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Friday, November 24

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Sox in Five

White Sox Title Defense, RIP
by Steve Gozdecki

I used to work with a defrocked minister who had what I used to consider a rather macabre tendency of writing obituaries or eulogies for aged people he knew while they were still alive. I've since come to realize that there's nothing all that wrong about this practice (and even a few things right about it), and I now find myself on the verge of writing an obit for your 2006 Chicago White Sox, a team with precious few excuses for failing to get to the playoffs. But fail they're pretty damn likely to, despite coming back after a world championship season with a seemingly improved team that coulda woulda shoulda been better than the team that won it all.

The writing began to appear on the wall just after the All Star Break, when the Sox returned from four days off just a handful of games behind the division-leaders before getting demolished by the New York Yankees, Detroit Tigers, Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins. The team then reverted to the slightly above average level of performance that had long been their hallmark before last season's miracle run, with the Twins passing them in the Wild Card race weeks ago.

These past few days of defeat at the hands of ex-Sox Frank Thomas and Magglio Ordonez have pretty much sealed the deal, as those once-faint pen markings on the wall have been repeatedly tagged over with spray paint to resemble a 1970s-era New York subway car painted over with the message "Chicago White Sox 2006 playoff hopes, busted." But this hasn't been a collapse; it's been more of a long, slow sinking into the mire.

Personally speaking, my heart caught up to my head a good week ago when the brain emphatically told me that it was going to be a long, cold winter after this season's bitter disappointment. When my mouse hand involuntarily found itself moving the 2005 World Series DVD collection from my online wish list and into my shopping cart, I begrudgingly accepted that there was naught for this team to do but play out the string.

So while the weather turns bearish and the city exults in the Bears' early-season dominance of their division rivals, let's eke out a despair-ridden Sox in Five.

One: Why So Glum, Chum?
As reinforced by last night's loss to division-leading Detroit, the odds don't favor the White Sox making the playoffs, with the team a full 4.5 games behind the Minnesota Twins for the Wild Card. While the Sox do have five more head-to-head games combined against the Tigers and Twins, one of those two teams would have to lose a lot of games while the Sox run the table in order for the Sox to make it. And if there is one thing this Sox club hasn't been this year, it's streaky, with no losing streak of more than four games and no winning streak longer than the eight-game stretch they put together back in June, a feat that seems less impressive when you recall that it was against inferior National League teams during interleague play. While the Sox face Seattle and Cleveland in addition to their two division rivals during these final two weeks of the season, the Twins go to Boston and Baltimore before hosting Kansas City and the Sox, while the Tigers have two more at the Cell before heading to a makeup date at Baltimore, three games in Kansas City, and home series against Toronto and Kansas City. Advantage, other guys.

Two: Maybe That Whole College of Coaches Thing the Cubs Tried Years Ago Wasn't Such a Bad Idea
Jiminy Christmas, a platoon featuring two defensively challenged punchless Judys with mediocre on-base skills in left field? A stubborn refusal to take the left fielder du jour out of the leadoff role? A bad hit, great field/good hit, bad field platoon in center field? A new pitcher for every batter in the seventh and eighth innings? Say what you will about manager Ozzie Guillen's abilities to motivate his team, deal with press, take the heat, etc., his lineup and in-game decisions have been questionable at best throughout the season. Is there a way he can cede the tactical duties to someone else while he continues to do the things he's good at?

Three: Five Wild Jokers in an Ace-less Deck
Like Shakira's hips, some stats don't lie. For the Sox, it's the numbers posted by the starting pitching staff, which looked like the best in baseball coming into the year. In a rather eerie parallel to the 1984 White Sox, the 2006 club has seen its starters come back after a division-winning year and unexpectedly underperform. Mark Buehrle, who has long put the "crafty" in crafty lefthander, has posted an ERA a run higher than his career figure of 3.79. Jose Contrera, an enigma until last season's second half, improved his control over last year but gave up more hits while inducing fewer strikeouts, rarely a winning combination. Freddy Garcia, who had been one of the rare modern-day pitchers to post an ERA below 4 while throwing the majority of his innings in the American League, has seen that point of pride thrown by the wayside in this troubling season, in which he's give up more hits than innings pitched for only the third time in his eight major league seasons. At age 30, his days as a strikeout pitcher are behind him. Jon Garland, who gives up base runners at the same clip as Garcia but has had a lot more success keeping them from scoring, has been miscast this season as the staff leader by default after Contreras came back to earth. Javier Vaquez, coming off a third consecutive season of mediocrity that have turned a once-promising career into that of a journeyman who has likely signed his last significant multi-year contract, has baffled fans all season with his early-game dominance and swift collapses in the fifth or sixth inning that have left him with a 4.70 ERA. Collectively, the Sox feature five veteran starting pitchers who pitched notably better last year than this year but can still help a team win; individually, not a one of them would be picked to start a must-win game the way a genuine ace would.

