By Rick Firfer
In a watershed moment last year, Rick Hahn, general manager of the Chicago White Sox, pulled the trigger on one of the most important trades ever made by the franchise.
He traded the team’s top player, potential Hall of Fame pitcher Chris Sale, for a boatload of minor league prospects, including baseball’s then-No. 2 overall prospect, Yoan Moncada, as well as the hardest throwing pitcher in the minors, Michael Kopech.
He followed that up by trading the team’s top outfielder, Adam Eaton, and several other front-line players for additional highly ranked prospects. Building on the base he created with those trades, Hahn also drafted a number of highly regarded high school and college players. By the time he was done, Hahn had turned the White Sox farm system into the highest ranked farm system in baseball.
Given the dire status of the White Sox since the team’s World Series victory in 2005, it was not surprising to see that many long-time fans were losing hope and faith in the team. But all of a sudden, due to Hahn’s rebuilding plan, fans have been reassessing their interest in the team and paying attention to what is going on. Certainly, as the 2017 season showed, the turnaround in team fortunes was not going to be immediate.
Even 2018 does not look that promising. But what about 2019 and beyond, when the majority of the talented newcomers will have reached the Show and gained some solid major league experience?
Thinking about the answer to that question has created a solid buzz among the team’s fans lately and appears to have finally restored their missing hope and faith.
With that as background, the 26th annual White Sox Fan Convention, commonly known as Soxfest, opened for business on a blustery, cold Friday night in late January at the Chicago Hilton Hotel. Fans poured in from all over the Chicago area to a sold-out convention that featured appearances by almost half the members of the current White Sox active roster, as well as a dozen highly touted prospects, the manager and his coaching staff, and three Hall of Famers, Carlton Fisk, Tim Raines and Frank Thomas. Also in attendance were several other former major leaguers affiliated with the team, including Harold Baines, Ron Kittle, Chris Getz, Bo Jackson, Ken Harrelson, Steve Stone, Ed Farmer and Darrin Jackson.
From the moment the Opening Ceremony began on Friday, until the last panel discussion concluded on Sunday, it was apparent that the 2018 Soxfest should have been called the “2018 LoveFest.” The introduction of the players and staff at the Opening Ceremony resulted in a lot of whooping and hollering, with even the front office execs feeling the love.
The most poignant moment of the evening, however, was provided by a video showing the moment that Jim Thome and his family received the recent telephone call from the Baseball Writers Association of America informing them that Thome had been elected to the baseball Hall of Fame. There were a lot of tears from the fans as they listened to Thome, one of baseball’s truly nice guys, expressing his gratitude for the call and the news of his election. In a separate video addressed directly to the fans, Thome apologized for not being able to attend Soxfest this year due to all the responsibilities that have come his way because of his election to the Hall.
Once the Opening Ceremony was out of the way, the fans got down to the real business at hand – collecting autographs. As previously reported, the method used by the White Sox to provide player autographs at Soxfest is probably the fairest and most efficient of all the methods used at the various fan conventions. What they do is announce in advance which players will be appearing at which autograph locations, and at what time. They also announce exactly how many autographs each player will sign and then they issue different colored wristbands for each autograph session, giving out only enough wristbands to equal the announced limit of autographs for that session. And they limit each fan to one wristband at a time, so that people cannot load up on wristbands in the hope that they can run from autograph stage to autograph stage and be guaranteed an autograph at each location.
In order to give the hard core fans a real shot at getting multiple autographs in a fair manner, however, the White Sox did stagger the timing of the sessions so that they did not all begin and end at the same time. Thus, you could get in line for an 11 a.m. autograph session with one player, and then, after receiving your autograph and having the wristband cut off, you could run over to an 11:30 a.m. session and if all those wristbands had not yet been given out, you could hop in that line and get another autograph. If both sessions had started at 11 a.m., your chance of getting both signatures would have been severely diminished.
Also, the team made sure to double up players at some of the sessions so that you could get two autographs with the same wristband and not have to run to a second stage to get both of those players.
Many of the players were also scheduled at multiple sessions over the three days of the convention, and in those cases where there were multiple players at a single session, the pairings were not always the same. By mixing it up that way, the team was giving fans the best opportunity to obtain the maximum number of autographs. They also took into account the difficulty that youngsters sometimes have when trying to compete against adults for autographs, so they set up a “Kids Only” autograph stage where the youngsters would not be intimidated when snaking through the lines or going up on the stage with the players. The kids also had a photo stage devoted solely to them so that they did not have to compete with the adults at the two regular photo stages. And for the record, several of the players at the photo stages were kind enough to sign some autographs for the fans if circumstances warranted it. Mainly, they would do this for the kids and the fans with special needs.
In addition to the autograph and photo stages, Soxfest also provided numerous seminars and panel sessions for the serious fans who wanted to hear from management about what the future looked like for the franchise, or, in other cases, wanted the players to give them some insight into what it is like to be a major league ballplayer or even a minor-leaguer clawing their way to the top.
Some of these sessions were very serious in regard to the topics covered by the speakers, but others were funny or lighthearted. For example, at a panel consisting of several younger players and prospects, veteran pitcher Carlos Rodon took the stage first and, out of earshot of the other players, urged the fans in the room to give a rousing welcome as each panel member was introduced, except for outfielder Nicky Delmonico. As a prank, Rodon asked the fans to remain absolutely silent when Delmonico was introduced.
When the players were then introduced one by one, they each received a raucous ovation. But Delmonico’s introduction was met with a long, stony silence. As a consequence, Delmonico stormed off the stage and exited the room. Someone from the team had to run after him and explain it was a prank so that he would come back to the panel. The odds are, however, that it was a double prank and that Delmonico was in on it all the way.
