The Chicago White Sox have been characterized as 'marketing whiz kidz' as far back as I can remember, a distinction they've earned by necessity more than they'd probably like to admit. This baseball city is painted as a 50/50 split between the Cubs and the Sox in some corners of the media, though that's wishful South Side thinking of the highest order: the Cubs control the vast majority of the market share, the Sox are either the local sporting scene's equivalent of the more successful little brother or the unheralded band that will never earn as much acclaim as it deserves.
Even when the Cubs are challenging for baseball's worst record, the general manager appears on the front page of the newspaper walking on water. The Cubs have Wrigley and therefore are above slogans. They're above "Elvis Night" and "Dog Day" and every other promotion the Cell trots out each and every year. But make no mistake: the White Sox are usually pretty good at slogans.
Most of them roll off the tip of your tongue. "Good Guys Wear Black". "The Kids Can Play". "Win Or Die Trying". Each recalls a specific era of White Sox baseball, time periods defined by the likes of Frank Thomas, Mike Caruso and Tadahito Iguchi. That's why it was so strange last year when the White Sox trotted out "All In" before falling flat on their collective faces during the 2011 season.
"The Kids Can Play" is timeless. After the 2011 Sox never even challenged for the division, "All In" feels as retrospectively embarrassing as the Cubs' "Year One". At least "All In" wasn't a widely panned Jack Black vehicle during the same calendar year, I suppose.
In a vacuum, "All In" isn't actually a terrible slogan. It's "sticky", or something, if nothing else. The only problem is the Sox wasted it a year too soon. Because, as the 2012 season continues to unfold with the South Siders making an unexpected run towards the post-season, "All In" feels like the exact motto this year's team should be blessed with.
The Sox better win this year, because it looks like they're going to have an awfully tough time competing in 2013 and beyond.
You have to hand it to Kenny Williams. Before the season started, I thought it was he, and not manager Ozzie Guillen, who should have been fired for everything that went wrong in 2011. Now the same players who were once perceived as horrendously overpaid (read: Jake Peavy, Adam Dunn, Alex Rios) are carrying the Sox, and Williams is back in the position he feels most comfortable with: that of the lurking contender.
There is no discounting how much Williams has improved the Sox this year. This would be a decent team without any moves; with them, it feels like a legitimate threat to make some noise in the postseason. Getting Kevin Youkilis from Boston to plug the South Siders' hole at third base in exchange for, well, nothing, just might be the finest transaction of Williams' career. The Brett Myers trade was also good, as was the move to get longtime Twins ace Francisco Liriano. Now that we know John Danks isn't pitching again this season, the Liriano trade looks that much more essential.
Kenny Williams' batting average remains very close to .500, which isn't nearly as good for a general manager as it is for a hitter. For every time he steals Youkilis, he trades Dan Hudson for Edwin Jackson. There is a laundry list of bad moves just as long, maybe longer, than his list of good ones. Even still, I hope Williams keeps his job forever. He is maybe the best part of my specific baseball fandom.
You know who Williams reports to, yes? While Jerry Reinsdorf ties the Bulls' hands himself each offseason, Williams never seems to fall privy to the same restrictions. Maybe it's because Uncle Jerry really does love the Sox that much more than the Bulls. Maybe it's also because Williams won't take 'no' for an answer.
Regardless of how it happened, these White Sox are quickly endearing themselves to the South Side. A certain amount of resolve is required to make your way through the minefield that is a 162-game season, and the Sox have showed recently they have it in bunches.
A sweep by the Detroit Tigers could have been it for the Sox. In previous years, it would have been. After the Tigers finished off the three-game sweep in Comerica Park on July 22, Chicago trailed Detroit in the division by 1.5 games. It was the first time the preseason favorites seemed to be playing up to their substantial hype. But since then, Chicago has won seven of their last nine, and Detroit has dropped six of eight. As the Sox open a three-game weekend set vs. the mighty Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim tonight at U.S. Cellular Field, the South Siders hold a 2.5 game lead over Detroit in the Central. The two teams are giving us every reason to believe the race won't be determined until the final weeks of the season.
I am really enjoying this White Sox team. They are a perfect mix. The 2005 World Series heroes (Paul Konerko and A.J. Pierzynski) are turning in brilliant seasons. Homegrown stud Chris Sale has turned into one of baseball's nastiest and most unhittable pitchers. Peavy, Dunn and Rios are finally living up to the lucrative financial commitments the White Sox made to each. The recent additions are great. It's a team with power hitting, solid pitching and a sturdy defense. All of the pieces are in place.
How long will it last, though? This brings us back to the original point: the Sox really are 'All In'.
After waiting so long for Peavy to pitch like this, the Sox are probably about to lose him. He has a $22 million club option for next season or a $4 million buyout. Chicago holds a $13 million option on Youkilis, or they can buy him out for $1 million. Same with the recently acquired Brett Myers: $10 million option, $3 million buyout. Even Orlando Hudson is going to require Chicago to eat $2 million. For a team that always keeps the fans aware of finances and attendance, buyouts totaling $10 million are not a welcomed sight.
Oh yeah: Pierzynski is a free agent after this year, too. You think he'll want to be paid after posting an .880 OPS this season? Liriano is set to hit the open market; Sale is also in for a pay raise.
The point being: if the White Sox don't make noise now, this same group likely won't be around next year. Lest you think John Danks will be here to play savior, the pitcher's self-diagnosed spring training timetable seems like wishful thinking. The Sox shouldn't be counting on him for much next season.
If there's one attribute that has made the White Sox distinct over the last decade or so, it's their ability to remain competitive every year. They're never totally out of it, never fully ready to commit themselves to a Cubs-like rebuilding effort. The final outcome of this season will go a long way to determining what happens next year. While several other contenders seem to be more powerful, all bets are off once the playoffs start in baseball. Get in and you have a chance. Right now, that route seems to be the South Side's best bet.