Four: Please Please Please Mr. Moreno, Don't Let Mr. Stoneman Take Any Calls From Kenny
There has been an icky rumor making the rounds that the Sox would really like to add base-stealing wiz Chone Figgins from the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this off-season in exchange for Joe Crede as Kenny starts building the team's post-Podsednik outfield. Unless the trade also includes Vlad Guerrero coming our way, it has to be a no-go no matter how badly Ozzie wishes he could manage a team modeled on the Cardinals of the mid-'80s. Speed thrills, but in 21st Century baseball it also kills unless your speedy guy brings a power bat as well.

Five: To Close Things Out, a Statement Containing Vaguely Joke-Like Material
Shame that Freddy Garcia lost that perfect game against the Angels last Wednesday afternoon in the eighth inning. But you have to admit that it wasn't much of a surprise — after all, Freddy's always been about the one-hitters.

Fire in Five

Nostalgia, New Rivalries, and a Chant Nobody Can Hear
by Steve Gillies

Before start the Fire in Five proper, I should mention that the New York Times reported this week that US Soccer met with former England coach Sven Goran Erickson to discuss filling the now vacant coaching position for the US National Team. Given that he had five years with a much more talented squad and couldn't get them to play anything that looked remotely like good soccer, I can't see how this is a good idea.

One: Well, I Totally Jinxed That Streak
Last week in this space, I was worrying about the Fire peaking too soon, so of course the Fire went out and lost to Colorado 1-0 the next day. I can't say I'm too disappointed, given that the Fire never wins in Colorado (something to do with altitude and travel) and they managed to bounce back and beat DC United on Sunday. So this means, instead of being a streaking team, we're just a team that's playing very well right now. In a lot of ways that's preferable going into the playoffs. I do feel bad for Jim Curtin though, who got his first start since going out with a broken foot, only to score a decisive own goal three minutes into the game.

Two: DC United Totally Hates Us
Between the Open Cup win, this Sunday's league win, and last year's 4-0 playoff pummeling, a lot of talk has gone around about us having DC's number. The DC players have certainly been showing a lot of frustration with us lately, having three players sent off against us in the last two games. Combine that with a penalty non-call that had DC seething and you've got a lot of bad blood built up. Chances are that we'll see DC in the Eastern Conference Finals and you have to wonder how the revenge factor will play against the mental edge we have on them. One thing that works in our favor is that Freddy Adu seems to be terrified of CJ Brown and Chris Armas.

Three: People Remember the Chicago Sting
Sunday's game featured a reunion ceremony for the Chicago Sting squad that won the 1981 Soccer Bowl. I didn't grow up in Chicago and my own memories of the old NASL are rather dim, but this was a very important part of Chicago's soccer history being acknowledged. The highlight video and presentation of the players drew a strong emotional reaction from a well-above-average crowd of 16,000. A lot of people showed up in Sting gear and I even saw a few families made up of parents in old Sting merchandise and kids in Fire gear. Too often the media gives the impression that nobody in America had ever heard of soccer until either 1994 or 1996, and it was great to be reminded that the game does have some roots here.

Four: Ever Notice the Odd Timing of Those Public Announcements?
One of the most notorious chants that comes out of Section 8 (those guys with the drums that stand behind the goal) occurs when the opposing team's goalkeeper has to take a goal kick directly in front of him. The crowd beats on their seats and screams as the keeper runs up to the ball, and then once he kicks it they all yell "You Suck," and then call him something with the suffix "hole." The chant caused a lot of controversy a few years ago when the Fire played their games in soccer-mom haven, Naperville, due to the Soldier Field construction, but nobody in Bridgeview has seemed to notice. That might be because every time the other team has a goal kick, it's rather conveniently time for a chant-obscuring announcement about the team's Fireworks for Kids Foundation. It's a good compromise by the Fire, letting the fans still be the fans while trying to stay "family friendly," but it also points out some of the massive gaps in our soccer culture.

