- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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CHICAGO -- By the time he arrived at U.S. Cellular Field on Monday, there were about 40 e-mails in his firstname.lastname@example.org account.
"All bad ones," said Guillen. "Maybe three say, 'Hang in there. ... You're OK. ... You're the best.'"
"'You [stink].' ... 'It's your fault.' ... 'I know you're gonna choke,'" he said.
This is what happens when you divulge your e-mail address to a national magazine and then watch in disbelief as your team becomes the centerpiece of a September vulture convention. The latest Chicago White Sox face plant: a 7-5 loss to the Cleveland Indians, who scored the tying and go-ahead runs in the eighth inning and now trail Guillen's team by only 2½ games.
As recently as Aug. 1 the White Sox were so far ahead of everyone else in the AL Central that you needed Mapquest to find them. They owned the best record in baseball, were 15 games ahead of the second-place Indians and seemingly had nothing to worry about other than perfecting their champagne-spraying technique.
Since then they've had a posture problem, slumping at the exact moment the Indians became the '27 Yankees. Cleveland began shaving away the White Sox lead as though it were peach fuzz. Fifteen games became 12 by mid-August, then seven by late August, then five in mid-September, then a scant 3½ games entering Monday evening's series opener. So thick was the angst here, that you could cut it with a grilled bratwurst.
The White Sox are going to make the playoffs, but just barely, and only because they were good enough to lap the field nearly eight weeks ago. Now they aren't so good or, more precisely, aren't as good.
"Some people treat my team like we're a piece of crap," said Guillen.
This is totally unfair ... and totally predictable. What did Guillen expect, a group hug? This is the same guy who, in typical Ozzie honesty, said of his team five days ago, "We flat-out stink."
Remember, this city is one of the founding fathers of baseball Heimlichs. Gagging noises have been heard from here, especially on the Wrigley Field side of town, for decades upon decades. Chicago children learn three dates: Columbus discovered America in 1492, the Cubs last won a World Series in 1908, the White Sox last won one in 1917. Since then, desolation, despair, drought.
Guillen wants his team -- and its 90 victories -- to be treated with respect. After all, he said, only the St. Louis Cardinals have a better record than his White Sox. Problem is, the Cards have already clinched the NL Central and are busy picking out clothes for their postseason trip. Meanwhile, the Sox are applying another coat of Sure to their armpits.
"No, no, no," said Guillen. "I never, ever say we were going to win this thing easy."
No surprise there. The White Sox are the kind of team you love to watch, even root for, but you do so at your own risk. They play better on the road than at home. They've been in 49 one-run games. Their 34-save reliever (and his bad back) has been replaced by a rookie who made his big-league debut 2½ months ago.
Meanwhile, the Indians are 34-11 since July 31.
As the season unfolded and it became apparent that AL Central rival Minnesota had issues of its own, assorted Sox front office personnel were thrilled with the Twins' struggles. But Sox general manager Ken Williams knew better.
"I kept telling them, 'That's not the team you should be worried about,'" said Williams. "I told them, 'Worry about the Cleveland Indians and what they have over there.'"
Those front office types are worried now, though the White Sox themselves are on a strict diet of amnesia pills. Collapses? What collapses?
"Nobody in here thinks about that stuff," said Sox center fielder Aaron Rowand. "That's you guys."
Guilty. But talk of possibly one of the greatest collapses in baseball history wasn't limited Monday night to a packed U.S. Cellular press box. A crowd of 35,748, understandably nervous about the standings, directed their first boos of the game at Sox starter Freddy Garcia in the second inning. Then they did the same in the fifth, when Cleveland's lead grew to 4-0. Actual cheers arrived in the bottom of the fifth, when Chicago scored four of its own.
Williams said it has been a Tums type of season. Given the choice between a 14-game lead and a character-building stretch run, Williams would take something in the double-digit variety. And don't even mention a postseason without the White Sox.
"Oh, lord, you don't want to be around me if that happens," he said.
Guillen will accept all blame -- "100 percent," he said -- if the White Sox somehow are playoff no-shows on Oct. 3. Not that he'll have any choice. If the White Sox finish behind the Indians in the Central and fill-in-the-blank (the New York Yankees? Oakland Athletics? Boston Red Sox?) in the wild card, Guillen's team can pose in a team photo with the '69 Cubs and the '78 Red Sox (no need to involve the '64 Philadelphia Phillies gag-a-thon just yet). Some legacy.
"I'll be concerned when we're one game behind," Guillen said.
That day might arrive soon. The White Sox clutch that 2½-game lead with 13 games remaining, five against these same Indians. It was so quiet after Monday night's loss you could hear the Sox's Central lead drop.
"Hang in there with us," said Williams, speaking more to the fans than the media. "Give us a little bit of your support and please, stay off the ledges."
Easy for him to say.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com.