Thursday, March 15, 2018


                The Chicago White Sox and Los Angeles Dodgers share a spring-training complex in Glendale, Arizona, and during the first week of March I drove across Phoenix to watch them play each other there. The White Sox were the designated home team on a sunny weekday afternoon, yet my eyeball assessment of the crowd favored Dodger blue over White Sox black by a margin of three or four to one. That was business as usual, because spring training in low-rise, red-roofed Glendale has been a horse-and-rabbit stew since the facility opened in 2009, with the White Sox always playing the lesser role.

                But maybe that’s just as well because the Sox are used to being No. 2, not only in the spring but also during the regular season in their Windy City domicile. First fiddle there is played by the Chicago Cubs, who for reasons many and varied have held that status since about 1985. In 2005, when the Sox broke Chicago’s epic, 88-year baseball-championship drought, they were outdrawn at the gate by a Cubs’ team that went 79-83 in the won-lost column. An attendance spurt that accompanied the opening of the Sox’s new ballpark in 1991 gave the team some earlier spark, but it lasted a brief few seasons. Now that the Cubs are riding high off their 2016 World Series win their recent box-office edge of roughly two-to-one seems carved in stone.
            In recent years the Sox’s bid to stay relevant in the Chicago-baseball conversation has consisted of making band-aid fixes in hopes that a few more victories would produce enough juice to avoid a full-fledged gate collapse. That didn’t work, and four straight losing seasons beginning in 2013—with annual sub-2 million home attendance figures—convinced the team’s ownership that a thorough, lose-on-purpose revamp was in order.

That was hardly a novel conclusion since teams like the Washington Nationals, Houston Astros and, yes, the Cubs, had done the same thing in recent memory, but the White Sox had avoided it because of fears its place hold might not survive three or four more years in the dumpster. But, finally, things got so bad that no other path presented itself.

The process started last year when the team traded its best pitcher, Chris Sale, for prospects, and did the same with Adam Eaton, its center fielder and lead-off man. As the season progressed it traded its No. 2 starter, Jose Quintana, for more youngsters, and did the same with relief closer David Robertson, veteran third-baseman Todd Frazier and much of its functional bullpen.  The trading pace has slowed this year but probably will pick up again as the 2018 race unfolds.

 The team’s current main bargaining chip is Jose Abreu, the first baseman it spirited out of Cuba in 2013 and who, with 124 home runs in his four seasons in Chicago, has stamped himself as a certified big-league power hitter. At age 31, and with two more years left on his contract, he would fetch a good price from any team with title hopes.

In its talent dump the Sox have aped what the Cubs did when Theo Epstein took over their front office in 2012, and also in other ways. To manage the revamp on the field the Sox hired the amiable Rick Renteria, who Epstein picked to lead the Cubs in 2014 and who might be leading them still if Joe Maddon hadn’t become available the next year. Further, the Quintana trade was with the Cubs, and in return the Sox got outfielder Eloy Jimenez, the top position-player prospect in the Cubs’ chain and, now, the best in the White Sox’s system.

The Sox have deviated from the Cubs’ model in one important way: to date they have concentrated on pitching in their young-player acquisitions, while the Cubs went after young bats and then shopped for established hurlers. Young pitchers are iffier so this is a more-hazardous course, and it remains to be seen how it will pan out.

The best pitching prospects the White Sox have acquired are Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez, in the Eaton trade with the Nationals, and Michael Kopech, in the Sale deal with the Boston Red Sox. Giolito, a jumbo, 23-year-old right hander, looked good when he was brought to the Majors late last season, and is in the team’s projected starting rotation. So is Lopez, 24, also a righty, although his star shines a bit less brightly than Giolito’s.  Right­-hander Kopech, 21, an off-beat fireballer who sports flowing, golden locks, might be the best of the three but he’ll start this season in the minors, perhaps to extend the team’s contractual control.

The top everyday player the Sox got was second-baseman Yoan Moncada, 21, from Boston. He hit only .231 in 54 games after his 2017 call up, but got better as his stay progressed and is expected to continue the improvement. He’s the kind of player who can help a team in a lot of ways; in one spring game I saw this month he walked twice in three at-bats, stole a base and scored from first on a single when the right-fielder bobbled the hit. And at 6-feet-2 and 220 pounds, he has power potential.

To succeed the Sox will need their prospects to avoid injury, and this has been a problem in spring training. Third-baseman Jake Burger, the team’s top pick in the 2017 free-agent draft (and 11th choice overall), already has been lost for the season by an early-spring Achillies tendon tear, and both Jimenez and Luis Robert, a 20-year-old Cuban outfielder whom it paid $26 million, have been in and out of the lineup with various ills.

Mostly, though, it’ll have to be shown that the team’s front office, led by general manager Rick Hahn, knows talent. If it does as well as the Cubs’ Epstein, an all-Chicago World Series could be more than a pipe dream. If not, Las Vegas or Portland might be in the cards.