Although the autograph stages were the best places to get player autographs, they were not the only places where the fans could score a signature. As mentioned above, some fans also got autographs at the photo stages, and others were fortunate enough to bump into various players as they were being escorted around the hotel. Requests for autographs in such circumstances were almost always honored by the players, so long as the fans kept walking with them. In some cases, however, the players would be mobbed and they would just have to stand or sit with their back against the wall and try to bring order out of chaos as they signed for everyone.
Players participating in the hitting and pitching clinics for the kids were also generally kind enough to stick around after their sessions and sign for fans on the side. And, if they had time, panel participants would also stand off to the side of the stage and honor autograph requests when their sessions were finished.
As a consequence of the players’ overwhelming friendliness, most fans at Soxfest were able to get virtually every signature they came for. The only real limitation the fans had was in getting the Hall of Famers’ signatures, because everyone wanted those and there just wasn’t enough time to satisfy all the requests. And, in some cases, it was announced that certain players had contractual limitations on what they could and could not sign.
For example, Bo Jackson and Carlton Fisk were not able to sign memorabilia. They could only sign team-supplied photos or photos of themselves posed with the fans. And Tim Raines was only allowed to sign a special baseball provided by the team as part of a premium Soxfest package.
Prior to the official start of Soxfest, many of the participating players sat down with the media to discuss the team, their respective careers and the excitement they felt about being at Soxfest. Since most of these were one-on-one discussions, we had the opportunity to ask some of these players whether they currently collect baseball cards, autographs or other memorabilia, or whether, possibly, they collected when they were kids. Surprisingly, almost every one of the players we talked to was, or at one time had been, a collector. Not every one of them collects or collected the same thing, but every one that does or did collect gave essentially the same reasons for collecting: to preserve the memories of their careers or to honor the careers of players whom they admired, or both.
Blake Rutherford freely admitted that he was an avid card collector when he was growing up on the West Coast. He and his dad collected together, looking especially for pre-autographed cards, which were their favorites. Rutherford said that they still have all of those old cards at home, and they are in particularly good shape because the cards were usually taken right out of the packs and put directly into plastic sleeves.
Although he grew up in Los Angeles, Rutherford was a Yankees fan as a kid and his favorite player was, of course, Derek Jeter. His dad did take him to Angels games, though, so he could chase autographs from whoever was in town. As a result of that experience, Rutherford said that he now enjoys signing autographs for his fans.
Delmonico also collected baseball cards as a kid, and, unlike everyone else’s mom, his mother did not throw his cards away. She still has them at home. Delmonico grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee and rooted for the Atlanta Braves. Naturally, his favorite player was Chipper Jones, but he also liked Jeter and Ken Griffey, Jr. He saves as much of his own career memorabilia as he can and hopes to display it all in his home when his career is over. He likes signing autographs for his fans, especially the little kids because of the shy smiles he gets. The first time Delmonico saw himself on a baseball card, he said it was a dream come true and completely surreal.
Jake Burger, an infield prospect that the White Sox have high hopes for, also collected trading cards, mainly baseball and hockey. He has so many that he keeps them in a bucket that is 5 feet wide. His favorite players were Chipper Jones and two White Sox stalwarts, Thome and Paul Konerko. Having grown up in the St. Louis area, he naturally rooted for the Cardinals and often went to the ballpark to try to get whatever autographs he could. He said his first baseball card was a Panini USA Stars and Stripes card and that he was thrilled the company sent him several samples so he could give some to his family and share the excitement.
One White Sox prospect who had a leg up on collecting was Gavin Sheets, because his dad is Larry Sheets, a pretty solid major leaguer in his own right. Larry used to let Gavin tag along with him to games and various other events where Gavin had the opportunity to interact with his dad’s major league friends and get autographs and souvenirs. He liked being around Earl Weaver in particular, and enjoyed it when he got to hang out with the Orioles players.
He not only collected contemporary cards, but he also had the opportunity to sort through and save scads of cards from the 1940s and 1950s that were given to him by older relatives. He estimates that he still has about 10 to 12 large boxes of cards at home.
Sheets is also saving memorabilia from his professional career and hopes to eventually display it all in a rec room at home. One of the things he has most enjoyed about being with the White Sox organization is being able to meet some of the icons whose careers he followed, like Tim Raines and Buddy Bell, both of whom work for the Sox organization. The first time he saw himself on a baseball card, he had a very unusual reaction. Instead of being awestruck like most of the other players, Sheets said that seeing his image on the card just brought home to him the fact that this – baseball – was how he was going to be making his living as an adult.
Finally, it bears repeating that the seminars and panel discussions were really the backbone of Soxfest. While many of the fans spent the preponderance of their time standing in autograph lines, the knowledgeable fans attended seminars to soak up the inside stuff about their team and its chances. And many of the stories told at those discussions were quite enlightening, whether they were serious stories or not.
One of those stories was told by pitching coach Don Cooper. It was about Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez and Jose Contreras, two former Cuban players who left their native country to come to America to play in the major leagues. Although they were friends and teammates on the 2005 White Sox World Series championship team, the way they came to America was very different. So, one day, when Contreras was hailing the fact that they were fellow Cubans with much the same life experiences, Hernandez turned to Contreras and said, essentially, “Not the same. I came here by boat. It took several days and we did not know if we would survive. You came here on an airplane, first class.”
Hernandez was not trying to put Contreras down, he was just emphasizing how great were the sacrifices made by those who wanted freedom so they could play the game they loved the way they thought it should be played. No wonder the game of baseball is often thought of as a metaphor for life.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.