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Chili Sell-Off

Let's skip ahead for a moment to the 2017 baseball season.

With two box seat tickets in his pocket, the Old Man tells his wife, "We're going to the G-spot tonight."

"Aw, Honey," she responds, "I'm too tired, and I have to get up early tomorrow."

"Not that G-spot," he says. "I mean the ballgame. Sox Park. Quintana's pitching and it's Luke Appling Bobblehead Night."

"Thank God," she exhales. "I thought you meant the other G-spot."

Let's hope the name change that Sox management announced last week for the stadium at 35th and Bill Veeck Drive turns out to be the season's final weirdness from this fluttering franchise, as it attempts to move forward instead of standing pat, or, heaven forbid, continuing on its downward spiral.

The new name, Guaranteed Rate Field, is confusing enough - how many Sox fans had heard of this company until five days ago? - but worse yet is the spin that people like Jerry Reinsdorf and marketing director Brooks Boyer have created to explain the erasure of what has been known as U.S. Cellular Field, or The Cell, for the last 13 years.

"We are pleased to find, in Guaranteed Rate, a new naming rights partner founded in Chicago by Chicagoans, which shares our commitment to the city and to our fans," Reinsdorf was quoted as saying in the team's press release, referring to the company which has been in business for all of 16 years - and was founded by a rich kid from Oak Brook.

Just how does Guaranteed Rate have a commitment - aside from cold, hard cash - to me and other folks who have supported the White Sox for far longer than the past 16 years?

When CEO Victor Ciardelli was asked if he was a Sox fan, he said, "I'm a Chicago fan."

In addition, if I'm correctly understanding the company's website, of the $18 billion in home loans the tech-savvy firm made in 2015, a good portion of them were accomplished online. For all anyone knows, they could be located in Nova Scotia; they boast they have 175 offices spread among all 50 states.

Headquarters is "nestled in a tree-lined neighborhood on Chicago's North Side." Isn't that where the other Chicago baseball team plays? It appears to be a chic start-up with "a really cool office environment" that includes a Mardi Gras party and a chili cook-off, both of which should make all Sox fans rest easier.

"When you use words that we use often like pride, passion and tradition, especially when it comes to the Chicago market . . . you love to find marketing partners that share that same enthusiasm for those three things," Boyer said in the press release.

Tradition? Sixteen years? How honest and refreshing would Boyer sound if he simply stated, "Guaranteed Rate was willing to pay much more than the $68 million that U.S. Cellular forked over since 2003. That was nice. It covered Jose Abreu's six-year deal, but this deal brings in many more dollars, which will help us sign players and improve the ballpark."

Ciardelli, wearing jeans, of course, and a Sox jersey, was interviewed during the Sox-Phillies telecast Wednesday night, disclosing that his company didn't go looking for naming rights to anything. The Sox came looking for him, according to Ciardelli.

Apparently the phone rang, initiating negotiations to etch Guaranteed Rate Field on the exterior facade behind home plate. ABC News reported that the price tag for the naming rights could run as much as $100 million.

Ciardelli's adrenalin must have been in ample supply Wednesday when he threw out the first pitch prior to the Sox bowing to the Phillies. He heaved a looping slow ball far over the head of Chris Sale. Later, as Steve Stone and Jason Benetti dutifully held a mic in front of him, Ciardelli gushed more than once how "thrilled and excited" he was to be associated with the White Sox.

Ciardelli appears to be a bright fellow. Mortgage Executive magazine named him CEO of the Year in 2013, and he received the same award the next year from the Illinois Technology Association.

Only Ciardelli and his advisors know how they gauged the financial and publicity benefits of spending millions to slap his company's name on a stadium occupied by a losing team that outdraws only four other big league clubs. While Sox fans everywhere ridiculed the announcement last week, the name, Guaranteed Rate, immediately became identifiable to those very same people, myself included. Isn't that what naming rights are all about?

