By Rick Firfer
When a team has not reached the playoffs for a decade, and it has been even longer since the team’s last championship, you would think that the team’s fans would have absolutely no reason to rally around the franchise until it once again proved itself worthy. But if the attendance at this year’s sold out SoxFest showed us anything, it was that hope springs eternal when a team has an actual plan for improvement.
The Chicago White Sox last went to the playoffs in 2008, and they last won a World Series in 2005. Before that, the team’s championship drought had lasted almost a century. So, we all know that White Sox fans have to have faith and be in it for the long run if they are going to maintain their loyalty to the team. What, then, caused all the buzz at this year’s SoxFest, the team’s annual fan convention? The belief that owner Jerry Reinsdorf, Senior VP of Operations Kenny Williams and General Manager Rick Hahn have come up with a rebuilding plan that is going to bear serious fruit, that’s what.
For a long time, there was little that White Sox fans could celebrate except an occasional brilliant performance by one of their favorite players, such as Hall of Famers Frank Thomas and Jim Thome. However, neither player was capable of carrying the entire team on his shoulders to a championship. Other outstanding players, such as Paul Konerko, Mark Buerhle and Chris Sale, also tried and failed, for the most part, to will the team to victory, even though their individual performances were exemplary.
So, if you work in the White Sox front office, what do you do to turn things around? Easy. You sell and trade off the assets you have and try to stockpile enough young talent to one day again have a team that can seriously contend for that elusive championship.
In that vein, the White Sox sent Chris Sale, Jose Quintana and other star players away in exchange for hot minor league prospects like Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Dylan Cease and Eloy Jimenez to rejuvenate the team and point the arrow in an upward direction. Fortunately, such bold maneuvering did not go unnoticed by the team’s fan base, leading to a complete resurgence in interest and an uptick in ticket sales for future games. In the minds of their fans, the White Sox are once again a hot commodity.
Given that background, the front office, when planning this year’s SoxFest, obviously realized that what the fans wanted was to see these new young players in the flesh, and to get an opportunity to meet them, get their autographs, and listen to them tell their stories at the seminars and panel discussions. With that in mind, the emphasis this year was to bring in the new guys to meet and greet with the fans and to establish themselves in the fans’ minds as legitimate major leaguers.
Along those lines, Hahn focused his remarks at the SoxFest 2019 press conference on the future of the club and what all these new young players will mean with respect to the team’s anticipated success. He also noted that by building this exciting new core of young players, the team was setting the table for possibly attracting premium free agents to the franchise because they will be able to see a championship on the near horizon.
It was no secret that the White Sox were all in when it came to pursuing top free agents like Bryce Harper and Manny Machado. They didn’t get those guys; however, the fans are still expecting an exciting ride this season and for the foreseeable future. That is why they flocked to SoxFest this year.
And just to show that the team has not forgotten its history, the White Sox also made an effort to bring in all of its living Hall of Famers to mix with the fans. Thus, it was possible to meet, chat with and get autographs from the likes of Carlton Fisk, Tim Raines, Jim Thome, Frank Thomas and the newly-elected Harold Baines. In addition, former All Star shortstop and World Series manager, Ozzie Guillen, made peace with the team after several years of estrangement, and showed up at SoxFest to sign for the fans.
Altogether, a sizable portion of the active roster, along with an impressive number of prospects, came to SoxFest this year. In addition, several alumni, including Dewayne Wise, Greg Sparks, Ron Kittle, Daryl Boston, Darrin Jackson, John Cangelosi, Dan Pasqua and Michael Huff made appearances, as well as manager Rick Renteria and his coaching staff. Team mascot, Southpaw, also spent considerable time wandering around and mixing it up with the fans.
As in the past, the White Sox used a wristband system to dole out autograph opportunities. That meant you had to show up at least an hour before a player’s scheduled autograph or photo op appearance to stand in line and receive a wristband that would allow you to come back at the appointed time and stand in line once again to actually get the autograph or the photo. To make certain that everyone had a chance to get as many autographs and photos as possible, fans were not allowed to have more than one wristband at a time. That way, you were forced to make a choice if two or more of your coveted players were signing at the same time at different autograph stages or posing for photos at that time at one of the photo stages.
