Print and Go Back ESPN.com: Page 2 [Print without images]

Thursday, October 20, 2005
In Ozzie we (sort of) trust

By Skip Bayless
Page 2

With his team on the edge of the greatest collapse in baseball history, Ozzie Guillen sounded as though he had gone over the edge.

With his Chicago White Sox in the midst of dropping 10 of 14 games in September, the Wizard of Odd was talking even crazier than, well, Mike Ditka did when he coached Da Bears.

If only I had connected the dots. Guillen … Ditka … effective, only-in-Chicago nuts?

But as I watched Guillen's rambling pregame and postgame to-be-or-not-to-be's, I concluded that here was a man crying for help. He didn't need to be in charge, but in therapy. And I went so far as to suggest on television that maybe White Sox management should put him out of his misery and let someone else -- broadcaster Hawk Harrelson, pitching coach Don Cooper -- attempt to lift this team from its death spiral.

Ozzie Guillen
Does this man look crazy to you?
Yes, I suggested firing a manager whose team had a 15-game lead on Aug. 1.

Yet who among the truly die-hard White Sox fans -- all 8,000 or 10,000 of them -- didn't have a similarly desperate thought? As Ozzie's Sox free-fell toward surging Cleveland, this poor man was talking about throwing up before games … about reading and answering e-mails from over-the-edge fans … and about winning the World Series and retiring.

Uh, Oz, shouldn't you be a little more worried about just winning a game?

And all this came after red flags that flew earlier in the season:

The expletive-laced comments Guillen fired back at former Sox star Magglio Ordonez, a fellow countryman he called a "Venezuelan [bleep]," and the homosexual slurs he kiddingly used within earshot of reporters at Yankee Stadium.

The wild eyes, the mustache and goatee, the machine-gun Spanglish: By Sept. 22, when the White Sox' lead shrank to just a game and a half, Guillen was losing far more than games. He was losing it.

And now he could win the World Series.

And -- he still says -- retire.

This is the most shockingly unexpected 180-degree turn I can remember in sports. Ozzie's Sox have won 14 of their last 17, including three straight over reigning champ Boston and four in a row against the Angels, who had eliminated the Yankees.

The biggest reason for the turnaround has been … Ozzie?

"He isn't the straw that stirs the drink," said Chicago media legend Chet Coppock of The Sporting News Radio. "He is the drink."

On Wednesday, I called several of the media friends I made while writing columns for the Chicago Tribune pre-Ozzie. I half expected to hear off the record that they don't quite trust Guillen on the World Series stage. I heard just the opposite.

More on the White Sox
Scoop Jackson says the South Side of Chicago is making the most of this long-overdue World Series. Click here for full World Series coverage.

"He's very emotional and he personally didn't handle the pressure well when they were losing," said Dan McNeil of ESPN Radio 1000, the team's flagship station. "But he's a perfect fit for this team. He became one of the players without losing their respect. He finally gave this team the leader it hasn't had -- the guy who could take all the bullets, yet push all the right buttons."

Even David Kaplan of WGN Radio, a lifelong Cubs fan who works for the company that owns the Cubs, said: "I love Ozzie. He isn't afraid to criticize players publicly when they deserve it, but he just kept saying, 'We're going to be all right,' and kept that team together."

Then again, are these Chicago-area natives just caught up in a distinctly Chicago syndrome? The coaches or managers who have overcome (or nearly overcome) the city's Loserville label have had at least one screw loose.

Former Cubs manager Leo Durocher, former Bulls coach Phil Jackson, and, of course, Ditka, shared this eccentricity with perhaps Chicago's most beloved sports figure ever -- White Sox and then Cubs broadcaster Harry Caray. They all could be a little nuts.

Lovably nuts.

Media-fueling, fan-grabbing, team-bonding nuts. The message their media rants sent to reporters and fans was: Something different is going on with this team. The message Durocher, Ditka and Guillen sent to their teams was: This guy might be just crazy or gutsy enough to pull this off.

Durocher wasn't quite able to pull his 1969 Cubs out of the tailspin that allowed the Mets to catch them.

But for a year, Ditka was the perfect fit for the nearly perfect '85 Bears, who went 18-1 and did the Super Bowl Shuffle.

I knew Ditka when he was the unLandrylike special teams coach for the Dallas Cowboys. He threw fits and clipboards, alternately infuriating and amusing the usually stone-faced Landry. Cowboys coaches and executives were stunned -- and amused -- when George Halas hired Ditka in 1982 to be head coach of the Bears.

Ditka was barely qualified to handle special teams.

Yet this gum-chomping maniac with the Transylvanian hair soon became the face of the Bears -- and more important, of Chicago. No player on that character-laden team could out-outrageous the coach. Ditka would try just about anything -- letting defensive lineman William "The Refrigerator" Perry carry the ball or defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan run his blitz-crazy 46 scheme.

Yet Chet Coppock believes that Ditka and Guillen share another trait -- being crazy like foxes.

"I think they both know exactly what they're doing when it comes to self-promotion," Coppock said. "While Ditka was telling his players [in '85] to cool it on all the endorsements, nobody was selling Ditka harder than Ditka."

Guillen is by far the biggest star on his team. In fact, Guillen has even eclipsed Cubs manager Dusty Baker in Chicago popularity. This is all the more astonishing because the White Sox could win five straight World Series and Chi-Town would still be a Cubs town when it comes to baseball.

Both locally and nationally, Ozzie has become the face of the Sox. How many fans outside Chicago know (or care about) Paul Konerko or Mark Buehrle? Not many.

The White Sox
One thing's for sure -- this team has rallied around Ozzie.
For the past decade, fans around the country basically knew only one White Sox star, whose nickname was always better than his intangibles. The Big Hurt was mostly considered a big baby in the Sox' clubhouse. Frank Thomas: awesomely gifted slugger, prima donna distraction.

The team's chemistry improved dramatically after Thomas was lost to injury for the season. His absence allowed Guillen (and to a lesser extent Konerko and Buerhle) to assume unquestioned command.

So is Ozzie lucky or good -- or both?

As a tactician, he appears to know baseball better than Ditka knew football. Ditka was mostly a motivator. Guillen, a former White Sox shortstop, is more of a wily big brother for his players.

According to a Florida source, White Sox general manager Ken Williams -- under pressure from the Chicago media to do something at the trade deadline -- talked seriously with the Marlins about swapping Jose Contreras and Joe Crede for A.J. Burnett and Mike Lowell.

Best trade Williams never made.

Ozzie, with help from Orlando Hernandez, kept telling Contreras how good he is until he finally believed them. No pitcher in baseball has been hotter the past couple of months.

Ozzie took an Angels castoff named Bobby Jenks -- a July minor-league call-up -- and turned him into the closer he lacked.

Ozzie pushed El Duque's button to get the White Sox out of a bases-loaded, no-outs jam against the Red Sox in the sixth inning of Game 3.

And of course, Ozzie let his starters finish all nine innings of all four victories over the Angels. No manager in baseball would have been crazy -- or shrewd -- enough to sit on his hands and ignore The Book and his bullpen. Here was the anti-Tony La Russa.

What did he think this was, 1959?

That was last year the White Sox played in the World Series. That team had three big stars -- Luis Aparicio, Nellie Fox and Early Wynn.

This team has Ozzie.

I'm still not quite sure I'd trust him.

But I definitely wouldn't fire him.

Skip Bayless can be seen Monday through Friday on "Cold Pizza," ESPN2's morning show, and at 4 p.m. ET on ESPN's "1st & 10." His column appears twice a week on Page 2. You can e-mail Skip here.