So Hopeful in April, So Glum in August

Details of the debt-ceiling deal are more easily understood than the nuances of offensive line play, so Olin Kreutz’s true value to the Bears went unnoticed by many civilians until the team decided to part company with its veteran center. The sky-is-falling coverage that followed would have us believe that Kreutz ranks with Gale Sayers and Walter Payton in the pantheon of Bears lore. Who knew?

But that’s Chicago. Once the Bears’ season starts, nothing else seems to matter, certainly not a Yankees-White Sox series at U.S. Cellular Field that epitomized all that has gone wrong for the Sox this season: listless play, disappointing crowds and the increasingly obvious reality that a team built to win this year isn’t going to.

The scene at the Cell made one nostalgic for a time when a Yankees-White Sox matchup meant something. The haughty Yanks of Mantle, Berra, Ford and Stengel seemed to win the pennant every year in the days when Ike and, later, J.F.K. were running things, but the White Sox would pursue them gamely, until a four-game weekend set at Comiskey Park most often decided the season.

The South Side would come to a standstill as Whitey Ford and Billy Pierce hooked up before a packed house in the Friday night series opener. Bob Elson’s radio call on WCFL took on spellbinding urgency as Pierce nursed a 1-0 lead into the sixth or seventh inning, only to have a role-player Yank like Hank Bauer or Hector Lopez pop one with a man on and set the stage for the disappointment that inevitably followed.

The Yanks would win again on Saturday, then split the Sunday doubleheader and leave town with another pennant in their pocket, while the White Sox were left to ponder next year. It was torture for Sox fans, but they lived for it.

That passion was missing at the Cell this week as the Sox began August in the same drab funk that dogged them through the season’s first four months. The park wasn’t close to full for seven straight games against American League royalty, and Red Sox fans and Yankee fans were a noisy, conspicuous presence.

“I don’t care who they cheer for if they fill the park,” Sox Manager Ozzie Guillen said. “I played in Tampa and coached in Montreal and Florida. It’s no fun when there’s nobody there.”

Sox fans can’t be faulted for not believing in a team that seems to have doubts about itself.

“Coming out of spring training, I never thought we’d be in this position,” pitcher Mark Buehrle said after the Sox bullpen coughed up his hard-earned 3-2 lead in Sunday’s 5-3 loss to Boston. “I thought we were good enough to win.”

But they’re running out of time, even in a bad division. A month ago the Sox were positioned to seize control of the American League Central with 18 straight division games. They went 9-9. The seven against Boston and the Yankees only proved they don’t belong among the A.L.’s elite. The Sox lost five in a row and were outscored in those games 42-14.

Armchair general managers were all over Ken Williams for failing to address the team’s deficiencies at the trading deadline. Williams stopped after dumping the salaries of Mark Teahen and Edwin Jackson. But he had done his heavy lifting over the winter, and there really wasn’t a whole lot more he could have done. What’s the justification for shedding a run producer (Carlos Quentin) or another rotation starter (Gavin Floyd) when “All In” is this season’s mantra?

Williams would have liked a do-over on at least one of his off-season moves: Adam Dunn and his mystifying inability to hit would have been sacrificed for a bag of used baseballs, if only to spare Dunn the merciless booing each strikeout inspires. Alex Rios could have been had for a cold hot dog. But a deal for either straggler involved finding a taker for an onerous contract. Ask the Cubs how easy that is.

Assuming the Sox continue treading water, Williams won’t be so constrained this off-season. His team has struggled to play .500 ball with a franchise-record payroll. It could probably do as well with a younger, cheaper roster, which would mean a decidedly different look for the 2012 White Sox.

And maybe a new manager. Some baseball people expect the Florida Marlins to throw a pile of money at Guillen to amplify the buzz over their move into a new ballpark. Guillen has a year left on his contract, and while his relationship with Williams isn’t as visibly frayed as it was last season, the Sox could decide to let him walk for the sake of a thoroughly fresh start.

Guillen has seemed oddly detached from the Sox’s troubles, almost resigned to their fate, and maybe his own.

“I’m making moves like a National League manager, pushing every button we can and nothing works,” he said after a recent loss.

The talk of Tony La Russa as Guillen’s replacement is probably somewhat fanciful, but the St. Louis skipper is so prideful a guy that the only firing of his 33-year managerial career still rankles. Returning to the Sox would close the circle.

Imagine Tony La Russa, back on the South Side 25 years after Hawk Harrelson fired him. Now there’s a buzz-generating move.

dmcgrath@chicagonewscoop.org

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