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If you were to attempt to measure your reaction to the White Sox’s winning the AL Central based on cues from team personnel, you might have felt the urge to suppress your excitement. Well, well, well before the game, Rick Hahn set the bar higher, telling reporters back in January that when it came to assessing the feeling of offseason accomplishment that they’d need to “ask me after the parade.” The only thing that particularly punctuated the victory on the field was a Liam Hendriks scream, but he explodes in a war cry when he can’t find the rosin bag.
After the game, Tim Anderson acknowledged excitement in his monotone, made sure to mention the tasks on the to-do list any time he acknowledged the satisfaction in a division title.
But when they got off the field and into the clubhouse, it became evident that artifice lacked alcohol-resistant properties. You know you have a wild success on your hands when Jerry Reinsdorf directly responds to questions from reporters plural*, after years of relaying messages through the one who is happiest to launder them. With the division title in hand, he could talk about how he didn’t need to be talked into a rebuild. How he knew it was going to pay off. How he knew Tony La Russa was the right man for the job.
(*The questions were asked by a pool reporter, which still represents progress assuming the pool reporter wasn’t Bob Nightengale.)
The White Sox had never made the postseason two years in a row in their entire miserable history. Now they have. Was one of those seasons only 60 games long, and featured a nosedive into third place over the final two weeks? Sure, but just like José Abreu’s MVP award, there’s no real purpose in trafficking in technicalities. It matters for historical context, but considering the pandemic is still evolving, we could only wish to be far enough removed from it for said context to require reminders.
I’d guess that most baseball fans wouldn’t have guessed the Sox had never played in consecutive Octobers, just because the probability requires scientific notation. Hendriks provided a real-time example of somebody who wasn’t previously aware wrapping his mind around it:
It came in the first half of a doubleheader, which in 2021, means the franchise’s first division title in 13 years and first playoff berth in back-to-back years ever came with the final out of the seventh inning.
“Which, blows my mind by the way,” Hendriks said of the lack of back-to-back appearances.
At one point in the not-too-distant past, a division title didn’t seem like that big of a deal. The White Sox won it in 2000, 2005 and 2008, which was ahead of the raw 1-in-5 likelihood of finishing atop a five-team AL Central. A lot of White Sox fans can remember this period, and so there’s an urge to treat it like a return to old standards.
Then again, 13 years is a long time for fan bases. That’s enough to create an entire new generation of fans who need a major success in order to re-establish enthusiasm. They might remember the shape of the 2008 season and having a Carlos Quentin shirsey, but if their summers were anything like mine as a kid, they were playing baseball, softball or other sports, and had their own wins and losses to negotiate. The length of a baseball season is great for kids because it’s always there when they have spare moments, but following a 162-game season start to finish is a lot easier to fit into a standard adulthood routine.
I’d say that 13 years feels even longer now in 2021. Here’s what Sox Machine looked like when the White Sox clinched in 2008.
I have to use a screenshot because the platform the site ran on lost support years ago. Notice the MySpace link at the top. Facebook had only recently overtaken it, and it’d be another season before the White Sox used their Twitter account. This is how they broke the ice on that platform, foreshadowing the postseason drought to come.
The Ken Williams who was working actual phones in 2009 is still there in 2021, as is Hahn and Reinsdorf and everybody else with an office. They might adopt a posture as though the rebuild was a lock to materialize in postseason appearances, the division title is just the start, etc., but there’s an undercurrent of relief weakening the façade. Everybody involved needed this a little too much to pretend they’re above it.
Which is fine! Great, even! If you need a postseason tournament to validate your enjoyment of the six months that came before, that’s a lousy bet. Even if October is truly a crap shoot, the White Sox have that aforementioned string of 119 unsuccessful dice rolls illustrating how probability makes a terrible savior.
The Twins are a cautionary tale on a couple of fronts. The preseason favorites could very well finish the season in the cellar, and while some Minnesotans might’ve thought that it’d be better to miss out on October rather than extend their 18-game postseason losing streak further, losing hard and fast drains everything so quickly, especially in a business climate that insists on extracting the most dollars per fan.
The Twins averaged 109,000 TV households per game in 2019, and a still-robust 93,000 last season. That number has dipped to 49,000 this season — nearly cut in half from last year and more than cut in half from the last full season two years ago.
“That’s a significant decline. … We have seen historically some major swings up or down,” St. Peter said, noting that the team saw a 65% increase in TV ratings in 2019 when the Bomba Squad was leading the Twins to a 101-win season. “The number one driving force in that is the win-loss record, and unfortunately which has been well-documented on this show, the 2021 season had not played out the way we all had thought. … Clearly the 2021 season has been a challenge on all fronts. There’s no getting around that that’s really the driving force in terms of interest level in teams. It certainly drives attendance at Target Field, it drives our listenership across our radio network and yes it drives our viewership on Bally Sports North.”
The White Sox want sustainable success that makes a division title a foregone conclusion, but they can’t say they’re there yet, even if time could reveal such a stance as laughably conservative. The Sox just won the division in a cakewalk despite a bunch of injuries to key players and a below-median payroll. What might it look like when they have full seasons of Luis Robert and Eloy Jiménez while spending $160 million like a real first-division organization? They could be a demoralizing force like the Cleveland clubs of the late 1990s.
But the Sox still have other feats to accomplish before they get to that point. For instance, just winning the ALDS would register as a massive success, given that it’d be the Sox’s first postseason series victory in 16 years, and just their fourth season with one ever. Then there’s the matter of making consecutive postseasons over standard 162-game grinds. In between, their carefully built plans will have to endure a potentially destabilizing negotiation for a new collective bargaining agreement, which upset their previous attempt at establishing the franchise’s first-ever glory days 27 years ago.
The more you dwell on what the White Sox have yet to accomplish, the smaller a division title can seem. But after failing to clear that bar 12 years straight, it became too important for the White Sox to pretend they could ever ignore it, and neither should anybody who derives joy from their successes. Look no further than the inconsequential second game of Thursday’s doubleheader, which ended with a walk-off victory for Cleveland.
Oscar Mercado’s teammates greeted him at home plate with a water-bottle shower and jersey-pulling mob. Afterward, the White Sox took the field to take a division champs photo, complete with commemorative t-shirts and goggles to protect from the sting of suds.
As the White Sox’s Twitter account — way more active than it was in 2008 — says, it could be just the beginning. I’m inclined to evaluate a division title and what comes after as separate objectives. The fact that the White Sox were finally the team throwing champagne, beers and maybe even the Champagne of Beers instead of water stands as an achievement on its own, because a lot of White Sox fans are new to seeing it for themselves, especially from a position of deep investment. It might be only September instead of October, but it works for now, because now is September.
(Photo by Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports)