Memories of Opening Day

It’s Opening Day!  For a baseball fan, it is like Christmas morning.  In Chicago, the weather also is just like Christmas morning (that line was shamelessly stolen, er, “borrowed” from Jim Margalus at South Side Sox).   If the prognosticators, the pundits, the experts, the nerds with their high and mighty math, and the soulless computers are right…we’re looking at a second place finish.

Again.

That doesn’t matter.  Today we get to see live baseball for the first time since last October.  The bitter taste of last season’s collapse is gone, and we’re ready to tackle another slate of 162 games.

Opening Day is also a big day for me.  I moved back to Chicago from Milwaukee in the fall of 2005.  After a couple of months of shacking up in my old room in the house where I grew up (who wants to move in winter, anyway), I moved to Bridgeport.  I was a short walk away from U.S. Cellular Field.  I was single, and I had plenty of disposable income.  During that time, nearly all of it went into the pockets of Jerry Reinsdorf, Eddie Einhorn, and his investors.

I also attended every home opener from 2007-2011.  Memories are made on Opening Day.  Here are mine:

April 2, 2007:  A year after winning 90 games and the World Series, the 2006 White Sox won 90 games.  That should have been good enough to make the post-season.  Instead, the AL Central became one of the most competitive divisions in the American League.  The Minnesota Twins were 12 games out of first place on June 13, 2006.  They finished the season with 96 wins and another AL Central title.  The surprising Detroit Tigers clinched the AL Wild Card with 95 wins.  I thought the White Sox would be just as good in 2007.  There was no reason Paul Konerko, Jim Thome, and Jermaine Dye wouldn’t repeat their performance in 2006.  They had a decent cast of supporting players.  The bullpen was stocked with young fireballers.

I was genuinely excited for Opening Day in 2007.  It was a freakishly warm April day (sunny and high temps in the 80’s).   Grady Sizemore of the Cleveland Indians deposited Jose Contreras’ first pitch into the right field stands.  By the time Contreras retired Andy Marte, the Sox were down 5-0 and the rout was on.  The final score was 12-5.  Later, we learned that Contreras had been served Divorce papers in the Sox clubhouse before the game.  I guess I can understand why his head was elsewhere.

April 7, 2008:  The 2007 White Sox season was an unmitigated disaster.  The team finished 72-90.  The only highlights were Jim Thome’s 500th home run, and the news that Mark Buehrle signed contract extension that would keep him on the White Sox through 2011.   It looked like the Sox were in for a long, dark period of losing.  They tried to sign Torii Hunter.  He signed with the Angels.  They tried to sign Kosuke Fukudome.  He went to the Cubs.  They tried to sign 2005 World Series hero Aaron Rowand.  He went to San Francisco.  They were hours away from acquiring Miguel Cabrera from the Florida Marlins, but the Tigers swept in at the last minute with the superior offer.   The Sox went to plan B, signing veteran reliever Scott Linebrink to shore up the bullpen.  They traded an A-ball first baseman named Chris Carter for a busted prospect from the Diamondbacks named Carlos Quentin.  The Sox traded a number of prospects to Oakland for Nick Swisher.

The sloppy seconds plan worked.  The Sox capped off an opening weekend sweep of the Tigers with a 13-2 win on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball.  The Sox rode into town on a four game winning streak…and the distinct feeling that 2007 was in the rear view mirror.  Joe Crede hit a grand slam and the Sox beat Twins 7-4.

April 7, 2009:  The 2008 White Sox won the AL Central in thrilling fashion, beating the Twins in a one-game playoff.  A personality conflict between Nick Swisher and…the rest of the team…led the Sox to trade Swisher to the Yankees for some spare parts.  Opening Day was originally scheduled for April 6th.  But a freak snowstorm on April 5th led the White Sox to postpone the opener by one day.

Opening Day was cold and clear as Mark Buehrle battled Gil Meche of the Royals.  The Sox trailed the Royals 2-1 into the bottom of the 8th, when Jim Thome hit a three run homer that sealed the win for the White Sox.

April 5, 2010:  The 2009 White Sox were killed by injuries…and the economy.  The Great Recession wiped out Pontiac (a major sponsor at US Cellular Field), and it forced a number of companies to cut back on advertising, premium ballpark seats, and other perks.  One of the big advertisers at US Cellular Field in the early months of 2009 was NextStep Medical Staffing, a company that was run by a man who would later go to prison for running a Ponzi scheme.  To top it all off, thousands of Sox fans found themselves unemployed, and unable to afford to take the family to a game.

Bartolo Colon got hurt...and eventually disappeared from the team.  Carlos Quentin battled injuries all year long.

Constrained by a tighter budget, Kenny Williams went dumpster diving and pulled out Bartolo Colon.  Jose Contreras was still rehabbing from the ruptured Achilles tendon he suffered the previous August.   The lineup worked well enough to pull into a tie for first place by late July.  A trade for the injured Jake Peavy and a waiver claim of Alex Rios weren’t enough.  The Sox traded Contreras and Thome in late August.  A late season surge got them to 79 wins.

The Sox could have re-signed Jim Thome, but either Ozzie Guillen or Kenny Williams (depending on who you talk to) decided that a full-time DH didn’t allow for enough lineup flexibility, so the DH slot went to a rotating cast of players who needed a rest from the field.

Which is why on Opening Day of 2010, the White Sox DH was….Mark Kotsay.  Kotsay was a nice guy and a good clubhouse presence.  All good qualities for the bench player that he was.

Thome, meantime, was signed by the Twins.

All of that didn’t matter on April 5, 2010.  It was a beautiful, summer-like day in Chicago.  The Sox beat the Indians 6-0, and Mark Buherle provided the highlight of the year with a between the legs throw to nail Lou Marson at first base.

April 7, 2011:  The rotating DH plan didn’t work.  A 25-5 run in June-July pushed the White Sox into first place by the All-Star Break.   Meantime, in Minnesota, Justin Morneau suffered a concussion that would end his season.  The Twins didn’t lose a step, thanks to the thump provided by Jim Thome.   The 2010 Sox ran out of gas, and ended the season with 85 wins and second place.

To make matters worse, Jake Peavy literally ripped the lat muscle off of his shoulder.   A deadline trade for Edwin Jackson made up for some of the lost production.  But it wasn’t enough to get the Sox over the hump.

The Sox addressed the DH problem in a big way.  They signed Adam Dunn, who was the best home run hitter in the game not named Albert Pujols.  They signed Jesse Crain to shore up the bullpen.  They handed out long term contracts to AJ Pierzynski and Paul Konerko.  Kenny Williams said he was going “all in,” which turned into the marketing slogan for the year.

There were plenty of indications that 2011 wasn’t going to live up to expectations.  Adam Dunn struggled all through Spring Training.  He hit a towering home run on Opening Day in Cleveland.  Four games later, he was in a hospital in Kansas City for an emergency appendectomy.

Dunn was still on the shelf when the Sox returned to US Cellular Field.  Dunn wasn’t there, but Edwin Jackson’s slider was on the money.  He struck out 13 on the way to a 5-1 win over TampaBay.

I missed the home opener in 2012 (I was returning from vacation).  I’ve had a winning record on Opening Day.  Here’s hoping that trend continues in 2013.

Filed under: White Sox History

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