Sox Drawer: Pierzynski feels the loss of Hickey

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Sox Drawer: Pierzynski feels the loss of Hickey

When Dayan Viciedo hit that dramatic home run Thursday night in New York, he was there.

When Philip Humber threw the perfect game in Seattle, he was there too.

All season long, Kevin Hickey has been there; in the hearts and minds of the Chicago White Sox.

I know every time I look at his jersey, hes there, said A.J. Pierzynski about Hickeys number-99 jersey which hangs in the White Sox dugout, both home and away. He always pops in your head at weird times, just because for seven years, he was there.

Hickey made a career out of being there for the White Sox, first as a fan, then as a pitcher, followed by those seven years as the teams batting practice coach. But to the players and coaches, he was much more than that.

Especially to Pierzynski.

He might be known as a hard-nosed catcher, but A.J. will always have a soft spot for the guy they called Hick man, who passed away on May 16 at the age of 56.

Its hard to describe because until youre here every day, in the clubhouse everydayon the planes with us, on the buses with us, on the road with us, in the hotels with us, you dont understand how close you become with people, said Pierzynski. The people who have been here and have been through wars with and been through battles with, and youve done everything you can with them, you understand that this is a guy that would do anything for me, and Kevin Hickey was that guy, he literally would do anything for me.

While the White Sox were in Texas preparing for their final workout before Opening Day, word reached the clubhouse that Hickey was found to be unresponsive in his hotel room. The players didnt know the severity of the situation, but they did know Hickey, which meant theyd be seeing him again soon.

Hes gonna come out of it, hes in great shape and you just really thought he wasone day were gonna get the phone call and hes awake, Pierzynski said.

That day never came.

I would go and visit him in the hospital and see him and see his family. You start getting a medical diagnosis and prognosis of whats supposed to happen, it just never seemed like there was a light at the end of the tunnel, and I feel so sorry for his daughters, his brothers and sisters and his mom. And then when we get the phone call that he was gone. That was kind of the finality of it all. Then it was like, Okay, this is over with now. Im not gonna see Kevin at the field, hes not gonna be there to flip to me, hes not gonna be there to throw to me, hes not gonna be there to cheer me on everyday, because he was the biggest cheerleader we had.

Hickeys funeral was held on May 22. The family asked Pierzynski to speak on behalf of the players, two days after the White Sox had won three straight from the Cubs at Wrigley Field.

No one was more proud of our team that we swept the Cubs, a teary-eyed Pierzynski said of Hickey to the crowd. His jersey was there hanging, watching us....Ill miss Kevin forever.

A.J. is someone who excels in front of huge crowds on the games biggest stage. But to stand before family and teammates, all with heavy hearts, to speak about their lost friend was something he was not prepared for.

To get up there and talk was really one of the hardest things I ever had to do in my life, said Pierzynski, who choked up several times during his speech. I have no problem speaking in front of people that you dont know. It could be a million people and Ive got no problem getting up there and talking, but when you get up there and you look down and see his family there, and you see the casket there, its just a different thing and it was one of the hardest things Ive ever had to do. Im honored that they asked me to do it, but I loved Hick and I love his family and I know hes in a better place now.

Wherever that place is, it does seem like a part of Hickey is still here. If its not his jersey hanging in the dugout, its his spirit that appears to be following Pierzynski around the field. With 12 home runs and 42 RBIs, A.J. is easily on pace for the best season of his career.

Kevin Hickeys one of the greatest people and I wish he was here every day, Pierzynski said. But hes gone. We have to find a way to keep his memory alive.

It turns out, they are.

By winning, by playing the game hard, and for each other.

Hickey was known as the ultimate underdog. Before the season, so were the White Sox.

But here we are on June 29 and look who's in first place.

You know who wouldn't be happier?

Kevin Hickey.

Noise around QB Mark Sanchez misses bigger, far more important goal for Bears ’17 offseason

Noise around QB Mark Sanchez misses bigger, far more important goal for Bears ’17 offseason

The tumult around the Bears quarterback position this offseason – signing Mike Glennon, cutting Jay Cutler, not signing Brian Hoyer, now signing Mark Sanchez – was to be expected. (Well, not all the brouhaha around Sanchez; if there has ever been more hyperventilating around the arriving backup quarterback, it’s escaping my recollections of a quarter-century on the beat.)

All of that, and a lot of the noise around Mike Glennon is really missing a larger point. A couple, really.

GM Ryan Pace established fixing the quarterback situation as a top priority, something it has been just about since Jim McMahon left, with the exception of a few Jay Cutler years. Doing that to any meaningful degree with the castoff options available in free agency or via trades wasn’t ever going to happen. What Pace has done with the quarterback situation, however, is more than a little intriguing.

