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Flashback: Spring Training 2011

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Introducing our new department, in the form of a love letter from seven years ago

Seattle Mariners v Chicago White Sox
Brothers From Another: Before the bitterness and disdain, Ken and Ozzie were bonded by one love: baseball.
Photo by David Banks/Getty Images

Last week, South Side Sox spent time introducing its new writers (and yes, there are still at least a couple of folks to trot out). This week, in the last few days before the rollercoaster of games take us through September (and beyond?), we’re introducing some of the new features that will run from here till you just don’t wanna read ‘em anymore.

First up is Flashback, a look back at a moment in time. It might be a game, a trade, a controversy—you get it, it could be anything related to White Sox past.

Today, we’ll kick off the department with a piece written by someone you surely know and love, at the beginning of spring training 2011. At a time when spring training’s doldrums already threatened to kick in, I wanted to zag rather than zig, and take a moment to pay tribute to the love of the game I saw all around me in Glendale—including my own.

The intent was for this to be the first of a series of season-long stories with a tag: “On the Road with CSNChi_Beatnik,” both a play on my first Twitter handle, and homage to (or, a pilfer from) one of my favorite writers. As happened with so many of my bright (heh) ideas, back at the home base it had the effect of one hand clapping, and thus the idea was scrapped, and on to the next one: Beat writing in a vacuum.

A primary reason I gravitated to South Side Sox (and SSS Twitter, if you will) at the time was that the group provided feedback I got nowhere else. There are no more passionate White Sox fans, and certainly none who express themselves with the intelligence and presence of mind. I was just beginning to appreciate that then—and have learned to appreciate it even more so now.

Snatched back from the dustbin of history, the wayback machine is set to Feb. 25, 2011. Let’s feed a butcher paper roll into the typewriter and see where it leads ...

***

GLENDALE, Ariz. – When you’re able to play baseball in February, hope can’t help but spill out of clubhouses and into the streets of this pop-up town.

It’s springtime in Arizona, and there’s no better place to be than All-In.

This is the time of year that’s so easy to fall under the spell of, and I say that not only as another bonecrushing storm seems on the verge of hitting all of you back home. All of us here are united by the love of this silly game, baseball—and if you’re not falling in love out here, maybe it’s time to look for another line of work.

But don’t take my word for it; walk around this Chicago clubhouse with me, and see just how dear the game is to these White Sox.

Chicago White Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers
Prescient Practice: Three days after this essay was published, Pierre put his extra hours of work into game action.
Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

There’s Juan Pierre, in-season or out, driven by his passion for the game. Famously beastly in his drive to become better, I have a soft spot in my heart for him. At a time when fewer and fewer players might suit up and play the game for free, Pierre—the first to arrive and last to leave—would, undoubtedly.

Sitting next to Pierre is Lastings Milledge, who at just 25 can spin a weary tale of elusive potential and escaped stardom. Rather than drop out of the game bitterly and allowing himself to register simply as another Where Are They Now tale of woe, Milledge is fighting for a fourth outfielder spot on the White Sox without the benefit of a spot on the 40-man roster. He readily admits his immaturity, and realizes he’s tried to claw his way to major league stardom without a single mentor to help guide him. Perhaps Pierre has arrived in his life just in time.

Omar Vizquel will be 44 as the dew burns off of the 2011 season, and he bites his thumb at anyone chiding his senior status by continuing to worm his way into the lineup. At a time when this all-time fielding great could be jogging into a role as coach-player, he remains a player-coach, taking on Arizona Fall League phenom Eduardo Escobar—almost 22 years his junior—as his latest pet project. And Vizquel still finds time not just to mentor the likes of Escobar or Jordan Danks, but get his work in for the season. Yeah, it wasn’t just the indefatigable Pierre wearing down grass bunting on side fields on Thursday—Omar the Ageless was there, too.

Jake Peavy has been feeling the pressures of a curious late injury streak that’s scarred his time with the Chisox. But it’s not justification of a weighty salary that has pushed him miraculously through his rehabilitation. He continued last spring—working himself back to ace-level, mind you—knowing something wasn’t right with his body. The only thing that could stop this former Cy Young winner from pitching was having his lat rip off the bone. Peavy wants back in the White Sox’s vaunted rotation—not recklessly, but out of his love of the game. And no surprise, he’s ahead of schedule on the comeback trail.

The team rapscallion—outside of manager Ozzie Guillen, of course—is A.J. Pierzynski. It’s been oft-repeated, Guillen’s scouting report on A.J.—if you have to play against him, you hate his guts, but if you’re his teammate, you hate his guts a little less. It would be easy to dismiss Pierzynski as a scalawag trading his fortunate baseball genes in for an easy paycheck, but that would fly in the face of the fact that the White Sox are going to have to rip the catcher’s mask from A.J.’s cold, dead hands. Whether mentally struggling, physically ailing, or merely slumping, Pierzynski insists on playing. Missing a game? A personal affront.

Sitting together as locker mates are Mark Teahen and Brent Morel. With every reason to be cold, these two teammates root for one another, figuring that the best man will win the third base job, and that there will be space for both on the roster and in games.

Oh, and there are more tales of baseball passion in the White Sox clubhouse. Look at Jesse Crain, the newest power arm in the pen, whose velocity is actually increasing as he approaches 30 years old. Sergio Santos, last season’s feel-good fireballer, has replaced the unease of knowing whether he’ll be on the big league roster with the challenge of working a new pitch into his repertoire, or at least mastering his off-speed ones. Chris Sale could ascend from college boy to Chisox closer in less than half a season, all without turning to his best pitch of all, his changeup.

And don’t stop at just the players, every one of whom can spin his own personal love story for baseball. Look at the team jefe, Guillen, who wants us all to believe that pulling on his stirrups is more tedious than tweeting. But don’t believe the cagey skipper—he loves the stage afforded by managing the team he dreamed one day he would. There’s not a person in camp Guillen won’t give some hell to—and he loves every last one of them.

His boss, Ken Williams, was pulled by his love for baseball away perhaps from a sport he might have better excelled at, football. As an African-American GM—and yes, that list is still woefully short—Williams has suffered more than his share of lumps and not-so-veiled insults. And yet the game addicts him—he cannot walk away, even with 10 years under fire as the man in charge of the White Sox.

Ozzie and Ken spent a half-hour together on Thursday, sidling up together in opposing golf carts, and while there surely was talk of personnel and plans, what you heard most from the longtime friends was laughter—loud, what-the-hell-are-they-cackling-about laughter. No kid aching for an autograph or rookie struggling to find his place in the organization could burst with such love for this game.

And that brings it all back to me, charged with observing this game and covering this team. I offer no apology for being a lifelong White Sox fan, elating in the good times and aching through the bad. And while that might cloud my press box judgment for a snap, as I jump and yell at Delmon Young when he tries to displace A.J.’s jaw at home plate, it doesn’t make me any better or worse a beat writer. My fellow White Sox fans know all too well that rooting like hell for your team doesn’t make you a homer—we’re all more likely to question why no one’s aiming for Joe Mauer’s jaw than we are apologizing away another loss to the Twinks.

My connection to the team, a personal one that’s pushing back dangerously close to four decades now, does make me no different than those players on the field, or the coaches maneuvering them. I’m not a millionaire, and my ability on the field stopped me well short of ever getting a chance to play for anything substantial between the lines. But the one thing I do share with the White Sox I speak to every day is my love of the game, and of the team.

Write me off as gung-ho, if you wish, and have a laugh at my expense. That’s just fine, I don’t mind. If you’re following me On the Road, well, you probably are right there with me.

We are all driven by one thing: baseball. Really, is there anything better than that?