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Monday, July 12, 2010
New kings in town

By Jon Greenberg
ESPNChicago.com

CHICAGO -- A month ago, baseball was teetering on the brink of irrelevancy in this city. It's not an unfamiliar brink.

As the Blackhawks made their way to Philadelphia for the second time during the second week of June, just before they clinched the Stanley Cup on enemy ice, the city's losing baseball teams were getting ready for a matchup that would decide provincial bragging rights delightfully presented by the most hated corporation on Earth.

"Maybe they're going to pick who's the worst team in town, not the best one," Ozzie Guillen joked on June 8 in his office.

Paul Konerko
All-Star Paul Konerko has fueled a remarkable 25-5 run by the White Sox over the past month.

It was a curious turn of events, the Blackhawks being the pride of the city, while the Cubs-White Sox series was a civic embarrassment, like traffic on the Kennedy or those city stickers that don't stick. While the Hawks brought the Stanley Cup to Wrigley Field, the teams were playing for a trophy that looked like it belonged in a high school display case, sponsored by BP.

Before each of my two trips to Philadelphia, I talked with the King of the White Sox and the Boss of the Cubs. Both were optimistic in the face of a long summer. One would prove prophetic, the other is still waiting for that turnaround.

Paul Konerko, who has spent more than a decade with the Sox, knew the team's season could turn for the better, but he was well aware a four-month slog was an acute possibility.

"Hopefully, if we play well this week, that could be a sign of something to come," Konerko said just before the Sox dropped to 24-33. He had been asked versions of that question for weeks.

Tom Ricketts, the fresh-faced new owner of the Cubs, was putting on a public face of support for his ballclub, even though his first season as chairman of the board hadn't gone as planned.

Between the unpopular, but necessary, move of raising ticket prices to trying to land a new spring training home to haggling with the city on a pricey -- and necessary -- Toyota sign to fielding a $145 million, sub-.500 team, well, at least he had good seats.

"On the field we've had some bad luck," Ricketts said June 1 in his office. "We're a little behind where we want to be at this time of the year. But we're still pretty optimistic."

The Cubs lost to the Pirates after that interview and fell to 24-29. Ricketts, the face of the team, wasn't about to rant and rave to a reporter. He even started a sentence directed at me, "WHEN we make the playoffs this year ..."

Ricketts I'm not going to assign blame to anyone or anything. The fact is when we came into the season we had what appeared to be a pretty strong lineup. It hasn't worked out for whatever reason.

-- Cubs owner Tom Ricketts

He did lament, in an unguarded, and obvious, fan moment, that the Cubs were just missing some production from their struggling, high-paid middle of the order, Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez.

"When you know the people individually and see them do well, you get more excited for them," Ricketts said. "Or when you see them struggle, you feel their pain more than you would as a typical fan."

Fast forward a month. The Sox have won eight straight into the break and since the day of Konerko's hopeful words, which came before a 7-2 loss to Detroit, they have gone 25-5, making them inarguably the hottest team in baseball. And yes, that Cubs series helped propel the Sox from a middle-of-the-pack seller to the AL Central leader, by a half-game over Detroit, at the All-Star break.

And the Cubs, well, they're still a little behind. After a 7-0 loss to the Dodgers, they limped into the break with a 39-50 record, leaving them in fourth place in the NL Central, almost equidistant between the first-place Reds and the last-place Pirates.

The Sox are optimistic for the second half, even with Jake Peavy's season-ending back injury, and are planning for reinforcements. The Cubs will be sellers, providing there are buyers. Barring a miracle, there will be no playoffs this season and several longtime Cubs will find new homes.

While Konerko has seen pretty much everything in his tenure on the South Side, this is Ricketts' first year in charge. The family has been more than patient, adding staff instead of firing, and paying careful attention to how things are run, on and off the field.

"The first half of the year has been disappointing for every fan, the Ricketts family included," Ricketts told the Des Moines Register recently, adding, "We're watching closely how things are going on the field."

I hope not too closely. Ricketts has stressed he wants the clan to own this team for a while. I'd hate to see the family die en masse from disgust.

Ricketts, in Los Angeles to watch the Cubs get shelled Sunday and catch the All-Star Game, gave general manager Jim Hendry a non-committal vote of confidence.

Byrd
Marlon Byrd, the Cubs' lone All-Star, has been one of their only bright spots, batting .317 with nine home runs and 40 RBIs.

"I'm not going to assign blame to anyone or anything," Ricketts told the beat writers at Dodger Stadium. "The fact is when we came into the season we had what appeared to be a pretty strong lineup. It hasn't worked out for whatever reason."

