after Thursday night's victory, high-fiving everyone from the fans seated in the front row to the Love-A-Bulls to Benny the Bull, perfect.

    That's what happens when you pull off the unthinkable. That's what happens when, in the blink of an eye, you lift an entire city off its seat and do something that no one else thought was possible.

    And perhaps the best part was the way he did it. It wasn't luck. It wasn't a hot shooting stroke. It was desire. And determination. As soon as Noah had his hands on that ball, he had one thing on his mind. Like an old mule with blinders on, his focus was on doing whatever it took to stuff that ball in the basket. And nobody -- not even Paul Pierce -- was going to stand in his way.

    Which leads me to my last thought -- no matter what happens Saturday, no matter whether the Bulls win or the Celtics win, no matter if it's a blowout or a five-overtime thriller, whenever it's finished, every single Chicago sports fan should stand and applaud.

    Because for the past two weeks, these two teams have given us seven games of basketball we will never forget. Everyone has played with that same desire. That refusal to go home. Aside from the Game 3 blowout, when it seemed the Bulls were going to be left for dead, every game has been a thriller. And every character has had a story, be it Noah exceeding expectations, Ben Gordon and John Salmons fighting injuries, Pierce and Ray Allen defying age, Rondo emerging as a star or Derrick Rose showing flashes of brilliance. These two teams have taken us on a ride no one could have predicted.

    And yet Saturday night, it will all be over. When it is, one team will head home. The other will face the prospect of knowing they somehow need to do that 12 more times to win the NBA title.

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  • Arena food for thought

    Here are my suggestions to improve ballpark food; give me yours

    April 29, 2009, 3:11 PM

    By: Wayne Drehs

    I visited Citi Field during a recent visit to New York and even now, almost a week later, I can't get the place out of my head. It has nothing to do with the amazing sight lines, the massive Jumbotron (which stopped working while we were there) or the spacious, open feel when you walk the main concourse. No, it has to do with the food. A Shake Shack cheeseburger to be more exact. My mouth waters just thinking of the toasted, buttery bun, the juicy, perfectly seasoned sirloin. It was pretty darn close to the best fast-food burger I've ever had -- right up there with anything from In-N-Out or the Billy Goat. Pretty much every time I've eaten since, my brain has wondered, "What the hell is this? Why not another one of those Shake Shack burgers?"

    It's all gotten me thinking -- what if we could raise the bar for stadium food? No more cold hot dogs, hard pretzels or sponge-like slices of pizza. No more nuclear-colored cheese sauce for your nachos and instead, fresh, tasty, tummy-pleasing cuisine. I don't mean sushi, salmon or a peppercorn-crusted filet. Save that for the suit-and-tie types downtown. I'm talking for the rest of us who don't even flinch if we spill some hot sauce on our shirt.

    So here's the challenge: If you could choose any four Chicago-based fast-food-type restaurants to start selling at Wrigley, The Cell, Soldier Field or the United Center, what would they be? And what would they serve? Here are my choices:

    1. Portillo's Italian Beef

    Just the thought makes me smile. My friends and I have argued for years over the city's best Italian beef -- some of them like Al's, others prefer Luke's and then of course there's always Mr. Beef. Me? I've always been a Portillo's guy. And, if they could serve it hot, with the freshly-dipped soggy bun, I would have no trouble forking over $8 or $9 for an in-restaurant quality Portillo's beef.

    2. Lou Malnati's Pizza

    Replicating a hot Lou's pizza with its tomato chunks and sausage slab would be no easy task in a stadium. And as great as cold pizza may taste, a cold deep dish pizza is typically a colossal failure. Another challenge -- the mess. Call me what you want, but I have not been able to master a slice of Lou's deep dish deluxe without using silverware. But if they could make mini slices and serve it hot, I'd so be on board.

    3. Paradise Pup Cheeseburger

    Sure, the Billy Goat gets more attention from out-of-towners, has a connection to Chicago sports and serves a pretty tasty slice of bun-covered meat. But a competition between its burger and one from this Des Plaines institution is as lopsided as Brian Scalabrine trying to guard Derrick Rose. There would be definite challenges to bringing the Paradise Pup into a stadium -- the meat is brought in fresh daily and the cheese is shipped in from Wisconsin. But oh the happiness if they could pull it off.

    4. The Patio's Barbecue Ribs

    I probably prefer Carson's ribs an ever-so-slight tad better, but the fact that The Patio is already a restaurant with counter service (as opposed to a place with white tablecloths), leads me to believe that they would have a better chance of making this happen. Sure, ribs would be a bit messy. But whatever -- just grab a couple of extra napkins.

