Szwaja's Sports Blog

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Red Hot, Red Hot
To the top, we are...
Red Hot...
We've laughed at your wars
Can't you see we're out for blood
Run with the pack, now
Always ask for more
Can't you see we're out for blood
-Motley Crue, Red Hot, 1983-

Not that I have anything against Journey, but I would have picked that song as the theme song of the 2005 Chicago White Sox as they came down the stretch. I never stopped believing, and never did I need a reason to stop believing, because the White Sox, when it came down to it, were indeed "Red Hot." Maybe it helps that the song is playing on my new Crue DVD as I write this. But, come on, how hot were the Sox?

Win 15 of the last 16 games? Check.
Go 11-1 on the way to the first South Side World Series in 88 years? Check.
Win all five of your road playoff games? Check.
Hold the Astros scoreless in 15 consecutive innings, with way too many lead off hitters reaching base on top of it? Check.
Four consecutive complete games in the ALCS? Check.
Sweep the defending champs in the ALDS? Check.
Hold off the hottest team in baseball before you even get to the playoffs? Check.

I'll stop now. I think you get the picture. Bottom line: This was one hell of a baseball team. I use the word "was," because no matter how you slice it, this team will never be the same. Players will go their separate ways. Some of those guys will never wear the White Sox pin stripes again, dare I say even Paul Konerko fits into that equation, but that's another story for another time.

Anyway, here's the biggest thing I learned from the 2005 Chicago White Sox: I learned what really makes up a championship baseball team. I know that sounds obvious and simple, but it's so much more than that. After watching the Sox go all the way, it just makes you realize how many other teams just have no chance. Even the Yankees this year, they had overpaid, tight-armed pitchers who couldn't bring it when it counted.

The White Sox were the exact opposite. Some might say, "Come on, Szwaja, they were lucky." Okay, I'll buy that, but every team that wins the Series does so with a little luck.

Back to the point of this blog. I watch the World Series every year. And not until this year did I realize that I've watched every World Series in the past blindly. You can't truly understand a team unless you watch it work its way through the 162-game schedule. Now, I'm not saying I saw every White Sox game this season. I was in the ballpark for eight of them, and I finished 4-4. But I can honestly say that I saw at least parts of 130 of the games. That might sound like a silly claim, but I can back it up. Just ask my fellow baseball-watching roommate Geoff Sobieski. Sob and I watched a ton of baseball at school. And it almost became a joke when I moved home. Grandma would ask the family during Sunday breakfast, "Do you guys watch CSI? What about Desperate Housewives? Or House?" And one of us would always reply, "No, Grandma, we watch baseball, remember?"

If you're one of the unfortunate ones who didn't follow this White Sox team from start to finish, you're Mike Szwaja of the past, watching two teams compete in a World Series you thought you knew but you didn't.

You didn't watch Joe Crede just look stupid at the plate for the better part of the season. You missed out on just how great Jermaine Dye was in ever facet of the game, fielding, hitting, base-running, patience at the plate, you name it, JD did it. Dye even played a game at shortstop in Oakland (I stand corrected). You probably don't remember how big Dustin Hermanson was for a team that didn't have a closer for the first half of the year. Sadly, many won't remember that Frank Thomas had 12 home runs in less that 100 at bats. You didn't see Scott Podsednik steal bases like they were free suckers in a basket next to the register at the local pancake house. You probably don't remember that Jose Contrerous couldn't find the plate for the first third of the season. Or when Jon Garland really was "Cy Garland" (use courtesy of the LaGesse family). Or when El Douque was 9-3 as a starter. Or all those first inning runs Freddy Garcia gave up. Or how disappointing Aaron Rowand was at the plate all season. Or how much of a stud he was in the field all season. Or how many clutch hits Chris Widger had coming off the bench, especially that home run in a rare win in Oakland. Or Brian Anderson's two home run night in Seattle. Or Brandon McCarthy just dismantling the powerful Texas Rangers in Arlington. Or AJ Pierzynski snap-throwing A-Rod out at third and yelling, "Get the fuck outta here!" as he went to the dugout. Or AJ's walk-off in the old school unis. Or all those Freddy Garcia wild pitches, every one of which seemed like it turned into a scored run or two. Or how great Mark Buerhle fielded his position this season. Or Buerhle's gem in a 1-0 victory over the Indians on opening day. Or how Pablo Ozuna did something great in every game he was in. I'm serious, every game. Or Timo Perez's flare single to beat the Angels in The Cell during the regular season in a game the White Sox had no business winning. Or Paul Konerko's catch to end that game in Boston. Or that Neal Cotts fared better against right-handers than the Southpaws. Or that Bobby Jenks threw a pitch 102 mph to Richie Sexson in Seattle. Or every play Juan Uribe made in the hole. Or that Ross Gload wears Pumas. Or that Willie Harris never complained, as he's done in past seasons, about not playing. Or every time Tadahito grounded out to the second baseman with Scotty on second and no outs. Or that Cliff Politte never seemed to have control problems. Or that Luis Vizcaino went from being the fool on the hill to the king of the infield pop-out. Or that Ozzie sometimes left his pitchers in too long. Or that Ozzie told Magglio Ordonez that he could "fuck him so many ways" and we all kind of just laughed and turned our heads at that statement. Or that a guy named Kevin Walker spent time in the bullpen this season. And a guy named Raul Lopez played a few games at short. Or that Carlos Lee had a huge season in Milwaukee and not one Sox fan seemed to care. Or that Geoff Blum didn't really do anything until he hit that home run the other night.

