My twin obsessions in life are baseball and politics. In 2008, both gave me a hell of a show. The year began with a great deal of pessimism and uncertainty. It ended with a series of one word franchise moments, and a White Sox fan in the White House. The Sox won it all in 2005, but I didn’t really join the party until late in the season. Three years later, I was on board for every twist and turn.
To appreciate 2008, you have to understand the black hole of terrible that was 2007. It was the worst Sox team since 1989. We weren’t used to a 72-win season. In late July of that year, the Sox actually touched last place. Between the team’s notoriously bad farm system, and free agents it could not afford, our heroes seemed to be poised for many years in baseball hell.
Then came a series of notable swings-and-misses:
Torii Hunter sweet-talked White Sox fans … but then he signed a contract with the Angels on Thanksgiving Day.
The Sox were "tantalizingly close" to a deal that would have brought have brought Miguel Cabrera to the South Side. The White Sox package involved Josh Fields and one of John Danks, Gio Gonzalez, and Lance Broadway. The Tigers package centered around Cameron Maybin. The Tigers won. On this blog, the Cheat called it an organizational failure:
"More than the 2% change in the Sox playoff chances, this trade gives a glimpse into what could have been had the Sox truly taken the influx of new fans derived from 2005 World Series run and put those dollars to use in every way possible. Simply put, the Sox missed out on their "big fish" because they refused to spend enough money on bait."
(Another post talked about the "top prospects" the Marlins wanted for Miggy. If the Angels wanted a crack at Cabrera, they would have to give up Howie Kendrick and "pitching prospect Nick Adenhart." That trade could have a saved his life.)
Aaron Rowand signed with the San Francisco Giants. Kosuke Fukudome signed with the Cubs. The only success the Sox had on the free agent market was Scott Linebrink. A testy Kenny Williams had to address angry fans after a series of high profile failures. His quote was classic Kenny … full of "this was the plan all along" swagger and plenty of qualifiers.
Several months later, the quote (paraphrased) it would be used to move merchandise.
"We wanted to upgrade at shortstop, get a setup guy for the bullpen, acquire Carlos Quentin -- and not a guy like him, but actually Carlos Quentin -- and address our center field position," Williams said. "So, we are three out of four, and generally, you feel good about three out of four."
Four out of four came on the night of Jan. 3, 2008. While the eyes of the nation were on the Iowa Caucuses, the White Sox traded Gio Gonzalez, Fautino De Los Santos, and Ryan Sweeney to the A’s for Nick Swisher. The Sox had their center fielder.
How did it fly on SSS?
The Cheat said the Sox traded the farm "to make a run at 3rd place in the AL Central."
In late January, the team signed Cuban defector Alexei Ramirez to play either centerfield or infield. He might even start the season in the minors. Joe Crede’s back was…back, signed to a one year, 5 million dollar deal.
Jerry Owens’ groin did Sox fans a big favor. Owens’ injury in spring training led to room on the roster for Carlos Quentin.
Cheat was right about third place. In early ’08, the Tigers and Indians were the class of the AL Central. The Indians had Grady Sizemore, CC, and Cliff Lee. The Tigers added Dontrelle Willis and Miguel Cabrera to a team that already had Magglio Ordonez and Justin Verlander.
And then everything that was supposed to happen…didn’t. The Tigers and Indians were flat out of the gate. The Sox started the season by dropping two of three to Cleveland…before sweeping the Tigers at Comerica. The Sox beat the Tigers 13-2 on the opening telecast of ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Jon Miller and Joe Morgan were all set to spend the evening showering praise on Dave Dombrowski for his baseball prowess. Instead, the Tigers GM stewed in the booth as the Sox hitters tee’d off on Verlander.
The Sox rolled into U.S. Cellular Field for the home opener the next afternoon. A Joe Crede grand slam capped off a 7-4 win over the Minnesota Twins. The Sox were riding a five game winning streak for the first time since August of 2006.
Quentin exploded onto the scene on April 15. His second homer of ’08 was a three run shot off of Dana Eveland of the A’s. He was the most exciting young player on the Sox in years. His coming out party was on May 25, when he single-handedly beat the Angels with two homers on Sunday Night Baseball (his walkoff HR is still one of my favorite baseball moments).
On the pitching side of the equation, John Danks developed a cutter. Gavin Floyd developed confidence, and flirted with no-hitters…twice. Legend has it Senator Obama delayed his victory speech after winning the North Carolina primary on May 6 because he wanted to see if Floyd could complete the no-hitter against the Twins. Jose Contreras rediscovered his forkball. Hell, even Javier Vasquez was fun to watch.
We all know how the story ends. Contreras got hurt. Quentin got hurt. The Twins came back. Javy fell apart. After the Twins swept the Sox at the Metrodome in September to take first place, we all freaked out. But it set up a number of moments that every Sox fan knows by heart.
Alexei’s grand slam.
Thome’s home run. He’s hit over 600 of ‘em…but the biggest one is the blast into the centerfield food court that sent the Sox to the playoffs.
The Sox would lose the ALDS to the equally surprising Tampa Bay Rays. But it didn’t matter. They weren’t supposed to be there in the first place.
It was a year full of crazy success from unlikely places. For that reason, 2008 is my favorite baseball year.