    Hungry yet? What about you? Send your suggestions for a restaurant or fast food stand that you wish could be added to the menu at the stadium of your favorite team and I will post those ideas in a later blog.

    Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com. Follow Wayne on Twitter at ESPNWayneDrehs.

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    Four Bulls-Celtics questions after Game 2

    Here are the four questions that came to mind after watching Game 2 of the Chicago Bulls-Boston Celtics series.

    April 21, 2009, 8:41 AM

    By: Wayne Drehs

    Ben Gordon

    AP Photo/Elise Amendola

    Bulls guard Ben Gordon (7) launches a shot against Celtics guard Ray Allen.

    Four questions after watching Monday night's Bulls-Celtics thriller (Boston won 118-115 to even the series 1-1):

    1. How does coach Vinny del Negro allow his team to run out of timeouts in the fourth quarter?

    I know you can't take them with you to the locker room, but still, don't you keep at least one timeout in your back pocket in case you need to draw up some sort of desperation last-second play? As it was, after Allen hit his game-winning three with two seconds left, the best the Bulls could muster was a last-second desperation heave by Tyrus Thomas. Who knows if it would have mattered, but I would have loved to have seen Vinny draw something up allowing Rose and Gordon to try to work some magic. At that point, two seconds is an eternity. Yet neither of the Bulls best players took the final shot.

    2. What sort of shooting drills does Jim Calhoun use at UConn?

    The back-and-forth battle between former Huskies Ben Gordon and Ray Allen in the fourth quarter was ridiculous. I kept telling the wife that Gordon should pass because nobody who isn't named Kobe or LeBron consistently makes off-balance fadeaway jumpers. And yet Gordon never missed -- or at least it seemed that way (42 points on 14-of-24 overall, 6-of-11 on 3s and 8-of-9 from the line). And then there was Allen (30 points, 6-of-10 on 3s), all but left for dead after the first half, hitting jumper after jumper, including the game-winning 3-pointer that saved the Celtics' season. If I'm Calhoun, I save the highlights of that game for a rainy day.

    3. What's with all the swearing?

    I don't claim to have anywhere close to a clean mouth, but do we need the slow-motion close-ups of Gordon, Kevin Garnett and others constantly repeating the mother of dirty words, the F-dash-dash-dash word, the one that got Ralphie's mouth washed out with soap? A 6-year-old could have read lips on Monday night and received a colorful tour of the English language. Players aren't role models. I get it. But does every big shot need an F-bomb as its exclamation point?

    4. What should we expect in Chicago?

    The Bulls have matched the defending champs shot for shot in the first two games of the series and return home Thursday night with the series tied. They've made Boston look tired, old and vulnerable. An extra day of rest will help the Celtics going into Game 3, but I am starting to believe the Bulls have a legitimate chance to send the NBA champions home early. To me, there are two keys to making that happen. First, they have to improve on the defensive glass. Secondly, they have to limit Rajon Rondo's penetration.

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    Doesn't get better than this

    Bulls, Blackhawks exceeding expectations

    April 20, 2009, 2:34 PM

    By: Wayne Drehs

    So yes, Saturday was quite the day for Chicago sports fans. Derrick Rose surgically dismantled the defending NBA champion Boston Celtics. Jonathan Toews forced Mike Keenan's few remaining hairs to turn gray. Aramis Ramirez hit an extra-inning walk-off against the hated Cardinals. And the White Sox continued their domination of defending American League champion Tampa Bay.

    It was as good as it gets. Not because everybody won, but because of the lack of expectation. Just look at Chicago's two postseason teams. Five days ago, no one (except perhaps Kendall Gill) expected the Bulls to beat Boston. No one knew what to expect from the young Blackhawks. And now the Bulls have stolen home-court advantage from the Celtics and the Hawks are on the verge of putting the Flames away. Both teams are playing with the house's money.

    In a city where we do nothing but fear what's about to go wrong next, every victory is another cherry on top. As a fan, there's no heartache. No fear of unrealized expectations. Just hope and optimism for the future. It doesn't get any better. After all, looking back, who was more fun to cheer for?

    *Twenty-strikeout Kerry Wood in '98 or 34-save Kerry Wood in '08?

    * Defensive Rookie of the Year Brian Urlacher in '00 or grouchy Brian Urlacher in '08?

    * The never-beat-the-Braves-in-the-first-round Cubs of 2003 or the everyone-is-picking-us-to-win-it-all Cubs of 2008?

