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Cold Open To A Mediocre Mystery

The last few crystals from that pile of snow in my backyard were making a valiant attempt over the weekend to hold on until Chris Sale's first scheduled pitch on Opening Day this afternoon on the South Side.

On Friday, winter's final vestige appeared to be a cinch to survive the beginning of the baseball season. The seasons' transition grabbed my attention as spring made an appearance the past couple of days. By Sunday, however, the crystals were gone, and our prospects for a comfortable opener appeared possible.

Still, the forecast predicts "unseasonably cold" temperatures today. Let's face it, our city is just plain cold at the beginning of April; the word "unseasonably" is neither necessary nor accurate.

Just two years ago, when the Sox beat Tampa Bay 5-1 in the opener, the thermometer reached a high of just 39 degrees.

Then again, a year ago, when the Sox opened at home (beating Detroit 5-2) on April 13 after five road games, the thermometer hit 64 degrees.

Not only was the game memorable for a Sox win over the eventual American League champion, but this was the day Miguel Cabrera - batting in the first inning - pointed out to the home plate umpire that Roger Bossard's chalk lines for the batter's box weren't in the proper place. Cabrera claimed that they missed by a few inches.

Bossard has performed this work since 1967, so he's had some practice. However, the umps concurred with Cabrera, whose expert perception and eyesight helped him go on to win a Triple Crown.

That Bossard and his crew didn't quite get it right a year ago is less surprising than what the entire field will look like this afternoon. How can the grass be so green and luxuriant when just a couple of days ago I had snow in my backyard?

I know about hot-house tomatoes. This must be a hot-house baseball park. The grass in our neighborhood won't be this green until Memorial Day, yet the field at the Cell will be in mid-season form.

Today's crowd will be somewhere in the neighborhood of 38,000. It is listed as a sellout. Not since 1999 - when the Sox drew 26,243 - has a opener drawn less than capacity. So every home opener this century has been a sellout.

Last season, the announced attendance was 38,676. The unfortunate aspect - at least for the team's sales department - is that none of the other 80 home dates drew as many fans as Opening Day.

Not only have the Sox been successful from an attendance standpoint on Opening Days since 2000, but they've given ticket-buyers plenty to cheer about. They've won 11 of 13 home openers in the 21st Century. They'll be looking for their sixth in a row today.

If last season's miserable performance against the Kansas City Royals - 12 losses in 18 games - is any indication, our athletes will be mightily tested when Sale inaugurates the season at 3:10 p.m.

He'll be facing James Shields, a stalwart on the Tampa Bay pitching staff for the past six seasons who was traded to Kansas City over the winter along with pitcher Wade Davis for minor league Player of the Year Wil Myers. Myers, who will begin the season with the Rays' Triple-A affiliate, slammed 34 homers in 2012 and drove in 109 runs.

Of course, none of these came at the big league level, so theoretically the Royals gave up very little to get two legitimate big league pitchers.

Kansas City has hit the ball all over the park the past few seasons, but they've been sabotaged by poor pitching. Now they think they can make a move up in the standings because they still have guys like Billy Butler, Alex Gordon, Eric Hosmer, and emerging start Salvador Perez in the lineup.

Most of the prognosticators have already given the division to the Tigers while predicting that the Twins will finish fifth. The Royals with their improved pitching and the Indians with Terry Francona at the helm are expected to battle the White Sox for the middle three positions. The consensus is that the Sox will finish third or fourth.

How can you argue with that? The Sox are basically the same team that finished 87-75 last season. Sure, they led the division for 117 days before stumbling in September. But let's be honest - the Tigers were the superior team.

Therefore, how can the White Sox be better with the addition of a third baseman, Jeff Keppinger, who has been more or less a utility man his entire career, and the subtraction of A.J. Pierzynski, who hit 27 home runs last year with a .278/.326/.826 line?

The other guys simply have to play better. Adam Dunn can't hit .204 again, nor can Gordon Beckham have another season at .234. The outfield of Dayan Viciedo, Alejandro De Aza and Alex Rios has to produce at the same or higher levels than a year ago. Paul Konerko needs to show at age 37 that he has something left in the tank. Tyler Flowers needs to be a productive replacement for Pierzynski.

All of which says nothing about the pitching which the front office deems to be the Sox's strength. Can the young pitchers of last year - Addison Reed, Jose Quintana, Nate Jones, Hector Santiago and Sale - continue to mature and improve? Will Jake Peavy ever come close to his Cy Young level of six seasons ago? For that matter, will Gavin Floyd come close to the pitcher he was when he went 17-8 in 2008?

I've hit the question mark so often in this article that I may have to get the keyboard repaired. The Sox are gambling that Robin Ventura and his coaching staff will be able to put all the pieces together into a contending team, which is improbable but certainly not impossible.

And it all begins this afternoon in front of a chilled full house. The good news today is that the air will be slightly colder than my refrigerator, which means the beer will stay cold. The bad news is that infamous coldophobe Alexei Ramirez may call in sick. But if the Sox win, we'll soon forget about the temperature we endured.


Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox beat. He welcomes your comments.

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