Commentary

Heroes traded, but memories stay

Classy veterans Thome, Contreras depart for playoff contenders

Originally Published: September 1, 2009
By Jon Greenberg | ESPNChicago.com

Call it the White Cocktail Napkin trade.

Trading, well, practically giving Jim Thome to the Los Angeles Dodgers and Jose Contreras to the Colorado Rockies has been linked to the infamous 1997 White Flag trade for the Chicago White Sox. Both veterans were dealt for minor league players, and the smallness of the return -- and, some would say, of the departed -- made it feel as if general manager Kenny Williams sealed these deals at a hotel bar, scribbling on whatever paper was nearby.

Or maybe it was the White Memo Trade.

Just before the deals were consummated, it was leaked that the White Sox had drawn up a memo sent to the rest of the majors declaring it open season on a handful of available veterans for the Aug. 31 playoff deadline. The subject line might as well have been: Everything Must Go!

So it wasn't a surprise that the two classy veterans packed their bags at the Metrodome and set sail for playoff contenders in the NL West. And I wouldn't say Williams was guilty of giving up with 30 games left in the season and his team four games under .500 and six back of Detroit. After the past two weeks or so, it looks as if his team beat him to the punch.

Unless Ozzie Guillen brings out the take-a-piece-with-every-win cardboard cutout of Jerry Reinsdorf, a la the movie "Major League," it's doubtful to anyone who was watched, or managed, a Sox game this season that the team has what it takes to erase its deficit in the division.

[+] EnlargeJim Thome
Ron Vesely/Getty ImagesJim Thome endeared himself to White Sox fans by hitting the home run that put the South Siders in the playoffs in 2008 when they won the AL Central.

Yes, I know the Sox made up ground in a hurry last year in their desperate race to the AL Central crown, but after dropping two of three to Baltimore at home, and losing seven of their first eight in a 10-game road trip to Boston, New York and Minnesota, it's obvious that this team doesn't have that same magic. It could barely stay above .500 all season. The bullpen looks spent and the hitters world-weary.

Still, these two have a history in Chicago. It was Thome who hit the game-winning home run against Minnesota on Oct. 1 to clinch the division last year, a 461-foot solo shot in a 1-0 win at home. It was the first time he had been in the playoffs since 2001. He will make it two in a row this year with the Dodgers, serving as a left-handed pinch hitter.

Contreras won a World Series ring and, in the second half of 2005 and the first half of 2006, was the best pitcher in baseball. The language barrier prevented him from being a total superstar in this city.

Thome rescinded his no-trade rights to go to Los Angeles, but he didn't seem too thrilled to be leaving a team he had grown comfortable being around. He spoke to his teammates, but not to the traveling corps of beat writers who are quite fond of Big Jim. When I asked one writer whether he thought Thome was choked up or angry, the scribe said, probably both.

For all Thome's aw-shucks, everything's "neat" demeanor, he's an intensely proud, competitive individual. He works his achy back out for more than an hour every day just to be ready to hit four or five times a game. Thome wants to get to 600 homers (he has 564), and he's not going to get there as the first left-handed stick off anyone's bench. He can get mad. When he got tossed from a game last year, Paul Konerko said it was "like watching your dad get angry." Konerko was 32 at the time, which says a lot about Thome's clubhouse rep.

Both Thome and Contreras have done a lot for this organization, and the quixotic in me thinks they should have gone out at home, to the cheers of the White Sox faithful. Well, the 15,000 that will be attending games in September, anyway. I even heard some radio folks, in all seriousness, refer to the "Jim Thome era" Tuesday. Almost four seasons, one playoff appearance; it's not quite the Michael Jordan era or the Age of Enlightenment, but I guess you could call nearly four years of being a designated hitter an "era," if you so desire.

I liked Jim. Everyone did. He was real, and for a lot of the baseball romantics among us, he represented everything that is old-fashioned and pure about the game. Thome had as good a year as a reasonable person could expect from a 39-year-old power hitter with the back of Moose Skowron. He hit .249, with an on-base percentage of .372, to go with 23 homers and 74 RBIs. those are pretty good numbers, but on the flip side, he gave you no flexibility.

He couldn't play first base or right field. Now Guillen, who's probably a few days from a verbal meltdown (Thankfully, he's the last sports motormouth without a Twitter account), can mix and match his array of poor defensive players in that role for the rest of the month.

[+] EnlargeJose Contreras
Ron Vesely/Getty Images)Jose Contreras might have left under less-than-ideal circumstances, but he did help the White Sox win the World Series in 2005.

Although Thome was still pretty good, Contreras, laughably listed at 37-going-on-38 years old, was downright awful, 5-13 with a 5.42 ERA. He should get credit for defying time and Western medicine by coming back from a ruptured Achilles tendon by the start of spring training. When he injured himself last summer, the conventional wisdom was that he wouldn't pitch until May, at the earliest. He looked healthier this year, slim enough to fit into an array of garish suits that would embarrass pimp-turned-author Iceberg Slim.

But on the mound, if he looked more like a 70-something Minnie Minoso than like Cuban warrior "El Titan de Bronce," as Fidel Castro called him, he should get a kernel of understanding. Everyone knew his Sox career was over, so giving up Contreras wasn't giving up hope for September.

Williams won't be available to the media until Friday, a day after his team meets the equally disappointing Cubs in the highly anticipated makeup game at Wrigley Field ("The Fall Down Classic"), so we won't know his take on these deals until then. And you can be guaranteed Williams will tell it like it is. After all, he's the one who called the team he put together "underachieving" a few weeks ago. Right now, he's visiting the minor league affiliates, possibly listening to a Green Day song in his rented car: "Wake Me Up When September Ends."

There's a notion out there that these deals cheated the Sox fans, that they should boycott the rest of the team's home games. I wonder when this sense of fan entitlement became rooted in Chicago? Is it because the games are so expensive? That's probably a major cause. We measure everything in dollars and cents. But really, if fans are going to protest, I think these moves shouldn't be the reason. This team needs to get younger, more athletic, more flexible, all things that are the antithesis of these two players.

But for those fans who just love baseball, they still have a right to be angry about deals like these, if only because it all but seals the reality that this month will be meaningless. September 2008, 2005 -- those were fun times. But they're just memories now, like Big Jim and the Big Cuban.

Still, this year wasn't all bad. Remember a month or two ago, when the Sox were considered dangerous? They won series against the Dodgers, the Angels and the Yankees. Gordon Beckham was on fire, now he's colder than Brian Anderson's major league prospects. Mark Buehrle was perfect, now he's putrid. Jake Peavy was rehabbing, now he's, well, still rehabbing thanks to an unlucky ball-meets-elbow accident. Alex Rios was unable to help the team snap out of its hitting funk. Indeed, he's been as useful as a salad is to Bartolo Colon.

I could've sworn this team had "it," if only for a second. Not to win the World Series or anything so ludicrous, but to stay relevant until the end. I really thought, despite their ugly attempts at defense, that the Sox could overtake the Tigers down the stretch. But, like their neighbors to the north, they didn't have whatever it takes to hold on. Maybe it was the bullpen, maybe it was the hitters, maybe it was the coaches. Really, it was a mix of everything.

As you might have noticed, I'm writing in past tense because, like Williams, I think it's time to throw in the white napkin. This is your White Memo, White Sox fans. Have a good fall and a warm winter. This team could be dangerous in the spring. Until then, try the Bears.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.

Jon Greenberg

Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com. He has lived and worked in Chicago since 2003, and is a graduate of Ohio University and the University of Chicago.

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