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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Kansas City Blues

Dark Decade Coming for Sox?

by
Guy Bacci
 

Now that the last remaining Pollyannas have finally jumped from the sinking S.S. White Sock, those of us who have been safely on shore for weeks have unfortunate news for the latest arrivals: If you think things are bad now, they’re only about to get worse. A dark decade could be approaching, much like the past decade that started with the ’94 strike and ended with a pathetic September collapse in ’03.

 

Despite all the negativity of this past off-season, despite the Northside success and the tension at SoxFest, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic heading into 2004. A lineup filled with sluggers could mash as well as any team in baseball, a new manager would instill a new attitude, and the division champion Twins had lost several key components in the off-season. Even though the Sox had holes, they could still triumph in this eminently winnable division.   

 

The beauty (or horror, depending on which angle you’re coming from) of a Major League Baseball season is that the great teams will always rise to the top while the wannabes sink to the bottom. For the ’04 White Sox, reality struck with cruel swiftness. On July 24th, Joe Crede hit a dramatic game-winning blast off Ugueth Urbina in the bottom of the ninth on a beautiful Saturday evening, sending a packed house into a frenzy and practically giving Hawk Harrelson laryngitis. The victory put the Sox into first place, ten games over .500.

 

Alas, it was all a mirage. Yet again, our Sox were proven to be frauds. They proceeded to lose the next seven in a row, and 13 of the next 17. Heck, they haven’t had a winning month since May.

 

The baseball season never lies. You can’t fake your way through 162 games. In the NBA, an absurdly expanded playoff field allows bogus teams to participate in the post-season. In the NFL, anybody can get lucky for 16 games (see the Bears of ’01). But nobody backs their way into the baseball playoffs.

 

The most unsettling aspect of the freefall is that Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez wouldn’t have saved this team. The problems for the Sox go much deeper. The bullpen is a mess, the starters look exhausted, and certain position players have become automatic outs. In an odd way, the injuries to Thomas and Ordonez are a blessing—they speeded up the inevitable. Unlike last year, Sox fans won’t have to suffer a September breakdown. Nobody wants that kind of déjà vu.

 

Which is one reason why Sox fans are hoping they’ve seen the last of Carl Everett and Robbie Alomar. Acquiring those two dinosaurs (sorry, Carl) brought back plenty of unpleasant memories from a Jerry Manuel era that we’re all trying to erase from our consciousness.

 

Many Southsiders would also like to say goodbye to Joe Borchard and Joe Crede. In a Sox fans’ dream, Kenny Williams wakes up one morning and comes to the sudden and shocking realization that the two Joes can’t hit a baseball and never will. In reality, Williams may have already come to that conclusion, but he’s invested so much in them, he can’t turn back now. Quite simply, the Sox can’t afford to give up on either Joe, at least not with JR’s budget.

 

Hence the next Dark Decade stares us in the face. Ordonez will be history. Thomas is a year older and officially “injury prone.” Williams needs to spend whatever cash he has on another starting pitcher and some reliability for the bullpen. If Jon Garland drops to the end of the rotation, and the Sox can pick up a quality free agent pitcher, they will have their best rotation since the early ‘90s.

 

But don’t go getting all excited. Just because the rotation might be the best since ’94 doesn’t mean it can hold Jack McDowell’s jock strap. And the offense will be dreadful without Ordonez or a quality leadoff man or a potent left-handed bat. How Williams is going to fill all those holes is a mystery.

 

No longer can Ozzie Guillen be considered a reason for optimism. As it turns out, Ozzie Ball does not include stealing timely bases or executing thrilling suicide squeeze plays. Nor does it include having confidence in a lineup and sticking with it. But it does include pop-bunts back to the pitcher, runners being thrown out at home plate to end a game, fielders failing to tag opposing runners (even when the ball beats ‘em by a mile). And, of course, enough lineup tinkering to make Jerry Manuel green with envy.

 

In Guillen’s defense, he has delivered in some areas, such as adding an element of entertainment in an otherwise ugly season. And injuries have forced him to tinker more than he would have (at least, that’s what we’ll tell ourselves for now). Guillen wants to play small ball, yet has no one to play small ball with. If I have to watch Juan Uribe, who naturally hits the ball to the right side of the field anyway, pathetically fail to bunt a man from second to third ever again, I’m going to take a hammer and smash my 1991 Ozzie Guillen Starting Lineup figure to a bloody pulp.

 

Of course Hawk and DJ looove Ozzie Ball. They’ll berate the Moneyball philosophy until they’re blue in the face. But last time I checked, Moneyball was fairing quite a bit better than Ozzie Ball. Maybe there’s a reason why first-place teams like Boston and Oakland treat stolen bases and sac bunts like STDs.

 

But let’s get down to the real reason why fear of another Dark Decade is legit: Everyone else in the division is getting better. The Sox had their window, and it’s closing at an alarming rate. The Tigers and Indians are on the way up, and determined to add to their growing clubs. Minnesota doesn’t appear to slipping as we had hoped. Meanwhile, the Sox can’t bring up an impactful minor leaguer to save their lives.

 

To illustrate the sad state of affairs, the Sox snatched up failed prospect Alex Escobar, who was cut by Cleveland. So let me get this straight, we have sunk to the level of taking the Indians’ leftovers because their rebuilding has gone so fabulously well, while our attempts have gone so fabulously crappy. Look at how the Indians put together their team of the future, with lots of left-handed contact hitters who can spray the ball all over the field. The Sox have tried it with long-swinging power hitters, who go maddeningly hot and cold. Allow me to beat a dead horse one more time: Instead of watching a young, speedy, contact-hitting, left-handed Jeremy Reed for years to come, we get to watch an ex-Stanford QB become the next Lyle Mouton.

 

Unless Williams can work some major magic this winter, hope is not going to spring eternal in Tucson next year. Williams might want to consider hiring a few bodyguards for SoxFest. The storm clouds are rolling in.  

Kenny, good luck changing the forecast.


Guy Bacci is from the north suburbs of Chicago, where he couldn't avoid growing up as a pampered and snotty Cubs fan. Luckily, he saw the light in 1985 and never looked back.  He loved the hard-working, old-school tactics of Carlton Fisk, who would become his all-time favorite player.  His most memorable moment was going to a Sox double-header with his grandfather, who insisted on staying all nine hours (including a long rain delay).  Guy is a journalism grad from Northwestern, currently residing in Seattle, where he works as a computer programmer and freelance writer. He can be reached at guybacci@yahoo.com.

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