The Joy of Baseball
I was not one of the lucky few who got through to Ticketmaster for a ticket to see The White Sox in the playoffs. Nor was I willing to shell out $8,000 (the reported going rate) for a box seat at The World Series. So I watched the games at home, stretched out on a couch the length of six seats – I figure I was saving about $50,000 a game – thoroughly enjoying a game I love but cannot play.
Baseball and I have a love-hate relationship. I love baseball. Always have. Ever since that summer in high school I spent playing American Legion Ball for The Pewaukee Sentrys. But baseballs hate me. I never will forget that one stupid curve ball that did not curve the first time I stepped to the plate.
It was an odd summer, one where I’d had many plans for adventure and fun until I fell under the spell of my coach, a paraplegic named Tom Kopecki, who needed someone to push his wheelchair out to the mound when he wanted to argue a call and decided I was the only guy who could reliably do it.
Tom had been a great high school star in his day. He had scholarship offers from more than a dozen universities in three sports: basketball, baseball and track. Three weeks before his graduation, he came down wrong in a pole vault event and was paralyzed from the neck down.
It took a few years for him to come to grips with what happened. He had it all, then he had nothing. Or so he thought until one day Al McGuire, came around to visit.
McGuire had followed Tom’s career in high school, but like most people, lost track of him after the accident. At a sports dinner some years later, they met and fell to talking. McGuire liked talking to Tom because every time he did, he got an earful of everything Tom thought he was doing wrong as coach of the Marquette University basketball team.
Tom had an opinion on everything. Now that he couldn’t play, he knew more than ever how everyone else should play – if they loved the sport as much as he did. But Tom’s opinions always ran through the bitter filter of a man who once could have, but now could not.
One day, McGuire caught Tom running off his mouth on what he’d have done in a basketball game “if only I had my legs.”
“Get over it,” McGuire said sharply.” Forget about the legs. They aren’t coming back. You’ve got your mind. Use it. Why don’t you coach?”
Tom had never thought about coaching, so McGuire took him on for a season as an observer on the Marquette bench. He got him a job teaching little league in a park district then coaching a semi-pro team in the Milwaukee industrial league. Finally, about the same time I was approaching my senior year, McGuire helped Tom land a job coaching basketball and baseball at the smallest high school in Waukesha County -- mine.
Because this is a story about baseball not basketball, I won’t go into my exploits as the 14th man on a basketball team that went 0-11 (even against the Wisconsin School for The Deaf) -- except to say I did not play as poorly as my 1.4 points a game average might indicate. But I was really good at wheeling Tom out to argue with the refs. And that is probably why he invited me to join his baseball team that summer.
As a skinny kid with too many pimples, I was lured onto the team by Tom with the promise we’d have really cool uniforms that the girls would all like. For a 17-year-old, the uniform was very important. Like McGuire, Coach Kopecki had a soft spot for good-looking gear. They would talk endlessly about what was hot and what was not and conspired to make sure The Pewaukee Sentrys, named after the local grocery store, had the best on the market.
Looking up from the cleats, the tongue of the shoe would fold over and hide the laces; white socks with red harnesses stretched tight up the calves, joining the uniform pants just under the knee. An ornate red P (modeled after the Philadelphia Phillies) sat discreetly on one shoulder, and again on the cap, and even on the buckle of our custom-made belt. Topping it off, Tom bought us all a huge red leather gear bag and warm-up jacket with PEWAUKEE emblazoned across them, like the other teams should somehow be scared.
I loved those nights when I would walk out under the arc lights onto the diamond, the newly-mown grass still damp from the groundskeeper’s hose, and me all decked out like I was the next Roger Maris. I loved watching the stands slowly fill, the ritual of umpires checking line-up cards and the loudspeaker “Play Ball!” signally it was my turn at the plate.
Unfortunately, my joy lasted only until that first
pitch came screaming in at me. It came too fast, too close and too hard. By
the end of the season, I’d learned to swing my bat as soon as I saw
the ball leave the pitcher’s hand. But the first time he threw me that
inside curve, I dropped to the dirt in terror.
