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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

Playing to Win!
by Hal Vickery

Even the most skeptical Sox fans must have to admit now that we’re nearing the quarter pole in this season’s race that this year’s team is not the same as others we’ve seen recently.  Instead of finding ways to lose, these guys are finding ways to win.  Instead of a bunch of sluggers swinging for a bases-empty five-run homer when the team is down, this group will scratch and claw its way back from a deficit. 

Friday night’s game in Baltimore was a perfect example.  Mark Buehrle got into a jam in the fourth inning and gave up three runs to the O’s.  In the past that meant that the Sox would most likely have to come up with four solo-shots to overcome that deficit.  Not this year.  The Sox came back and won the game with a combination of singles, doubles, walks, and Orioles errors to score five runs and win the game. 

And they managed to do this with Aaron Rowand starting the game hitting about .240, and both Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye hitting in the .190s!  Time was that if the middle of the batting order was slumping, you could just phone in tomorrow morning’s headline:  “Sox lose.” 

Just over a year ago, Sox fans were skeptical when Kenny Williams talked Jerry Reinsdorf into approving the hiring of Ozzie Guillen as manager.  “He has no experience!” they protested.  Some criticism were more personal.  “He’s just a clown!” they said. 

Those who felt that way felt justified in their comments when the Sox tumbled from an early lead in the standings in 2004.  My favorite comment from the nay-sayers was, “He didn’t do any better than Jerry Manuel with the same team!” 

Of course that neglected the fact that Jerry Manuel managed to lead the Sox to records barely over .500 with both Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordońez in the lineup while Guillen was without their services for most of the 2004 season.  Instead he had to rely on the likes of Joe Borchard, Timo Perez, and an injured Carl Everett to replace his injured stars. 

In addition to that, the Sox lineup was built around power.  Power has a habit of shutting down, sometimes for long periods of time.  When that happens, you have to have the players to find other ways of winning besides the home run.  The Sox had too few of those. 

In addition, there were problems that most fans were unaware of.  Ozzie Guillen’s idea of managing is to establish a team-first concept.  Apparently that wasn’t there in 2004. 

Aaron Rowand admitted as much Friday night in an interview with Bryan Dolgin on the White Sox post-game show.  Speaking of this year’s clubhouse atmosphere, Rowand told Dolgin, “Everyone wants to do what’s best for the team.  Nobody is interested in his batting average or how many RBIs he has.”  Rowand suggested that this team-first concept wasn’t there last year.  “This year everybody is on the same page, and that wasn’t always the case.” 

This would seem to confirm stories that have come out that perhaps some of the players who are no longer with the White Sox were looking out more for themselves than for the other twenty-four players.  When such claims come from management, they are suspect.  After all, management has to justify why they made a trade that might be unpopular or a non-signing of a popular free agent.  However, when such statements come from occupants of the same clubhouse, they gain credibility. 

While getting rid of selfish players, Kenny Williams listened to Ozzie Guillen’s description of the type of team he wanted.  What he came up with is one of the most balanced Sox teams in memory. 

The speed of a Scott Podsednik at the top of the batting order rattles pitchers who concentrate on him rather than the batter.  The bat handling skill of Tadahito Iguchi is something to behold.  That sets the table for the boppers, and one can only imagine what the offense will be like once they start hitting the ball on a regular basis. 

And these same guys can play defense!  The double-play combination of Juan Uribe and Iguchi seemed like they’d been together for years in early April.  Uribe isn’t smooth by any stretch of the imagination, but he makes the plays, while Iguchi is as smooth defensively as they come.  Podsednik is a huge step up in left field.  The jury is out on Dye.  His bat hasn’t come around yet, and he’s made a couple of costly errors in the young season.   

Williams also has to be commended for his pitching acquisitions going back to last summer.  Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras, and Orlando Hernandez have made the Sox starting rotation one of the best in baseball.  His bullpen acquisitions have strengthened the relief corps immeasurably.  Even with the faltering of Shingo Takatsu early this season, newly acquired Dustin Hermanson was there to step in.  Luis Vizcaino has been shaky at times but has been effective more than not.  Is there any question that the bullpen is improved by these acquisitions? 

