By Drew Stevens (@hismindonpaper)
As far as sports is concerned, my first love was baseball.
But by the summer of 1994, with the Chicago Bulls not far removed from winning their third-straight championship and with the owners of Major League Baseball declaring a strike on their players which ended that season in its tracks, I was not lacking any further justification for abandoning my first love and falling for the National Basketball Association.
So off-putting was it for me, an 11-year-old Chicago White Sox fan who couldn’t wait for the “Good Guys who wore black” to avenge their 1993 American League Championship Series loss to the eventual World Series Champion Toronto Blue Jays (compiling an American League Central-leading 67-46 record at the time of the strike), that my affection could not be recaptured even as the team that still plays a Steve Stone’s throw away from my childhood bedroom window earned World Series glory in 2005.
Flash forward to the present and, ironically enough, the harsh reality of another abbreviated season — this one as a result of a global pandemic, not a financial impasse between owners and players — that once again has my eyes wandering back toward the game my late father and I spent hours together watching.
If stability was needed to draw me back into baseball, this season wouldn’t be very appealing at all.
There won’t be any games played North of the border due to Canada’s valid fear of American Covid cooties. Fans won’t even be given the chance to ignore social distancing practices at the parks because they’re effectively banned as no major United States municipality can say its out of the woods regarding Coronovirus cases.
Also, quite a few boldface names are saying “nope” to the 60-game stretch to salvage 2020, among them is the promising young White Sox pitcher Michael Kopech who likely chose to opt-out of playing amid his personal Coronavirus safety concerns. There’s a good chance this already offbeat campaign will get kookier once the first-ever late July Opening Day commences Thursday, it’ll be a season that bears quite a different appearance from what anyone of us — be they a diehard seamhead or someone returning from a decades-long break — have ever been accustomed to.
Though three-months behind schedule, this regular season is no-less chockful of juicy storylines and potential plot twists, including how will managers grapple with the frenetic pace of their respective teams playing 60 ballgames in 67 days without much cushion for error if a postseason berth is to be secured. Or, how the first couple of weeks of play could cause a playoff contender to plunge toward the bottom of the standings and the unlikeliest of teams to be flung ahead of its division or just where exactly will the Toronto Blue Jays play their “home” games after the Canadian federal government rejected a plan that would have allowed them to continue to use their home Rogers Centre?
For this now 37-year-old who still seeks reconciliation with the team for whom his former idol, Robin Ventura, once played and managed, the crux of this season will be watching the White Sox expectant maturation from an also-ran with over a decade-long postseason drought to a legitimate American League Central contender. My renewed interest in the South Siders seems apropos given their combination of lively personalities — from the likes of Tim Anderson to veterans just arriving (Edwin Encarnacion) and well-established on the South Side (Jose Abreu) melding with compelling young talent like Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert.
Considering his continued growth it wouldn’t be far-fetched to peg Anderson as an AL Most Valuable Player candidate. Still, the gregarious shortstop who boasted a major league-best batting average a season ago wasn’t even the best player, statistically speaking, on the team in 2019. That honor belonged to third baseman Yoan Moncada, who after a period of uncertainty rejoined the Sox last week after testing positive for the Coronavirus.
Supplying even more muscle to the heart of their lineup is arguably the best catcher in baseball in Yasmani Grandal, who was acquired via free agency in November, a move that signaled the Sox overdue establishment as a welcome destination for talent on the open market.
The previously mentioned Robert has put on a show during summer camp scrimmages and the recent exhibitions with the Cubs, splendidly slapping pitches around Guaranteed Rate Field and drawing early comparisons to Los Angeles Angels five-tool stud Mike Trout from Jimenez.
Its looking like the South Siders could have a surplus in offensive firepower and that’s not even factoring in a possibly revamped starting pitching rotation headed by Cy Young hopeful Lucas Giolito and solidified with the additions of ultra-experienced hurlers Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez.
The White Sox have as good a reason as any team in baseball to carry forth into the uncharted territory of the 2020 season with optimism. Hell, they’ve already won back this fan’s favor and they’ve made it count.
Drew Stevens is a writer based in Chicago