There’s no shame in not being good at baseball. Even in high school, they are throwing pitches at 90 miles per hour these days. They’re throwing sinkers and curves, sliders and split-finger fastballs. Baseball is a game of inches. Foul or fair. Over the plate or just off the corner. Bad hops and bum luck. Not for nothing do they have a regular category on the scoreboard for errors and only keep track of a pitcher’s “earned” run average on the general assumption that unearned runs are equally a part of the game. As bad as you think you are, there's always the chance something good might happen.
My summer on The Pewaukee Sentrys took me to about 60 games -- 60 days and nights of riding on buses with my teammates, tossing the ball around to warm up, standing or sitting together in the dugout for 2 to 3 hours waiting for my turn to make something happen. By the end of the season, there was little I didn’t know about my teammates, or they about me.
We were a passable, but not great team that summer. My role – besides wheeling the coach out to the mound to argue – was to chase down balls hit to right field. Anything hit high in the air was an adventure. Anything on the ground usually died early enough on that I could pick it up and get it back to the infield.
Coach Kopecki liked to put me first in the line-up. His theory was that the opposing pitcher would be wild for the first couple hitters so that was my best chance to get on base with a walk. He had me practice bunting (a lot) and knew, if for some reason I actually got a piece of a pitch, I was fast enough to beat it out. I did get an occasional single and once hit a triple -- although my euphoria was tempered when I got back to the dugout only to be told the right fielder lost the ball in the high grass.
My career ended that summer, much to the relief of baseball and me. But my summer at the side of Coach Kopecki left me with a great appreciation of how the game was meant to be played; and oh, how I relished watching my Chicago White Sox in this playoff season play to win the Coach Kopecki way.
In the Beginning
When the season started last April, I would have been hard pressed to name this year’s White Sox starting line-up. Only three of the eight position players from last year were returning to their same posts. Paul Konerko at first base and Aaron Rowand in center field had earned their positions, but third baseman Joe Crede, who batted only .239 in 2004, was hanging on by a thread.
In the off-season, the Sox traded their power slugging left fielder Carlos Lee to Milwaukee for little-known Scott Podsednik, a slight but fast alternative.
Most of the sportswriters figured Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf was dumping Lee’s $8 million a year salary. But the Sox also got reliever Luis Vizcaino in the deal, plus enough salary cap leeway to pick up Jermaine Dye from The Oakland A’s to play right field.
Dye replaced free agent Magglio Ordonez, who signed a five-year $75 million deal with The Detroit Tigers. When Jose Valentin also exercised his free agent option to go to The Los Angeles Dodgers, a Colorado Rockies cast off named Juan Uribe, acquired the year before as a utility infielder, took Valentin’s place at shortstop and wound up batting ninth in the Sox line-up.
General Manager Ken (Kenny) Williams Jr. reached out to Japan to find a second baseman, Tadahito Iguchi, and rounded out his squad by picking up A.J. Pierzynski, a Minnesota Twins catcher who came to Chicago via the San Francisco Giants with a reputation as a malcontent and misfit.
Surveying the upcoming season, Time Magazine dismissed the team as “a reconstruction project peopled by retreads and castoffs from four countries.” But all was not lost.
Everyone recognized the Sox had a promising pitching staff. Mark Buehrle (18-10 the year before) was a bona fide ace. But the supporting cast of Freddy Garcia, Jose Contreras, Orlando ‘El Duque’ Hernandez and Jon Garland were all on one side or the other of their “prime” – and only another season would tell which.
The manager was the irrepressible Ozzie Guillen, the former White Sox shortstop who, after one year as a bench coach for the Florida Marlins, came on board for the 2004 season preaching hustle, speed, fundamentals and clubhouse chemistry.
Guillen was a proud product of the Venezuelan baseball leagues. (After winning the series, one of his first acts was to take the World Series trophy back to Caracas so Venezuelans could celebrate their victory.) He’d grown up on the exploits of Chico Carrasquel, the first Venezuelan to break into the majors, and points proudly to the fact that today there are 67 Venezuelans playing in the American major leagues.
But Carrasquel was the first, signed in 1949 by Dodgers owner Branch Rickey (who also broke the color barrier by hiring Jackie Robinson), but traded as a shortstop to The White where for five years he bridged the gap at shortstop between Luke Appling, now in the Hall of ame, and Luis Aparicio, another Venezuelan, who took over in 1955.
