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Fire Sale

Before he died a couple of years ago, Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner told the story about his contractual negotiations with the legendary Branch Rickey when both were employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Of course, Rickey is best known as the general manager who courageously brought Jackie Robinson to major league baseball when Mr. Rickey was general manager of the Dodgers.

While acknowledging Rickey's monumental contribution to the game, Kiner had another view of the man known as The Mahatma. Without a union or an agent, each player negotiated his own contract, and Kiner disclosed that Rickey was determined to hold on to as many dollars as possible. Rickey's concept of player compensation was, politely, frugality. Kiner saw him as cheap.

Keep in mind that Kiner led the National League in home runs for seven consecutive seasons (1946-52) on a club that finished no higher than seventh place in an eight-team league from 1950 to 1957.

As Kiner remembered, he hit 37 dingers in 1952, little consolation on a team that finished 42-112. Venturing into Rickey's office the next winter to talk about his contract, the power hitter was offered a $25,000 pay cut. The two argued, postured, and tried to reason for a couple of hours until Rickey finally said, "Ralph, let me ask you a question."

"Sure, Mr. Rickey, go right ahead," Kiner replied.

"Where did we finish last year?"

"Well, we finished last, Mr. Rickey," Kiner answered.

"And we can finish last again without you," countered Rickey as the conversation abruptly ended.

The story has relevancy for today's Chicago White Sox, who bowed in infamy over the weekend in Anaheim, California, getting swept by an Angels team that entered the series 15 games under .500. So quite possibly it's time to ask, "How can this team be any worse without Chris Sale, Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, Melky Cabrera and a number of other players who might bring in future talent from clubs such as the Red Sox, who have plenty of it?"

Rickey, in fact, dealt Kiner to the Cubs in the middle of the 1953 season and proceeded quietly to make moves such as drafting an unknown Puerto Rican kid named Roberto Clemente out of the Dodger organization. While Rickey wasn't around in 1960 when Pittsburgh won the World Series, he laid the groundwork for converting a moribund franchise into a winner.

So let's take a look at the carnage from last weekend. The Sox were outscored 16-1, being shut out Friday and Saturday despite more than decent starting pitching from Miguel Gonzalez and James Shields, two guys who were toiling elsewhere when the season opened.

The two shutouts, coupled with a 2-0 loss to the cellar-dwelling Braves in the final game before the All-Star break, matched the futility of the 1968 White Sox. who also were blanked three games in a row. In the ensuing 48 seasons, that hadn't happened until last week. By the way, did I mention that the '68 bunch finished 67-95?

However, there is promising news. When the Sox finally scored in the third inning on Sunday, it broke a streak of 34 2/3runless innings. That 1968 club went an astounding 39 1/3 frames without scoring, so this season's group snapped out of it almost five innings earlier. Somehow I'm underwhelmed.

Assuming that attaining a post-season berth is the objective, the Sox would have to go 41-30 the remainder of the season to match last year's Houston Astros, who snuck into the wild card with 86 wins. That was the lowest total since 2010, so figure that the White Sox would need a few more victories to qualify.

We thought we saw the depths when the club had a stretch of 26 losses in 36 games, but the futility of last weekend served as a reminder that this organization appears to be in deep trouble, so much so that dealing someone like Chris Sale could be the wisest strategy for the future.

You can't fault GM Rick Hahn for not trying. However, have the additions of Jimmy Rollins, Mat Latos, Adam LaRoche, Adam Dunn, Jake Peavy, Jeff Samardzija, Frazier, Cabrera and others resulted in a competitive ballclub?

The euphoria of 2005 wore off long ago. We deluded ourselves with the thought, "I'm content now. I saw the Sox win a World Series. I can't ask for more."

However, time works in predictable ways. Being a sub-.500 team going on four seasons tends to obscure past glories. We see all the outstanding young talent coming into baseball - look no further than nine miles north - and Sox fans wonder, where is our future? The arrival of shortstop Tim Anderson allayed some of those concerns, but he now looks as demoralized and confused as the other guys in the dugout.

No team ever looks alert and engaged when it's not hitting. Outsiders see lethargy even though the athletes may be trying to remain positive and optimistic. They talk about grinding, a long season, adversity, and grit.

What we see are hitters taking fastballs right down the middle while swinging at sliders in the dirt. Jared Weaver came into Sunday's game with a 7-7 record and a 5.27 ERA. The speed gun clocked him at no higher than 87 mph, and the majority of his pitches were in the mid-70s. This was nothing new. The Sox saw him back in April when the South Siders were leading the division. Yet Weaver beat them 3-2 then, and he allowed only six hits in seven innings on Sunday. Why can't Ventura's hitters make adjustments and learn from their ineptitude?

On Saturday, the Angels starting pitcher Matt Shoemaker entered with a 4-9 record and an ERA of 4.45. He wound up pitching a six-hit, 1-0 shutout, striking out 13 Sox hitters while registering his first complete game ever after 70 incomplete outings.

When the Sox face the league's better pitchers, like the Yankees' Masahiro Tanaka or the Indians' Danny Salazar, the story is no different. Both have beaten the Sox in recent weeks by 9-0 and 13-2 counts, respectively, in games where the Sox weren't competitive. It doesn't matter whom the Sox are facing. They fail to move runners and frequently can't score with guys on base and less than two outs.

The Sox dealing Sale, Quintana, or closer David Robertson most assuredly would result in another 90-plus losses. But as this team continues its journey in mediocrity, what is the alternative? Adding a face here or there doesn't figure to alter the course of where this club is headed. Fire Robin Ventura? This franchise that rewards loyalty more than grand slam home runs is averse to making a change in midseason.

Maybe history can be a guide. Looking back to the late 60s, the Sox lost 295 games over the three seasons of 1968-70. They were pitching-rich with the likes of Tommy John, Gary Peters, Joe Horlen and Wilbur Wood, but their hitters were even more inept than today's edition. The 1968 club had a team batting average of .228.

Finally, John was dealt to the Dodgers for Dick Allen, a man with plenty of baggage but just as much talent. Chuck Tanner was hired as manager. John went on to win 288 games over 26 seasons - the surgery which bears his name was a major factor - while Allen won an MVP award in 1972 before walking out on the team two seasons later.

Trading a 28-year-old left-hander like Tommy John was a risky move, but it turned out to be a quick fix as Allen gave the team an immediate lift. The game may be much different today, but clearly the White Sox need to take a few risks to escape the current doldrums.

Now could be the time.


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

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