Despite the instant name recognition, there appear to be risks involved. The team on the other side of town figures to be among baseball's elite for the foreseeable future and, judging from Sox general manager Rick Hahn's comments last week, it appears that Ciardelli's new partner may be planning to unload its established athletes for a bevy of prospects. A series of 90- or 100-loss seasons could be on the horizon. Maybe "scared and nervous" would be more appropriate than "thrilled and excited."

U.S. Cellular, the nation's fifth largest wireless carrier, sold off a number of its Midwestern markets, including Chicago, to Sprint in 2013, although the company's headquarters continue to be near O'Hare. While Sox Park has been the most notable of their named stadia, U.S. Cellular's name also is on five smaller venues throughout the country.

Has that been good for business? Dating back to March 2014, the company had lost subscribers for 15 consecutive quarters. Without U.S. Cellular Field, business might have been worse. Maybe Ciardelli knows.

The Sox are heralding the fact that their new partner, like their old one, is Chicago-based. Well, so is McDonald's, Allstate, Boeing, Walgreens, Northern Trust, Brunswick, Groupon, Smurfit-Stone Container and dozens of others. Wouldn't you just love to know why an online mortgage company was targeted? Must have been those chili cook-offs that sealed the deal.

Furthermore, the Sox have a laudable track record of financial support for inner city youth baseball, children's medical care, educational programs, and much more. Wouldn't it have been a statement of commitment to the city and the community in which the ballpark is located if a minority-owned company's name would have replaced U.S. Cellular?

As it is, this latest development ranks right beside Adam LaRoche's walkout and Chris Sale's scissors in attracting national derision for the South Siders in the past six months. Guaranteed Rate's logo is a red arrow pointing downward. That may work well in the mortgage biz. For a ballclub, it's rather ominous. Especially this ballclub.

Up Arrows
Meanwhile, back on the field, after taking three-of-four from the Mariners over the weekend, the Sox closed out their nine-game homestand with six wins. Despite being out of post-season contention long ago, the ballclub now has won nine of its last 15 games. However, like Hawk Harrelson is fond of saying, "Don't tell me what you hit, tell me when you hit it," which is especially apropos of this recent rally. The White Sox may not be quitters, but let's face it: these games are virtually meaningless.

The pitching trio of Sale, Jose Quintana, and Carlos Rodon highlighted the homestand, accounting for 43 1/3 innings on a yield of just 29 hits and an ERA of 1.45. James Shields managed to muck things up when he took the mound, and Miguel Gonzalez remains disabled, but any of the Big Three is capable of keeping the Sox competitive.

Jose Abreu has continued his late-season resurgence, raising his slash to .285/.342/.796. The power also has returned as the first baseman has clubbed seven homers this month to raise his total to 18.

Rookie shortstop Tim Anderson has hiked his average above .280, raising hopes that the team has a player of the future who gets on base, has some pop - he has seven home runs in 67 games - and speed to burn.

And Avisail Garcia is hitting the ball better than at any time in parts of four seasons on the South Side. After spending two weeks on the DL, Avi returned last week. He had a monster game on Saturday in a 9-3 drubbing of Seattle, hitting a long home run and collecting two other hits.

Hahn's trade of catcher Dioner Navarro back to Toronto in exchange for a promising minor league pitcher over the weekend opens up a spot for Rule 5 draftee Omar Narvaez, who figures to play regularly between now and the end of the season. Narvaez has been a consistent contact hitter who has struck out just seven times in 50 plate appearances. In Navarro's abbreviated tenure with the Sox, he hit a weak .210, continuing the team's catching woes since A.J. Pierzynski departed four years ago.

Hahn indicated last week that we will quickly know the team's plan soon after the season ends. That either means that players like Sale, Quintana and Melky Cabrera will be sent elsewhere in exchange for young prospects, or he will make strategic moves to shore up an ineffective bullpen while holding onto his Big Three. In all probability, Hahn will wave Robin Ventura goodbye and name a new manager.

The team's new partner guarantees a mortgage rate. I'd much rather have a guarantee of a ballclub playing for a spot in the playoffs instead of trying to finish .500.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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