Just for giggles, just to soften the impending doom swallowing the lifeless White Sox, I ponder a silly souvenir purchase. I stare down the vendor at Angel Stadium and want one of those red, foam-rubber hats shaped like a fish, the way an Orange County crowd pays tribute to the greatest 21-year-old ballplayer in all humankind, Mike Trout.
I consider this investment because only a minute earlier, on the Kiss Cam segment between innings of another unwatchable Sox loss, they’d flashed up to Steve Stone and Hawk Harrelson in the TV booth in hopes of coaxing a lips-on-lips smooch from two analysts who sit so far apart during games one could be in Anaheim and the other in Rancho Cucamonga.
But Stoney, while seeming to notice the gag on the scoreboard, never flinched. And Harrelson? He was too busy seething with those dumb bi-focals perched on his beak, surely wanting to blame the umpires, media, anybody but the Sox for a ghastly five-game losing streak that has seen them score eight runs in that span and let a three-game division lead dwindle to one quicker than another Adam Dunn whiff.
Fun? No one is having any. This is torture, Chicago baseball-style, and if the Cubs have perfected the art of the choke, the Sox are getting the hang of it in the regular season’s final days. “This is baseball and guys should be having fun doing it,” Robin Ventura tells reporters. “There’s stress and stuff like that because you want to win games, but we’d rather be doing this than trying to ruin somebody else’s postseason chances.’”
Sure about that?
Face it: Only thanks to geography, happenstance, and the gagging Tigers are the Sox still in a race at 81-71, a dozen of those losses to the also-ran Kansas City Royals. In any other division in Major League Baseball, they’d be trying to ruin somebody else’s chances. They aren’t nearly as equipped for the postseason as, say, the Los Angeles Angels, who are loaded with superstars such as Trout, Albert Pujols, and Jared Weaver, and would be much more competitive and interesting to watch in October. But despite their 84-69 record after a sweep of the Sox, they still might miss the playoffs because they’re in a division with the AL’s best team, the Texas Rangers, and most surprising team, the Oakland A’s.
Even with the advent of a second wild-card berth—the best thing commissioner Bud Selig has done since getting a haircut—the Angels also must overcome the shocking run of the Baltimore Orioles. In truth, it will be an injustice for the Sox or Tigers to make the playoffs at the expense of any of these clubs. It’s the baseball equivalent of the Seattle Seahawks reaching the NFL playoffs at 7-9, and if honor were involved, the Central winner would cede to the Angels.
Of course, don’t tell the Sox’s biggest fan. “I am looking forward to a White Sox-Nationals World Series. It’s going to happen,” declared President Obama, stumping for votes over the weekend in northern Virginia.
Just concentrate on your job, Chief, unless you want to let a sportswriter run the country for a day.
The shaky status of the Sox is nothing to gloat about. It’s a shame, really, considering they’d own a solid lead if they’d won merely three of the last five. Last week, I looked forward to a coronation and writing an upbeat column, proving once and for all that I’m not the anti-Christ of South Side baseball. Whether they win the division or collapse, I have to admit there has been something cool, if simple, about the 2012 Sox.
These White Sox are a baseball team, nothing more, a refreshing transformation for what has been something of a freak show. They aren’t a sidebar to a hyperwhack manager who thought he was Chris Rock but too often sounded like a rockhead. They aren’t about exploding scoreboards and Steve Dahl fiascos. They don’t feud, fuss, tweet, obsess over media people, engage in regular beanball wars, wear shorts, start games at 7:11 for a sponsor, and smother fans with gimmicks beyond the occasional Mullet Night, though, as the joke goes, every night at U.S. Cellular Field is Mullet Night.
No, they just play ball. And should they fumble away the division, I’ll still remember one side of it as cool: a .500-type club overachieving by being professionally run and focused for a change. Amid the sabermetric gobbledygook that floods baseball analysis, the Sox still lead the majors in fewest unearned runs allowed, a hermetically sealed 29.
That means tight, Hawkeroo.
Problem is, while the Tigers continue to be vulnerable for the taking, the Sox bombed out in losing two more to the Royals last week—blowing a 3-0 lead Thursday in what looms as the killer loss—and not showing up in southern California. They are succumbing to the traditional voodoo of Chicago baseball, which, people forget, infected even the 2005 Sox when a 15-game lead shrunk to 1 1/2 in late September. That’s when copy editors at the Sun-Times routinely stuck “choke” in my column headlines and prompted cyberthreats from Sox fans who blamed me. If ChicagoSide would like to place “choke” in this headline and fans would like to threaten me again, that’s fine, because I live 2,000 miles away now.
I suppose there’s still a chance, with six of their final 10 against the slapstick Cleveland Indians, for the Sox to survive. The mightier weight still belongs to the talent-bloated and sticker-shocked Tigers, who aren’t wearing their payroll well, and, not coincidentally, have allowed an inexcusable 71 unearned runs—two more in Sunday’s doubleheader loss to Minnesota that left them a game behind the Sox. We’ve kept waiting for Detroit to seize the lead behind the historic offensive production of Miguel Cabrera; his bodyguard in the order, Prince Fielder; the power arm of Justin Verlander; and the chain-smoking manager, Jim Leyland. But if the Tigers are carefree in the TV ad, where Fielder and Verlander hum the “Baseball, Apple Pie and Chevrolet” theme, people there are suggesting David Bowie’s “Panic in Detroit” as a more fitting accompaniment.