    What about the '05 White Sox? It's hard to argue that any Chicago postseason run has been more magical. No expectations, a brutal late-season collapse but then a shocking upset of defending world champion Boston (see a pattern here?) en route to the city's first World Series championship in 88 years. Scott Podsednik still doesn't have to buy a beer anywhere south of the Eisenhower.

    That's the beauty of these Bulls and Blackhawks teams. If they win, great. If not, there won't be any permanent scarring. They're young. There's time. Just wait 'til next year.

    But therein lies the catch. Next year, Rose will be expected to drop 25 and 10 every night. Kane and Toews will be the anchors of a Blackhawks team that will be among the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. For all three of them, the Mark Prior treatment will be in full force.

    So tonight, when you're watching Rose slice through the Boston defense, when you're watching Kane and Toews play keep-away with Calgary, take a second to appreciate the beauty of youth and the enjoyment that comes with the lack of expectation. Next year, everything changes.

    Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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    The Wonderful World Of Wrigley

    Wayne reflects on a wonderful, wet day at Wrigley Field.

    April 13, 2009, 6:57 PM

    By: Wayne Drehs

    Former Cubs catcher Jody Davis chats with Wayne Drehs.

    It started just before 3 a.m., when the Chicago Police Department received a call that a dead goat had been hung from the Harry Caray statue outside Wrigley Field. It ended some 15 hours later, when Cubs closer Kevin Gregg struck out a trio of Rockies to preserve a 4-0 victory.

    In between, Kosuke Fukudome continued to show flashes of his April 2008 self, Derrek Lee picked up his first multihit game of the season, Alfonso Soriano pushed his average over .300 and Ted Lilly carried a no-hitter into the seventh inning.

    Welcome to Opening Day in Chicago, a bitterly cold, mist-filled affair that seemed to have something for everyone.

    "It was quite the day out there today," catcher Koyie Hill said afterward. "I think the fans who braved the elements really had a good time."

    How could they not? Especially those who liked pitching. Lilly cruised through 6 2/3 innings of no-hit, one-walk ball until Garrett Atkins smacked a base hit to left field in the seventh.

    It was a far different Lilly from the one who surrendered eight hits and five earned runs in five innings against Houston last week, despite the elements.

    "That's Ted," Hill said. "He's always up for the challenge. It could be snowing, sleeting, he could have been pitching on the top of Mount Everest and he would have been game. He's just such a competitor."

    Hill said he was well aware that Lilly was closing in on a no-no, at one point changing his mind when he thought about taking off the stocking cap he had been using to keep his head warm under his helmet.

    "I didn't want to mess anything up," he said.

    Lilly, who carried a no-hitter into the seventh for the third time in his past five regular-season starts, said it was a slider that Atkins hit.

    "It wasn't as late and as sharp as I would have liked," Lilly said. "But he put a good swing on it."

    The Cubs' offense drew its fifth bases-loaded walk in its past three games and continued to find ways to score runs without its best lineup. Geovany Soto, Milton Bradley and Aramis Ramirez all missed Monday's game with various bumps and bruises, prompting manager Lou Piniella to put Fukudome in the No. 3 hole. Fukudome, all but booed out of town after last year's second-half collapse, responded by going 1-for-2 with three walks. He has hit .417 so far this season.

    So what should we make of the Cubs at this point of the season? It's obviously too early to draw any grand conclusions, but the results can't be argued with. Despite the struggles of the bullpen, despite the shoulder injury to Soto, despite Lee's getting only his second extra-base hit today, the team is 5-2.

    "I think we're looking pretty good right now," Gregg said.

    That they are. And as for the dead goat, Chicago Police said it has no suspects. And no surveillance cameras were able to determine what happened. After Monday's win, Piniella had his own thoughts on the second dead goat to find itself attached to the Harry Caray statue since 2007.

    "Poor Harry Caray," Piniella said. "Why in the world would people do something like that? I know I wouldn't find that too amusing."

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    So Who Jinxed Lilly?

    Wayne is in the Wrigley Field press box and will have updates throughout the rainy opener.

    April 13, 2009, 5:07 PM

    By: Wayne Drehs

    Ted Lilly

    AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

    Ted Lilly

    So maybe it was too early. Maybe I shouldn't have posted that last update or even hinted at what was going on here. Maybe I should have ignored Ross' question. Or maybe, between innings, that guy in the row behind me shouldn't have yelled on the phone, "Hey -- if there's a no-hitter, I'll call you back."

    Because less than five minutes later, it was over. With two outs in the seventh inning, Garrett Atkins smacked a line drive base hit to left field and Ted Lilly's bid to become the 15th Cubs pitcher to throw a no-hitter was over.

