WHITE FLIGHT FRIGHT NIGHT

Doc­u­men­tary about Sox’ near move to Florida is in the works

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - JEFF AGREST ja­grest@sun­times.com | @jef­freya22

When I came up with ideas for Chicago sports doc­u­men­taries dur­ing the sports shut­down, I thought I was ahead of the game. One of them was about the White Sox’ near move to Florida, which hinged on a vote for a new sta­dium in the

Illi­nois Leg­is­la­ture on June 30, 1988.

But re­cently I was told that such a doc­u­men­tary was in the early stages of de­vel­op­ment and that it was be­ing pro­duced by Scott Diener, who di­rected “Pooh: The Der­rick Rose Story.’’

And that he had been re­search­ing since last sum­mer.

Who knew?

“YOU START RE­AL­IZ­ING

THERE IS THIS IN­TER­SEC­TION

OF SPORTS AND POL­I­TICS THAT PLAYED SUCH A SIG­NIF­I­CANT ROLE. ONCE ALL OF THAT STARTED TO MA­TE­RI­AL­IZE, THAT’S WHEN YOU KNEW YOU RE­ALLY HAD SOME­THING.” SCOTT DIENER, doc­u­men­tar­ian, on the White Sox’ near move to Florida in 1988

I was stoked when I found out. That vote — whether it fin­ished June 30 or July 1, as the story goes — was a sem­i­nal mo­ment in not just Chicago sports his­tory, but base­ball his­tory. And Diener, whose Rose doc­u­men­tary was well-re­ceived, is dig­ging deep into the story.

“I don’t think there’s ever been an episode in sports like this when you’ve had this loom­ing threat of a his­toric fran­chise leav­ing a city that all came down to one mo­ment in this leg­is­la­tion,” said Diener, 43. “And the re­al­ity is that the deal didn’t make the dead­line. There were these machi­na­tions be­hind the scenes of this ma­neu­ver­ing to whether they stopped the clock or just made up the time.”

Diener wasn’t struck by the story be­cause he’s a Sox fan who nearly lost his child­hood team. He was a 12-year-old grow­ing up in Fort Lauderdale when the Sox nearly left for St. Peters­burg. He’d heard sto­ries about the po­ten­tial move while vis­it­ing var­i­ous spring-train­ing sites around Florida that March.

Decades later, he read John Hel­yar’s “Lords of the Realm: The Real His­tory of Base­ball,” which reac­quainted him with those sto­ries and told him new ones. They fas­ci­nated him, and he went into re­search mode. Since then, he has talked to politi­cians, me­dia mem­bers, fans and South Side res­i­dents who watched the story un­fold first­hand.

Diener sees the story as hav­ing three prin­ci­pal fig­ures: Illi­nois House Speaker Michael Madi­gan, then-Gov. James Thomp­son and Sox chair­man Jerry Reins­dorf. Diener’s in­ter­view with Madi­gan is al­ready in the can.

“He was re­ally can­did about all the de­bates in the Leg­is­la­ture in try­ing to se­cure the fi­nanc­ing through the new ho­tel tax they were cre­at­ing, through the sports au­thor­ity [the Illi­nois Sports Fa­cil­i­ties Au­thor­ity] that was go­ing to man­age new Comiskey,” Diener said. “He walked me through the en­tire night of the leg­isla­tive process in the House.

“He was re­ally coy about whether or not it was past mid­night. But I think enough time has passed where every­one knows it was past mid­night, but no one’s ever talked about al­low­ing the votes to go past mid­night and claim­ing it was 11:59. I think there’s go­ing to be a num­ber of rev­e­la­tions in that se­quence of events.”

Diener talked to Thomp­son but wasn’t able to in­ter­view him on cam­era be­fore he died last week. There was the po­ten­tial for a gap­ing hole in the film, but through his ex­haus­tive re­search, Diener found an au­dio in­ter­view the Abra­ham Lin­coln Pres­i­den­tial

Li­brary and Mu­seum con­ducted with Thomp­son in 2015 that covered his ef­forts to keep the Sox in Chicago.

But Diener knows the most im­por­tant char­ac­ter in the story is Reins­dorf. Diener talked to the Sox about an in­ter­view, but he ex­pects the team to ad­dress the film af­ter the sea­son.

“The more in­ter­views we do now and the more we’re able to show them the struc­ture of the film that we’re cre­at­ing, I think it will go a long way to try to se­cure Reins­dorf ’s time,” Diener said. “I tried to stress to them that it’s not about paint­ing him as a bad guy or this hatchet job with the White Sox. It’s a guy that worked his ass off to get this new sta­dium and pro­tect the fu­ture of the fran­chise.”

Diener plans to cover sev­eral an­cil­lary sto­ries, too, in­clud­ing the fate of McCuddy’s tav­ern, which was de­mol­ished to make way for new Comiskey Park but wasn’t re­built, de­spite the McCuddy fam­ily’s claim of a hand­shake agree­ment for land nearby. There also are the res­i­dents who were dis­placed from their homes be­cause of the new sta­dium.

There’s then-WMAQ Ra­dio’s live cov­er­age of the vote. The sta­tion sent stringer Charles McBar­ron to Spring­field to cover what turned into a chaotic scene. McBar­ron gave play-by-play of the vot­ing and the time that re­mained amid peo­ple shout­ing and singing “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Good­bye.”

And, to make sure the film has a broader au­di­ence, there’s the fall­out in Florida, where res­i­dents fully ex­pected the Sox to land.

“You start re­al­iz­ing there is this in­ter­sec­tion of sports and pol­i­tics that played such a sig­nif­i­cant role,” Diener said. “Once all of that started to ma­te­ri­al­ize, that’s when you knew you re­ally had some­thing. There was def­i­nitely a fea­ture doc­u­men­tary there to be told.”

The time­line for the film is fluid. Diener still needs to cre­ate a “siz­zle reel,” a short pro­mo­tional video, to en­tice prospec­tive net­works, and the process of pitch­ing the film could take months. An in­de­pen­dent film­maker, Diener is work­ing with Me­dia Process Group in Chicago to pro­duce the film.

In the mean­time, Diener will keep in­ter­view­ing and re­search­ing with his typ­i­cal thor­ough­ness, and he hopes those ef­forts will con­tinue to open doors.

“The more peo­ple you make con­nec­tions with and the more you’re able to get their trust that you’re telling the story in an authen­tic way, they be­come a lit­tle bit more re­veal­ing,” Diener said. “That’s what’s hap­pened over the last few weeks. I feel good about be­ing able to in­tro­duce new dis­cov­er­ies as part of the story while at the same time con­tin­u­ing to talk to peo­ple.”

GETTY IM­AGES

An aerial view of old Comiskey Park and new Comiskey Park circa 1990.

SUN-TIMES

Then-Gov. James Thomp­son (right) tours the new Comiskey Park in 1990.

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