Guillen himself made his Sox debut in 1985 and promptly won American League Rookie of the Year honors. He received a Golden Glove award in 1988 and played on two All-Star teams. His White Sox career spanned 12 years with three more to come on The Baltimore Orioles, Atlanta Braves and Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
His first season as manager had been frustrating. Without the power to choose his own players, he told one sportswriter, he was relegated to the role of changing pitchers. He struggled with his potential free agents. Frank Thomas, after numerous injuries and contract disputes, brooded in the clubhouse. The excitement he couldn’t create on the field, he tried to create in the media.
“Last year, it was ‘Rah, rah, good thing we have Ozzie,’” he told the sportswriters last January. “This year, forget all that rah-rah stuff. We are focused on winning the division from the first day.”
Guillen knew he couldn’t play his kind of baseball without his kind of players. He made his first move in June, 2004, by acquiring Freddy Garcia mid-season from Seattle. Garcia had been brilliant at times, but also injury-prone. But he was also married to Guillen’s niece so the manager knew more than a little about where the pitcher was coming from.
A month later, the Sox picked up Jose Contreras from The Yankees. In the off-season, they acquired another Cuban pitcher, his friend Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, who after six stellar seasons with the Yankees was another “injury-prone” castoff.
Contreras and Hernandez came to spring training with two of the most interesting backstories in baseball. Both had been stars on the Cuban national baseball team; and both had, by separate means, defected to the United States.
The winningest pitcher in Cuban baseball history, Hernandez was banned from the game in 1996 when Fidel Castro suspected he had helped his brother Livan escape to the United States. He worked for a year as a hospital volunteer. But after Livan pitched The Florida Marlins into The World Series 1997 – and with three victories, was named it’s MVP -- it was suddenly arranged for El Duque to also defect.
Hernandez left Cuba on a boat with his wife and six others, landing on Anguilla Cay in the Bahamas where his American contacts were supposed to pick him up. But they never arrived. The group was stranded for three days, eating conch off the beach until a Coast Guard helicopter finally arrived to rescue them. Four months later, Hernandez was signed by the New York Yankees.
From 1998 to 2004, Hernandez played in six post season series and won three World Series rings. But shoulder and muscle injuries led the Yankees to trade him to the Montreal Expos last year.. After the season ended, The White Sox moved in to sign him to a two-year deal.
Contreras defection was far less dramatic. Trusted so much by Castro that he kept the passports when the Cuban team left the island, Contreras chose to defect during the 2002 Latin World Series in Mexico. The Yankees again swooped in to pick him up for $32 million. But he never blossomed in their system. One key reason, according to the New York papers, was that although he had defected, his wife was still trapped in Cuba. In June, 2004, she too escaped. By then, however, the Yankees were in a pennant race with the Boston Red Sox so they agreed to trade Contreras to The White Sox for Estaban Loiza.
Through most of spring training, the focus in camp was on Guillen. For the reporters, he was the kind of copy you dream of: always there with a quip and a quote, even if many were hard to understand.
It was hardly noticed that after Guillen put his coaching staff together, it looked a lot like a White Sox old timers game. Bench coach Harold Baines, third base coach Joey Cora, first base coach Tim (“Call me Rock”) Raines and hitting instructor Greg Walker were all former White Sox players from Guillen’s playing days. Only pitching coach Don Cooper never played on the Sox with Guillen, but after 18 seasons in the Sox organization as both a minor and major league coach, he fit perfectly into the mold. Once a team, always a team.
In their pre-season predictions, the Chicago sportswriters considered The White Sox a promising team, but not a powerhouse. Of the 11 sports columnists who handicapped the upcoming season, only one -- Mike Kiley of The Chicago Sun-Times -- picked the Sox to win their division. But even Kiley predicted they would go no further than the first round of the playoffs.
So it was a pleasant surprise when the Sox broke from the gate to win 23 of their first 30 games and a shock to find them nine games ahead of The Minnesota Twins in their division at the All Star Game break (July 12).
Earning the Fan’s Respect
For most of the summer, The Sox played in the obscurity of their status as Chicago’s other major league baseball team. While The Cubs were meandering through their schedule before a packed house at Wrigley Field, their South Side counterparts were lucky to draw 26, 000 -- even on a good night.
