Ozzie will tell you: No reason to panic on South Side
CHICAGO -- Only Ozzie Guillen can sit on a dugout bench several hours before the start of a crucial three-game series and greet newly-acquired New York Yankees right fielder Bobby Abreu with a playful middle-finger salute.
Only Guillen can mock the suddenly popular theory that his Chicago White Sox are in need of mouth-to-mouth, especially with the AL East-leading Yankees in town, followed by a visit from the AL Central-leading and totally unconscious Detroit Tigers.
And only Guillen can remind everyone, again, that he's not afraid to lose his job -- even though nobody is suggesting he should.
Give a warm round of applause to your defending World Series champions, who are about as dull as a police car chase.
Nine months ago, the White Sox were picking ticker tape out of their hair and wiping victory cigar ashes off their suit lapels. Their deltoids hurt from hoisting the World Series trophy.
Now you hear the occasional boo at U.S. Cellular Field. A certain unrest prevails. White Sox followers are, well, nervous.
Never mind that Guillen's team is 21 games over .500. Or that the White Sox still have arguably the best middle of the lineup in baseball. Or that 51 games remain in the season. Instead, fingernail chewing has become as popular on the South Side as drinking a postgame brew at Jimbo's.
"... Now everybody expects us to win every single game," White Sox catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "And when we don't win a game -- we lose two in a row -- it's like the end of the world. If we hadn't won it last year, it wouldn't be like that. But that's the expectations on you when you win."
With Tuesday evening's 6-5, 11-inning win against the Yankees, the White Sox moved into single digits (nine) behind the Tigers, who apparently chugged an entire bottle of 1927 Yankees pills. They hold a half-game lead in the AL wild-card standings. Regardless of what you've heard, they're fine.
"I think we're playing good," said Guillen, who later hugged Abreu near the batting cage. "I don't say we're playing great. I'll say this: The White Sox are playing good, the Detroit Tigers are unbelievable. I think that sounds better. Overall, we have the second-, third-[best] record in baseball and we're treated a different way."
This is what happens when you win a World Series. Visiting Yankees professor Joe Torre, who has four Series championship rings, can provide the details.
"First of all, you don't catch anyone by surprise anymore," Torre said. "Even though the White Sox were a very good team all last year, the fact of the matter is they won, and when you get up there on that mountain, everybody's trying to take a shot at you. [Opponents] always seem to save their best pitcher for you, and a lot of things like that."
Torre led the Yankees to three consecutive World Series titles, and would have won a fourth had the usually automatic Mariano Rivera been able to hold a ninth-inning lead in Game 7 against the Arizona Diamondbacks. Instead, New York loses, "and all of a sudden the talk around is how disappointing we are," Torre said. "So you realize at that point in time that the expectations are high and that's what you basically have to deal with. You don't complain about it, you just deal with it."
Guillen is dealing with it as only he can. He doesn't invent excuses. That isn't his -- or his team's -- style. And anyway, Guillen is responsible for some of the 2006 White Sox strangeness, beginning with his dugout meltdown after a rookie reliever failed to hit an opposing batter, and followed about a week later by his infamous tirade against a Chicago sports columnist.
Instead, Guillen remains as brash and honest as ever. He looked genuinely perplexed when someone semi-suggested the Yankees were to be feared.
"They Yankees -- they got a worse record than we do?" Guillen said before the game.
"Better," said a writer.
"By one game," Guillen said.
"Two," he was told.
"Yeah, wow!" said Guillen, unimpressed.
Guillen did give Torre's team props for winning without injured outfielders Gary Sheffield and Hideki Matsui in the lineup. But no-brainer-better than his White Sox? Please. The White Sox still have a formidable starting rotation (though, Mark Buehrle hasn't won since June 27). Still have a respectable bullpen and a hellacious closer. Still hit lots of home runs.
A year ago on Aug. 8, the White Sox lost to the Yankees. Alex Rodriguez hit a two-run home run, just like he did Tuesday night. But back then the White Sox were 33 games above .500, 12½ games ahead of Cleveland, 15½ games ahead of Minnesota and 19 games ahead of the afterthought Tigers. Now there's a chance they could go from World Series title to playoff no-show.
"I'm tired of people saying there's time," Pierzynski said. "There's not time. You got to go out and do it."
The White Sox are in the early stages of a brutal 24-day, 24-game schedule. Between Tuesday evening's game and Aug. 27, they'll play the Yankees three times, the Tigers seven times and the Minnesota Twins six times. And September isn't any easier, with 18 of 29 games on the road.
"If we win 30 games out of -- how many games we got left? -- that's 95 wins," Guillen said. "If you don't go to the playoffs with 95 wins, go home and bang your head in the wall. That's it. That's all you have to do."
The walls are safe. The White Sox will squirm into the postseason.
Don't believe me? Go talk to Guillen's finger.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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