The "whatever" is what gets people fired.

Meanwhile, back on the South Side, no one is worried about Guillen's relationship with his general manager Kenny Williams. All the angst in Jerry Reinsdorf's team has been buried under the weight of a wildly fun month. Let's hope the July premiere of their reality show doesn't bring back bad mojo.

Baseball is perhaps the only sport where winning, and losing, are contagious, thanks to the relentless schedule.

"We're in great position to do something in the second half," Konerko told reporters this weekend. "I think before the season, if you had said we'd be right where we're at, I would say that makes sense. But the way we got here, it's been crazy. ... I've never seen a turnaround like this."

"A shock," Guillen told reporters after the Sox's 15-5 win over Kansas City on Sunday to cap off the first half. "To be honest with you, I think it is a shock just because the way the team was playing, all the negative stuff outside the clubhouse, how many games we got to put up to be over .500? How many games we were out of first place? It's a shock how quick we did it."

What will the second half bring for our teams?

For those who think the Sox feasted on easy pickings -- a 14-4 record against the Cubs, Nationals, Royals and Pirates -- don't forget they went 11-2 against the Tigers, Braves, Rangers and Angels. The Sox have lost one series since the beginning of June. The National League just whetted their appetite for the AL.

Losing Peavy, who was 7-6 with a 4.63 ERA, will be tough. Daniel Hudson was less than spectacular in his first start Sunday, getting knocked out in the fifth. But Gavin Floyd is on a roll, complementing Mark Buehrle, John Danks and Freddy Garcia.

Gordon Beckham, who went 3 for 4 Sunday, needs to replicate his performance from last season, when he was a doubles-hitting machine. Carlos Quentin is improbably hot with three multi-homer games in the past four games. For the Sox to contend, he needs to be consistent, and of course, not take himself out of the lineup.

For the Cubs, the status quo isn't cutting it, and a turnaround doesn't seem in the cards, thanks to the Cards, not to mention the Reds.

Ricketts couldn't pinpoint why his pricey, veteran team was flailing in early June, espousing the just-a-matter-of-time ethos that permeates teams like this one. And he still can't figure it out.

"The offseason moves were very strong," Ricketts told the Des Moines Register. "Marlon Byrd is our All-Star. Getting him was a good decision, but I don't think anyone could really have predicted the difficulty we've had this year."

In truth, this is a Cubs team built for 2007 and 2008. The club peaked in '08, but fell apart in the first round of the playoffs.

For whatever reason, the mix isn't working. Maybe players have tuned out Lou Piniella, who correctly tried to juggle lineups to find a winning combination and alienated thin-skinned hitters who never knew if they were playing or not.

It's obvious the team has never hit any kind of stride, and you can't blame any lack of cohesion on Milton Bradley.

A bad Cubs team may seem fitting, given their tortured history, but it's no fun. And the empty seats are more noticeable at Wrigley Field. The only solution to the Cubs' woes, as Piniella has repeated ad nauseam, is to play better. And the team knows this, too. But we haven't seen them do it, play winning baseball for any stretch of time, all season. It's frustrating to watch for everyone involved.

If I had to guess how the second half will play out, I think the Sox will have to wait out a three-team race which will come down to the last two weeks. If they can add a big left-handed bat and maybe a fifth starter (Anyone else think Hudson, should he pitch well, is getting fattened up for a trade?), this team could challenge the two AL East squads that should make the playoffs.

The only reason to pay attention to the Cubs, aside from guessing who gets traded or fired, will be to monitor the progress of Starlin Castro, Tyler Colvin and Andrew Cashner and to prognosticate who takes over for Piniella next year. The wise manager knows he's on the way out, and it's a shame. Piniella deserves better -- firing him solves nothing -- but his potential final season as a manager is destined to end quietly.

In his cluttered office that neighbors minor league boss Oneri Fleita, Ricketts was knowledgeable about some of the Cubs' minor leaguers, beaming when talking about outfielder Brett Jackson, recently promoted to Double-A. He noted the team should have more financial flexibility next season, something the Tribune Co., not to mention Hendry, handicapped with a few years of free spending.

As baseball descends on Anaheim this week, Chicago is sparsely represented with just three All-Stars: Matt Thornton, Byrd and Konerko.

Yes, the King is an All-Star, and the Boss will be watching him, wondering just how the Cubs can get back to being the best in their own city.

Jon Greenberg is a columnist for ESPNChicago.com.