Somehow, some way, the White Sox channeled every positive from that monster paragraph above and forgot about every negative and just went on a tear to finish the season. No team could have beaten them down the stretch. Not the '84 Tigers. Not the '89 As. Not the '99 Yankees. They were going to win and that was it.

The White Sox did everything right. They got every guy out they needed to get out. They got to every ball they could, and to some they probably wouldn't if they tried to do it again -- think the wall taking out Uribe as he gloved that ball in Game 4. Everything just clicked. To go through such a long season, to pitch so well, to manufacture runs out of nothing, to get the long ball when you really need one -- think Konerko's Slam, Scotty's walk-off and Blum's eye-opener ... iterally ... we were all falling asleep. All those things, it's just amazing, and we'll never see anything like it again. Not in Chicago. Not in Major League Baseball. Never again. This might not have been the best baseball team to ever man a diamond, but they might end up being the most fun, most opportunistic, most influential team in history. Don't think GMs around the league aren't going to try and copy Kenny Williams' think pitching, defense and character before power strategy. This team officially brought baseball out of the power era and into the "Smart-Ball Era" the "Ozzie-Ball Era" if you will.

Yes, they were out for blood. And they finished Red Hot indeed. And we'll never, ever, forget the 2005 White Sox.

Monday, October 24, 2005

I've seen the tape of Carlton Fisk willing his home run to stay fair. I remember when Scott Brosius used to swing that magical "walk-off" bat. I remember Aaron Boone's blast like it was last week. I've seen the Kurt Gibson fist-pumping, nevermind he had a broken leg home-run trot more times than I can count.

To this baseball fan, none of them compare to what I witnessed last night. Scott Podsednik's walk-off homer in Game 2 of the World Series was the best of them all (for me, at least). Why? Because Scotty plays for the team I root for. Some of the longballs I mentioned above I didn't see live, while others happened as I was watching. Still, none of them had me emotionally invested to the extreme. Before Scotty hit his longball, I was lounging back in my chair thinking, "How are we going to win this game with Lidge on the hill?" Before I could answer that question, which swirled in my head like the winds that toy with flyballs at The Cell, Aaron Rowand was mouthing "NO WAY!" as he watched the ball fly off Scotty's "next-stop: Hall of Fame" bat.

Fisk talking to that ball with his arms is an image I'm sure any fan of the Red Sox at the time never forgets. I'll never forget that I saw Scott Podsednik become the first player in baseball history to hit a walk-off home run in the World Series without having hit one in the regular season off the National League's best closer. I'll never forget Rowand's lips forming the words "NO WAY!" in slow motion. And, ohh yeah, Podsednik and Rowand, they play for a team that I spent hours watching every summer. That's the best part.

They didn't make drama for some team that just happened to be playing in a World Series I just happened to be watching. They did it in a World Series I've waited for since 1993 when the White Sox were so close, since 1994 when they would have played (and probably lost) to the Expos.

