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Wednesday, November 14

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Cubs in Five

At Least We Have Barrett
by Jeff Webber

One: Cubs Hoping to Re-Sign Pierre; Cubs in Five Hoping to Re-Contract Stomach Flu
You've got a leadoff batter with a unimpressive on-base percentage, absolutely no power, and unimpressive defense at a key position. He was one of the main sandbags dragging the team down the first few months of the year. His last few seasons show a decline. And yet you've got Paul Sullivan at the Tribune calling for the Cubs to re-sign him long term, even though he feels it may cost double what Pierre made this year ($5.75 million). Did I miss something?

Two: Rich Hill Makes Another AAAA at Pitching
So Rich Hill, the wild, curveball-chucking would-be strikeout artist who has spent most of 2006 creating the prototypical AAAA season (too good for AAA, not good enough for the bigs) is back, and yeah, he's pitching pretty well now (15 strikeouts against only three walks in his last two starts). But I ask you this: even if he does clean up his act and become a serviceable major league pitcher, is he worth more to the Cubs than one of the many talents we were offered for him in the offseason, before a season of shaky major league pitching had tarnished his once shiny prospect glow?

Three: Cesar Izturis, Our New Number Two Hitter — Seriously?
Yeah, he's fast, and yeah he has a few isolated hot streaks in his career that could get your hopes up. But isn't he still a guy with a lifetime .295 on-base percentage? This is why Dusty Baker should be canned. Accepting an out more than 70 percent of the time from your 2-hole hitter just because he's "speedy" is criminally insane.

Four: Michael Barrett Adds Punch
When he's not sucker-punching mouthy baserunners, Michael Barrett has found time to hit an impressive .334 this season, putting up a sterling .390 on-base percentage, and a hefty .542 slugging average. He's on pace for 21 homers and nearly 70 runs batted in despite only starting about 80 percent of the time (the remaining days he's taken off for Henry Blanco, Greg Maddux's personal caddy). Just thank your lucky stars you have a guy like Barrett, because otherwise Dusty would dig up Benito Santiago and run his dessicated corpse out there every day. Y'know, for veteran leadership and moxie.

Five: One Good Piece of News
Well, at least we can grateful for Greg Maddux, who allowed not a single hit in six innings during a rain-interrupted game against the Cincinnati Reds this Sunday. What? Really? Oh yeah, that's right. We suck and we had to trade him away for nothing. (Sigh)

Sox in Five

How High Can You Get With Lowered Expectations?
by Steve Gozdecki

It's a weird question, to be sure, but one that's getting a lot of play this week in the local sports media: should the Chicago White Sox keep trying to win the division, or should they just try to settle for the wild card?

Now granted, these guys need to fill hundreds of column inches and nearly countless hours of broadcast time, but is there really a distinction to be made between playing for first and trying to be the best of the second-place teams? Isn't the goal simply to try to win and win and win, final destination be damned? We'll take a tangential look at these and other burning questions in this week's Sox in Five!

One: No Room for the Broom
For all of the seeming positives coming off of a 6-3 road trip, it was a bit troubling to see the Sox win the first two games of each of their series against the Baltimore Orioles, Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays and then come up short in the series finales. Where is that killer instinct from last year? And can we best the combined forces of the Minnesota Twins and whichever AL East powerhouse (the New York Yankees or Boston Red Sox) that doesn't win the division and at least score a playoff berth via the wild card if we fail to sweep lesser teams like the Royals and Orioles?

Two: Home Sweet Home?
So here we sit, with just under eight weeks of the season to go, with the White Sox tied for the lead in the wild card race after last night's 6-3 loss to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. And the big question goes a little something like this: Is it putting too much pressure on the Sox to suggest that this just-started 11-game home stand will make or break their season? With rivals Detroit and New York coming to town for three-game sets this week, it does indeed appear to be what Chicago sports broadcasting legend Jimmy Shorts would refer to as "gut-check time." And if that seems to be putting too much of an emphasis on a week-and-a-half stretch of games, keep in mind that the Sox have just started a stretch of 24 consecutive games without a day off, which will tax manager Ozzie Guillen as he tries to balance the need to rest players against the need to win ballgames, all while hoping the recent improvement in the starting pitching proves sustainable so he can avoid burning out the bullpen. Say it with me: Gut. Check. Time.

Three: Ow, My Achin' Back!
Bit of worry going on with the left side of the Sox infield lately, with both shortstop Juan Uribe and third baseman Joe Crede missing Sunday's game due to back woes. (Uribe presumably hurt his while riding the pine last week — a brief benching due to his hustle-deficit disorder.) While Crede was back in the lineup last night, Uribe's case may be a bit more serious as he missed his second consecutive game on Monday. Backup shortstop Alex Cintron, it's time to let your dim light shine!

