A couple of weeks ago, during the first full week of spring training here in Arizona, I drove across town to Glendale to see the Chicago White Sox play the Arizona Diamondbacks. On a perfect sunny day following two days of rain, with a temperature of about 70, the announced attendance was 2,896, but my guess was that the real number was less than 2,000. With enough patience I might have been able to count the house.
Yes, it was an early-spring game played mostly by reserves, but the opponent was the home-town team and that same week the Chicago Cubs, luxuriating in their new championship, had a couple of 15,000-plus sellouts for similar contests at their spring base in Mesa. The White Sox never have matched the Cubs in spring attendance since they moved to Glendale from Tucson in 2009, but the gate gap this year has been the biggest yet.
It’s no news that the Sox are the No. 2 team in a two-team town, but as the spring-training example shows their numbertwoness will be tested this season as never before. Mired in mediocrity or worse pretty much since their startling World Series triumph in 2005, and especially for the last four years, they have begun what appears to be a thorough rebuilding phase that ensures poor on-field results for the next two or three seasons. Given their continuing struggles at their home box office, their continued existence in the Second City may depend on the effort’s success.
The stripping down process began during the off-season when the Sox traded their best pitcher, Chris Sale, and best outfielder, Adam Eaton, for prospects. Further deals for such valuable assets as first-baseman Jose Abreu, outfielder Melky Cabrera and pitcher Jose Quintana have been predicted. Rick Hahn, the team’s front-office baseball chief, has been frank about the likely consequences of such moves. “Our focus is on building something sustainable,” he has said. “In the short term we might have to pay some price at the big-league level.”
In getting bad to eventually get good, the White Sox are following two notable recent examples. The first was that of the Washington Nationals under Mike Rizzo, which endured three terrible campaigns (2008-10) to acquire the draft choices that allowed them to add the likes of Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg and make the playoffs three times in the past five seasons. The other was the Cubs under Theo Epstein, who tanked in 2012, ’13 and ’14 in order to put together the pieces that led to their trophy run last year.
The Nats and Cubs, however, had good reason to believe their fans wouldn’t abandon them while they were being lousy on purpose—the Nats because they still were a novelty in D.C., having just landed there from Montreal in 2005, and the Cubs because their fanatical fan base would come to Wrigley Field to watch the grass grow as long as beer was being sold. The Sox have no such assurances; their home attendance last year was 1,746,293, 26th among the Major League’s 30 clubs (the Cubs drew 3,232,420), and the “what have you done for me lately?” vibe has been strong among their followers for a good while.
Indeed, the Sox are in the position of having to win to draw, an unenviable status in big-time pro sports. They did relatively well in the four decades immediately following WWII, usually outdoing the Cubs on the field and at the gate, but since about 1985 they’ve been the rear end of Chicago’s baseball horse, a victim of demographics, a bad business decision and stadium location.
The demographics have to do with the “white flight” that sent many of their South Side fans to the suburbs during the 1970s and ‘80s. The business decision put them on cable television in the mid-‘80s, when most Chicagoans didn’t have cable. That left the “free” TV market to the WGN-aligned Cubs, and WGN’s “superstation” status allowed the team to make its fan reach national.
The ballpark issue wasn’t of the team’s own making. In the late ‘80s, when it was clear their old Comiskey Park home had had it, the Sox wanted to follow their fans to west-suburban Addison, but the move was blocked by the state legislature, which said it would proffer essential financial support only if the new stadium was built on land adjacent to Comiskey. Tampa, Florida, beckoned, but the team decided take the local deal and stay put. That choice wasn’t a bad one—Florida has proved to be a Sargasso Sea for Major League baseball—but it condemned the team to operate in an expressway wilderness devoid of amenities. That’s in stark contrast to the good-time atmosphere of the neighborhood that surrounds Wrigley Field, whether or not there’s a ballgame.
In backing up the truck, as the saying goes, the Sox’s closest model is that of the Cubs, but they already have veered from the Cubs’ model by emphasizing pitching in their deals to date; Eaton brought three pitching prospects (Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dave Dunning) and Sale brought right-hander Michael Kopech in addition to the highly rated second-baseman Yoan Moncado. It’s baseball common wisdom that young pitchers are riskier than young position players, and the Cubs concentrated on the latter in their rebuild.
Further, the two main pitching prospects the Sox secured in the above transactions both carry some baggage. Giolito, at age 22, already has undergone elbow surgery, and Kopech, 20, has served a 50-game suspension for using a banned drug (an amphetamine) and broke his pitching hand in a fight with a minor-league teammate. I saw Kopech pitch in a Fall League game last November. He walked six batters and hit one in 3 1/3 innings, but didn’t surrender a run. It’s going to be an interesting ride with that kid.
No doubt, it’s going to be an interesting ride all around with the Sox. It’ll succeed if Hahn, et al, can pick ‘em as well as Epstein and Co. did. If not, well, Las Vegas should be an option.