White Sox go from cursed to first
Everyone was calling the White Sox chokers in September. Now they can call them champions, writes Jayson Stark.
HOUSTON -- A month ago, you never would have bet it would end like this.
A month ago, the debate about those Chicago White Sox never seemed to involve whether they belonged in the same sentence as the '27 Yankees, or even the '99 Yankees.
A championship for the history books
"Yeah, a month ago, they were calling us chokers," said White Sox poet laureate A.J. Pierzynski on a magical night in October. "But now they can call us something else that starts with a C-H -- champions."
The Chicago White Sox ... champions. How 'bout that for a stranger-than-heck phenomenon?
Until Wednesday night, it was a phenomenon that only about 14 living humans were familiar with -- for the same reason that you no longer run across many members of the Eddie Cicotte Fan Club.
In other words, 88 years ago was a long, long, lonnnnggg time ago. Even longer than that World Series game these White Sox played Tuesday night.
The last time the Chicago White Sox won a World Series, there were no radio stations to listen to it on. And no such thing as a national anthem to sing before every game. And no such animal as a commissioner of baseball to hand them their trophy.
The last time the Chicago White Sox won a World Series was 1917. And the best part of winning it that year was they never had to hear a sole complaint about crummy TV ratings.
One of these years, or one of these decades, or one of these centuries, you knew some White Sox team was bound to win another one. But who among us thought it would be this team, in this year? (Sorry, members of the Guillen and Konerko families are ineligible to answer that question.)
On the final Wednesday of October, though, it didn't matter what anybody thought of these White Sox in February. All that mattered was the 27th out that landed in the glove of Mr. White Sox, Paul Konerko.
The out that finished off a 1-0 win over the Houston Astros.
The out that finished off an improbable sweep of an improbable World Series.
The out that ended 88 years of Wait 'Til Next Year seasons for a franchise that has spent every one of those seasons living in the shadow of another team in its own city.
"I've been here for seven years," said Konerko, a guy whose impending free agency will be the story around this franchise once they sweep up the tickertape. "And on this team, I've been here the longest, along with Frank (Thomas). But compared with all the fans and all the people who put up with the frustrations of this team for all those years, that's nothing. Those are the people who have suffered for a long, long time.
"But when you win, people don't forget you. So now, we'll always be remembered as part of the team that finally jumped over that wall."
• They swept the World Series -- for the first time in franchise history.
• They won their final eight games in a row -- tying the 2004 Red Sox for the longest winning streak any team has had in a single postseason.
• They went 11-1 in their 12 postseason games -- tying the '99 Yankees for the best postseason record of the 11-season wild-card era.
• They played six road games in this postseason -- against teams (Boston, Anaheim and Houston) that finished a combined 69 games over.500 at home this season -- and won all six.
• And they became just the third team in history to sweep a World Series after a season in which they were in first place every day of the season. Those other two teams were the 1990 Reds and the fabled '27 Yankees.
"The '27 YANKEES?" gulped Pierzynski after hearing that news. "I don't think we're exactly the '27 Yankees. We've got no Babe Ruth. We don't even have a Roger Maris. We do have the Three Stooges, though -- me, (Joe) Crede and (Aaron) Rowand: Ro, Mo and Yo."
But if that's what it took to shake off 88 years of ghosts and demons, no one on the South Side of Chicago would have cared if their double-play combination was Laurel and Hardy, or their starting rotation was the cast of "American Pie."
"We're different than a lot of teams that win the World Series," said Konerko. "We don't have a lot of all-star type guys. We've got a bunch of low-maintenance, low-key guys here. I don't think that when we're done, we'll have any guys who will make you say, 'That guy was the best player in the league at his position.' ...
"But we're proof that you don't have to put together an all-star team to win it, like some teams that went down along the way. I don't have to mention their names. You know who they are. We're not a team that was a lock to win. We could start the playoffs again tomorrow and get knocked off in three games, because we aren't some unbelievably great team. We're just a team that played our best baseball when we had to."
This was a team whose claim to fame all year was its ability to win those 2-1 games that supposedly went out of style about 1968. This was a team that, amazingly, won 15 games in which it scored one run or two -- the most by any team since the '69 Mets.
And this was a team that, including the postseason, went an insane 68-35 in games decided by one run or two -- the best record in baseball.
So how fitting was the final chapter to this team's story? How fitting was it that the White Sox wound up sweeping a World Series in which they never led by more than two runs at any point in any game?
How fitting was it that they outscored the Astros by only six runs over the entire World Series and still managed to sweep it -- tied with the 1950 Yankees for the smallest margin by any sweepers in history. And how fitting was it that the grand finale was one last 1-0 game?
"Our first game of the year was 1-0," Pierzynski said. "Our first game of the second half was 1-0. And our last game of the year was 1-0. You couldn't ask for a better script."
|“||You know, if we'd won this game, 10-0, that would have been great. But it wouldn't have been right. That's not us. So I was waiting for them to tie it up in the ninth, so we could say, 'OK, let's go. Extra innings.' ”|
|— Paul Konerko|
It was a script that included the first World Series game to roll into the eighth inning with a 0-0 score since Jack Morris versus John Smoltz, Game 7, 1991.
It was a script that revolved around the brilliance of one more White Sox starting pitcher -- in this case, Freddy Garcia (7 IP, 4 hits, 0 runs).