Thursday, March 1, 2018


                NEWS: Winter Olympics end.
                VIEWS: Finally.

                I covered three Winter Olympics—in Calgary in 1988, Albertville in 1992 and Lillehammer in 1994—but didn’t especially enjoy any of them.  The weather was one reason, of course, even when the problem was too warm (in Calgary) rather than too cold, but the real rub was that I had no affinity for winter sports. I never skied and wasn’t much of a skater on the ice rink created during the winter by flooding the playground behind my Chicago grammar school. As a kid I played a lot of ping pong in friends’ basements when the weather was cold, and racquetball was my winter sport of choice as an adult.

                 I had nothing against the athletes at the Winter O’s, who possessed the same virtues as other top-level jocks, but I did have quarrels with some of the games they played. Most winter-sports races are staged as singles or pairs against the clock rather than the line-‘em-all-up-and-see-who’s-best formats of, say track and field or swimming. Thus, they lack dramatic impact or a satisfying conclusion.

   Further, too many winter sports involve judges, which is to say they’re inherently open to bias. That’s especially true of figure skating, the Winter Games’ marquee events. Yeah, the figs are beautiful, and the skaters are terrific, but if it’s a sport so is ballet.  As for the TV commentary, it’s set me to giggling ever since I saw “Kentucky Fried Movie” (remember?).

                With only nations with the requisite frosty climes participating, the Winter Games are less universal than the summer ones, and because their overseers have dictated that both follow the same, 17-day schedule the winter calendars were much sparser than the summer ones at the Games I attended. The skeds have been beefed up for recent Games, mostly with X-Games daredevil stuff I can do without, but also by the addition of curling, that cross between bowling and shuffleboard that defies any definition of athletic endeavor. The revelation that a Russian curler was caught doping at Pyeongchang was one of the oddest sports stories ever. A curler doping? What in the world for?

                Wife Susie loves the figs, and because we were traveling for much of the recent Winter Games I was forced to watch quite a bit of them in our hotel rooms. Thus, I found the end of the competition especially welcome. It’ll be four years until the next one, not enough time to recover but almost.

                NEWS: Major League Baseball moves to speed games by limiting pitcher’s-mound conferences.

                VIEWS: The devil is in the details.

                The new rule, just announced, places a limit of six on mound visits by managers, coaches, catchers or other players during a nine-inning game, plus one for each extra inning, but it contains so many exceptions that it’s impact should be minimal. To wit:

                --Visits to check out possible pitchers’ injuries aren’t counted, nor are visits after an offensive substitution.

--Catchers still can talk to pitchers from the infield grass.

--Positions players can come to the mound to clean their spikes on the mound board (and whisper messages).

--Visits over the limit to correct pitch-sign cross-ups are permitted if the home-plate umpire agrees.

                The trouble with all the above exceptions is that each could be subject to umpire interpretations that will lead to arguments. MLB has tested a 20-second pitch clock during the last couple of Arizona Fall League seasons, and in the few instances umps invoked it they had to weather managers’ beefs that more than negated whatever time savings the rule might have brought. Look for a repeat of that this season.

                NEWS: More shoes drop in the FBI’s investigation of college basketball.

                VIEWS: There’s a centipede out there.

                The probe, which in September resulted in indictments of assistant coaches from Arizona, USC, Auburn and Oklahoma State, plus player agents and executives of the shoe company Adidas, rattled college hoops to its core, especially because the agency hinted there was more to come. Nothing further has been announced, but last week Yahoo Sports reported that some 20 more schools have been caught in the G-men’s net, including perennial powerhouses Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Michigan State and Kansas. It also identified a half dozen current or recent college players who received payments in the scheme, in which the coaches funneled money to the kids to attend certain schools, wear certain sneakers and, later, employ certain agents.

                That only assistant coaches were named initially made it look like your typical NCAA enforcement charade, but big cheese Rick Pitino of Louisville quickly got fired when his school was implicated (it was a last straw thing; he’d more than deserved firing for things he’d done previously) and Sean Miller of Arizona was benched a week ago when it came out he’d been taped discussing with one of the indictees paying $100,000 to a coveted recruit, Deandre Ayton, who wound up at Arizona.

The Yahoo piece, and one by ESPN’s excellent websight, said that about 4,000 phone calls, emails and other documents were seized during a two-year investigation, including a pile from Andy Miller, a well-known player agent. Some of the college game’s sainted head coaches, including Bill Self of Kansas and North Carolina’s Roy Williams, have issued “not me” statements, indicating, at least, that some “You too’s?” have been whispered in their presence.

                The main reason the coaches are squirming is that this is an FBI probe, not one by the toothless NCAA. That means that penalties can include prison time, not just some BS loss of scholarships or post-season-game ban. It’s more than a little ironic that the federal criminal laws the agency is seeking to enforce were enthusiastically supported by the NCAA in its never-ending quest to keep money from so-called student-athletes.  It’s a classic case of watching what you wish for, because you might get it.