By August 1, they were 15 games ahead in their division – and still the crowds weren’t coming. One reason for The Sox success, and public apathy, was that they were winning by playing “small ball” – now a trendy term for adhering to the fundamentals. Ardent fans love tight games where rival managers finagle line-ups and try arcane strategies to squeak home the winning run. But the kind of crowds that make a team financially successful tend to come for a beer, a baseball cap and a battery of home runs that set off the exploding scoreboard.
The Sox pitching was every bit as good as promised, even better. Buehrle got off to an 8-0 start and was named to start in The All-Star Game. Garland, slated originally to be the Sox fifth starter, jumped out to a 12-2 record by the All-Star break, the best in the majors. Contreras and Hernandez struggled, but Garcia was pitching well and, in the bullpen, Dustin Hermanson put together a remarkable string of 32 saves,
The Sox hitting was another story. Not a single starter would finish the season with an average over .300. But Konerko, Dye and Thomas were hitting their share of home runs and the other players were finding ways to manufacture runs. Batting in the lead off spot, Podsednik displayed a knack for getting on base early and by the All-Star break had 42 steals.
The Sox were becoming masters of the one-run game. Over the regular season of 162 games, The White Sox played in 50 that were decided by a single run and won 33 of them.
As well as their team was playing, true White Sox fans knew a swoon was coming. And it did – with a vengeance. From August 2nd through August 31, the Sox played 27 games and lost 16 of them. By September 27 – with only five games left to play – the Sox division lead was down to two games.
After the All-Star break, Garland suddenly became ineffective and lost three straight decisions. Frank Thomas, who’d had 12 home runs and 26 RBI’s in 34 games as a designated hitter, went out for the season with an ankle injury. And Hermanson blew four in a row (and also came up with a sore back.) But Contreras suddenly caught fire and won 12 games against 2 losses.
There was one bright spot in August that no one knew what to make of. With Hermanson out, The Sox reached down into their double-A team in Birmingham to bring up a 24-year-old, 275-pound prospect named Bobby Jenks. On August 25, in the 10th inning of a 2-1 game against the Minnesota Twins, Jenks came in from the bullpen and started throwing 100 mph fastballs to get his first major league save.
Back in spring training, Jenks was often compared to Nuke LaLoosh, the pitcher with the million dollar arm and ten-cent head in the movie Bull Durham who threw a ton of strikeouts and just as many walks.
Jenks had been a discovery of The California Angels organization. A scout in Idaho found him playing Legion Ball for a team from Spirit Lake (pop. 1500). Jenks never played on his high school team because his grades were too low. But at the age of 19, he was clocked throwing 97-99 mph on the pitching gun. When the Angels took a chance on him, he said he was disappointed to be drafted by an American League team because he considers himself a pretty good power hitter (and The American League allows a designated hitter to replace the pitcher in the batting order.)
After two years in the minors, Jenks had become the Angel’s top prospect. In one minor league game, the pitching gun clocked his fastball at 103 mph. No one ever had ever thrown a ball that fast in the history of baseball. But Jenks was as wild off the field as on. He showed up for more than one game hung-over and was once suspended him for barroom brawling.
When The Angels brought him up to the majors, he was on and off the disabled list for two years. His hard throwing produced a stress reaction in his elbow. At the end of 2004, Jenks underwent arm surgery where a metal screw was permanently inserted in his right elbow. But the Angels had had enough. He was let go last December to make room for other promising prospects. The White Sox picked Jenks up the next day.
On September 1, The White Sox went on a seven game winning streak and Jenks logged three saves. But then they faded again. The hot team was The Cleveland Indians, who were set to face The Sox in the last three games of the season. In the month before the encounter, Cleveland had won 23 of 30 games. The last games in Cleveland were a sellout three weeks in advance.
As the division race came down to the wire, Cleveland stumbled and The White Sox clinched the title with a win in Detroit the night before the series was to start. Just to prove it was no fluke, The White Sox went on to sweep The Indians in Cleveland and finish the regular season with a 99-63 record, their best since they won The American League Championship in 1959.
After the Sox won the first game against the World Champion Boston Red Sox, 14-2, my reaction was the same as every White Sox fan’s in Chicago: God, I hope they still have a few more runs left in them.
