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GLENDALE, Ariz.-- Mark Buehrle walked into the Chicago White Sox clubhouse after his early morning workout. Moments later, nearly a dozen reporters formed a semicircle around him at his locker.
"You get traded?" asked an amused Adam Dunn, sitting four lockers away.
Traded? And what, ruin the White Sox's best chance of doing what nobody in Chicago (including some of the Sox themselves) thinks is possible: overtaking the crosstown Cubs in popularity, attendance and baseball relevance?
Buehrle didn't get traded; he got picked to be the Sox's Opening Day starter. No stunner there. The veteran Buehrle is more dependable than winter potholes on the Dan Ryan.
The stunner is that Chicago still isn't predominantly a Sox town yet. But maybe that changes this season and with this team. If it doesn't, then that means either Chicago didn't pay attention, or something went terribly wrong with the White Sox.
"We're taking a little bit of a leap of faith," general manager Ken Williams said. "Not a little bit, either. We're out there on a limb."
Williams was talking about his 2011 payroll, which will begin the season at about $125 million. That's $74 million shy of the projected New York Yankees' payroll, $38 million less than the Boston Red Sox and about $6 million less than the Cubs.
|Ozzie Guillen may be a little crazy, but he's not crazy enough to believe that Chicago is a White Sox town.|
But for Williams and owner Jerry Reinsdorf it's a record budget, almost double what the payroll was when the White Sox won the 2005 World Series. The baseball from the final out of that Series sits on the desk at Reinsdorf's home. He'd like twins, which partly explains why he finally green-lighted Williams' payroll request.
"You either have a team you can dream on," said Williams, referring to a team capable of reaching the postseason and the World Series. "Or if you can't be that, don't be in-between. Turn the roster over and build young, exciting players [so] that you can then dream of World Series possibilities down the line. If you catch yourself in between, you can be in between for a loooooong time.
"I'm not an in-between kind of guy, and neither is Jerry or [manager] Ozzie [Guillen]."
Without that increased payroll, an entire clubhouse row of Sox locker nameplates would have looked different. First baseman Paul Konerko, whose locker is just left of Buehrle's, wouldn't have been re-signed. Dunn, the massive DH, wouldn't have been brought in as a big-ticket free agent. Catcher A.J. Pierzynski, whose locker is kitty-corner to Dunn's, wouldn't have been brought back.
Reinsdorf turned 75 on Friday. This will be his 30th season as owner of the White Sox. His franchise has what the Cubs have craved since 1908 -- a World Series championship -- but it can't match the North Side team in fans, revenue or ballpark cuddliness.
Even when the Cubs lose, they win. They finished 30 games below .500 in 2005 and still outdrew the champion White Sox by almost 800,000 fans. Last season a fifth-place, 75-win Cubs team outdrew a second-place Sox team by nearly 1 million fans.
"I got to think the biggest factor has got to be Wrigley Field," Konerko said.
Wrigley is drop-dead gorgeous. And, Konerko reminded me, the Cubs have been "putting out a really good product for the last five, seven years. It's not like it's just the ballpark over there."
Actually, the Cubs have two division titles and zero postseason wins in the past seven years. They've finished below .500 in three of those seven seasons. And compared to when Konerko joined the White Sox in 1999, "it seems to me we've taken big bites out of the difference from where the two teams stood then and now."
If ever the White Sox were going to go Kobayashi and chow down, this is the season. Their lineup is loaded, their pitching staff is strong (as long as Jake Peavy's return from surgery remains setback-free) and no way do they go a combined 22-28 like they did in April and May of last season. They are not an in-between team.
The Cubs are. The official team mascot isn't a bear, but a question mark. The Ricketts family, which is beginning its second season of ownership, has spent money on improving Wrigley's bathrooms but reduced the 2011 payroll by about $15 million.
The respective teams' slogans say it all:
The Cubs: "It's A Way of Life."
The White Sox: "All In."
One passive. One aggressive.
"I think that's a good slogan, but we've been all-in since I had this job," Guillen said. "The only guy who's all-in now -- and more -- is Jerry, because he's the one who put the money in. It surprised me. A very pleasant surprise."
Another surprise would be if the White Sox ever became Chicago's baseball team.
"Never," Guillen said. "I don't see it."
But he does see more White Sox fans. He hears more people talking about the White Sox, but not necessarily more than they talk about the Cubs. It remains a Cubs town.
"So far, yes," he said. "Hopefully pretty soon we change that idea."
Pretty soon could be this season. But it would likely take champagne spray and another Sox victory parade to help shift the balance of baseball power to the South Side.
Just outside the White Sox spring training clubhouse is a hallway wall lined with poster-sized photos. There's the visiting White Sox contingent at the White House as President Obama holds a No. 1 Sox jersey. And there's Williams hoisting a World Series trophy over his head.
Of course, there's still plenty of wall space for more memories.
"It would be great if this was the year the White Sox are Chicago's team," said reliever Will Ohman, who spent parts of five seasons with the Cubs. "On paper, we're built to win. Now all we have to do is go win some games."
Sounds simple. But it never is.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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