And it was a script that turned on the efforts of yet another member of this team's bench crew -- the increasingly legendary Group 4 scrubeenies who spent their October in relentless obscurity.
In this case, the special Group 4 guest star du jour was infielder Willie Harris, who was sent out to pinch-hit for Garcia to start the eighth -- against a man nobody would want to hit against after three weeks without an at-bat: Houston closer Brad Lidge.
But Harris poked a single into left -- for his first hit in 24 days. His teammates moved him along to third with a bunt and a ground ball. And then the World Series MVP, Jermaine Dye, knocked him in with a single up the middle.
So all of a sudden, the team with the 88-year drought had a one-run lead -- and only six more outs to get.
"Unbelievable," said Group 4 ringleader Geoff Blum, the guy who had hit the game-winning homer just the night (or morning) before. "It took eight stars to get us here -- and Group 4 to get us over the top."
Jenks is another guy who seemed to sum up this team's year. Claimed on waivers over the winter. Pitching in Birmingham in April. Then standing on the mound with a World Series to finish in October. Perfect.
He'd thrown 41 exhausting pitches in Game 3, less than 24 hours earlier. But there was "no way in hell I wasn't coming in" to pitch this game, he said.
Of course, he had to make it as terrifying as possible, though. Of course, as his teammates crowded around the top step of the dugout, he had to give up a bloop leadoff single to Jason Lane -- followed by a Brad Ausmus bunt that moved the tying run to second base.
"What an inning," Blum would say later. "It was scary. It was quixotic. What's that mean, anyway -- quixotic?"
Hey, you've got us. But it sounded good. Whatever, it was Jenks-otic. And that was the last thing anybody in Chicago needed, after all the Bartman-esque things that have gone on there for the last 88 years.
"You know, if we'd won this game, 10-0, that would have been great," said Konerko. "But it wouldn't have been right. That's not us. So I was waiting for them to tie it up in the ninth, so we could say, 'OK, let's go. Extra innings.' "
Turned out that wouldn't be necessary, though -- thanks to Jenks and his trusty shortstop, Juan Uribe.
With that tying run on second, Jenks dueled pinch-hitter Chris Burke for six stirring pitches. Burke lofted the last of those six toward the seats beyond third base. It sure looked as if it would float out of play. But there was one guy on the field who didn't think so -- Uribe.
He scrambled toward the stands, lunged precipitously and careened into the crowd, like some character in a Road Runner cartoon. But a moment later, he emerged with the baseball. And the White Sox were one out away.
If Derek Jeter had made that play in a game like this, it would turn into a major motion picture, coming to a theater near you. That won't be happening for Juan Uribe. But his teammates knew what this play meant.
"That play pretty much sums up our team," Konerko said. "Juan is probably the one guy on this team who's capable of making that play. But every guy on this team would do that -- crash into those stands if that's what it took."
Crash or no crash, though, Jenks still needed to get one final out.
His teammates were just about bursting out of the dugout by then. The stadium P.A. system blared out, "We Will Rock You," as Orlando Palmeiro dug in.
Jenks surged ahead of Palmeiro, 1 and 2, then stood on the rubber and heaved one final big gulp of oxygen. Then he fired his final fastball of the night.
Palmeiro chopped it into the sky. Jenks leaped for it, then realized the most disastrous thing he could have done was deflect it. So he pulled his hand back and watched it hop over his head.
|“||I'm not sure what happened after (the last out) other than a whole lot of loudness -- and a bunch of guys hitting me on the head. ”|
|— Closer Bobby Jenks|
It looked, for an instant, like an infield hit waiting to happen. But here came Uribe one more time, charging, scooping, firing the baseball toward Konerko at approximately 866 miles per hour.
Thwack. The ball hit the glove. Frrrummphh. Palmeiro's foot hit the bag. First-base ump Gary Cederstrom pumped the out sign toward the Great Lakes. And 88 years of agony melted into the past tense.
"I knew I caught it in time," Konerko said. "But I still sneaked a look over at the umpire -- because I didn't want to get caught celebrating prematurely."
"I'm not sure what happened after that," said Jenks, "other than a whole lot of loudness -- and a bunch of guys hitting me on the head."
Then he looked up and saw his catcher, Pierzynski, sprinting toward him -- and (yikes) leaping into his arms.
"I knew he was coming," Jenks said. "I just had a feeling. I saw it in his face: 'Here I come.' "
"Hey, I knew he wouldn't drop me," Pierzynski said. "He might be the only guy in the league who's fatter than me."
"It didn't matter how big he is," Jenks said. "I could have picked up a car right then."
Then they all dissolved into a gigantic group hug -- a hug that stretched from the pitcher's mound all the way to a famous lakefront in Illinois.
A team from Chicago had won itself a championship. And it didn't require the services of Michael Jordan, Mike Ditka or Jim McMahon to do it.
Drew Barrymore wasn't around to run around the field, chased by any Hollywood producers. Stephen King wasn't around, to dial his friendly neighborhood publisher. The Cubs weren't around, to remind the champs who's really No. 1.
No, this wasn't about any of those teams these White Sox are always being compared to. This was their moment, their time, their trophy. And the second-longest championship drought in the history of professional sports was no more.
The Chicago White Sox ... Champions. How 'bout that phenomenon?
"Who," grinned A.J. Pierzynski, "would have thunk it?"
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.