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The State Of Chicago Teams: The White Sox

The Sox stand at a crossroads; suddenly edging near contention, do they sell? Or ride it out?

CHICAGO - APRIL 05:  Fans and players listen to the National Anthem before the Chicago White Sox game against the Cleveland Indians on Opening Day at U.S. Cellular Field on April 5, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
CHICAGO - APRIL 05: Fans and players listen to the National Anthem before the Chicago White Sox game against the Cleveland Indians on Opening Day at U.S. Cellular Field on April 5, 2010 in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
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I hope all of you who are Sox fans don't immediately dismiss this feature as, "Oh, hey, that Cub fan wrote it."

I think I've already proven that I follow the Sox closely enough and don't hate them that I can write a (mostly) dispassionate view of where the Sox are going in the future.

As with my Cubs profile, before the future is seen, the past gives us a lesson.

I mentioned the awful 1966 Cubs in my Cubs profile; that team lost 103 games and drew 635,000 fans -- fewer than 8,000 per game. Meanwhile, in 1966 the White Sox were perennial contenders who were only seven years removed from an AL pennant, and drawing well over a million fans a year (in the 1960's, that was a big deal). In 1967, the Sox came down to the final week of the season as the favorites to win the pennant, only to lose five straight games to two of the AL's worst teams, the A's and Senators, and finish fourth.

It can be fairly argued that at that time, the Sox were the more popular team in the city of Chicago. They'd certainly been the better team for 15 years.

But then three things happened: first, the core of the Sox team grew old all at once -- it took them only three years to drop to 106 losses in 1970; second, the Cubs' core reached its maturity and became perennial contenders at precisely the same time, though, of course, they never won anything.

Third, and perhaps most important, the Sox and Cubs both decided they wanted full TV slates (up to 1967, both teams had only home games televised), so the Sox put their games on WFLD-TV and the Cubs remained on WGN. The Sox' problem was this: WFLD was a fairly new UHF station at the time and a lot of people didn't even own televisions that could receive it. Meanwhile, WGN eventually went national -- something that could not have been predicted in 1967 -- and so did the Cubs' popularity. Things got so bad for the Sox that they played nine "home" games in 1968 and 11 in 1969 at County Stadium in Milwaukee at the incentive of Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig, who was trying to lure another team to Milwaukee after the Braves left. (Can you imagine? They could have become the "Milwaukee White Sox.")

By 1971, coming off that 106-loss season, the Sox couldn't even find a major radio station in Chicago to carry all their games. They had to cobble together a network of three suburban stations just to cover the metro area. The hiring of Harry Caray to be lead broadcaster, though, was inspired -- he became extremely popular, as he had been in St. Louis.

And then the Cubs stole him, too. No wonder Sox fans have had so many resentments against the Cubs. Only a year after that incident, the Sox, under new ownership, won the AL West and had the best record in the American League. Their loss in the ALCS to the Orioles was crushing, but had created some new fans. The Cubs and White Sox seemed to alternate periods of playoff contention or making the postseason with periods of fallowness. The Cubs made the playoffs in 1984 and 1989; while they declined, the Sox won the AL West in 1993 and 2000, interrupted only by the Cubs' odd little foray into wild-card-dom in 1998. The Cubs' NL Central title in 2003, though, was followed by the Sox' World Series title in 2005.

Had the Sox remained a playoff team every year after that, they might have made some inroads into Chicago baseball fans' allegiances. But all they have to show for the postseason since 2005 is their AL Central title in 2008 -- and that, of course, coincided with the Cubs' best year since 1935. The Sox fan can't win, I tellya, even when making that postseason by winning three consecutive elimination games, where a loss in any of them would have sent them home: a last-day regular-season win vs. the Indians, a rainout makeup vs. the Tigers, and then the impressive 1-0 "blackout" tiebreaker vs. the Twins, in which Sox management asked (and nearly got) every fan to show up wearing black.

It appeared that the Sox, along with the Cubs, might be primed to make Chicago the center of the baseball universe as we hit the 2010's. That, obviously, has not happened, and the Sox only this week hit the .500 mark for the first time in 2010 since they were 1-1.

What went wrong? What can be done to fix it?

The Sox are a curious blend of old and new. 2005 World Series veterans Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski are free agents at the end of this year. They both have 10-and-5 rights, meaning it's unlikely they'll be traded (Konerko, I suppose, might agree, if it gives him a chance for another ring; A.J. isn't going anywhere). So the Sox will have to replace those bats next offseason. How will they do that? Sox payrolls can't match the Cubs', because they don't draw as well nor have as many sponsors nor have as big TV ratings. So they have to build from within; they have had mixed success. It looked like Gordon Beckham was going to be a budding superstar, but he has been awful this year. Alexei Ramirez will be 29 in September and is regressing. Catcher Tyler Flowers, 23 years old and acquired from the Braves in the Javier Vazquez deal, was A.J.'s heir apparent -- but he's hitting .215 in Triple-A this year. The Sox' acquisitions of Juan Pierre, Andruw Jones and Omar Vizquel are baffling in this regard; reconstituting the 2002 All-Star team doesn't strike me as a way to win moving forward.

Kenny Williams and Ozzie Guillen are, in a way, still resting on the 2005 laurels. There's only so long you can do that before fans will start getting restless, or even the two individuals involved will get restless. The bickering and infighting between various members of the Sox family hasn't helped them any this year; it may be that either Kenny or Ozzie, or both, will be fired (or asked to resign), although that's not usually the way Jerry Reinsdorf, who is very loyal to his favored employees, operates.

The Sox, like the Cubs, operate in a fairly weak division. The Twins are generally the class of the division, because of their fundamentally sound management from top to bottom. Nevertheless, the Sox are, at this writing, only 5.5 games out of first place and riding a hot streak of eleven wins in their last thirteen games. This bunch might still have one more run in it. If so, they can worry about rebuilding next fall. If not, they may need to put a "For Sale" sign out by the middle of next month.