- Jerry Crasnick, ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer
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MESA, Ariz. -- White Sox outfielder Jermaine Dye has had a rough go in recent months. First there were the incessant trade rumors, and now he has to listen to clubhouse agitator and platinum-blond teammate A.J. Pierzynski bust his chops about them.
The Chicago players straggled into the visiting clubhouse at HoHoKam Park the other day, and Dye had barely walked through the door when Pierzynski feigned shock that they were still sharing the same workplace.
"I can't believe you're still here," Pierzynski said.
Uncertainty is a given in the average big leaguer's life, but it's downright viral among the 30-and-older crowd in Chicago. As the White Sox segue from a veteran-laden, slugger-oriented club to one with fresh legs and homegrown talent, transition fever is in the air.
Change has come in the person of Alexei Ramirez, who moves from second base to shortstop after finishing second to Tampa Bay's Evan Longoria in the American League Rookie of the Year balloting. Gordon Beckham, a power-hitting shortstop from the University of Georgia, will inject himself into the infield mix soon enough, while Dayan Viciedo, a 19-year-old infielder from Cuba, arrived in camp with a flashy car and an eight-figure bat. No wonder some scouts are comparing him to former Dodgers slugger Pedro Guerrero.
The White Sox have thrown open their second-base competition to Chris Getz, Brent Lillibridge and Jayson Nix, while prospects Aaron Poreda, Clayton Richard, Lance Broadway and Jeff Marquez might all pitch in the big leagues in 2009.
Manager Ozzie Guillen gets so fired up discussing the franchise's young talent that he risks banging his head on the dugout roof. For the veterans who are prepared to vacate the premises as the kids move in, the new order brings a sense of wistfulness and urgency.
"It's time to get it done," designated hitter Jim Thome said. "We have some guys who are getting towards the end of their contracts, and the bottom line is we want to be able to take advantage of it and do it right now."
Four years removed from a world championship, some veteran White Sox are coming to grips with the notion that the old gang is breaking up and sentiment is about to get steamrolled by reality. Another one bit the dust recently when third baseman Joe Crede, a regular and clubhouse favorite since 2003, took his Gold Glove reputation and cranky back to Minnesota, where he'll join the "little piranhas" in tormenting Guillen.
Who'll be next in line? Check the roster and flip a coin.
Paul Konerko, team captain and a lineup fixture for a decade, told the Chicago Sun-Times that if the Sox determine it's in their best interests to explore a deal, he might be willing to waive the no-trade rights he has accrued through 10 years of big league service time and five seasons in Chicago. Konerko's five-year, $60 million deal runs through 2010.
"You have to go through hell to get those 10-and-5 rights, so it's not something I take lightly," Konerko said. "My point was, the White Sox have done a lot for me, and I'm grateful for that.
"If it reaches a point where it's best for everybody for me to go someplace else, I'm not going to be selfish and say, 'I've played here so many years in a row, and I'm finishing here.' I don't give a crap about legacies and all that stuff, to put it bluntly."
Things aren't quite as complicated for Thome, who came over from Philadelphia by trade two months after Chicago's World Series victory. Thome has 541 career homers and eight months left until he reaches free agency. But he's also 38, and he has seen how formerly great players can be afterthoughts in trying economic times. Ken Griffey Jr. and Garret Anderson didn't sign until mid-February, and Jim Edmonds and Luis Gonzalez are among Thome's former peers who remain unemployed. Thome would like to play two more seasons and crack 600 homers, but nothing is guaranteed these days.
And, of course, there's Dye, who claims he's oblivious to the constant trade buzz on the Internet. That's a good thing, because he might have gotten nervous amid a report in December that he was about to be traded straight-up for Cincinnati's Homer Bailey.
Maybe Dye is immune to gossip by now. Since the 2007 non-waiver trade deadline, Dye has been mentioned in rumored deals for Bobby Abreu, Scott Linebrink and Chone Figgins, among others. Yet he's still part of the scenery.
"I don't worry about it until I get a phone call from the general manager," Dye said. "If you're not talked about and it's quiet, that's probably when you're going to get traded. When you're talked about, that's usually when you don't get traded."
Under the guidance of Kenny Williams, one of baseball's most self-assured GMs, the White Sox have been adept at tinkering on the fly. Discounting the 72-90 debacle of 2007, they've played .500 or better each year since 2000. During that stretch, Frank Thomas, Carlos Lee, Magglio Ordonez and Ray Durham were among the organizational fixtures who found their way out of town.
Quentin, derided as injury-prone and hyperintense in Arizona, was an MVP candidate before suffering a season-ending wrist injury in early September. Floyd, considered "soft" in Philadelphia, emerged as a 17-game winner, and Danks showed signs that he might be on the verge of stardom at age 23.
"We knew we couldn't afford to fall asleep and wake up in a hole we couldn't get out of," Guillen said. "Sooner or later, guys were going to get old, and we had to move on. We had to be prepared."
Strangely enough, although the White Sox have tried to get younger, faster and more athletic of late, Scott Podsednik and the 2005 team stole 137 bases compared with only 67 for last year's club. The Sox still rely on clubbing teams over the head at U.S. Cellular Field, and they led the majors with 235 homers in 2008.
The entertaining off-the-field dynamic never changes. Guillen and Williams encourage an open dialogue in which no emotion is left hidden and no opinion left unshared. Chicago players are rarely caught off guard, if only because the manager and GM are so brutally candid.
"People lied to me and Kenny when we were players, and we're not going to do that," Guillen said. "When guys leave this ballclub, they say, ''I'd rather play for you guys than here.' We ask why, and they say, 'At least you were honest. I hate you, but you never lied to me.'"
The bond forged by the 2005 White Sox team will never be broken by distance or business as usual. It hits home with Pierzynski when his kids tell him they miss Crede's kids or he sits down with former teammate Aaron Rowand for dinner at spring training in Scottsdale.
The old esprit de corps resonates with Konerko when he looks at his World Series ring and thinks back to the parade.
"Even if no one we're talking about is still here after this year, what did we get out of it? A World Series," Konerko said. "There are a lot of groups assembled on other teams who never got anywhere or won anything.
"There's no sad ending for this group, no matter what happens from here on out. Because at one time, we got it done."
The sentiments are as heartfelt as ever, and the memories are indelible. But as ballplayers in Chicago and every other town find out eventually, one fact of life trumps all the rest: The nameplates above the locker stalls are strictly rentals.
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