Five: Our Next Two Games are Against LA. Anyone Need Another Reason to Hate Donovan?
Well, try this recent interview given by Landy-cakes to ESPN's soccernet.com. In it the two-time German league dropout basically admits he'd become a better player if he tried to tough it out in a European professional league, but he prefers eating American hamburgers and living by the beach with his actress girlfriend in Southern California. Sure, it's totally his life and he can do whatever makes him happy, but who wants to pay to see a professional athlete that admits that he doesn't have the passion or drive to try to be the best at his sport? Well, I'd pay, but only to boo him every time he touches the ball.

Pucks in Five

Introducing Pucks in Five
by Jeremy Piniak

With the Chicago Blackhawks preseason debut tonight at the United Center against the St. Louis Blues, Gaper's Block debuts Pucks in Five, a focus on all things hockey in Chicagoland. Although it will be focused on the, ahem, alleged major-league Blackhawks, I'll also try to devote some coverage to the AHL Chicago Wolves at Allstate Arena and newcomer UHL Chicago Hounds, who will play in the new Sears Centre in Hoffman Estates. The AHL is widely considered a top-tier minor league, with the chance to see future NHL players, and the Wolves usually are a competitive bunch with a respectable fanbase.

As for the Hounds, besides the boring name, I'm not sure what to think of a league that features teams in Rockford and Bloomington, Illinois. Though with longest-named player ever, George Papachristopolous, in goal, I'll definitely try and make it to a game or two, if only to see how they fit his name on the jersey. Seriously, will it be like a semi-circle? Look for quick previews and updates on these two teams throughout the season along with more intensive and in-depth Blackhawks coverage.

One: Offseason Offensive
In the new NHL, the offseason sometimes has more action than the regular season, due to constant player transactions and salary cap maneuvering. Chicago made a huge splash in the 2005 offseason with free-agent signings of goalie Nicolai Khabibulin and defensemen Adrain Aucion and Jaroslav Spacek to anchor returning front-liners Tyler Arnason, Kyle Calder, Mark Bell and Tuomo Ruutu. These transactions returned a 26-43-13 record for 65 points, the third worst in the league. Aucion and the "Bulin" Wall both spent considerable time on the injured reserve, and the offense's breakout year never materialized, with no players breaking the 30 goal or 60 point plateau. Special teams weren't much better as Chicago posted a league low 12.2 power-play percentage.

Looking to make a change, Arnason was shipped to Ottawa for Brandon Bochenski in March. The offseason continued the revamping, as Bell left in June in a three-team deal that brought right-wing sniper and new face of the franchise Martin Havlat, along with veteran center Bryan Smolinki from Ottawa. Calder was shipped to Philadelphia for the redwood-sized 6-5 center Michael Handzus a few weeks later. Ruutu was a threat to hold out, but finally signed a contract the day before camp began. With their top three scorers traded away, the Blackhawks will have a new-look offense. The only question will be if all the parts can gel into a cohesive unit. However, the learning curve of Arnason, Bell and Calder had run its course with less than positive results, so credit will be given for trying something different and bringing in somewhat proven commodities in Havlat and Handzus.

Two: Toew-ing the line.
First round draft pick Jonathon Toews has decided to forego joining the Blackhawks this year, returning to the Fighting Sioux of North Dakota. Toews joins 2005 first-round draft pick Jack Skille, who returned to Wisconsin for his sophomore year this year as well. What does this mean for the Hawks? Not much, in the scheme of things. The team is already one of the younger teams in the league, so while the two top picks would get playing time in the NHL, it could stunt their growth, as they're not in the Crosby/Ovechkin realm of being ready to produce. Few 18- and 19-year-olds can match that level and can often be overwhelmed. Getting more experience is beneficial, and hopefully the current crop of players will have grown into a solid team in the next year or two when the two No. 1's are ready to join up and form a solid nucleus for the near-future.

Three: Foley Follies
Possibly the biggest news out of the United Center this summer was the non-tendered contract to 25-year play-by-play man Pat Foley, due to personal reasons. Foley has been as much a face and voice of the Hawks as any of the players for the last 10 years, and was knowledgable, well-versed and provided a great broadcast. Having grown up hearing Foley, it will be odd hearing new tandem Dan Kelly and Ed Olcyzk on the air. The good news for fans of Foley is they need not change the channel to hear Pat call games. Last week, the Chicago Wolves signed Foley to a one-year deal to provide their play-by-play TV coverage, keeping a Chicago icon in town... somewhat of a novel concept lately, right Marshall Field's?

