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When Next Year Is Last Year

Can the Sox come back to earth in time to defend their title?

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Jim Thome, the White Sox' newly acquired slugger, moved along the right-field stands of Arizona's Tucson Electric Park signing autographs. A product of Peoria, Thome is well-known to Sox fans from his days as a persistent nemesis with the Cleveland Indians, and he wore a big smile as the fans welcomed him. About 20 minutes before the Saint Patrick's Day spring-training game was to start--it would be played with green bases, though the Sox stuck with their basic black jerseys this year instead of green pinstripes--he moved over to the right-field line to stretch and swing a bat. The fans further down the stands looked crestfallen, but they perked up when Jermaine Dye emerged to run a few sprints next to Thome. Juan Uribe joined them, playfully poking at Dye as the fans cheered, and as each additional player emerged--Joe Crede, battery mates A.J. Pierzynski and Mark Buehrle, who were headed for the bullpen, and last but certainly not least Paul Konerko, saluted as el capitan by one nearby fan--the crowd hooted and hollered and called out their names. "They're folk heroes now," said a woman down the aisle, and indeed they are.

Each of those players but Thome invites memories of some feat from last year's championship season: Dye as the World Series's most valuable player, Uribe with his dive into the stands and final-out play of the clinching game, Crede with his game-winning smash in the Championship Series after Pierzynski stole first, Buerhle with his stellar pitching from opening day on, and Konerko with his World Series grand slam. The Sox are basking this spring in the afterglow of their first world championship in 88 years, and why shouldn't they? They don't swagger so much as saunter at their own pace, the better to soak up adulation like the Arizona sun.

This basking, however, has produced mixed results on the field. The Sox have looked blissed-out and distracted, falling to 3-13 after they lost that Saint Paddy's exhibition to the Texas Rangers. It was a typical spring performance for them. Crede failed to short-hop a potential double-play ball down the third-base line, and the result was three unearned runs. Building up his endurance, Buehrle worked even faster than usual, as if he had a 2:15 tee time, but he wearied in the fifth and gave up four more runs.

The Sox showed some grit when they rallied to score six runs in the seventh and eighth against minor league relievers to take the lead, but a minor leaguer of their own, Agustin Montero, failed to hold it in the ninth and they lost 10-9. Afterward manager Ozzie Guillen, who had told his team to wake up after they lost their first six exhibition games, railed against his incontinent bullpen. He seemed intent on not letting the Sox rest on their laurels, but would they be able to turn it on when the season begins April 2?

Spring training has a reputation for frivolity, but few of the Sox fans appeared nonchalant. These were the ones with the aficion--not to mention the time and money--to make the trip to Arizona. When Buehrle uncharacteristically walked a man in the first inning and went 2-0 to the next batter, one leather-lunged guy in the back of the grandstand yelled, "C'mon Buehrle, what's wrong?" Later, he earned some laughs when he belted out, "We are the champions," but as he kept exhorting the players by name a fan behind me groaned, "Yack, yack, yack."

Joviality did prevail. One well-intentioned mother--or so she declared herself--came down a few rows to apply sunscreen to a bare-chested young man's red shoulders, prompting a wag to shout, "I'm next!" The best line--old reliable though it may be--came from a Sox fan who saw a Cubs fan outfitted in cap and jersey. "Hey, I got a sister in a whorehouse and a brother who's a Cub fan," he shouted.

"Save it for tomorrow," growled the Cubs fan without turning around.

The Cubs came down from Mesa the next day for the first game in a home-and-home/away-from-home spring-training series with the Sox, and attendance jumped from a respectable 8,427 for the Texas game to 11,835, a full house. Sox fans outnumbered Cubs fans but there were plenty of both, and the PA music welcomed all, following Captain Stubby & the Buccaneers' "Let's Go Go Go White Sox" with the Cubs' old favorite, "It's a Beautiful Day for a Ball Game." Both sides cheered the announcement "The game-time temperature--in Chicago, 37 degrees, in Tucson, 67."

At first, it looked like any other inconsequential spring-training game. After batting practice, Cubs manager Dusty Baker took a few moments to walk his seven-year-old son Darren, outfitted in a uniform, down to the bullpen. He pitched to Darren and then briefly returned to work, watching his squad take infield practice as Darren shagged the balls he'd hit. And Guillen started a Sox lineup that saw regular-season benchwarmers Pablo Ozuna and Alex Cintron at the top of the order.

Yet once the game began, the Sox played it intensely. The bench was up on the dugout railing to examine new Sox pitcher, Javier Vazquez, who'd just returned to camp after playing for Puerto Rico in the World Baseball Classic. He gave up a first-inning homer to the Cubs' Aramis Ramirez, but the Sox got it right back and more when their first four players to bat all got hits and scored, thanks to a three-run homer by Crede. He'd earned a reputation last year as a big-game player, and he lived up to it in this bragging-rights game by going four for four and driving in four runs.

Trying to split my affinities, I watched from the left-field lawn--the nearest equivalent to the Wrigley bleachers--while wearing my 1917 Sox cap. The fans out there were almost equally divided, but there was little animosity between factions. Mellowness reigned under the Arizona sun. (How can anyone who goes barefoot to the concession stand, huaraches serving as a cup holder on the banked lawn, be anything but mellow?) A Cubs fan boasted in the beer line that he'd given the finger to the Sox' championship trophy on his way into the ballpark, then added remorsefully, "But what do we do but add more rows to the bleachers for idiots who don't even care if the Cubs win?" On the other side, when Cubs pitchers ran sprints in deep left field while the last couple of innings were in progress, Sox fans yelled, "Get off the field!" Exhibition or not, this game meant something to the Sox and their faithful.

The resolve of the Sox will be tested opening night, April 2, when they raise the championship banner at White Sox Park and begin their bid to repeat. As for the Cubs, they'll have more bleachers available for those who want to sit in the sun while a baseball game takes place nearby. For them, spring training is a state of mind to be extended throughout the year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/AP Photo/Ed Andrieski.

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