Contreras pitched brilliantly, as he had since the All Star break. But this was a game for hitters. The White Sox started out with five runs in the first inning and never let up. Pierzynski had two home runs. Konerko and Juan Uribe each had one. Even Podsednik, who hadn’t hit a ball out of the park in 507 previous at bats, hit his first home run of the season.
The Red Sox looked tired coming into the game. They had been so focused on their rivalry with the Yankees -- gaining a playoff berth only on the last day -- I don’t think they anticipated the fervor to be found on the White Sox side of the field.
The second game against the Red Sox, again in Chicago, pitted Buehrle against David Wells. The two had been friends and teammates on an earlier White Sox team. Buehrle, in fact, was something of a protégé of Wells. So the pitching match-up promised to be the most exciting part of my evening on the couch.
One of the great advantages of watching playoff games at home is that post-season play brings out the best in new sports technology. For this series, Fox TV had placed little lipstick cameras in the grass under the pitcher’s mound. They also scattered digital-data cameras around the stadium that allowed them to track every pitch.
With the help of Chicago-based Sportsvision – the same company that invented the yellow first down marker for football games on TV – they could diagram and display pitch trajectory and the exact location of ever pitch as it crossed the plate, which they did on the replay of every player who came to the plate. The results of the tracking were displayed on-screen during the video replays.
It didn’t take long for me to become enthralled with the new technology; and while I was watching the tech, the Red Sox jumped off to a 4-0 lead.
Although Buehrle was impressive, Wells looked invincible. Then in the 5th inning, White Sox designated hitter Carl Everett led off with a single and Aaron Rowand doubled him home. Pierzynski grounded out, but Joe Crede brought Rowand home on a single to left. Small ball was working. The Red Sox lead was sliced to 4-2.
Wells worked the next batter Juan Uribe into a 2-2 count, getting him to hit a slow-rolling grounder to second that should have been an inning-ending double play. But former White Sox Tony Graffanino let it roll through his legs. Everyone was safe. Wells still had his stuff. He got Podsednik to pop out to third and might have gotten out of the inning but for Tadahito Iguchi, Kenny Williams' Japanese surprise attack.
After eight seasons as a star for The Fukuoka Daiea Hawks, Iguchi was a genuine superstar back in Japan. He’d won two stolen base titles, three Golden Gloves and played in four of their All-Star Games before the Sox signed him this year. In his last year in Japan, he hit 24 home runs and batted .333. Now, at the age of 30, Guillen was calling him The Sox MVP and promoting his chances as American League Rookie of The Year (which he did not get.)
In Japan, Iguchi had batted clean-up in the order. But Guillen switched to second behind Podsednik because of his speed and ability to put down the hit-and-run. Wells had faced Iguchi three times earlier in the season and put him down every time with an array of curves. But this time, Wells hung one chest high and Iguchi was waiting for it. He crushed the ball over the fence for a home run that gave The White Sox a 5-4 lead.
Wells was out, and Buehrle held the Red Sox scoreless into the 9th when Bobby Jenks came in for the save.
By the time the series shifted to Boston for Game Three, White Sox spirits were soaring and The Red Sox were reduced to pinning their hopes on Tim Wakefield, whose unpredictable knuckleball confounded some hitters – and delighted others.
The White Sox were going with their fourth starter Freddy Garcia (14-8) who promptly coughed up a 1st inning homer to Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez. The White Sox battled back, sitting on Wakefield’s pitches for strategic singles capped by a 6th inning Konerko home run that made it 5-2 Sox margin.
In the bottom of the 6th, The Red Sox beat Garcia like a drum. Ramirez hit another homer to narrow the lead to 5-3. The next three hitters also found ways to get to Garcia, presenting a bases-loaded no one situation.
Enter El Duque.
Like the Expos and Yankees managers before him, Guillen had struggled all season with Hernadez’s prima donna attitude and chronic health complaints. But he had six post season appearances under his belt and he knew The Red Sox hitters. At the end of the regular season, when the roster can be temporarily expanded to look at new talent, The White Sox brought up a promising pitcher named Brandon McCarthy who promptly delivered two solid wins. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf wanted McCarthy on the post-season roster instead of Hernandez. But Guillen over-ruled him.