    Or, more than likely, none of that had anything to do with it. The odds just caught up with the left-hander. Either way, Lilly thoroughly entertained the Cubs faithful who braved the brutal elements on Monday. His final line: 6 2/3 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 2 BB, 8 K. After the hit, Lilly walked Seth Smith and then left the game to a standing ovation. Once reliever Angel Guzman coaxed Troy Tulowitzki into a fly ball to center, the inning came to an end and the frigid fans began fleeing for the exits (yes, I'm practicing my alliteration) with the Cubs up 3-0.

    One thing that went largely unnoticed in all that happened during the seventh: During the pitching change, Cubs left fielder Alfonso Soriano all but hugged the well in the left-field wall in an attempt to stay warm. It's just Sori being Sori.

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    Can We Report This News?

    Wayne struggles with the sports journalist's ultimate conundrum

    April 13, 2009, 4:40 PM

    By: Wayne Drehs

    Ted Lilly

    AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast

    Ted Lilly

    So when is it safe to say it? When is it OK to put those two words together, back-to-back, in a sentence? Because right now I can't type it. Right now I can't say anything about it.

    I'll just say that Ted Lilly is pitching really, really well right now. I'll just point out that none of the Colorado Rockies has reached base beyond second. And I'll mention that if you're a Cubs fan, you might want to find a television and turn it on. That's it.

    In fact, my wife just e-mailed me and asked me how the game is going. I just told her the Cubs are winning 2-0. that's it. Ross Jacobson, a Cubs fan and Northwestern student, is following the blog and watching the game at home and we're on the same page. He can't even ask the question.

    Wrote Ross:

    Wayne, I'm a Cubs fan and Northwestern student watching the game on WGN. Ted Lilly's only baserunner allowed is a walk. What's the policy in the press box among sports writers and media members when talking about this current pitching performance? Is it the same for most fans where the mere mention of the word is bad karma?

    Well Ross, I can't speak for the entire press box, but I can tell you that nobody else around me has said those two words. We're all casually browsing through great Cubs pitching performances, bringing up a few names of famous pitchers from Cubs history, but nobody has leaned over to the guy next to him and gone, "Hey, dude -- did you see? Ted Lilly has a …" I haven't heard those two words once. And I hope I don't for at least another hour.

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    Over-Under: Reader Feedback

    Wayne is in the Wrigley Field press box and will have updates throughout the rainy opener.

    April 13, 2009, 4:28 PM

    By: Wayne Drehs

    Earlier today, with 22 as the number, I asked readers to take the over or under. Reader John Ligon took the bait:

  • Rich Harden starts? Over
  • Derrek Lee home runs? Wayyyyy under
  • Kevin Gregg saves? Under
  • Carlos Marmol saves? Over
  • Alfonso Soriano stolen bases? Under
  • Reed Johnson appearances on Top Plays? God willing if Lou puts him in … over
  • Jake Peavy's jersey number after he joins the Cubs? Over

    I agree with John on all points except for Derrek Lee. Maybe I'm just a sucker for good guys, but I'd like to think Lee can still get 25 home runs out of that bat. We shall see.

    Fellow reader Jonathan Parise also e-mailed to mention how excited he is that Kosuke Fukudome, 0-for-1 with two walks today, appears to be back to his early 2008 form. Fukudome was hitting .409 entering today's game. "Hopefully Early Season Fukudome plans to stay in the city a bit longer this season," Parise wrote.

    I couldn't agree more. And by the way, with Ryan Theriot's pop out to end the 5th inning the Cubs have now stranded 11 runners in the past four innings yet lead 2-0.

    Have a question? An opinion? Hate the Cubs? Or the White Sox? Drop me a line at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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  • Rocky Mountain Low

    The Rockies look decidedly uncomfortable in weather they should be used to

    April 13, 2009, 4:19 PM

    By: Wayne Drehs

    So Denver, yeah, it gets cold there. They have snow, they have temperatures in the 30s. They have wind. But the Rockies just don't appear to be quite comfortable in today's elements.

    After all, Cubs left-hander Ted Lilly has kept them hitless through five innings, starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez was pulled in the fourth after throwing 104 pitches -- yes 104 pitches -- and manager Clint Hurdle was ejected in the top of the fifth by first base umpire Tim McClelland.

    Jimenez's final pitching line was quite, umm, interesting: 3 2/3 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 6 BB, 5 K, 1 HBP, 1 balk, 104 pitches, 55 strikes. Can't remember the last time I saw a guy throw 104 pitches and not get out of the fourth inning.

    Have a question? An opinion? Hate the Cubs? Or the White Sox? Drop me a line at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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