In some cases, if you timed it right and the lines for certain players were not too long, you could quickly go through one line, get an autograph, and then zip over to another line and get a different autograph before the second player finished signing. But it wasn’t easy.Instead, what a number of savvy fans did was get their first choice autograph or photo op and then hustle over to the other player’s line and hang around outside the line until he was finished with his formal signing or photo op, and then ask him to sign something while he was walking to his next appearance. Most of the players were very accommodating in that regard and would stop to sign as much as they could before having to move on.
It was also possible to get an extra autograph here and there if you happened to run across a player in the hotel lobby or in one of the corridors. In addition, there were several radio interview booths set up around the venue and many of the players were happy to sign a bunch of autographs or pose for selfies when their interviews were over. Usually, it would be the alumni or minor league prospects, who would take the most amount of time satisfying the fans. The alumni were obviously enjoying being in the limelight again, and the prospects were probably trying to make new friends and build their personal fan bases. Some of the prospects like Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Micker Adolfo and Luis Basabe could not do that, however, because if they stopped to sign anything in the hallways they would have been mobbed. They just had to keep moving.
As always, the seminars and panel discussions were quite informative and gave fans some insight as to how the team is planning its future. There was also some discussion about how the rebuilding plan could be derailed by injuries and other unanticipated events, but there is not much anyone can do about things like Michael Kopech’s Tommy John surgery or Yoan Moncada’s hitting problems. Those things just have to be worked out over time with a lot of effort on the part of the players and coaches alike.
One of the panels that was particularly interesting featured catcher Zach Collins, Kopech, and former outfielder and current team coach Daryl Boston. Each of those guys was a former first round pick in the MLB Draft and they discussed the pressures that come with such status. Boston spoke from the perspective of being a retired player and Kopech from the perspective of a guy who got just a taste of the big leagues before he went down with a major injury. Collins spoke from the position of not yet having played in the majors, but hoping and expecting that this will be his year.
Each of the players on that panel expressed the idea that any guy coming up to the majors has to watch his step and really try to fit in when he gets the call. Being a No. 1 pick may give people lofty expectations for that player, but at the end of the day that player is just another guy trying to fit in and help the team’s chemistry.
Kopech also pointed out how important it can be for a young guy to find himself a veteran to act as a mentor and help him follow the rules. Collins, on the other hand, apparently does not worry too much about those rules because he currently enjoys a reputation for being one of the bigger pranksters in the organization. Collins and Kopech also talked about how important their respective fathers were in helping them develop into professional athletes.
Several of the players were card collectors when they were younger and were not shy about discussing their experiences in the hobby. Jace Fry, for example, grew up in Oregon but was not originally into baseball. He was more interested in becoming a football player, so his collecting interests ran in that direction. His dad did occasionally bring home some baseball cards for him, though, and he eventually became a Clayton Kershaw fan. He also liked Roy Halladay, but the only autographs he got were Larry Czonka and Reggie Bush.
Another player who enjoyed talking about collecting was Yonder Alonso. Alonso was an offseason acquisition by the White Sox, and many think that they acquired him as a lure for his free-agent brother-in-law, Manny Machado. Notwithstanding all the speculation, it is apparent that the White Sox are really high on this guy. Alsonso grew up in Cuba, so he did not have access to very many baseball cards, although he said he did collect cards of himself.
Nowadays, Alonso said he tries to accumulate bats and jerseys from some of the players he respects. He intends to eventually give those items to his son so that his son will hopefully develop an appreciation for the history of the game. As a first baseman, Alonso said that he has the perfect opportunity to approach other teams’ players when they are on first base to propose a future swap of memorabilia. It is easier, he said, than having to run the batboys over to the opposing dugout each time he wants something.
Dewayne Wise, who is now retired as a player, said that he never collected cards but that at the end of his playing career he did start collecting some jerseys and baseballs signed by other players around the league. He also said that one of the players he most admired was Kenny Lofton because he and Lofton were about the same diminutive size and stature in their playing days. And, according to Wise, he once told Lofton that guys their size just had to stick together. Lofton laughed according to Wise.
Finally, we approached Luis Basabe and Luis Robert, two of the White Sox’ hot young Latin prospects, to see what they could tell us about their collecting experience, if any. We quickly learned, however, that our high school Spanish was not going to be enough to get the job done properly. We recruited Leury Garcia, a veteran White Sox outfielder, to help us with the interviews. After that, the interviews went quite well until Garcia started cracking up and we realized he was just making stuff up as he went along.
We laughed with everyone else, but then we got down to business and found out that neither one of the young guys had ever been a collector. So, nothing to report, but it sure was fun getting there.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.