South Siders ready to hail the Chief

South Siders ready to hail the Chief

CHICAGO -- This is a story of South Side pride.

To take that point one step further, it's not a tale about politics -- Democrat, Republican, Green or any other party.

In fact, the only parties being recognized throughout Chicago on Monday night and Tuesday morning will be those celebrating the presidential inauguration of favorite son Barack Obama. And one of those celebrations will take place at 35th and Shields, at the ballpark where the First Fan's No. 1 team resides.

"Our approach to this has been, in a sense, that he chose us," said White Sox vice president of communications Scott Reifert of the connection between the country's first African-American president and his beloved White Sox.

"He was a fan before anything else," Reifert said. "We've tried to make this more a tone of congratulations for him and the celebration of the success of a White Sox fan."

The inauguration viewing party at U.S. Cellular Field is set to begin around 10:30 a.m. CT on Tuesday, with front-office staff and other special guests from the community in attendance. The only prerequisite to attend is the wearing of a White Sox cap.

MLB.com will stream live coverage of the inauguration on-line, beginning at 10 a.m. CT.

It stands out as a fitting tribute to the nation's 44th president, who since his historic election, continues to faithfully sport his slightly-worn White Sox cap on his way to everyday activities such as working out. Reifert shared Obama-cap stories, relayed to him, such as baseball legend Roland Hemond, a long-time White Sox executive, recently celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary in Costa Rica and stating how the White Sox caps seemed to be the hottest item in the country.

One of Reifert's friends was in a Washington, D.C., hospital and saw a woman wearing a White Sox hat. When he asked if she was a White Sox fan, she responded, "No, this is my Obama hat." But she quickly agreed to follow Obama's team, as well, with a little bit of prodding from the friend.

White Sox hat sales, in general, are up 25 percent in November and December, according to Reifert.

Barack Obama

"That's got to be because of somebody," said Reifert with a laugh. "Fans have called in with ideas we liked, such as every White Sox fan in the country should wear their hat on Tuesday as a sign of solidarity."

Reifert will be wearing a White Sox hat on Tuesday in the nation's capital, as he is in Washington D.C., with his family for the inauguration. His youngest daughter also gets to reunite with a schoolmate who moved away, as she has been friends with Sasha Obama since they were three.

Southpaw, the White Sox mascot, will ride on the Illinois float in the Presidential Inauguration Parade in Washington, D.C., while general manager Ken Williams also will be in attendance for all the festivities. Jim Thome and his family had inauguration tickets, but were unable to go, and the White Sox designated hitter gave them instead to first-base coach Harold Baines.

"Maybe Harold will buy me a dinner now in Spring Training," said Thome with a laugh, speaking Saturday night at the Joyce Thome Benefit for Children's Hospital of Illinois, hosted by the White Sox slugger in his hometown of Peoria. "It's a nice thing to be able to give something like that to my teammates."

Del Matthews, an assistant in baseball operations for the White Sox, mentioned how his father, Gary "Sarge" Matthews, his stepmother and sister all were on the historic train ride with Obama from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., for the inauguration. A number of White Sox personnel throughout the organization can recount meetings with the soon-to-be 44th president or previous chance encounters throughout Chicago.

This proud bond through baseball has given way to downright excitement, knowing that possibly the most prominent figure in the world today roots for the South Siders.

"You know, maybe some day I'll get to take my picture with him," said Thome with a smile, inferring an upcoming World Series get together at the White House without saying it directly. "When you see this all on television and know he's a White Sox guy, it hits you that, 'Hey, we are part of the White Sox.'"

Along with Tuesday's party, the White Sox plan to post congratulatory signs for Obama at U.S. Cellular and on the Dan Ryan Expressway message board. There's also a special section devoted to Obama on whitesox.com. Williams already has extended an invitation to have Obama throw out the first pitch on April 6, 2009, better known as Opening Day against the Royals, an honor Obama executed prior to Game 2 of the 2005 American League Championship Series. The White Sox won eight straight playoff games after that Obama pitch, en route to their first World Series title in nine decades.

A fine line exists between celebrating Obama's accomplishment and taking advantage of the situation. Reifert admitted that the White Sox are cognizant of not crossing that imaginary line and "turning people off" by being too opportunistic.

Then again, the White Sox faithful can't be blamed for puffing out their chests a little broader over the next few days, regardless of their political affiliation.

"We are talking about the accomplishment of one of our fans," Reifert said. "We would be just as excited if a White Sox fan won the Nobel Prize. This is really the way I think about it, and it's open to argument.

"Michael Jordan was once the most popular man on the planet, in terms of being recognized and popularity. And he was part of the White Sox [with Double-A Birmingham in 1994] for a little while.

"Who is the most popular man right now, in a cultural type way? It's President-elect Obama," Reifert said. "How cool is that when he goes on vacation to Hawaii, he wears his White Sox cap when he's on his way to work out? It's really a sort of connection for every White Sox fan."

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