From his first pitch to his last, Hernandez was magnificent. In order, he retired Jason Varitek, Tony Graffanino and last year’s World Series hero Johnny Damon, leaving all three runners stranded on base.
Hernandez finished the game with three more shutout innings and – with an assist from closer Bobby Jenks – The White Sox were in the American League finals.
We’re No Angels, But God’s on Our Side
While The White Sox were taking their division title in three games, The California Angels needed all five games to dispatch The Yankees in their division match-up. The last game was an extra-inning affair in California only a night before the winner had to begin the American League pennant series in Chicago.
Game One in the American League series should have been called The Game of Excuses. California sportswriters complained that it was unfair The Angels should be pressed into service so quickly after their win; and Chicago sportswriters worried that, after five days rest, The Sox might be too rusty.
Contreras again started for The Sox and gave another solid performance. But the Sox bats were listless. With one out in the 8th and the score tied 2-2, Guillen brought in closer Bobby Jenks. But Jenks magic failed him and The Angels took Game One 3-2. It was the Sox first loss in their last nine outings.
If there was a defining moment in the series, it came in Game Two, again in Chicago, in the bottom of the 9th. The Sox and Angels were tied 1-1. Angels reliever Kelvin Escobar picked up two early outs and the game seemed headed into extra innings when Pierzynski stepped to the plate.
Escobar took Pierzynski to a 2-2 count and had him swinging on a nasty forkball in the dirt for strike three. Pierzynski paused at the plate for a second and The Angels outfield began coming off the field. Then Pierzynski took a chance and bolted to first as if the catcher had dropped the ball. Home plate umpire Doug Eddings ruled that – without a tag after a dropped third strike – he was safe.
One of the advantages – and disadvantages -- of watching baseball at home with the new technology is that the TV broadcasters can slow down motion and zoom in close enough to see that, although it was possible Escobar’s pitch hit the dirt before it hit the catcher’s mitt, it sure didn’t look like it on TV. If the umpire had said, “Strike Three, You’re Out,” there would have been no question about the call. But there are no mics in baseball -- especially around the batter’s box where player-umpire interchanges can get a little salty – so everything is said (or not said) in hand signals.
Given an extra out in the inning, Joe Crede stepped to the plate and lined a double to left, scoring pinch runner Pablo Ozuna. The White Sox walked off the field with a 2-1 victory. Instead of returning to Los Angeles up 2-0 for three games on their home turf, The Angels were now tied 1-1 in the series, and momentum was on The White Sox side.
After the game, a coy Ozzie Guillen stepped before the microphones, claiming he wasn’t watching closely during the call. But he did acknowledge the Sox were lucky to get it. “I’d rather be lucky than good,” he said, “and I think we are more lucky than good right now.”
For Game Three, the White Sox chose to go with their own California boy, Jon Garland, who came through with another nine-inning gem. Konerko led off the 1st inning with a home run and Sox bats finally came alive for a 5-2 victory.
Game Four -- an 8-2 White Sox blowout -- belonged to Garcia who went the distance; and Contreras came back in Game Five with another complete game and a 6-3 White Sox win.
Over 36 innings, the White Sox had used four pitchers and won four games. Not since 1956 has any team turned in four successive complete game victories in the post-season play – and that was a time when no one kept pitch counts, relievers were the dregs of the staff and the best “closer” in baseball was Mickey Mantle. (For the record, the 1956 record was set by the New York Yankees staff of Don Larsen, Whitey Ford, Tom Sturdivant, Johnny Kucks, and Bob Turley who actually pitched five complete games, but Turley lost his against The Brooklyn Dodgers)
The Chicago Sun-Times, in the best of many memorable covers to their World Series Extra wraparounds, put the faces of Contreras, Buehrle, Garland and Garcia on Mount Rushmore.
World Series here we come.
A Pause to Reflect
On the eve of the series, I got an email from a friend that reminded me of the diversity of this White Sox team: a white Jewish owner, a black general manager, a manager from Venezuela, a shortstop from the Dominican Republic, two pitchers from Cuba, a kid from West Texas, another from Missouri, three white guys from California, two Puerto Ricans, three African-Americans, one Japanese superstar and a couple other Grabowski’s whose ethnic origins are so complicated you just have to call them Americans.
