The 2003 Major League Baseball season proved to be a pleasant surprise for playoff-hungry Cubs fans. For the other side of Chicago, however, another failure to capture the American League Central division championship has left a bitter taste in the mouths of White Sox fans.
Favored to win the Central after last year's spring training, the Sox started off the season like a train wreck. Supposed aces Mark Buehrle and Bartolo Colon struggled early, and only the emerging Esteban Loaiza kept the team from being out of the race before June. Even the much touted third baseman Joe Crede wasn't turning into the dependable player that fans and scouts had hoped for. The hitters weren't hitting, and the pitchers weren't pitching. End of story.
Meanwhile, in Kansas City and Minnesota, fans were delighted with their team's red hot starts. The Royals' pitching staff was over-achieving, and it turned out that too many writers and reporters outside of Minnesota had vastly underrated the Twins in every aspect of the game.
When the White Sox were actually scoring and getting into the late innings with a lead, it was the bullpen that consistently let the team down. Everyone was talking about the lack of reliable relievers in New York and Boston, but Chicago's new closer Billy Koch was the greatest bust of them all. He received a chorus of boos every time fans saw him start to warm up, and he became a running joke on sports talk radio. To add insult to injury, Keith Foulke, the man they traded to get Koch, was racking up save after save in Oakland.
But somehow the Sox came back. Taking four of six games from the cross-town rival Cubs gave the team some momentum heading into the all-star break. The team was further energized by a couple of long winning streaks and trades for Roberto Alomar and Carl Everett. Chicago's comeback, however, was not enough to overcome early-season woes, and five straight losses to the Twins in September sank the playoff ship entirely.
Sox fans all over the South Side were left only with hopes that Sox GM Kenny Williams would fill the team's many holes while making sure to retain the team's strongest players. After all, the Cubs picked up Derek Lee, LaTroy Hawkins, and Greg Maddux. Why shouldn't the White Sox keep pace?
Sadly Williams has had one of the worst off-seasons in the Majors this year. Colon, Alomar, and Everett have all left for "greener" (read: $$$) pastures, and the only free agent Williams has added is a new roof for the ball park. In fact, the White Sox haven't even made a noteworthy transaction since re-signing catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. on November 26.
It is very unlikely that the White Sox have a shot at winning anything this season, but the news isn't all bad for the Sox. Minnesota is surely worse with its loss of Eddie Guardado, Hawkins, Eric Milton, A.J. Pierzynski, Kenny Rogers, Dustan Mohr, and Denny Hocking. The Sox's new manager, Ozzie Guillen, may yet provide the kind of spark that can carry the team for an entire summer. There is also a chance that the Sox may employ Shingo Takatsu, Japan's all-time leader in saves, in the closer's spot. Another possibility is former Blue Jay Cliff Politte.
Perhaps the White Sox will get by with what they have, but the ultimate state of the team is still disastrous. The Sox were one of the worst-attended teams in the Majors (at one point they even trailed Tampa Bay), and the ticket prices don't reflect the team's diminishing fan base, media support, and especially the quality of baseball that the average fan sees.
Hopefully Willams has some tricks left up his sleeve and can swing some of the same exciting mid-season moves he pulled off last summer. The AL Central has no clear favorite just yet, and some serious improvements could bring the Sox back to life before the division gets out of reach. In the mean time, however, the Royals, Twins, Tigers, and Indians better brace themselves for the unruly rage of disgruntled Sox fans.