Friday, February 25, 2011
By Brett Ballantini
GLENDALE, Ariz. When youre able to play baseball in February, hope cant help but spill out of clubhouses and into the streets of this pop-up town.
Its springtime in Arizona, and theres no better place to be than All-In.
This is the time of year thats so easy to fall under the spell of, and I say that not only as snow is still dusting everybody back home. Down here, all of us here are united by the love of this silly game, baseballand if youre not falling in love in February in Arizona, maybe its time to look for another line of work.
But dont take my word for it; walk around this Chicago clubhouse with me, and see just how dear the game is to these White Sox.
Theres Juan Pierre, in-season or out, driven by his passion for the game. Famous for his beastly drive to become better, I have a soft spot in my heart for him. At a time when fewer and fewer players might suit up and play the game for free, Pierrethe first to arrive and last to leavewould, undoubtedly.
Sitting next to Pierre is Lastings Milledge, who at just 25 can spin a weary tale of elusive potential and escaped stardom. Rather than drop out of the game bitterly and allowing himself to register simply as another Where Are They Now tale of woe, Milledge is fighting for a fourth outfielder spot on the White Sox without yet having the benefit of a spot on the 40-man roster. He readily admits his immaturity, and realizes hes tried to claw his way to major league stardom without a single mentor to help guide him. Perhaps Pierre has arrived in his life just in time.
Omar Vizquel will be 44 as the dew burns off of the 2011 season, and he bites his thumb at anyone chiding his senior status by continuing to worm his way into the lineup. At a time when this all-time fielding great could be jogging into a role as coach-player, he remains a player-coach, taking on Arizona Fall League phenom Eduardo Escobaralmost 22 years his junioras his latest pet project. And Vizquel still finds time not just to mentor the likes of Escobar or Jordan Danks, but get his work in for the season. Yeah, it wasnt just the indefatigable Pierre wearing down grass bunting on side fields on ThursdayOmar the Ageless was there, too.
Jake Peavy has been feeling the pressures of a curious injury streak of late, one thats scarred his time so far with the Chisox. But its not justification of a weighty salary that has pushed him miraculously through his rehabilitation. He continued last springworking himself back to ace-level by going 3-2 with a 1.75 ERA and .917 WHIP in five June starts, mind youknowing something wasnt right with his body. The only thing that could stop this former Cy Young winner from pitching was having his lat rip off the bone. Peavy wants back in the White Soxs vaunted rotationnot recklessly, but out of his love of the game. And no surprise, hes ahead of schedule on the comeback trail.
The team rapscallionoutside of manager Ozzie Guillen, of courseis A.J. Pierzynski. Guillens scouting report on A.J. has been oft-repeatedif you have to play against him, you hate his guts, but if youre his teammate, you hate his guts a little less. It would be easy to dismiss Pierzynski as a scallywag trading his fortunate baseball genes in for an easy paycheck, but that would fly in the face of the fact that the White Sox are going to have to rip the catchers mask from A.J.s cold, dead hands. Whether mentally struggling, physically ailing, or merely slumping, Pierzynski insists on playing. Missing a game? A personal affront.
Sitting together as locker mates are Mark Teahen and Brent Morel. With every reason to treat one another with dispassion, these two teammates root for one another, figuring the best man will win the third base job, and that there will be space for both on the roster and in games.
Oh, and there are more tales of baseball passion in the White Sox clubhouse. Look at Jesse Crain, the newest power arm in the pen, whose velocity is actually increasing as he approaches 30 years old. Sergio Santos, last seasons feel-good fireballer, has replaced the unease of knowing whether hell be on the big league roster with the challenge of working a new pitch into his repertoire, or at least mastering his off-speed ones. Chris Sale could ascend from college boy to Chisox closer in less than half a season, all while yet to turn to his best pitch of all, his changeup.
And dont stop at just the players, every one of whom can spin his own personal love story for baseball. Look at the team jefe, Guillen, who wants us all to believe that pulling on his stirrups is more tedious than tweeting. But dont believe the cagey skipperhe loves the stage afforded by managing the team he dreamed one day he would. Theres not a person in camp Guillen wont give some hell toand he loves every last one of them.
His boss, Ken Williams, was pulled by his love for baseball away from a sport he might perhaps have better excelled at, football (convinced by the passion of owner Jerry Reinsdorf, who flew to the Bay Area to make sure Williams signed with the White Sox). As an African-American GMand yes, that list is still woefully shortWilliams has suffered more than his share of lumps and not-so-veiled insults. And yet the game addicts himhe cannot walk away, even with 10 years under fire as the man in charge of the White Sox.
Ozzie and Ken spent a half-hour together on Thursday, sidling up together in opposing golf carts, and while there surely was talk of personnel and plans, what you heard most from the longtime friends was laughterloud, what-the-hell-are-they-cackling-about laughter. No kid aching for an autograph or rookie struggling to find his place in the organization could burst with such love for this game.
And that brings it all back to me, charged with observing this game and covering this team. I offer no apology for being a lifelong White Sox fan, elating in the good times and aching through the bad. And while that might cloud my press box judgment for a snap, as I jump and yell at Delmon Young when he tries to displace A.J.s jaw at home plate, it doesnt make me any better or worse a beat writer. My fellow White Sox fans know all too well that rooting like hell for your team doesnt make you a homerit merely means youre all the more likely to question why no ones aiming for Joe Mauers jaw than apologizing away another loss to the Twinks.
My connection to the team is a personal one thats pushing back dangerously close to four decades now, one that many of my peers and the players who wear the uniform do not share. But my love of the game? That makes me no different than those players on the field, or the coaches maneuvering them. Im not a millionaire, and my ability on the field stopped me well short of ever getting a chance to play for anything substantial between the lines. But the one thing I do share with the White Sox I speak to every day is my love of the game, and of the team.
Write me off as gung-ho, if you wish, and have a laugh at my expense. Thats just fine, I dont mind. If youre following me On the Road, well, you probably are right there with me.
We are all driven by one thing: baseball. Really, is there anything better than that?
Brett Ballantini is CSNChicago.com's White Sox Insider. Follow him @CSNChi_Beatnik on Twitter for up-to-the-minute White Sox information.