SoxFest starts today. I'm a fan, even though it is the White Sox equivalent of a Star Trek Convention. Some wiseacre cartoonists have even gone so far as to lump Sox Fest attendees in with the eccentric creatures who attend Sci-Fi confabs and the Cubs Convention.
I started going in 2008. Within minutes of taking a seat in the Red Lacquer Room at the Palmer House, I was treated to the sight of a guy in a graying mullet/mustache yelling at Ed Farmer over the team's failure to sign Aaron Rowand the previous month. I was hooked, and I've made it a point to attend every Sox Fest since.
SoxFest is an exercise in silly optimism (forget about that disappointing finish last year! Take my money! Now tell me where I can find Ron Kittle!). But it does a nice job of breaking up the winter blahs.
As a propaganda tool, SoxFest is unbelievably effective. During the opening ceremonies on Friday afternoon, Hawk Harrelson stalks around the stage like a revival preacher.
"How many of you want to talk about the SEASON?!"
By the end of the night you are convinced that the current squad has what it takes to overtake Detroit and make the playoffs.. The combination of hotel drinks and the general goodtime vibe makes it easier to believe such lines as:
"You'll like Mark Kotsay!" - 2010
"Bartolo Colon has some gas left in the tank." - 2009
"Gordon Beckham has turned a corner" - 2010
"Gordon Beckham has turned a corner" - 2011
"Gordon Beckham has turned a corner" - 2012
For one weekend, the Palmer House becomes an island of unbridled optimism. We're Sox fans, and we're happy to be among our own kind - talking Sox baseball in the dead of winter. It's enough to carry us through Spring Training to Opening Day in April.
SoxFest is the prime mover of the hype machine. It's product rollout time. You get to meet the new players, learn the storylines going into Spring Training, and hear about how the players are in the best shape of their lives.
If the lines sound old, that's because they are. They've been in use for 100 years.
There was no such thing as SoxFest in 1913. But its closest equivalent came in February of that year, when crowds of Sox rooters would gathered around the train Charles Comiskey chartered to take his players from Chicago to the Spring Training complex in Paso Robles, California.
The February 16, 1913 edition of the Tribune detailed the "Comiskey Special." It had steel coaches, sleeping cars, a dining car, and an observation car. It would carry 35 players, including 15 recruits trying to impress outfielder/manager Jimmy Callahan.
The first player to arrive in Chicago to catch the train was pitcher Joe Benz, who said he was in great shape. He spent the winter cutting beef and pork at his father's butcher shop in Bastesville, Indiana.
Comiskey would return from California in March, flush with optimism about his ballclub.
"'COMMY' RETURNS IN JOYFUL MOOD" read the headline in the Tribune on March 26. He predicted the Sox would finish in first, second, or third place in the American League. He also said the prospects for his club were the brightest since 1906, when they beat the Cubs in the World Series. There was only one rainout, so he had plenty of opportunities to see his players in action.
"Commy" liked what he saw.
"If the pitchers and catchers stand up to predictions and their recent showing I think we will give Chicago one of the best ballclubs it has had in the last seven years," Comiskey said.
He also announced that the team would stay in their Spring Training home of Paso Robles for the next five years (it is not known if the Old Roman boosted ticket prices in Paso Robles as well).
Sox fans could look forward to new creature comforts at the ballpark. Three-year-old Comiskey Park was still the Baseball Palace of the World, but it was in need of some work. The most expensive seats (75 cents!) were getting another coat of paint. Comiskey bought (and demolished) the wrecking company that was located just beyond the right field fence at 35th and Wentworth. The entire field was excavated and re-sodded. Comiskey was doing so much that the Tribune promised that fans wouldn't even notice the neighborhood around the ballpark.
Things are great at the ballpark? Check!
Best team since (last team that was really good)? Check!
Players in the best shape of their lives? Check!
The World War (the number would come later) was a year away. Cars were a luxury. Airplanes were province of tinkerers and daredevils. But the baseball storylines are still the same today as they were a century ago.
It just goes to show you that optimism is eternal.