For the sake of public relations, the White Sox had almost as many interpreters in the dugout as coaches (and some were coaches). But they reflected the changing face of baseball. In the coming years, the estimate is that 40% of major league baseball players will come from Latin countries and as many as 5% from Japan. Both will encounter language and culture barriers that will make it hard for the American sports marketing machine to turn them into super-heroes. Does that mean they are not good? Or great? Or does it only mean they are not marketable? And what does it mean to be a marketable baseball star? Who is the market?
Guillen is the perfect manager for this team, bilingual and devoted to the game. On the eve of the series, Guillen sat down with George Vecsey of The New York Times to talk about how the game is changing.
“I grow up watching the game in the 1970’s and 1980’s,” he said, when strong pitching and bunting and stolen bases were considered the pinnacle of perfection. But sometime in the early 90’s, he added, “when we started making a lot of money, we forget how to play baseball the right way.”
“I don’t know, maybe it’s the agents told the kids, ‘You don’t get R.B.I’s or home runs, you’re not going to make any money. It’s amazing how you see kids from the minor leagues, they don’t even know how to execute. I believe that you’re going to do that little thing, you’re going to move the guy over, you always need one more run than the opposite team to win the game.
“The reason why I play 16 years in baseball, because I can bunt,” he said. “That’s it.”
A Series to Remember
Through the miracle of television, I watched The World Series with my son, who was 2,000 miles away in college, chatting between innings on the cellphone about the game’s progress. Box seats to Game One were said to be going for $8,000. A block of four behind home plate was reportedly sold for $20,000. Four years of college or four seats at The World Series? It was the one decision my son and I did not see eye-to-eye on.
Houston was an unlikely opponent. The Astros had started out the season winning only 15 of their first 45 games. They never led in their division (won by St. Louis) and did not clinch a wildcard berth until the last game of the regular season. Their offense sputtered through the year with numerous injuries to key players. Even so, with three aces on the staff -- Roy Oswalt, Roger Clemens and Andy Pettitte – a number of sportswriters picked them to win, especially after they beat St. Louis in six games to win the National League title.
The triumph over St. Louis came at some cost. The Astros were only an out away from moving on in Game Five when The Cardinals’ Albert Pujols crushed a 9th inning home run to send the series into a sixth game. So The Astros were forced to use their ace Oswalt to save the series. pushing Roger Clemens up to start the opener against Chicago.
Clemens, at 43, was the oldest pitcher to ever start Game One of a World Series. For all practical purposes, this was his last hurrah, and it was not a satisfying one. He lasted only two innings, leaving with a pulled hamstring after a White Sox hit-and-run put them ahead 3-1.
The Astros came back to tie the game, but a home run by Joe Crede in the 4th gave the lead back to the Sox 4-3. Contreras started for The Sox. He was shaky in the early innings, but settled down to hold the lead into the 7th inning when Neil Cotts came out of the bullpen for two more shutout innings.
In the top of the 9th, Guillen brought in Jenks to close it out. But which Jenks? The pitching phenom stared down into the catcher’s mitt and fired off seven straight fastballs – five clocked at over 100 mph – for the last two outs. You never saw a bigger smile on a bigger kid.
Game Two had Buehrle going against Pettitte. Both pitched well, but both managers took advantage of their opportunities and, for the first time, The White Sox found themselves in the 7th inning at a 4-2 deficit to the Astros. That’s when luck – Guillen’s favorite player – found The Sox again.
Astros manager Phil Garner pulled Pettite for reliever Dan Wheeler, who sandwiched two outs around a double by Juan Uribe, then walked Tadahito Iguchi and hit Jermaine Dye on a 3-2 count to load the bases. The pitch to Dye looked on the replay to have actually ticked the bottom of his bat but, as Dye explained later, “I looked back and the umpire pointed to first. So I wasn’t going to argue.”
The bases were loaded for Paul Konerko. A new reliever, Chad Qualls, came in to face the right-hander. Konerko took a chance. He came around strong on the first fastball, busting it into the left field stands for a Grand Slam, only the 18th in World Series history.
The White Sox held their 6-4 lead into the 9th, but the magic of Bobby Jenks then failed them. Jenks managed to get two outs, but at the same time put two runners on base in scoring position. With only one out left to go, Garner put in a pinch hitter who punched a single up the middle, scoring two runs and tying the game 6-6..