We’re hearing less of the term “Ozzie ball” this year, which is probably a good thing.  We’ve heard comparisons to the 1983 “Winning Ugly” Sox, and some of those wins have been just that.  The ’83 Sox had Rudy Law as a very similar base-stealing threat to Podsednik.  Law stole a club-record 77 bases that year.  Podsednik is a threat to steal that many, having stolen 70 last year with the Brewers.

There is a major difference between this year’s Sox and the ’83 version.  The ’83 team didn’t really get started until the second half of the season, playing sub-.500 ball. 

We’ve also heard comparisons with the 1959 Go-Go Sox, the last Sox team to make it to the World Series.  Some of these comparisons are pretty valid.  For one thing, the ’59 Sox were 35-15 in one-run games.  Sound familiar?  For another, they scratched out a lot of their wins, using opponents’ mistakes (similar to the ’83 team), speed, bunting skill, and whatever it took to win. 

The ’59 Sox had a great bullpen with Gerry Staley and Turk Lown closing games.  This year Guillen has mostly used Hermanson and Takatsu to close, although Hermanson has by far had the better of it so far. 

There is a possible comparison between Al Smith, who came from Cleveland in 1958, and who was expected to replace Minnie Minoso, for whom he was traded, and Jermaine Dye, who came to the Sox this year and was expected to replace Ordońez.  In 1959 Smith hit only .237 while this year Dye has yet to crack the Mendoza line. 

Probably the best comparison with the ’59 Sox, though, is the top of the order.  Podsednik’s speed on the bases and the threat of a stolen base that is always there when he gets on is very much like that of Luis Aparicio.  Iguchi’s ability to handle the bat compares well to Nellie Fox. 

There are some major differences between this team and the ’59 Sox, though.  For one thing, this year’s Sox have a whole lot more pop in their bats.  Is there any way you can compare Landis, Lollar, Torgeson, and Smith with Everett, Konerko, Dye, Rowand, and Crede?  For another, this year’s club potentially has a lot better starting rotation. 

After Early Wynn (22-10) and Bob Shaw (18-6) who can possibly be compared to Buehle and Jon Garland, the ’59 team had Billy Pierce who had an off year (14-15), Dick Donovan (9-10), who spent a good portion of the year on the disabled list and Barry Latman (8-5) who filled in where needed.  Garcia, Contreras, and Hernandez have a good chance of being far superior to the latter three. 

What Ozzie Guillen has now is a club that is built just the way he wanted it.  Intimidating speed and good bat handling at the top of the order, less but still good power in the middle of the lineup, and guys who can still do damage at the bottom of the order.  He has a strong pitching staff, arguably the best in baseball. 

This is the team Ozzie wanted.  So why is anybody surprised at their record?   

Here’s a possible answer.  While Ozzie was spending most of his time telling everybody, including his general manager, the type of game he wanted to play, the media were spending most of their time playing up a non-feud with Frank Thomas or an exchange of unpleasantries between him and Ordońez. 

As a result, the Sox have become the surprise team of the season to all but those who were paying close attention, just another example of the sports media looking at the wrong things.

 On the other hand, maybe the distractions that the media became obsessed with were a diversionary tactic by Guillen to keep the Sox under the radar, a phrase Sox management has been fond of using this year.  I wouldn’t put that past Guillen.


Editor's Note: Hal Vickery has been a White Sox fan since 1955 when he was five years old. For much of that time he also had a secondary rooting interest in the Cubs, which he has shown the good sense to abandon. When not cheering for or writing about the Sox, Hal teachers chemistry and physics at North Boone High School, in Poplar Grove, IL. Hal commutes there daily from Joliet, where he lives with his wife Lee, and their dog, Buster T. Beagle. Hal's opinions are not necessarily those of North Boone High School, his wife, or Buster T. Beagle. You can write Hal at hvickery@svs.com.

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