The White Sox, for as much as we like to complain around these parts, end the 00s at 857-764. Ten years of a collective .528 ball; ten years that would finish in second in the 2009 AL Central race. . . 13 games ahead of the 2009 White Sox. Ugh.
Still, we know there was some fantastic baseball in there, and certain moments which probably changed the landscape of White Sox fandom forever. And yet, even among the glimmers of hope and whispers of impending greatness, we will inevitably remember the near-misses and dull thuds punctuating so much of what we cheered for. Who among those almost-rans will time look back upon charitably—and who will history (and, more importantly, we) ultimately never forgive?
Ninety-five wins. Best record in the American League. The league’s true MVP batting third. Even more savage in their beatings of teams as they were on bad teams (49-35 against +.500 teams; 46-32 against sub-.500 clubs). Three games better on the road despite a lumber company of a roster specifically designed to exploit the park they called home. The AL’s best record (28-18) in one-run games. A division clinched on September 24 and a first-round opponent entering the playoffs for no reason other than someone had to win the Wild Card.
So what happened?
For starters, despite what happened later, people forget the American League was pretty weak that year. Sure, there were four ninety-win teams, but they were all concentrated in the Central and West but HEY, look at that, despite a monstrous collective offense (.286 average, .356 OBP, .470 SLG, 216 home runs, 978 runs scored), the Sox could not:
- pitch. Mike Sirotka certainly had a fine season but then . . . uh, well, at least the Sox had three excellent relievers. Which they needed. Often.
- defend. Jose Valentin had 36 errors in 141 games at shortstop. This seems like too important a position to have too poor a glove, but it also stands to reason Jerry Manuel had enough of a headache deciding how best to teach Herb Perry and a young Paul Konerko how to trade corners. Bonus statistic: Kip Wells averaged one error every four innings.
Other than that, you know, they were pretty fantastic, but their first-round demise at the hands of the lowly Mariners eventually came to mark the end of the “fun” White Sox: the steady stream of teams that could hit, and only hit, and played something more closely resembling pinball than well-rounded baseball. Kenny Williams took over and it was out with the stupid power, in with the scrap heaps, the reclamation projects, the Limitless Potential Just Waiting To Be Realized. The beginning of a decade, yes, but the end of an era as well.
Take a team fresh off a 99-win regular season and an utter domination of the postseason. Fill their only two glaring holes—DH and the back end of the rotation—with one of the best bats of the past 30 years and a perpetual ace-in-waiting. Laugh at division rivals who have seemingly done nothing to improve themselves. Wonder aloud how hard it will be to get World Series tickets. Finally, for once, fully believe that the Chicago White Sox have the means and the guns to go the distance. Then watch it crumble.
It’s not that 90 wins makes the 2006 White Sox any kind of slouch in its own right; back-to-back seasons with that many is a feat few teams, let alone this one, ever pull off. And yet, 2006 simply became a horrifying, skull-punching hangover from the jubilation of 2005. Jim Thome, Paul Konerko and Jermaine Dye formed the mightiest middle of any batting order, American or National. And yet. . .
And yet . . .
And yet they all fell apart in unison. Scott Podsednik: leadoff man to injured pinch runner. Jose Contreras and Mark Buehrle: from aces to asses. Brian Anderson: the wave of the future, waving goodbye. Uncle Cliff, Neal the Meal, Dustin Hermanson: where the other team’s game once ended in the seventh, now the Sox’s chances were murdered by the fifth. Everyone feared what the World Baseball Classic would do to Javier Vazquez and Freddy Garcia, but in the end their composite nothingness was the best thing the staff had going for it as Buehrle and Contreras choked while Jon Garland notched 18 wins, the bulk of them coming from games no normal fan would ever describe as victorious.
And in a way, Garland wasn’t just Garland but a microcosm of the entire team: the numbers, selectively, looked fantastic but, when all was said and done, so what?
It is a hilarious formality that the Sox get to hang a banner at Comiskey for winning the Central in 2008. They were a fourth-place team in the East, third-place in most others and, were it not for the comparable lousiness of the Twins, they were really a second-place team in the Central.
Consider how, by the end of the season, their best option in center field was the badly-aged Ken Griffey, Jr., swapped out in the 8th or 9th for Brian Anderson, both of whom were still worlds better than Opening Day starter-by-default Nick Swisher. Their best player was only on the roster because Jerry Owens was Just. So. Painful. To. Watch., and after elevating the team to contender status, crippled them as he crippled himself, smashing not just his wrist that evening in Cleveland but a city’s hope of seeing their team avoid a merciless sweep at the hands of a (or any) superior team.
Which they did anyway, inexplicably, which was almost worse, because that’s the kind of thing that makes you forget they’re a lousy team. And the 2008 team was never a good team. Ever. But in the end, the banners flying high on 35th Street will tell us otherwise. They were unbalanced, incapable, horrifically one-sided. Slow. Shaky in crucial areas. But they were all we had and, technically, they were the best their competition had to offer.
And that, I think, is just about the saddest thing imaginable.
The Winner: 2008, and it’s not even close.