Monday night's game at US Cellular Field started just as they all have this season.
The lineups are announced; the anthem was sung (along with "O Canada," since they were playing the Blue Jays). The home team took the field as AC/DC's "Thunderstruck" blared at an uncomfortable volume, and fans stood in front of their stadium seats applauding as Dylan Axelrod threw his warm-up pitches.
But, then things got weird.
No, I'm not referencing the one hour and ten minute fog delay, the first since 1996 at US Cellular, that held up the game in the third inning. The fog was peculiar -- it was so thick that I could no longer see Melky Cabrera standing in left field from the press box -- but the weirdest occurrence of the evening was that the White Sox finally found their offense.
They beat the Blue Jays 10-6, with the type of offensive output that this roster thus far has seemed incapable of accomplishing. It was the first time this season the White Sox have scored more than nine runs in a game (they'd done that five times by this point last season), and their runs per game jumped to 3.61, no longer the worst in the majors. It's still a full run less than they averaged last season (4.62), but with bats that have been struggling so severely, the signs of life were definitely unexpected.
The lineup just seemed in sync. They were hitting singles, taking walks, crushing home runs, and playing like a completely different club than the one that suffered an eight-game losing streak in the weeks prior. It wasn't perfect by any means, but it was easy to overlook some flaws given the dramatic improvement of a lineup that simply has not been hitting.
In fact, the not-hitting part is the reason I was at the ballpark in the first place: I was trying to suss out why Robin Ventura's lineup is constructed the way it is, especially with Alexei Ramirez and Jeff Keppinger in the #2 spot. Entering Monday's game, Ramirez and Keppinger had a combined OBP of .246, the worst in the majors for #2 hitters. While it's easy to just attribute last place to the team's overall weak offense and easy to dismiss the impact of the batting order, Chicago's #2 hitters have the the lowest OBP of any batting position on the team, making the slot symbolic of mismanagement and missed opportunities.
But on Monday, I found myself hitting backspace often, as Ramirez got on base four times with three hits and a fielding error by Emilio Bonifacio. His performance was his best of the season, but the real catalyst for last night's hit parade was Adam Dunn. Dunn tied a career-high four hits and a season high five RBI, and crushed two home runs. One was hit so deep into the fog, well beyond the ivy in center field, that they issued a "guesstimated" distance of 444 feet, but the truth is, that no one could see the ball land.
In his post-game press conference, Ventura praised his lineup saying, "Results wise, they have been hitting the ball. I think the approach in their at bats, they've been doing a good job," with a relieved lilt in his voice. Yet, results are exactly what the Sox haven't gotten. The big hits are the exception, not the rule for this ball club, and realistically their season is already finished: According to Baseball Prospectus' playoff odds, they have a 2.2% change of making the playoffs.
While it's rare to see a team admit defeat (and dangerous for a manager, if he wants to keep his job) even when the odds are so clearly against them, there's a strange, unwarranted optimism surrounding the team. Part of that is ignorance, of course, but part of the origin is the memories of the 1983 White Sox, the "Winning Ugly" team.
It's been 30 years since the 1983 team unexpectedly won the American League West despite their own rocky start to the season. The ‘83 team has been on everyone's minds this season as they are being honored every Sunday at US Cellular Field. The modern players wear their iconic red, white, and blue pullovers with the word SOX on the front. There's a mascot race between foam Harold Baines, foam Ron Kittle, and foam Carlton Fisk (they look like the sausages from Milwaukee, but with human faces), and there are promotions like free jerseys and Baines bobbleheads.
There's even a Winning Ugly grand slam sandwich, which consists of Italian beef, an Italian sausage patty, and a pork chop topped with bacon, which is meant to honor the fan favorite team (while slowly killing you).
The '83 team is beloved and with good reason. They were the first Sox team to reach the post season since 1959, and the first Chicago team to have any real success since the 1963 Bears. Tony La Russa managed legendary players that year like future Hall of Famer Fisk, Baines, Kittle, and Greg "The Bull" Luzinski, but much like the current team, success didn't come easily. The offense struggled, the pitching showed weakness, and by mid-June the team was shaken mentally and struggling with their confidence. The '83 roster had more talent than the current roster, but they played sub .500 baseball with a 27-32 record through mid-June, falling to fifth place in a seven-team division, 6.5 games out of first. Emblematic of their weak hitting, on April 15 at Chicago, Tigers journeyman pitcher Milt Wilcox retired the first 26 White Sox in a row before Jerry Hairston pinch-hit a single. The home fans booed him.
When it seemed like they were out of the hunt for the playoffs, La Russa started making changes, and his what's the worst that could happen? attitude saved the season. La Russa's boldest move was asking Fisk, who was struggling to hit .200 in the six and seven spots, to hit second. The lineup change was the catalyst for offensive production. Fisk hit .324/.391/.587 with 24 home runs while hitting second and the rest of the lineup followed him. Prior to that change, the Sox hit .241/.316/.380, averaging 4.8 runs per game. Thereafter, they hit .271/.336/.431, averaging 5.0 runs per game.
Other moves helped shore up the squad. The Sox replaced Tom Paciorek with Greg Walker at first base, and the light-hitting Jerry Dybzinski at shortstop with Scott Fletcher. In their biggest move, they swapped second basemen with the Mariners. They began the season with Tony Bernazard, who was a good hitter for a middle infielder, but weak defensively, and replaced him with Julio Cruz, who was great with a glove and excellent at stealing bases, even though he couldn't hit.
The pitching also improved in the second half. They averaged 4.14 earned runs before the roster shakeup, and 3.40 after. In some ways, some mistook a change in pitching and defense as an offense change, but the key to their success wasn't just any one adjustment-it was the willingness to take the roster apart and calibrate it just right as the season progressed, which meant personnel changes, as well. They played .700 baseball for the remainder of the season, winning the AL West by 20 games, much to the surprise of everyone.
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It's strange to think that a team from 30 years ago might have lessons for the current roster, but it does. The '83 team's eventual success wasn't just a confluence of events that led to a playoff berth, they were a science experiment in La Russa's laboratory. He and general manager Roland Hemond tinkered until the team improved.
There's a good chance that this roster is toast and the valuable players will be gone by the trade deadline. But the one thing the slumping roster has proved is that the status quo won't win many games. It's not a guaranteed strategy, but the one thing they haven't tried is shaking things up a bit. It was prudent not to make radical changes when they were still just a few games out of first place, but seven games leaves room to play.
That means mixing up the lineup and better optimization to make sure that there are base runners on when the big hits come. It means moving Ramirez out of the #2 spot, and putting someone with a better OBP (Alex Rios or Adam Dunn) in that spot instead. It means better use of the bullpen in high leverage situations, more pinch runners, and aggressive base running. Long term, it may mean trading players or getting creative with the waiver wire. It's an opportunity to take a chance on cheap players that can help in the short-term, and an opportunity to test out what minor league talents can do.
Most importantly, it's recognizing the things that don't work and at least attempting to fix them, instead of waiting until the odds really are insurmountable.
Despite the challenge, there's still hope. Ventura actively considers the parallels between the two White Sox editions that are separated by three generations, and perhaps that now leads to implementation of a similarly decisive nature. As he said in his post-game conference on Monday, "I'll take ugly. Right now, it doesn't have to be pretty. I just want wins. We'll start wearing our '83 uniforms everyday if it's gotta be ugly. I'm fine with that."
After all, Robin, what's the worst that can happen?