Four: Defense and Discipline
Finding positives in the 2005-6 regular season is like searching for a free parking spot around Wrigley Field. However, with injuries to Aucion and Spacek, a young defensive corps got lots of ice time. Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, aged 23 and 21, stepped up to the challenge, playing themselves into a long-term future wearing the Indianhead sweater. Joined by other youngsters like Dustin Byfuglien, Cam Barker and Danny Richmond, all under 23, a solid defensive nucleus is shaping up. Last season's defensive building also went through a lot of growing pains, as the Hawks were the second most penalized team in the league. The good news is despite the glut of infractions, the penalty-killing unit turned away a respectable 83.9 percent of changes, good for ninth in the NHL. With a more potent offense and better discipline in staying out of the box, the Blackhawks could have one of the best PK's overall.

Khabibulin returns to tend the net, and well, lord knows he can't really have much worse of a year than last year. When you're the number-one free agent signing bust, there's nowhere to go but up. He'll never be the return on his four-year, $27 million investment, but if he can return to respectability and stay healthy, it will hopefully be enough. The Blackhawks also signed Patrick Lalime to upgrade the backup position, an NHL vet with a winning record, though his wins were inflated by Ottawa's offensive juggernauts of the last five years. Unfortunately, Lalime is having surgery on a herniated disc and will be out the first two to three months of the season. If Habby goes down to the injury bug, the Blackhawks will most likely turn to Sebastian Caron, signed from Pittsburgh when the Penguins deemed him superflous to their goaltending situation.

Five: Central Role Call
So, where does that leave the team's standing in the division? Last year the Central had the league's best and worst teams in Detroit and St. Louis, with the Blackhawks barely ahead of the Blues. The Red Wings are due for a backslide with the loss of franchise heart and soul Steve Yzerman and shaky goaltending, but their ability to constantly restock with young talent will keep them in the thick of the playoff chase. Likewise, the Blues have made improvements, but are still a few years away from contention.

Breaking it down, the division should be more competitive, but results will be somewhat the same; with Nashville (who made major offseason moves) and Detroit vying for the top, and St. Louis in last but competitive. Which leaves the Bluejackets and the Blackhawks battling for third. Columbus was an improved franchise last year, and their growth should continue into a playoff caliber team. While Chicago can challenge, they are still a year away from turning into a playoff-caliber team, allowing Columbus to sneak into the eighth spot in the Western Conference, due to the weakening Pacific division only earning two playoff berths.

Cubs in Five

...took the week off.
by Jeff Webber

Bears in Five

...will return next week, promise.
by Craig Aichele, Ramsin Canon and friends

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Comments

Ralphie / September 19, 2006 10:10 AM

If Ozzie and Kenny want to build a team that looks like the speed demon Cardinals of the 80's, someone should remind them that those Cardinals never won the World Series.

Amy / September 19, 2006 12:42 PM

That Crede rumor is evil. Do not repeat that. We can get rid of Pods, Uribe, Anderson, Mac, the entire bullpen - but not the following:

Iguchi
Crede
Dye
Konerko

Eh, I didn't think I could get used to the Sox being 'contenders'. I long for the days of the walk-up tickets. This StubHub stuff is crap.

Whitey Herzog / September 19, 2006 1:48 PM

The Cardinals were in the World Series in 1982, 1985 and 1987.

Cardinals won the 1982 World Series.

I think a Chicago baseball fan would take that stat any day of the year.

Further, each of those teams had a power hitter in addition to their speed. So I get the point the writer was making.

Michelle / September 19, 2006 1:55 PM

Steve, you don't give Ozzie enough credit! As if d*cking with Brian Anderson regarding outfield duty wasn't bad enough, Ozzie's making him choose between being a base-stealer or a home-run hitter. According to this morning's Bright One, it appears Anderson will be working on the former this winter in Venezuela (he knows not to accept any invitations to parties at the Ugueth Urbina ranch, doesn't he?).

For now, I can hardly watch any games or read any coverage. The Baseball Stupid, as Boers & Bernstein refer to them, are in full effect. The 2006 White Sox just weren't hungry enough! Guess it's time to savor some of the bright spots (Anderson, Dye, and Thornton), pray KW doesn't do anything stupid, and look forward to your 2007 Chicago White Sox.

 

About the Author(s)

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the 2006 season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com

Jeremy Piniak grew up watching hockey on all levels and is a lifelong Blackhawks fan who, inexplicably, still has hope that Bill Wirtz will once again provide Chicago with a championship hockey team and broadcast home games on TV, though he still mourns the destruction of Chicago Stadium. Every week he'll bring you five talking points on the state of hockey in Chicago (including, when possible, the minor-league Wolves and Hounds). Send comments to pucks@gapersblock.com

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