State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

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State finals--Peoria or Champaign?

The finals of the boys state basketball tournament should be played at Assembly Hall in Champaign.

The Illinois High School Association's signature event belongs in the state's most celebrated venue this side of United Center.

That said, it won't happen until the folks in Champaign-Urbana get their act together and decide that they really want to host the tournament, as they did from 1919 to 1995.

The University of Illinois' new athletic director, Mike Thomas, said he wants to host the tournament once again, and new men's basketball coach, John Groce, said he wants to see the tournament in Assembly Hall.

"The first question that coach John Groce asked me (after he was hired) was about having the state tournament back in Champaign. I think that's critical," said Thomas, who hopes to tie the completion of the Assembly Hall's renovation to a bid for the tournament.

But Thomas already is aware of the issues involved. Former coach Bruce Weber also wanted to return the tournament to Champaign. But neither Weber nor former athletic director Ron Guenther had enough clout with local businessmen to make it happen.

"We also have to remember, to do that, it's not just a University of Illinois event--we can certainly do our part--but it's also a community event," Thomas said. "So everybody in the Champaign-Urbana area has to be on board as it relates to hosting those events and putting in attractive bids that would make folks want to come here."

We've heard that song before. Until Thomas, Groce and university officials persuade the businessmen in the Champaign-Urbana...the hotel and motel owners, the gas station owners, the restaurant and bar owners...to stop gouging the people who attend the event, it will never happen.

For years, I beat a drum for Champaign. Assembly Hall, I wrote repeatedly, is an architectural masterpiece. Carver Arena in Peoria is just another gym. Even 50 years after it was built, Assembly Hall is a one-of-a-kind facility that still awes visitors.

If you can't hold the state finals in Chicago's United Center, then the best place in the state is Assembly Hall. You don't display the Mona Lisa in a convenience store. The state's showcase event belongs in a 16,000-seat arena that is unlike any other in the country.

Sure, Assembly Hall needs to be renovated, and it will be. As a Illinois student, I remember when architect Max Abramovitz' version of the Taj Mahal was a big hole in the ground in 1959. I was awed to walk in for the first time to attend the first game played there, then the first state tournament in 1963. It was build for 8.35 million or 63.4 million in today's dollars.

Last November, a 2.2 million proposal to renovate Assembly Hall was approved by the University's Board of Trustees, calling for the installation of air conditioning, expanded restrooms and corporate luxury boxes.

Trivia note: There are only two sports facilities in Illinois that are on the list of endangered historic places--Assembly Hall and Wrigley Field.

The state tournament was a big-time event when the dome-shaped Assembly Hall was originally opened. Scalpers abounded outside old Huff Gym, which sat only 6,000. But they still found takers outside Assembly Hall in the early years. In those days, the high schools supported the tournament. You saw dozens and dozens of basketball players wearing their varsity letter jackets. And radio stations from Carbondale to the Quad Cities covered the event live.

Not anymore. The last time the IHSA put up the site of state tournament finals for bid, Champaign-Urbana proposed 200,000. Peoria proposed 450,000 and a pact with local hotels not to gouge visitors or force a three-night minimum stay. Guess who won the bid?

Give Peoria credit, they have done a marvelous job of hosting the state finals. The city has financial support from Caterpillar and its riverboat casino. Without the University of Illinois, it has been argued, Champaign-Urbana would be another Tuscola or Paxton.

Another plus for the tournament in Peoria is the March Madness Experience, a collection of fun and games that draws hundreds of basketball fans and just plain folks and their kids to the large exposition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. Some visitors spend all their time at the Experience and never see a game.

The last time we checked Champaign-Urbana or any other community in the state, even Chicago, doesn't have a comparable facility to hold such an event, a fact I'm sure the IHSA takes into serious consideration whenever the tournament comes up for bid. The IHSA's current contract with Peoria runs through 2014-15.

Originally, the IHSA never dreamed the tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana. After 77 years in Champaign, even Steve Kouri, the Peoria lawyer who conceived of the plot to steal the prize, had doubts that the heist could be pulled off. But constant complaints from schools and fans opened the door and Peoria charged in with a well-organized and well-funded game plan that blew away the committee chosen to evaluate the proposals.

Kouri met with Jim Flynn, an assistant executive director of the IHSA, and was stunningly surprised when Flynn informed him that the IHSA didn't think it was appreciated in Champaign, that if Peoria could offer a financial incentive, it might be accepted. Yes, Kouri said to himself as he left the meeting with Flynn, "we can get this thing if we do it right."

"They (Champaign) never believed the tournament would leave the town," Flynn said. So nobody blinked when the Assembly Hall raised its rental fee, demanded a higher percentage of merchandise sales and gross receipts and began charging for parking. For years, tournament visitors had been complaining about rising prices for lodging. Tournament attendance had declined dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s.