Like other Chicago teams, the Sox are most charming when they surprise. Expected in the post-World Series years to contend annually, they disappointed, reaching the playoffs only once more under combustible Ozzie Guillen, and leaving Ken Williams with a mere two postseason appearances in his first 11 seasons as general manager. Such a percentage would not keep him employed in New York or Boston, but in trophy-poor Chicago he gets a longer rope. The Blizzard of Oz finally strangled himself with his own noose last year, bringing the franchise to a crossroads.
Through time, Williams has been the ultimate hot-and-cold administrator, maddeningly so, failing when expectations are high but sometimes succeeding, such as in ’05, when he gambled boldly and won. Last winter, the r-word was floated around the organization, which is worse than any of Guillen’s f-bombs. No team in a market of Chicago’s size, particularly when the Sox have won only one World Series (and thrown another to gamblers) since 1917, should ask fans to sit through a rebuilding phase. It’s disgusting enough that the Cubs are asking their tortured followers to be patient, but Theo Epstein can get away with that at Wrigley Field, where they’ll still draw almost three million this year for minor-league ball. On the South Side, the Sox won’t draw if they don’t win. Hell, they aren’t drawing this year, and when the front office cites fan-base socioeconomics, it’s hard to disagree.
It was paramount, then, that Williams avoid letting his team sink into irrelevance. After trimming $30 million from the payroll last winter, he needed a smart, streamlined product.
First, he was smart enough to hire Ventura when a lot of us saw it as a public-relations stunt. Just because Guillen won a World Series doesn’t mean he’s a good manager. Only when a loudmouth wins can he get away with outlandish behavior (see: Bob Knight, Rex Ryan) and the Blizzard didn’t win nearly enough. His loony-tunes act had long grown stale, and Williams sorely needed some dialed-down baseball savvy.
Ventura always was popular with fans as a Sox player, and though he was California-smooth, people didn’t know he was a clubhouse rock. I haven’t forgotten the day at Yankee Stadium when Ventura, in the dugout, told Frank Thomas to stop mouthing at an umpire and sit down. The sensitive Thomas, picked on quite often by Guillen and the boys, shoved Ventura in view of the TV cameras.
Nor have I forgotten how Ventura, after a gruesome broken ankle in 1997 spring training, vowed to return that season. He did, on July 24. A week later, with the Sox only 3 1/2 games out of the division lead, chairman Jerry Reinsdorf gave up on the season, executing the shameful White Flag trade with the San Francisco Giants. Ventura was rightfully devastated. While landing relievers Keith Foulke and Bob Howry, who would help deliver a 2000 division title, the deal solidified Reinsdorf’s rep as a Scrooge-like wreckingball, the same man who gave us the premature end of the Bulls dynasty.
In hiring Ventura to replace Guillen, Williams did more than change the culture. He turned down the temperature from 120 degrees to a comfortable 72. He now has a front man with sound perspective about baseball and life, a man who doesn’t need to scream about political leaders or toss homophobic slurs. In this atmosphere, it’s no wonder players old and young have relaxed and performed most of the season. Even when John Danks disappeared and Perfect Phil Humber fell to earth, the Sox kept pushing on, getting an unexpected surge from Jake Peavy and just enough closing juice from rookie Addison Reed. And when it was clear they had a shot, Williams became as aggressive as the budget allowed, snagging Kevin Youkilis, Francisco Liriano, Dewayne Wise and Brett Myers.
Anyone miss Ozzie? Wasn’t he supposed to be the flamboyant leader of a free-spending team with a new stadium in Miami? Whatever managerial talents Guillen has he sabotages with his cluttered mind.
I wouldn’t hire Ozzie to manage. I wouldn’t hire him to wash my car. He doesn’t learn from his mistakes. He is nearing 50 and has the couth of a 5-year-old. Last week, when Toronto’s Yunel Escobar was suspended three games by MLB for using a gay slur in Spanish on his facial eyeblack, Guillen defended him. Again, as he did when he described me as a “(bleeping) fag” in 2006, he explained it away as a cultural difference in Latin American countries, such as his native Venezuela and Escobar’s Cuba. No one buys the same excuse six years later.
“I think this kid did it without intending to hurt anybody. I think he did it just for fun. But in our country, we do that,” Guillen told reporters. “To be honest with you, in my house, we say that word every 20 seconds. I got three kids. It’s HOW you say it.”
But the Sox no longer need to worry about such tripe. The Marlins might not need to worry about it for much longer, either, as Ozzie could will soon be looking for a new job.
In Chicago, at least the drama is where it should be now: on the field. “It’s a bad weekend, but we are fine,” Ventura tells the media. “It doesn’t mean we are out of anything. We’ll just continue playing.” I should note that the promotions department is hosting one final special event—Dog Day—on Wednesday.
Here’s hoping the only dogs that show up are in the stands.