The White Sox exceeded the baseball world's expectations and came within a week of the playoffs. So why was everybody so sad?
The above video is one I shot at Jamsil Stadium in Seoul, the joint home of the Korean Baseball Organization's Doosan Bears and LG . At the time of my visit in early June, the teams had a series against each other, meaning their fans effectively split the stadium in half.
(I sat on the Doosan side. It's a lot easier for me to root for Bears than Twins.)
The way it works in South Korea (as well as Japan) is that the fans share the airtime. When the Bears were at bat, Doosan fans had license to chant, sing and/or dance until the half-inning concluded, after which the Twins fans took their turn. Sure, they allowed themselves the appropriate amount of applause for a strikeout or outstanding defensive play, but once the initial thrill subsided, the hitting team's fans regained the floor.
I posted the above video because words don't quite capture the fervent enthusiasm. It helps to soak in the songs, cheers, cheerleaders and the ThunderStix.
It also helps to know that Doosan was losing 5-1 at this time.
They gave up a grand slam in the first inning and never really mounted a serious threat, ultimately falling by a score of 14-4. That side of the stadium thinned out a little when LG posted nine runs in the seventh, but the fans who remained didn't slow down.
I went to two games in Asia -- the other in Hiroshima -- and I thought of those crowds often as the White Sox trudged through the season. Baseball can be a blast even when losing, and the atmosphere at Jamsil provided a stark contrast to the cloud that kept reappearing over the Sox, resulting in a rather joyless experience for a pretty pleasant surprise.
I'm not one for making predictions, but when asked, I guessed the Sox would win 78 games. I thought they would be competitive, but the Sox were relying an awful lot on an unreliable assortment of talent, whether due to injuries (Jake Peavy, Alejandro De Aza), youth (Chris Sale, Dayan Viciedo, Brent Morel), or unlikely rebounds (Adam Dunn, Alex Rios). I described the state of the roster with phrases like "skeleton of a contender" and "baseball factory outlet," coming to the conclusion that a lack of depth would ultimately lead to their demise.
They played better than I thought they would, and for much longer than I thought. The old guard rose again -- especially Rios, Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski -- and it was a thrill to watch Sale overwhelm hitters for more than two innings at a time. Robin Ventura's administration somehow whipped the talent into better shape on the margins, as the Sox vastly improved their defense, and gave away fewer outs on the basepaths and at the plate, at least for most of the season.
The farm system stepped in and provided a surprising amount of value -- Addison Reed didn't quite meet expectations, but Nate Jones did some heavy lifting in the middle innings. Jose Quintana gave the rotation a boost when John Danks hit the DL, and Dylan Axelrod turned in a couple of huge starts himself.
They held down the fort long enough for Kenny Williams to find veteran reinforcements, and he came through with help for the offense (Kevin Youkilis), pitching (Brett Myers, and Francisco Liriano to a lesser extent) and bench (Dewayne Wise) for little measurable cost.
Take a step back and look what the organization accomplished -- they lopped $30 million off the payroll, and won six more games. The front office powerwashed away the mud the 2011 circus left behind by working to give Ventura the best 25-man roster possible under a variety of difficult circumstances.
Even though the possibility of the postseason vanished at the last moment, Sox fans endured far worse a year ago. I don't use the word "embarrassment" lightly, but the 2011 season should have brought great shame to a professional organization for the way it hamstrung itself into giving fans a lesser product. That's a big breach of the company-consumer relationship, and management effectively repaired it with inspired problem-solving that makes future decision-making much easier to trust.
So I don't get why the tenor surrounding the team was such a drag.
Yes, September hurts. It wasn't a surprise that the Tigers came back to catch the White Sox in September, but the way the Sox lost the division -- inexplicably losing the ability to hit with runners in scoring position -- can leave a scar.
But the negative undertones existed well before September. The attendance issue went a long way to instill doubt -- the economy is the easy (and correct) answer for the empty seats, but those who don't have to pay for tickets didn't seem to grasp that good baseball doesn't entitle a team to the discretionary income of its fans at any cost. "Why don't fans believe in this team?" became the question, which inspired fans to list the reasons the Sox aren't a good value.
It didn't help that the Sox began to play an excruciating brand of baseball when September rolled around. But even before the division lead was in doubt, Hawk Harrelson sounded ready to concede the division. It started with the losses to Kansas City, which inspired Harrelson to extoll the virtues of a team trailing the Sox by double-digits in the standings. As the wasted opportunities piled up, Harrelson anticipated them, and made no effort to mask his apprehension. You could hear it in his words, you could hear it in his tone, and you could hear it in the silence. It seemed to take a physical toll on him, too, as three absences over the last two months all followed disheartening efforts.
These elements put the White Sox front office -- specifically the marketing department -- in a bizarre situation, where they had to overcome implicit and explicit advertisements against their product ... by their own supporters! Including the one with the loudest voice!
In the final week of the season, Steve Stone emerged as a voice against the suffocating despair. In a radio interview with 670 The Score, he suggested some annoyance at the stilted broadcasts by praising the novelty of a good conversation in the booth, even during one of the worst losses of the season. And in the closing moments of the season's final broadcast, Stone gave Harrelson -- and the audience -- a line to chew on:
Harrelson: "Steve, it was a fun year to do, and ... (heavy sigh) ... we got close and just couldn't finish it off."
Stone: "A little frustrating at the end, but a lot of good lessons to be learned, and one of them is the clock's ticking. You gotta enjoy what you do."
The White Sox ran with the slogan of "Appreciate the Game" for this season, and cynics interpreted it as a vanilla overcompensation to the unsupported bravado of "We're All In." In hindsight, it fit. The coaches and players paid much more attention to the details, Williams worked hard to acquire better players, and the effort and resulting product deserved our attention and respect. It's funny -- and sad -- that Harrelson, of all people, needed a reminder.
It's hard to tell where the White Sox will go from here. They slashed a hefty chunk of payroll last year, and with a lucrative TV contract putting more money in owners' pockets, they may be able to invest a little of that money back into the roster. Or, with the contracts of Jake Peavy and A.J. Pierzynski coming off the books and question marks waiting in the wings, Williams (or Rick Hahn) could be equally justified in aggressively pursuing a rebuilding strategy. A Paul Konerko/Adam Dunn-based offense showed massive cracks in the final month, and the young core still isn't there.
The future is more of a mystery than it usually is, which makes appreciating 2012 all the more important. The Sox may not contend in 2013 nearly as well as they did this season, and if a first-place team failed to set imaginations and hearts afire, a thoroughly 75-win team will face an even steeper uphill climb.
Hey, it was a fun season. Maybe it wasn't as awesome as it could have been, but it was better than it should have been.
That's from the seventh-inning stretch in Hiroshima. See? Fun!