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No Sox Appeal

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Golf is supposed to be the most unfair sport, where even a good shot can yield unfortunate results due to a bad bounce. Yet during the first month of the baseball season the Chicago team that played the best baseball, won the most games, and entered May in first place was the one slighted and ignored where fans were concerned. The White Sox had every right to complain that life isn't fair.

The Sox have generated next to none of the buzz--no, hysteria would be more accurate--the Cubs have this spring. This is partly their own doing, partly the lay of the Chicago sports landscape. General manager Kenny Williams, having done a splendid job building a team on the fly last summer only to watch it fade in mid-September (worst of all in a three-game sweep at the hands of the Twins) allowed right-hander Bartolo Colon and rent-a-stars Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett to depart via free agency during the off-season. Working under self-imposed budget constraints, he replaced them with a ragtag bunch of low-profile players, from utilitymen like Juan Uribe and Timo Perez to Japanese reliever Shingo Takatsu. The team's one grandstanding move didn't even involve a player. Instead, it was to bring back popular former shortstop Ozzie Guillen as manager, replacing Jerry Manuel. While that encouraged goodwill on the part of the fans, especially among the city's Hispanics, it didn't do much to convince hard-core south-side loyalists. They wanted to see better players, and though Guillen pledged a more exciting brand of baseball, he still had a plodding lineup of sluggers to work with.

The same apathy seemed to greet the cosmetic changes made to White Sox park over the winter. Pouring the money from the stadium's renaming deal straight back into the structure, the Sox chopped off the top of the upper deck and put in a grillwork roof faintly reminiscent of the old Comiskey Park. This exchanged awful seats that weren't selling anyway for a design improvement that makes the stadium look less like a giant chipped cereal bowl and more like a ballpark (even if the posts required to hold up the roof have created the first obstructed-view seats in the stands). The team also improved the area atop the hitting background in straightaway center field by adding tiers of seats, making it a popular gathering spot for those who do turn up.

With Guillen fulfilling his promise to improve the team's level of intensity, the Sox got off to a fast start on the road and came home to a sellout opening-day crowd of almost 40,000. Guillen's aggressive style has left the team open to painful baserunning gaffes, but it produced an impressive 11 wins in their first 12 one-run games--several of them won in dramatic fashion in the team's final at bat, the most impressive of all of them a five-run ninth-inning rally against the Cleveland Indians on April 28. The Sox ended their longest home stand of the season on May 2 with another one-run win over the Toronto Blue Jays, then won the next night in Baltimore against the Orioles 5-4 to claim sole possession of first place in the American League Central Division. At the same time, the vaunted Cubs were dropping behind the Houston Astros in the National League Central.

Yet while the Cubs were selling out Wrigley Field on a daily basis, the Sox struggled to draw 15,000--even for a Saturday doubleheader followed by fireworks. Fewer than 10,000 were in the stands for that rally against the Indians. The Sox were doing everything right, but as they went on the road they had nothing but a 15-9 record to show for it.

Part of that was due to the team's normal bad luck with weather--if the Cubs get a sunny 70-degree day for an April afternoon game, the Sox are almost certain to get a rainy 40-degree bone-chiller the following night. But it also had to do with persistent fan skepticism. Thing is, Sox fans are right to be doubtful about the club's prospects for the season. Any team that wins 11 of 12 squeakers is sure to come down to earth at some point. Early game results to the contrary, the Sox just aren't very good.

The loss of Colon has created a huge hole in the rotation. The Sox still have Mark Buehrle and Esteban Loaiza, but after that there's only the erratic Jon Garland, the even more erratic Dan Wright, and the relatively untested Scott Schoeneweis. As it turned out, Loaiza won four games early, but with his velocity down and his ERA up, he appeared to be returning to reality after his unexpected 21-win season last year. Buehrle fell victim to the same early-season struggles that marked his campaign last year, and Garland and Wright were as erratic as ever. Schoeneweis has proved to be the team's most reliable starter--and that's not saying much. Heading back out on the road, Sox starters had compiled a 4.86 earned run average.

The Sox bullpen actually helped create some of those one-run situations by letting opponents back into the game late. Guillen has returned Billy Koch--the former 100-mile-an-hour flamethrower who came over from the Oakland Athletics last year only to lose his heat--to the closer's role, but his hold on the job is uncertain. With his velocity still reduced, he's been getting by on breaking pitches and a dandyish follow-through in which he kicks his right leg out like someone in derby and spats starting off the Saint Patrick's Day Parade. He saved back-to-back games in Baltimore in which he allowed the tying run to reach third base--and if that made the Sox undeniably more exciting, it did nothing to reassure fans. Damaso Marte, meanwhile, failed to impress enough to take his place.

At the plate the Sox, like the crosstown Cubs, badly lack a leadoff man. Slap-hitting second baseman Willie Harris got off to a bad start and barely rallied to hold off Uribe, who's made a case for more playing time by filling in well for injured shortstop Jose Valentin. The team's strength has remained the heart of the order--Magglio Ordonez, Frank Thomas, Carlos Lee, Paul Konerko, and Joe Crede--but while "Ozzieball" has encouraged even the slow-footed Konerko to steal a base, the sluggers have been prone to double plays. Last weekend the team traveled to Toronto, where they were swept by the sub-.500 Blue Jays. They looked so lethargic one might have thought Manuel was back.

But the Sox aren't without hope. Baseball, like society in general, has separated into haves and have-nots, and while the Cubs and Astros led an NL Central salary drive almost as conspicuous as the efforts of the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to outdo each other in the AL East, the Sox are in the bedraggled AL Central, where it looks to be a battle for best of the worst. Over the winter the Twins lost three top pitchers to free agency-- including their closer and setup man--and traded away their catcher (but they still have enough left to be tied for first with the Sox at 17-13 going into this week). And for all their limitations the Sox have some reasons for optimism. Young catcher Miguel Olivo has stepped up, and third baseman Crede has begun to realize his power potential with a slightly altered batting stance--he's gone from stiff, erect posture to a slight crouch, the better to level out his natural uppercut. Still, with aces Buehrle and Loaiza struggling--both pitched poorly on the road--Koch eliciting little confidence, and Harris showing no consistency atop the lineup, the team's chances to actually win much of anything this year have to be considered doubtful.

That's why this week may be the pivotal juncture of the season for the Sox. Back home to welcome the Orioles and, this weekend, their archrivals the Twins, the Sox have to win not merely to prove themselves as contenders, but--with warm weather finally here--to bring out the fans and show that Ozzieball isn't just a short-term conversion but something that can make the most of the team's diminished talents. World Series dreams may be enough to sell out Wrigley Field for the season, but Sox fans need something concrete.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chris Bernacchi.

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