The quarterback additions and subtractions, coupled with also suggest a draft plan far from locked in on a quarterback. The signings of Glennon and Sanchez don’t mean the Bears have solved their quarterback position, but it does mean the Bears have positioned themselves with the distinct option of NOT taking a quarterback – this year.

But here’s the bigger point.

Even with the optimum quarterback solution unavailable – Pace arguably did go best-available in his and the coaches’ minds with Glennon and Sanchez, all derision aside – Pace’s goal needs to be building a team that can reach a high playoff level regardless of quarterback.

Meaning: defense. And while the 2017 free agent and draft classes did not offer must-have quarterbacks in most evaluations, there are those elite-level defensive talents, and every indication is that the Bears will look there, in the draft, and should be. It had that feeling when the Bears, with ample, money to spend, backed away from day one free-agency runs at a couple of pricey defensive backs. The Bears simply think they can do better for less in the draft.

A perspective: With a defense at its levels during the Brian Urlacher era, the Bears could reach the NFC championship game with what they have at quarterback now. They did, twice, with Rex Grossman and with Cutler. Sanchez got to AFC championship games in each of his first two seasons. The Bears reached a Super Bowl with Rex Grossman as their quarterback. They went 13-3 in 2001 with a solid-but-unspectacular Jim Miller as their quarterback. They reached the 2005 playoffs with Kyle Orton as their starter most of that year, and should have been in the 2008 playoffs with him as well. The Bears reached the NFC championship game in 2010 with Cutler.

There is a common denominator in all of these situations, and it is within Pace’s grasp, and that was an elite defense. Rex Ryan had one with the Jets and Sanchez, Grossman and Orton and Cutler had theirs with Urlacher, Lance Briggs, Mike Brown, Tommie Harris, Charles Tillman, etc.

Forget the quarterback situation for now. Nothing anyone, including Pace, can really do anything about it (other than land possibly Deshaun Watson, based on their turnout at his Pro Day).

But if Pace and his personnel staff do this right, they can lay in the foundation for something elite on defense that will transcend the quarterback, or at least allow the Bears to play more than 16 games in a season even if they do not have a great quarterback. With the Urlacher core defense, the Bears went to postseasons with four different quarterbacks.

The prime directive now for Ryan Pace is to create precisely that model again.

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Johnny Oduya feeling better, more up to speed with Blackhawks

Perhaps the best thing about the Johnny Oduya trade back to the Blackhawks, for both parties involved, was that Oduya wasn't needed immediately.

It's not that the Blackhawks didn't want the veteran defenseman, who helped them win Cups in 2013 and 2015, back in the lineup as soon as possible. Oduya was coming off an ankle injury, one he re-aggravated and missed about a month when he was with the Dallas Stars. He needed time to fully heal and with the Blackhawks in good shape in the standings and with solid depth at defense, he could.

Now with the playoffs right around the corner, Oduya is feeling more like himself.

Outside of missing two games that were the second halves of back-to-backs, Oduya has been playing steadily since March 9. Oduya's minutes have ranged from around 16 to 21 in games. He said he's now 100 percent healthy from his injury and he's feeling the difference on the ice.

"It makes a big difference," Oduya said on Thursday, prior to facing the Stars for the first time since his trade back to Chicago. "I mean, obviously sometimes you get more or less lucky, depending on what you get and the style of play and what you do or not. Skating is a part of my game I try to use as much as possible to get in good position and try to take away time from the opposition as much as possible.

"Even with battling and things like that, of course it's nice to feel more confident," Oduya added. "In any situation, you're in you want to feel confident on the ice."

The Blackhawks have seen that confidence in previous postseason runs and are looking to see it again in Oduya. Coach Joel Quenneville considers Oduya, "Mr. Reliability."

"You look back at what he delivered for us, not just the regular season, but he's been solid and reliable in the playoffs. He's assumed some important matchups and important minutes," Quenneville said. "Last year, we didn't have him on the back end and watching him this year, it was the perfect fit him coming back."

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The Blackhawks' defensive group hasn't changed much since Oduya's first stint here. The system probably hasn't been altered much, either. Still, Oduya's not taking anything for granted and is trying to get back on the same page quickly.

"Same as the last time I came into a great hockey team and I really just want to get up to speed and up to date as quickly as possible," Oduya said. "Little things that may have changed. I want to fit in as well as I can. That's the idea anyone has coming in late in the year. The guys here make it pretty easy; the coaching staff is familiar with the way I play and helps speed up things a little more."

The Blackhawks are trying to be their best heading into the postseason. So is Oduya. He needed a little extra time to get back to health and he may still need a little time to get back to speed, but he's just about there. 

"I feel pretty good. Of course it's a lot easier when you have guys around you you've seen before, a coaching staff," Oduya said. "It's a work in progress, anyway. I want to be better, I want to evolve with the team and want us to be better, too. It's a work in progress."