"We had to find a way to get people back and generate more interest in the tournament," Flynn said. "It got to the point where Champaign-Urbana didn't budge and the other communities said: 'Give us a chance to show you what we can do.' I knew Peoria's bid would be a good one."

The Peoria package was too good to pass up. Civic leaders and businessmen pledged support. Caterpillar, the city's biggest industry, made a financial commitment. The hotels, always the biggest hangup in Champaign-Urbana, jumped on board.

It got even better when they organized a Fan Jam or March Madness Experience in the 66,000-square-foot exhibition hall adjacent to Carver Arena. "A light bulb when on. We could do it. We could enhance the tournament and give the IHSA something that Champaign-Urbana couldn't," Kouri said.

The final decision was a no-brainer. After examining bids from Peoria, Champaign-Urbana and Illinois State University in Normal, the IHSA unanimously awarded the tournament to Peoria.

The IHSA surveyed its membership and concluded that the overwhelming majority favored the move. "The only minus was Carver Arena (compared to Assembly Hall). But there were so many pluses," said then IHSA executive director David Fry.

"People said the tournament isn't about the arena, it's about players, games and fun. Peoria had everything except the Assembly Hall. But not too many people seemed to mind. When I went into the March Madness Experience for the first time, it blew my mind."

It is hard to imagine that the IHSA will opt to return to Champaign-Urbana. But, remember, nobody thought the state tournament would leave Champaign-Urbana in the first place.

Preview: White Sox aim for 20th win in series finale vs. Red Sox on CSN+

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Preview: White Sox aim for 20th win in series finale vs. Red Sox on CSN+

The White Sox aim for win No. 20 in their series finale against the Boston Red Sox tonight on Comcast SportsNet Plus. Coverage begins with White Sox Pregame Live at 6:30 p.m. Be sure to stick around after the final out to get analysis and player reaction on White Sox Postgame Live.

Today’s starting pitching matchup: Henry Owens (0-0) vs. Erik Johnson (0-0)

Click here for a game preview to make sure you’re ready for the action.  

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— Latest on the White Sox: All of the most recent news and notes.

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David Ortiz paces Red Sox past Carlos Rodon, White Sox

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David Ortiz paces Red Sox past Carlos Rodon, White Sox

Carlos Rodon hasn’t been too far off the mark in his outings early in 2016.

His April 18 start aside, the team’s 2014 first-round pick has thrown the ball very well. Yet six starts into his sophomore campaign, Rodon has a 1-4 record.

The young White Sox left-hander made only one big mistake on Wednesday night and Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz took advantage. Ortiz’s fifth-inning home run off a Rodon fastball got the Red Sox on track and they tacked on several runs late to snap a three-game winning streak for the White Sox, who fell 5-2 in front of 14,383 at U.S. Cellular Field. Jose Abreu homered, but that was all for the 19-9 White Sox, who were stymied by seven sharp innings from Clay Buchholz.

“Just one pitch, and that’s the name of this game I guess,” Rodon said. “One pitch changes the game pretty dramatically. That’s why people love baseball I guess.”

Rodon has discovered the importance of one pitch several times this season.

He threw an outstanding game in his first start at Oakland on April 6 only to be felled by an opposite-field homer by Mark Canha. In his last turn in Baltimore, Rodon was on cruise control before his defense did him in. Later in the contest, Rodon allowed another opposite-field blast to Nolan Reimold, which sealed the southpaw’s fate.

On Wednesday, Ortiz taught him a lesson after Rodon issued a two-out walk to Xander Bogaerts with the White Sox leading 2-1 in the fifth. Rodon left a 1-1 fastball over the plate and Ortiz turned on it and drove it 397 feet to right on a windy, cold night.

“Don’t throw a fastball down the middle to Big Papi,” Rodon said.

It was the sixth homer of the season and 509th of his career for Ortiz, who is set to retire after the season ends.

But Big Papi wasn’t done yet.

He followed a pair of one-out singles in the seventh inning with one of his own against Zach Duke. Ortiz beat a White Sox shift and dribbled a single through an open spot on the left side of the infield to drive in run No. 22 on the season and put Boston ahead 4-2. The Red Sox added another run in the eighth.

Ortiz, 40, is hitting .311/.404/.633.

“He comes up big in certain situations,” White Sox leadoff man Adam Eaton said. “Ortiz is a heck of a hitter, and he’s gonna make you pay.”

The White Sox couldn’t do the same with Buchholz, who entered the game 0-3 with a 6.51 ERA. Eaton said the right-hander kept them off-balance by using all five of his pitches. Buchholz appeared to have trouble keeping the ball down in the first as Eaton flew out deep to left ahead of a Jimmy Rollins single and Abreu’s two-run homer, his first since April 19. Abreu’s fourth homer snapped a 61-plate appearance drought and put the White Sox ahead 2-0.