Four: A Journey of a Thousand Miles...
We all know the troubles with Sox starting pitcher Javier Vazquez, right? How he pitches strong through four or five innings, then gets lit up like a Christmas tree? So it was with good reason that we all muttered "Here we go again" after Vazquez lost a shutout bid against the Blue Jays in the fifth inning of Saturday night's game when Troy Glaus jacked one out of the park. But instead, Vazquez hunkered down and went eight innings that night, picking up the win while striking out 13, nearly setting a new career high for the hard-throwing right-hander. For now, this strong performance remains an anomaly in what has otherwise been a lousy summer for the pitcher, but if he can do it again this Thursday night against the Yankees he may yet start to justify the high price we paid for him in trade last winter.

Five: Dr. Strangeball, or How I Need to Stop Worrying and Come to Love the Wild Card
For those of us in the Bud Selig-hating camp, the introduction of the three-division alignment and the wild card playoff team back in 1994 (aka the year there was no post-season) was a dopey case of fixing something that wasn't broke, and has led to a whole lot of post-season baseball being played in the bitter cold of late October via the addition of an extra week of playoff baseball. The tragi-sham-mockery of it all hit home in 1997, when the Florida Marlins became the first wild card team to win the World Series, and then again in the 2002 series, the first to ever feature the wild card from both leagues as the then-Anaheim Angels triumphed over the San Francisco Giants. And in last year's series, of course, the White Sox swept the NL wild card Houston Astros, further adding to my disdain for the accursed thing. Sadly, with the unforeseen and still somewhat incomprehensible success of this year's Detroit Tigers squad, our best hope to see the Sox repeat as world champions is likely to come through the wild card, a circumstance that would almost surely see the Sox squaring off against whichever team wins the AL East. With identical 65-45 records, our Sox are tied with the Red Sox in the race for the consolation prize, and I find myself in the awkward position of hoping we can manage to — gulp! — win the wild card.

Fire in Five

MLS 1 Eurosnobs 0
by Steve Gillies

One: They Chanted USA When a Canadian Scored
Saturday at Toyota Park a team of MLS All-Stars managed to raise a few eyebrows, beating English Premiere League Champions, Chelsea, 1-0. Predictably, the stadium was half full of people wearing Chelsea jerseys, many of them Americans. However, when Dwayne DeRosario unpredictably put the MLS All Stars ahead, a USA chant broke out and I saw many in Chelsea jerseys participating. That's right: Americans in English colors, chanting USA for a Canadian. In addition to all the Chelsea jerseys, I was pleased to see a lot of Fire jerseys, as well as jerseys from all around the MLS. It's kind of surreal to be happy to see someone at the Firehouse in an FC Dallas shirt, but that's the kind of night it was. And if you're one of the people that showed up to a game between players from the MLS and Chelsea wearing a Barcelona, Manchester United, Argentina, or Arsenal shirt, I just have to ask: what is wrong with you?

Two: Is The Win Really a Big Deal?
If you can't tell from the above paragraph and the title of this column, there's something of a culture war among soccer fans in this country (well, among Anglophone soccer fans — Hispanic fans are a whole other issue that I might get into next week when Chivas USA comes to town). On one side you have those who prefer watching the superior quality of the elite European leagues and turn their nose up at what they perceive as the poor level of soccer played in MLS. On the other side you have those who support the homegrown talent of MLS and, you know, actually like going to soccer games. Saturday's result gave a lot of satisfaction to the latter camp and there is a real temptation to overblow the importance of the game. But to keep it in perspective, Chelsea basically treated the game as a glorified practice session while the MLS players treated it like a World Cup match. You can't make the argument that this proves that MLS talent is on a par with the top European leagues. Still, you'd have to be really cranky not congratulate the MLS players on an amazing team effort, especially considering they only practiced together twice. Also, I'd make the argument fans too snobbish to go to MLS matches are letting themselves be ripped off by the touring European giants such as Chelsea, who charge very high ticket prices for games that they treat with so little regard. (My father's been a lifelong Chelsea fan and declined a trip up here to see the game, pointing out that the minimum ticket price was more than the entire 1955 Championship winning season he saw in person; he always tries to see a Fire game when he's in town, though).

Three: This Really Might be a Big Deal Though
So, while the win certainly put a smile on a few MLS fans' faces, you can't say that it will have that much of a long term effect on the league, other than hopefully convincing a few of those guys wearing Chelsea shirts to come back for a Fire game. Earlier in the week something with much bigger ramifications for the league happened, though. Previously, the MLS had paid ESPN for airtime in a risk-sharing agreement. This week, on the heels of very strong World Cup ratings, ESPN bought the rights to televise Major League Soccer games for millions of dollars. The ESPN games will be moved from Saturday afternoons to Thursday nights, with Fox Soccer Channel and HDNET taking over broadcasting the Saturday games. With the network actually paying money for the rights and assuming the costs of the broadcasts, expect them to take the sport a lot more seriously: games broadcast in high definition with a lot more cameras present; a lot fewer preemptions and tape delays; a lot more MLS on SportsCenter and in ESPN: The Magazine. Hopefully this is the start of good things, as long as ESPN execs don't go all crazy and try to "Americanize" the sport by bringing back the NASL-style shootout or anything dumb like that.