What did we do to deserve this? I'm sure many Sox fans have come and gone between 1917 and now, and they never even got to sniff the kind of stuff we're seeing. I'm not saying the White Sox will win, but I am saying how can they not after all they've been through? And I've been here, watching all the while. If you're a White Sox fan like me, enjoy it. Live it up. This isn't something that happens every year. This is like Christmas day once in your lifetime. It's like going to Disney World and knowing you might never go back. It's like being told you'll probably never have a kid, then it finally happens and you're swept off your feet. Maybe those metaphors are just symbols of how bad I live, breath and sleep for sports. Or maybe they're good and work as well as I think they do. Someone told my sister the other day that it's almost sick how much I love sports, how good something like a walk-off home run can make me feel. Well, at this point in my life -- I've never married the perfect woman or witnessed the birth of my first-born mind you -- I don't know of anything that could bring me as high as Scotty did last night. But I also haven't witnessed the last out of a World Series clinching game yet. So we'll see how high I am when that finally happens. Until then...

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Yo, what's up, people? Keeping this thing up and starting a new job haven't meshed too well, but I'm going to start updating a little more now that I've kind of found my comfort zone. Amazingly, it really hasn't been that I haven't had the time to write. It's more that the job has forced me to miss what were once important cogs in my sporting fandom. Around the Horn, PTI and the 5 o'clock SportsCenter are now all things of the past. For those of you who don't know, I'm now an office manager at the Liposuction and Cosmetic Surgery Institute, based in Arlington Heights, with offices in Naperville, Oakbrook and Gold Coast Chicago as well. I work for Dr. Leon Forrester Tcheupdjian M.D., now one of the coolest, most driven and ambitious guys I know. You may have heard his commercials on the radio. Please come in for a free consultation if you're considering BOTOX, Restalyne, microderm abrasion, breast augmentation, liposuction, tattoo removal, or treating any other skin defect. And tell them Michael (only because that's what everyone calls me) sent you.

Cheap plugs aside, we can't ignore what happened last night in the ALCS. For those who do not know, I'm a dropped third strike freak. It's my favorite loophole rule in sports, better than the tuck rule, better than phantom diving in soccer, better than calling a timeout while falling out of bounds in basketball, better than freezing the puck on the half-boards in hockey. It's just an awesome rule; it penalizes the opposing pitcher for making a pitch so great even the catcher couldn't handle it. I can just see a bunch of drunk American immigrants sitting around in a pub somewhere writing the rules: "If the bleeping catcher can't catch it, the guy deserves first!"

Okay, back to Wednesday night. Let me admit this, for the first hour after the game ended, I thought the White Sox got an absolute gift. There was no doubt in my mind Josh Paul caught that ball. Then I tuned into Comcast Sports Net, which showed the replay about as many times as I've heard "Get your game on ... Comcast Sports Net!" during the last year. Now let me admit this, I was wrong. There's no doubt in my mind now that Paul trapped that ball. The ball clearly bounces and goes up into the palm of Paul's glove. Anyone who says different hasn't seen the light yet. There's no debate. The replay shows it. Watch it close enough, and you'll join the club.

Now, that said, that ump was in no position to see what the replay showed. Nobody could have seen that. He said he heard two noises: 1) ball to dirt then 2) ball to glove. If that's true, he's got some great hearing. Hold your breath: it might have been the best call I've seen an official of any kind make ... even if he was lucky to get it right. Plus, Paul, a lifetime Ben Davis of a catcher, made matters worse by not laying the leather on AJ. He does that and the Sox win it in the 12th instead of the 9th.

No, seriously, the Sox got a break, one they needed after the Angels poked, slapped and punched balls around the diamond on Tuesday. They too got lucky, as AJ so eloquently pointed out after the game. And lost in the shuffle was the brilliant game Mark Buerhle threw. For as average as he'd been in the 2nd half, he was the Cy Young contender we expected him to be all season in Game 2. Show me an easier ninth inning in a complete game, and I'll stand on my head for the duration of Game 3. Hey, I can suck down a PBR upside down any day.

And nobody is talking about the crappy 0-2 pitch Kelvim "Don't call me overpaid" Escobar threw to Joe Crede. After getting ahead of every hitter prior to Crede, then blowing them away with low fastballs, why throw a breaking ball up-and-in there? Just think of the ball he got AJ on. Low fastball, right? I rest my case. That pitch, not the questionable, which really wasn't questionable, call on AJ lost the game for the Angels.

And, after all is said and done, it will end with another Buerhle gem in Game 6. For now, sit back and chill. See ya in the World Series.