But Buchholz settled in and retired 19 of the last 22 batters he faced, including 10 in a row.

He limited the White Sox to two runs and three hits while striking out six.

“We got off well there, Jimmy getting on and Jose hitting a homer, but we can’t stop there,” Eaton said. “You know as an offense you can’t stop there.”

A lack of run support has also been an early theme in Rodon’s starts.

The team has scored a total of 10 runs with Rodon on the mound in six starts. Entering Wednesday, his 2.1 run support average per nine innings ranked 67th among 73 qualified starters, according to baseball-reference.com.

The limited backing has often left Rodon -- who minus his April 18 start against the Los Angeles Angels has a 3.03 ERA -- susceptible to one mistake costing him the game.

“I think he learns something every time out there,” White Sox manager Robin Ventura said. “There's something to be gained from it and for him, he's going to be better for it. He's got great stuff, a competitor and all that, but you always learn stuff as you're going through this. Even looking at Sale or Quintana, they're still doing things and you learn something every time you're out there. Carlos is no different.

“We know he's a good pitcher, but even the good ones run through tough stretches.”

Jose Abreu's hot streak a good sign for White Sox

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Jose Abreu's hot streak a good sign for White Sox

Jose Abreu made it official on Wednesday night -- he’s on fire.

Everyone around the White Sox has known this hot streak would soon arrive. They saw signs in Toronto and again in Baltimore as he began to drive the ball to right with authority. They heard the sounds his lumber produced when he smacked another pitch.

But the first baseman confirmed it in the first inning Wednesday when he snapped a 61-plate appearance homeless streak with a towering two-run homer to left. And the idea that the White Sox have played as well as they have without consistent production from Abreu has the club very optimistic about its chances to contend this season.

“It’s awesome,” leadoff man Adam Eaton said. “You know it’s going to happen. He’s never not going to get going and be the type of hitter he is.”

“You’ve seen the month we’ve had and realistically without him producing a tremendous amount, without really the hitters producing a tremendous amount. The pitching staff has really carried us.”

Abreu has been a dominant force in the lineup in each of his two previous seasons. The 2014 American League Rookie of the Year has produced 9.3 Wins Above Replacement in his first two seasons, according to baseball-reference.com.

But until this last week, Abreu hasn’t been himself.

He hit .229/.303/.354 in April with 13 RBIs, the fewest he’s ever had in the opening month of the season. He chased pitches that weren’t his and got away from his game, rifling inside fastballs to right field. Yet the lengthy slump from a player who hit .303/.364/.540 with 66 homers and 208 RBIs in his first two seasons hasn’t dramatically hurt the White Sox, who entered Wednesday with the best record in the AL.

Abreu said the stretch reminds him of 2009 when he got out to a slow start and his team, the Elefantes de Cienfuegos, continued to play well in the Occidental Division of the Cuban National Series. Despite Abreu’s early slump, Cienfuegos finished in second place in the division and earned a postseason birth as it did in each of Abreu’s final eight seasons.

“I’ve had this moment before in Cuba,” Abreu said through an interpreter. “I was struggling and the team was winning games.

“We won that year. That’s the same kind of feeling as I’m having right now because we’re getting all together, working hard and pulling in the same direction and that’s probably something God has for us for the season and I’m happy.”

Manager Robin Ventura might like similar results from this situation. Abreu finished the 2009 season hitting .399/.555/.822 with 30 homers and 76 RBIs in 393 plate appearances. Projected out to 600 plate appearances, Abreu would wind up with 45 round-trippers, or nine more than his career high.

No matter what kind of numbers Abreu produces, it’s clear he’s in a better position to do it after a slow start. From April 25 through Tuesday, Abreu hit .406/.486/.531 with nine RBIs in 37 plate appearances. While he hadn’t gone deep in that span, Abreu walked five times and struck out only three.

Abreu said it’s a function of improved timing. He feels right when he drives the ball on a line to right as he did throughout a four-game series in Baltimore. Those are the signs Ventura has seen plenty of lately.

“It sounds better,” Ventura said. “His hands work better. It just seemed like he could pull the inside pitch a little better and drive some more to right field. He was working on it, probably gave up a couple of at-bats trying to find it, knowing it might not look right. We could tell what he was trying to do, and I think it has helped him as we got home, how it feels for him.”

Eaton looks forward to what it can mean for the White Sox. The offense entered Wednesday with 45 runs in the past eight games after it produced 62 in the first 21.  

“He stays inside the ball really well, he goes the other way really well,” Eaton said. “That’s where his power is and somebody hangs one, he’ll pull it

“When he starts doing that and barreling balls the other way, and they throw a 95-mph heater on the inside part of the plate, he shoots it to right with authority and that’s when you know Jose is going.

“It should be interesting once he gets going and gets in a rhythm.”