Four: How'd the Local Boy Do?
Watching the All Stars perform in the first half, I thought to myself, "Man, this league really does have some good players. It's too bad none of them play for the Fire." Seriously though, about four or five guys from the Fire could have fit into this team and when the second half started, it was great to see Nate Jaqua get the call to represent the locals. He certainly didn't look overawed mixing it up with top class defenders like Ricardo Carvalho and John Terry, showing a lot of composure on the ball. Ultimately I think he might not quite have enough pace for the clubs from Europe to come calling, but he's developed into a very skillful target forward. His best moment of the game, though, came when he sprinted all the way back into his own penalty box to make a crucial slide tackle on Geremi in the 87th minute. It really typified the effort the All Stars were putting into the game.

Five: The Fire Are Still in the US Open Cup — For Now
Yeah, so remember that big Open Cup game I was so excited about last week? It got rained out. They don't have rainouts in soccer for just any old drizzle but five straight hours of lightning did the trick. In fact, I'm pretty sure this is the first time a rainout has actually happened to a Fire game, although there have been some epic rain delays. With officials waiting until well after 11 to make the decision, getting back from Bridgeview was pretty rough. The game is rescheduled for next Monday, August 14, and because of the inconvenience it will feature free parking.

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Comments

Pete / August 8, 2006 6:49 AM

With Pierre and Izturis, Dusty's just honoring the team's storied tradition of leading off with guys who never get on base--just recall that this is the same club that had Ivan DeJesus leading off all the time, including 1981 when he hit .194. But that's okay, right? Because he's a small guy with some speed, so that automatically makes him top of the order material, right? Never mind that most of that speed gets utilized in trotting back to the dugout after making yet another out.

Steve / August 8, 2006 9:10 AM

Heh -- someone on my high school alumni board referred to Izsturis as a "stud." I was all, well I suppose you could stick some nails in him and hope he's strong enough to hold up your drywall, but as a baseball player he's a third quartile starting shortstop at best....

Michelle / August 8, 2006 4:34 PM

Steve, is it a sign of the apocalypse that something worthwhile was imparted by Hawk and DJ? During Sunday's game, side-by-side video was shown of Bad Javy and Good Javy. Seems Don Cooper figgered out Vasquez had been landing his left foot more toward first base than the plate.

Steve / August 9, 2006 11:07 AM

Hawk and DJ always have something useful to impart, be it the distinctions between a ducksnort and a mattabattacola or details on the kind of things Carl Yazstremski liked to do during rain delays.

As for Javy Vazquez's mechanics, you'd hope that a guy who has thrown so many innings at the big league level wouldn't fall into bad habits like that -- or that it would take a dozen consecutive lousy starts to figure it out. Let's hope that this little fix is the cure-all and that Don Cooper can keep his genius tag.

Michelle / August 9, 2006 1:27 PM

I won't embarrass myself by giving the wheres and whyfors, Steve, but I was once in a discussion with a woman who seriously wanted to know what exactly had to be strapped down in order to watch a Sox game (as was directed by Hawk).

Very nice Palehose Six today, by the way.


VinceJose / August 10, 2006 1:40 PM

SteveG, I was going to ask if you knew why Fire games are never in true HD and then I read the ESPN thing. That's amazing. For exposure and HD goodness.

I thought Jaqua looked great out there. Hopefully he'll bring some of that energy back to the team with him. I wish the Fire could finish more of the chances they create and move up in the standings. Thanks for the update.

Some pics from the game on my flickr site: www.flickr.com/photos/vincejose

 

About the Author(s)

Jeff Webber spends hours and hours every day taking in every printed, spoken, and broadcast word he can find about the Chicago Cubs, and each week till the end of the season he's boiling them down into five simple crib notes you can use to stay on top of any watercooler or corner bar Cubs discussion. Send comments to cubs@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gozdecki has been a White Sox fan his entire life, with the exception of an ill-advised flirtation with the 1984 Cubs in the days when his town wasn't wired for cable. Because he swears by the work of the "baseball outsiders," who believe that statistical analysis trumps old truisms like subjective evaluation and team chemistry, he found himself pleasantly surprised when the Sox won it all last year. Each week through the 2006 season, Steve will bring you five crucial talking points you can use the next time someone says, "Hey, how 'bout them Sox?" Send comments to sox@gapersblock.com.

Steve Gillies watches too much soccer to be completely healthy. He's been a Fire fan since he stood in a torrential downpour while the Fire beat New England 6-0 and he realized watching American soccer games in person was a lot better than watching European football matches on television. Each week he'll give you five things to talk about if you happen to get cornered by one of those soccer people at a party. Send comments to fire@gapersblock.com

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