TODAY'S PAPER
Clear 37° Good Afternoon
Clear 37° Good Afternoon
SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Fast starts by White Sox, Cubs have Chicago at center of baseball universe

Todd Frazier #21 of the Chicago White Sox

Todd Frazier #21 of the Chicago White Sox celebrates after hitting a grand slam home run in against the Texas Rangers in the top of the twelfth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 9, 2016 in Arlington, Texas. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Tom Pennington

The last time the White Sox won the World Series, in 2005, the planet was introduced to its first video-sharing website, something called, “YouTube.”

And the crosstown Cubs? Henry Ford had just unveiled the newest breakthrough in automotive transport, the Model T, in 1908.

The two Chicago baseball franchises have combined for a total of five world championships in the past 108 years, or the same number of rings Derek Jeter earned during his two-decade career playing shortstop in the Bronx.

Tradition? Sure. Winning? Not so much.

In this millennium, the two have finished better than .500 in the same season only four times.

What’s transpired so far this season, however, is changing perceptions about The Second City, now home to a pair of first-place teams that also possess the two best records in the sport.

Stranger still? Despite Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Yankees, it’s the White Sox, not the eternally-cursed Cubs, that may be the bigger surprise, especially after a spring training nearly swallowed whole by the Adam and Drake LaRoche saga.

You remember L’Affaire LaRoche, when the dad, Adam, chose to retire — and forfeit the remaining $13 million on his contract — after the White Sox put a stop to his 14-year-old son, Drake, being a constant uniformed presence around the team. At the time, the bizarre episode appeared to rip the Sox apart, with their ace, Chris Sale, engaging in verbal warfare with the front office.

But two months later, with the White Sox off to a 24-12 start, and comfortably sitting atop the AL Central, it’s safe to say they weathered that storm. It took plenty of diplomacy, from both sides, and emerging even stronger from that spring-training crucible shows that the South Siders might have more than merely talent on the roster.

“Absolutely,” outfielder Adam Eaton said Friday before a three-game series in the Bronx. “As much as we’ve lost a brother in LaRoche, when you lose a family member like that, you have to work through it, and I think we did that as a team. We found out a lot about each other through that process.

“It may have seemed from the outside that the house was burning down. But from a clubhouse standpoint, it brought us together closer, and now I think you see the product of what we went through.”

Imagine the relief for manager Robin Ventura, who is in the last year of his contract and coming off three straight losing seasons. Ventura, whose cool-hand demeanor has been considered a strength since his playing days, now gets credit for successfully navigating that turbulent period, along with piloting the quick start.

“They just kept going,” Ventura said. “It wasn’t something that broke them apart because there was something there — we knew it early on. When you go out on the field, in the clubhouse, seeing how these guys interact, how they were going about their work. It’s hard to sit here and quantify and explain it to somebody. But you could tell it was there early on.”

SOUTHSIDE RECONSTRUCTION

For that to happen, a number of new pieces, brought in by GM Rick Hahn, had to assimilate in a hurry. The combustible Bret Lawrie, traded twice in two seasons, has meshed seamlessly at second base, with a team-high .840 OPS. The 37-year-old Jimmy Rollins is turning back the clock at short, and Todd Frazier — Cincinnati’s homegrown fixture — is showing his power wasn’t just a byproduct of the Great American Ball Park launchpad. Frazier, sporting stitches in his lower lip and a bruised forehead from diving into the stands this week, leads the White Sox with 12 home runs and 32 RBIs.

“In Cincinnati, does the ball fly? Yeah, it certainly does,” Frazier said. “But I’ve hit a home run out of mostly every major-league park (23, in fact). I’m a home-run hitter, man. I can hit them out of any park.”

While both Chicago teams have muscle, it’s the pitching staffs that have helped separate them from the pack. The White Sox knew what they would get from the amazing Chris Sale — who improved to 8-0 with a 1.67 ERA after Friday’s complete-game win over the Yankees — and suspected a breakthrough season from fellow lefty Jose Quintana (5-2, 1.54 ERA). But Mat Latos, signed to a late one-year, $3-million deal in February, has been a shocker, starting 5-0 with a 3.40 ERA, more than a run lower than last season.

FAST TIMES IN WRIGLEYVILLE

As for the Cubs, 2015 Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta, already has a no-hitter, his second in the span of 16 starts, to go with a 6-0 record and 1.13 ERA before Saturday’s start against the Pirates. Two of his rotation-mates also have ERAs under two — Jon Lester (1.96) and Jason Hammel (1.77) — with John Lackey, the Cardinals’ defector, sporting a 0.97 WHIP. Overall, the Cubs’ staff is the MLB’s best in ERA (2.68), opponents’ batting average (. 205) and WHIP (1.06).

Combine the Cubs’ stingy pitching with a deep lineup that had scored the most runs (205) in baseball through Friday, and also was ranked third with a .807 OPS, and it becomes clear why many believe history could be made on the North Side this season.

