Sox in Five
Tigers, Tigers Burning Bright — and Oh the Smoke, How It Rises!
by Steve Gozdecki
The Chicago White Sox are playing very, very good baseball. But them Tigers of Detroit, they're playing just a little bit better. They're coming to resemble some elusive quarry forever glimpsed on the horizon, with Ozzie Guillen as Ahab attempting to catch it.
So as the boys on the Boo Yaa! Network put it, Detroit is en fuego. But with an identical 9-1 record over the last 10 games (the sole loss being Sunday night's heartbreaker) and the second-best record in baseball, the Sox, too, are on fire. Yet it seems that many can't see the fire for all the smoke — the smoke emanating from Ozzie's babbling, blathering maw, that is.
Entire forests of newsprint and countless days of airtime have been devoted to the manager's latest outbursts as the club's management continues to play bush league in its bizarre vendetta against Jay Mariotti, the least-liked columnist in all the home market. No matter what specific insults — homophobic or otherwise — are hurled, for a professional to waste time going ad hominem on people who are paid to bloviate is indefensible. That Ozzie has a history of such outbursts and a very feeble excuse for using such terms — it's his culture, he says, not withstanding the 20+ years he's been involved in professional baseball stateside — makes it all the more odious.
In 99 out of 100 cases, when the media becomes the news — especially in sports — the plot is lost. And when a team is playing insanely good baseball, but the talk of the nation is what a couple guys have said rather than what is going on between the chalk lines, there's a problem.
But it's not a problem I plan to throw any more words at. So let's do us some Sox in Five instead.
One: There's Nothing Grander Than a Slam
There are those who will tell you that the most exciting offensive play in baseball is the triple, what with the outfielders chasing after the ball and trying to throw out the runner as he streaks around the bases, rounding second base and digging hard while the throw comes in, the cutoff man trying to gauge whether he should let the ball pass or do a pick and chuck, and then a big cloud of dust as the runner slides into third base. These people need to deepen their appreciation of the actual most exciting offensive play in baseball, the grand slam, a.k.a. the new best friend of your Chicago White Sox. Hitters working the count, trying not to give up a precious out, doing whatever they have to do in order to get onto base — hit or error or walk or hit by pitch or dropped third strike — until three of them do it and stand tall on the bases, taking small leads but hoping that the man coming into the batter's box can jack one out and allow them a leisurely jog around the basepaths, culminating in each of them scoring and gathering at home plate until the man who hit the shot that drove them home finishes his celebratory stroll around the bases, whereupon backslaps and hearty congratulations gush forth and the crowd either erupts or quiets, depending on which team has just posted four runs. The grand slam probably happens no more than 5 percent of the time that the bases fill up, but oh what a moment when it does! And oh, what moments Soxdom enjoyed this past weekend with the tear these slugging Sox have been on! Friday night, it was Scott Podsednik giving the visiting Houston Astros nightmarish flashbacks to Game 2 of last year's World Series, a game he ended with a home run. This time, it was a 4th-inning shot with the bases jammed that sent the Sox on their way to a 7-4 victory. Saturday afternoon, Joe Crede did the honors in the 7th inning, telling teammates he was going to take the biggest swing he could off of the first pitch from reliever Chad Qualls in the seventh inning with the sacks packed with Sox, turning a 5-1 deficit into a tie game that the Sox went on to win in 10 innings. And Sunday night, it was Tadahito Iguchi doing the honors with a bases-loaded jack in the bottom of the ninth to send the game into extra innings — an eventual loss, but a moral victory considering the 9-1 deficit the team came back from.
Two: More Bitching About the Pitching
Of course, this crazy streak of grand slams is just part of the White Sox offensive show — a show that has them leading all of major league baseball with an .819 OPS (a quick indicator of general offensive prowess that combines on-base percentage and slugging ability) and runs scored with 438. And as has written here and elsewhere ad nauseum, this great hitting has been covering up for the disappointing performance of the pitching staff, which posted an American League-leading 3.61 team ERA last year but is fifth in the league with a 4.35 through 75 games this year. Not so good, eh? Yet a look at another interesting metric, the quality start — defined as a performance in which the starting pitcher throws six innings or more and gives up fewer than three earned runs — finds the Sox doing almost as well this year as they did last year. Last year's much-lauded rotation put up quality starts 95 times, for a 58 percent clip. This season, we're hitting this mark 54 percent of the time despite the crappy numbers being put up by the three starters not named Mark or Jose. So basically, the starting staff is giving the Sox a very reasonable chance of winning almost as often this year as it did last year, but when the guys aren't delivering the QS action, they — and the bullpen — are giving up a whole lot of runs, relatively speaking.
Three: Mach 5 Mark
Early last season, we celebrated a friend's birthday at a Saturday afternoon game against Seattle in which Mark Buehrle outduelled Ryan Franklin to send us home a 2-1 winner. The game flew by in a mere 99 minutes — just over half the length of a typical MLB game — barely giving the beer vendors an hour of game time to hawk their wares before the alcohol-sale curfew kicked in. Now Buehrle is known as a fast worker, so with only eight base runners allowed in the course of the whole game this may not be the most shocking thing you read this hour. But the muy rapido performance that did surprise me came in Buehrle's start last Wednesday night, a 13-5 drubbing of the Cardinals that — even with all those runs scored, 29 baserunners, five pitching changes and an injury timeout when St. Louis center fielder Jim Edmonds concussed himself running into a wall — was completed in a mere two hours and 20 minutes. Thanks to Mach 5 Mark Buehrle, a high-scoring blowout needn't be long and boring!