It was now The White Sox last chance. Garner brought in his closer Brad Lidge, who had been intimidating against The National League all year. The first man up was leadoff hitter Podsednik. Podsednik was the poster boy for Guillen’s small ball game. He could lay down a bunt to start things off, run out most infield grounders, hit singles to the opposite field: anything to get a rally going. On the first pitch, Podsednik came around on a Lidge fastball and the ball sailed – out of the infield, over the outfielder’s head and into the bleachers. Podsednik had miraculously hit his second home run of the playoffs to give The Sox a 7-6 walk-off victory.
For Game Three, The World Series traveled down to Houston, and so did the entire 300-person White Sox staff, courtesy of Reinsdorf. And – just in case – so too did The World Series trophy. Sox fans were beginning to smell the end.
To get to the end, however, the White Sox had to endure the longest game in World Series history, a 14-inning, five hour and 41 minutes affair improbably won on a homer by pinch hitter Geoff Blum, a trading deadline pick-up who had not been to the plate in 21 days, hadn’t gotten a hit in 24 days and had not driven in a run in 56 days.
Jayson Starks of ESPN.com wrote a column pointing
out the many astounding records set, calling it a This-Game-Is-Never-Going-To-End-Ever
* The game lasted just 19 minutes shy of 6 hours. In 1917, the last time The White Sox won The World Series, they played the first three games in a combined 5 hours and 56 minutes.
* The two teams together used 17 pitchers who threw 482 pitches before the game was over. The winning team set an all-time record for most walks issued by a pitching staff in one game (12); and the losing team managed to throw eight straight shutout innings between the 6th and 14th innings.
* Together, both teams left 30 players on base (15 for each). The Astros held a 4-0 lead in the 4th inning, then sent 47 batters to the plate to get precisely one hit. Still, they picked up one more run on 11 walks and an error.
* The winning pitcher (Damasco Marte) had not had a win in five months. He had not gotten a single out in 3 1/2 weeks. And at one point in the game, his E.R.A for the post-season was infinity (four batters, zero outs.)
* The White Sox closer turned out to be Mark Buehrle, the White Sox starter the game before, who was the last man left in the bullpen. Buehrle threw three pitches to close out the game. (“It was weird,” he told reporters afterwards. “When I got that last out, I wasn’t ready to walk off the field. I’m not used to throwing three pitches and then the game’s over.”) Had the game not ended there, the next pitcher in line for the Sox was right-fielder Jermaine Dye.
But you take them when you get them. So the Sox entered Game Four in Houston up 3-0 with Freddy Garcia on the mound. The opposing pitcher was Brendan Backe, never even mentioned in the pantheon of great Astro pitchers. But Backe gave Houston their best pitcher outing yet.
The last game was a nail-biting 0-0 tie game through seven innings. The Sox broke the tie in the 8th inning with the kind of small ball Guillen had been preaching all year. Second baseman Willie Harris, who lost his position to Iguchi early in the year, came in as a pinch hitter for Garcia and batted out a single. Harris moved to second on a sacrifice bunt and took third on a ground out by Carl Everett. Then Dye, who would become the series MVP, brought him home with a single up the middle.
The Sox were one run up with three outs to go in the 9th with Jenks back on the mound trying to close it out. But which Jenks? The first Astro to the plate, Jason Lane, led off with a single. That put the tying run on first. Then he too advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt.
Jenks got Chris Burke to pop a high foul to the third base side. The ball was falling in the stands out of play (shades of Bartman) when Juan Uribe leapt over the railing into the crowd for a second out.
The Astros last hopes were with Orlando Palmeiro who bounced a grounder over Jenks’ head up the middle. But Uribe came charging across from shortstop to scoop the ball in. His throw beat Palmeiro to first base by inches.
I watched the pandemonium on the field (and heard it instantly in firecrackers and car horns out my window.) My son was screaming in my ear over the cellphone. One man noticeably didn’t race from the dugout to join the pile of players on the field. He turned to hug a coach – and then his son. Ozzie Guillen’s team was truly The World Champion.
In the press conference afterward, Guillen was unusually calm. “I didn’t come here for the glamour,” he said. “I didn’t come here for the money. I came to win.”
And he did.