Oh, and a ridiculous plus-104 run differential helps. The Cubs’ early 26-8 sprint has them on pace for 124 wins, which would obliterate the regular-season record shared by of the ’06 team and 2001 Mariners. One caveat, however. Neither of those teams actually won the World Series, which is why the Wrigley faithful — no matter how remarkable these numbers get — will be perched nervously on the edge of their seats all season long. Even Cubs’ executives are fidgeting nervously atop the division.

“Baseball karma is real,” Cubs president Theo Epstein told the Chicago Tribune this week. “You see some of the stuff written about us in the winter, some of the World Series odds and things like that, for a team that is a defending third-place team and hasn’t done anything yet. Some individuals haven’t proven they can accomplish certain things in back-to-back seasons. We’re still a losing team during my tenure here in Chicago.”

That Epstein is trying to pump the brakes on the Cubbie bandwagon is understandable. But we’re not sure how many giddy Chicagoans he’ll convince. After all, it was Epstein, in his previous job as Red Sox GM, who conquered the 86-year-old Curse of the Bambino by delivering Boston’s first title in 2004, then another in ’07.

Also, the Cubs were bold enough to build a “Celebration Room” in the newly-renovated home clubhouse at Wrigley Field. Equipped with strobe lights, a disco ball and a karaoke machine, the party den is supposed to prevent the victorious players from mucking up the ritzy, plush-carpeted sanctuary where the lockers are situated.

Apparently, the Cubs plan to be celebrating a lot over the next century. And with Joe Maddon at the helm, every day seems to be packed with as much fun as games. Maddon, who coined the slogan, “Embrace The Target,” emblazoned on T-shirts and the new clubhouse wall, continues to liven things up with funky dress-up days and unusual guests, like magicians, mimes and real bear cubs.

BATMAN & ROBIN

The White Sox? Eaton said a fully-costumed Batman showed up in their clubhouse during the last homestand, but breezed through quickly, and was gone as suddenly as he appeared.

“That was our only celebrity,” Eaton said. “He was there for literally two seconds and we never saw him again. Everyone was like, ‘Hey, that’s frickin’ Batman!’ Hopefully he’ll come back.”

With a Robin as manager, it’s certainly possible. But if not, no big deal. The White Sox are perfectly content to focus on baseball for the next six months. And while they’re definitely aware of the circus going on across town — the flamingos, the pythons, the star-spangled sport coats — what the Sox are staging on the South Side appears to be working, too.

“They can have all that, with however they play, with Maddon doing all the crazy things, and that’s fine,” Frazier said. “We’ll be under the radar until it counts. We’ve been doing our job.”

David Robertson, the former Yankees’ closer, is very familiar with the complexities of these intracity rivalries. He’s just never really been the “other” team in town, and the Cubs’ meteoric rise of the past two years has left him with a new perspective.

“They’re getting a lot of attention, but they deserve it,” Robertston said. “They seem to be unstoppable. When we play each other, people will be like, ‘Oh yeah, (the White Sox) are pretty good.’ Hopefully we can hold our own.”

Robertson was smiling. For the City of the Big Shoulders, it’s already starting to feel a little crowded.

WINdy CITY

North or South, the one thing both sides of Chicago have in common this season is first place. Here’s a breakdown, with MLB ranks in parentheses:

WHITE SOX

24-12 (1st, AL Central, +5.0)

Run Differential +41 (4th)

Batting Average: .253 (13th)

OPS: .730 (14th)

Home Runs: 34 (20th)

ERA: 3.13 (4th)

Opponents BA: .234 (8th)

WHIP: 1.19 (T6)

Top pitcher: Chris Sale, 8-0, 1.67 ERA, 8.04 K/9

HR/RBI leader: Todd Frazier, 11 HRs, 31 RBIs

2016 payroll: $118M (16th)

Stadium: U.S. Cellular Field (The Cell)

2016 avg. attendance: 19,691 (27th)

Famous fans: Barack Obama, George Wendt, Jerry Springer

World Series titles: 1906, 1917, 2005

CUBS

26-8 (1st, NL Central, +8.0)

Run differential: +104 (1st)

Batting Average: .265 (8th)

OPS: .807 (3rd)

Home Runs: 40 (12th)

ERA: 2.68 (1st)

Opponents’ BA: .205 (1st)

WHIP: 1.06 (1st)

Top pitcher: Jake Arrieta, 6-0, 1.13, 8.25 K/9

HR/RBI leader: Anthony Rizzo, 10 HRs, 29 RBIs

2016 payroll (MLB rank): $168M (7th)

Stadium: Wrigley Field (Friendly Confines)

2016 avg. attendance: 37,546 (5th)

Famous cans: Hillary Clinton, John Cusack, Eddie Vedder

World Series titles: 1907, 1908

Note: 2016 statistics do not include Saturday’s games

New York Sports