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If the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t raging, the boys would be back in town this week for SoxFest. We’d see various White Sox in uniform around the community, appearing at schools or staging charity events drumming up anticipation for the weekend’s ceremonies. Personally, I’d be waiting for the photos of various White Sox members calling season ticket holders, hoping somebody would finally top Erik Johnson as The Guy Most Struggling To Meet His Quota.
(Just kidding. Nobody will look more under the gun than Johnson did.)
It’s a shame the most exciting White Sox season since 2006 won’t have a proper SoxFest to build up the hype. The sting is slightly lessened by the Sox deciding to cancel it all the way back in late September, so there never a time where fans could hope to meet Lance Lynn and the other major offseason acquisitions. The circumstances have been baked into the winter, no different from any other facet of American life.
Regardless of actual disappointment registered, we’re still missing out on a number of compelling developments. SoxFest will never be what it was during the Kenny Williams/Ozzie Guillen era, because the panel members aren’t as combative, and the Sox priced out the fans who came girding their loins for battle. The takeaways are more subtle. Introductions. Injury updates. Charisma checks. Nuts-and-bolts player development stuff. Throughout the panels, temperature gauges for fans who are generally more conversant in wins without the “above replacement.” In a normal year, the results won’t make for great back-page, big-type fodder. They’re more notes to file away for supplementing future pieces.
Even if you set COVID-19 aside, this wouldn’t have been a normal year. The White Sox have been active, with a touch of radioactive, and the acquisitions haven’t sat in the same room as the people asking questions, be they media members or fans. Were somehow all pandemic restrictions lifted in time for the summit at McCormick Place this weekend, I could think of numerous press conferences and panels around which I’d hover with my recorder for immediate tweets and later posts.
Rick Hahn: Conquering hero, or why haven’t you spent?
I’ve conditioned myself to expect Hahn to receive more favorable reviews than his track record suggests is warranted, because Kenny Williams tends to get the blame for players who don’t work out, and Jerry Reinsdorf is invoked for the megadeals the White Sox have avoided. After a postseason appearance in 2020 and more additions than the rest of the AL Central in 2021 bolstering one of baseball’s most exciting rosters, this is the first time he’d enter the forum with an on-field accomplishment to show for his work. He’d probably ride high.
That said, with weeks passing since the last move, other American League teams starting to stock up and visible gaps remaining on the roster, I could imagine a light grilling about the inability to sign a starter, backup catcher or DH.
Tony La Russa: How would it go?
Credit where credit’s due: Reinsdorf picked a great winter to retangle his chain of command by strongarming his front office into installing Tony La Russa as manager. Rick Hahn and company have declined to offer live comments about the decision since the remarkably muted introduction. During the DUI debacle, they first hid behind the legal process while La Russa prepared a guilty plea to lesser charges. Afterward, they rushed out a press release and threw La Russa in front of the media, and that’s been that.
With no SoxFest, everybody can kinda cruise to spring training, where speculation will reignite as the new old manager meets his new young players. I think that particular concern will be overblown, but I still wonder whether a terrible start would reveal the fault lines underneath a suboptimal arrangement.
As for the topic at hand, I have no clue how La Russa would’ve been received at SoxFest, if the White Sox would have let the public receive him at all. It’d be weird not to — the manager’s supposed to be one of the public faces of the whole enterprise — but nothing’s a given with the Sox owning the league’s weirdest leadership situation. I can see the Fans With Fond Memories Party forming a coalition with the Fans Who Don’t Care and outnumbering the Advocates of Normal Interview Processes and Those Angered By Multiple DUI Charges, just because most people don’t pay good money to be mad at SoxFest. But I could also see it the other way, and I wonder if the Sox would just make sure to shield him from the most public of events to make sure the headlines focus on the right guys.
Adam Eaton: How would it go?
Speaking of the cncept of “right guys,” Eaton had been a fan favorite at previous SoxFests because he loves to talk and interacts well with kids. But he didn’t get a chance to return to this particular arena thanks in part to his attachment to Adam LaRoche’s kid. The White Sox traded him to Washington the following winter, and based on the lukewarm response his signing generated, I’d be curious whether that skepticism is strong enough to manifest at a fan fest. My sense is that he’d need a rebound season to turn the tides, with fans wanting him to take a back seat to the rebuild’s major players.
Would Michael Kopech show?
Last year, Kopech unofficially opened SoxFest by getting his flaxen locks clipped for charity. He was coming off a public battle with anxiety, a full year away from MLB competition thanks to Tommy John surgery, and newly married. Everything culminated in him looking and feeling like a different person.
I find it unwise to speculate about somebody who has been involved in more public turmoil since 2018 than most people will face through 2118. But that also means if Kopech can pack that many life changes in three years, it feels a little rash to start mapping out his course for the next three months. I’d recommend charting expectations on a weekly basis, which is why I’d also recommend the White Sox signing one more pitcher.
Liam Hendriks: Immediate fan favorite?
If you didn’t see it, AJ Mithen posted in Shop Talk quotes from Hendriks’ conference call with the Australian media. It’s similar to how he presented himself to Chicago reporters, and I think it’s a personality that will play well with Sox fans when the two sides get a chance to interact. Of course, closers need to have short memories because fans are slow to forget blown saves, so he’ll eventually have to back up his talk when the rubber meets the spikes. Until then, talking is all Hendriks can contribute, and he does that pretty well.
Scouting and player development questions
Realheads know that the panels with Chris Getz, Mike Shirley and Marco Paddy offer the highest rate of nutritive answers that can be applied to the developments of the future season, mostly since they spend the whole season operating at a distance. Those answers would even more informative this time around, because the cancellations of the minor league seasons and disruption of the amateur circuits removed the bulk of the club’s prospects and potential targets from the public eye, save the occasional brief glimpse at Schaumburg. This time around, they’d be telling us things nobody could see. Would they be accurate reflections of what they actually saw? That’s what spring training and the resumption of lower-level baseball are for.
A formal radio transition
Ed Farmer was an intractable presence in the White Sox radio booth, and just as much of a fixture at SoxFest, where he could lead panels down tangents few thought possible. Farmer died near the start of the COVID-19 shutdown, and so he never got the kind of public send-off that somebody with his connections deserved. The convention would have been an appropriate occasion for a retroactive memorial, especially since it would’ve served the dual purpose of introducing Len Kasper to the customer base.
I imagine while some fans might harbor enough anti-Cubs resentment to put Kasper on the defensive, it’d be a largely celebratory affair. There’s the possibility for some red meat — another round of questions about Kasper’s decision to move south, fans seeing if they can make him squirm with Cubs insults or other loyalty tests — but it would’ve been more about adjusting to hearing Kasper’s voice trying to get White Sox fans excited about White Sox players and seeing what his interactions with Jason Benetti might foreshadow for future projects.
Instead, we’re all going to go into spring training cold a few weeks from now, unless the Sox reveal some alternate programming for the weekend. We’ll be going that route ourselves. In lieu of the SoxFest Afterparty we stage with the fine folks from Section 108, Josh and I will be participating in the live 108fest, with specifics to come.