Four: Still Number Juan
While Alex "Absolut" Cintron was briefly sprinkled with that patented Sox reserve majik during a short stretch of recent games shortstop Juan Uribe was away for the birth of his latest child, he has since been returned to the utility role that he belongs in. Since his return, Uribe has been enjoying a little hot streak of his own, with homers in four of his last 10 games and a steady uptick in the numbers that have pulled him ahead of center fielder Brian Anderson in the "which of these guys doesn't belong on a world championship squad?" derby. Keep it up, Uribe!
Five: Heading North
To the excitement of few, the Cubs host the Sox this weekend for round two of the annual city series. While these games were thrilling back in the days of mutual mediocrity, that whole 2005 World Series championship coupled with the severe crappiness of this year's model of the Cubs makes this series only marginally more interesting than your typical three-game set between the Yankees and Devil Rays. Nevertheless, let's go White Sox!
Fire in Five
The World Cup in Five
by Steve Gillies
Even though jetlag made me totally blow a deadline, I thought you guys might be interested in my impressions from the World Cup. I attended all the US games, and even though the results were disappointing, it was a great time, the games were amazing, and I'd highly recommend going to a World Cup to anyone that has the means and the vacation time.
One: Our Team.
Contrary to what commentators might have said, the US Team really didn't play that badly. Even in their 3-0 loss to the Czech Republic, they played much better than given credit for and I think the lopsided score flattered the Czechs. I don't think I've ever seen a team work as hard for something as the nine guys that finished the game against Italy. There was no shortage of effort or commitment from the team throughout any of the tournament. However, the second half of that Ghana game particularly underscored the main problem of the team. They just don't have the confidence, the creativity and the attacking talent to beat a well-organized in team. In short, we're a solid, unspectacular national team. Really what I think it boils down to, as a soccer culture in the US, I want to stop hearing people talk about getting better athletes playing soccer. I want to hear people stop talking about speed (Beasley, Donovan) or size (Eddie Johnson) and I want to see way more of an emphasis on skill and talent. While we're talking about individual players here, though, I think a special mention should go out to Claudio Reyna, who was everything a captain should be during this World Cup. It's really a shame that about the only mistake I saw him make the entire tournament led both to Ghana's opening goal and an injury that effectively ended Reyna's national team career.
Two: Our Coach.
It looks like Bruce Arena will take the fall for the US failure to get to the next round. He certainly had some bad moments during the tournament, most notably panicking during halftime of the Czech game and going with a second half lineup that confused our own players much more than it did the Czechs. Additionally, all the secrecy surrounding the starting lineup backfired and made him look more like a paranoid than the genius he's been touted as. But if you want to look back on the worst decision made regarding the team's preparation, you'll have to go back to Arena declining several invitations to take the team to the Copa America, South America's championship tournament. Our team needs to be thrown into competitive international situations like the World Cup more than once every four years and the Copa America is the closest we could get to doing that. For all the criticism Arena's received over the last week, though, it shouldn't be forgotten that over the last eight years Arena has guided the team through its most successful period ever and the attitude he's brought to the team has been a huge part of that. As a measure of how far we've come, think about this: We tied Italy in a World Cup while playing short a man. In some respects unlucky to win and still our World Cup has been by all accounts a failure. Compare that to 1990, when we were over the moon to have only lost 1-0 to Italy.
Three: Our Fans.
One area where we definitely exceeded expectations was the fan support. We had guys in strange costumes and girls in American Flag bikinis. We made a ton of noise in Gelsenkirken until the third Czech goal and we completely outsang the Italian fans (one of the shocks of a World Cup with so few surprises). Other fans attempts to start a wave met a miserable death with us because we were already standing throughout the game. And Drew Carey showed up among the press photographers and bought entire sections beer. Unfortunately, all you could get in the stadium was Budweiser, which is pretty ridiculous to drink in Germany. But as with our team, now that we've arrived at the international stage there's definitely some room for improvement. For one thing, it's really impressive that we've come up with at least three different ways to chant USA (straight chant, as part of the ole ole ole song, and with claps), it might be nice to come up with a few other songs. Also, maybe we should all get together and decide which color to wear. Some people show up in red, some in blue, some in white replica uniforms. I'm voting for red, because it looks good on TV. And finally, if we're going to be real soccer fans, we're going to have to get a sense of humor about losing, because if you're not Brazil and you go to the World Cup you should expect to lose eventually.
Four: The Atmosphere.
We could certainly take a cue from the fans you see walking around all over Germany wearing their team's jerseys, singing on corners and watching games on the bigscreens in the town squares because they came all the way to Germany without even having tickets. You couldn't really go anywhere in Germany without being reminded that the biggest sporting event in the world was going on, whether it was the world cup shaped package mounted on all the baggage carousels at the Munich airport, the giant billboards of players everywhere, spontaneous parades down the streets of Kaiserslautern put on by the Trinidadian tourism board, or the fact that every German bar was involved in comical attempts to make the Brazil party drink of choice, the caipirinha. (Here's a hint for all German bartenders in the future: Caipirinhas contain sugar, lots of sugar). For the most part, fears about crowd violence have been put to rest and the party atmosphere of the World Cup prevailed.
Five: Oh Yeah, the Fire Played a Fairly Important Game, Too.
I managed to catch the grand opening of Toyota Park on TV the day I got home. The team played their most impressive game of the season and beat the Red Bulls 2-0. While I definitely think it's a mistake even playing MLS games during the World Cup, let alone having such an important event go on, it looks like a great place to watch a game and I can't wait to get out there once the World Cup's over.
Cubs in Five
by Jeff Webber
...is on vacation while Jeff moves. Back next week with another chronicling of the Cubs' crappitude.