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Thanks For The (2005) Memories

It's time to think pleasant thoughts as the baseball season winds down to a merciful - at least here in Chicago - ending this Sunday.

No reason to bemoan Saturday night's jaw-dropping loss to the Tigers as our fellas blew a 6-0 ninth-inning lead in Detroit and robbed the brilliant Chris Sale of a chance to be a .500 pitcher this season.

The first cool, crisp, clear days of autumn are upon us. Soon the landscape will be ablaze with its fall majesty. The Bears are 3-0. The more astute among us stopped gnashing their teeth over this forgettable baseball season long ago. Complaining about the White Sox has become as passé as getting pissed off about the gaggle of cyclists who make driving in this city seem like a daily driver's test at the DMV. It's just the way it is.

But if habit, addiction, idleness or just plain stupidity dictates that you keep an eye on baseball until the bitter end, what better way to make this a fruitful experience than to reflect back a few years when the games meant something?

Neal Cotts. Sox fans remember him from the magic of 2005. Cotts is a great story. He and Cliff Politte - two guys no one had really ever heard of - led a strong bullpen with a combined 137 appearances in which they pitched an out short of 128 innings. As middle relievers, the duo allowed just 80 hits, won 11 games against one loss, and had ERAs of 2.00 (Politte) and 1.94 (Cotts). You could argue that they were as valuable as anyone for the team's 110 wins (counting the post-season) and World Series title.

Politte quietly hurt his arm and was finished the next season at age 32. Cotts was peddled across town to the Cubs after the '06 season and spent three injury-filled lackluster seasons on the North Side before being released in 2009. He was just 29.

The following three years saw Cotts undergo Tommy John surgery followed by surgery on his hip from an old soccer injury. He endured infections and more surgeries. Along the way a number of teams expressed interest in the left-hander, but he couldn't pass a physical. No one would sign him and risk a worker's comp claim.

A native of downstate Lebanon, outside of St. Louis, Cotts began to focus on returning to Illinois State to get a degree in finance. That's before a 2012 tryout with the Rangers, who liked what they saw. He spent last season at Triple-A with moderate success - he was injury-free - and after he got off to a rousing start this season in the minors, the Rangers called him up in May.

And how has that worked out? Splendidly, to say the least. Cotts was tagged with a loss on Sunday having given up a lead-off double in the bottom of the tenth. Through no fault of his, Kansas City won the game five batters later on a walk-off grand slam. That raised his ERA to 1.20 in 52-plus innings of work. In that time, he's struck out 59 hitters and allowed just 34 hits. Sure beats studying finance at ISU.

"It comes to a point sometimes where you think, 'Is it worth it?'" his erstwhile and present catcher A.J. Pierzynski said. "But apparently he thought so. And it was."

Pierzynski and Cotts are two of the seven members of the '05 Sox who are still playing in the big leagues. A.J. is putting up his typical numbers - .274, 17 HRs, 66 RBI - this season at age 36. Let's assume for a moment that the Sox re-signed Pierzynski. He'd be batting in the six or seven slot. The five Sox catchers this season have usually batted eighth or ninth with a combined average of .201.

The Sox have lost 34 one-run games this season. Just maybe that number would have been reduced with Pierzynski in the middle of the order. We'll never know, and at this point, who really cares?

Meanwhile, Sox all-time favorite Mark Buehrle has been toiling in the secrecy of Toronto where they also stopped watching baseball a couple of months ago. Saturday's win over the Red Sox was Buerhle's 12th against nine losses for the last-place Blue Jays. He continues to give up a lot of hits, a generous helping of home runs, and has an ERA of slightly more than four. However, when Buerhle is right, he's still a challenge for hitters in the same way Greg Maddux was.

Another of the Sox starters from 2005, Freddy Garcia, is another feel-good story. Freddy will be 37 next week. According to Baseball Reference, he's made more than $53 million dollars in his career, which included a 40-21 mark in 2004-06 with the Sox. Yet Garcia spent most of this season pitching at Triple-A as a member of the Baltimore organization. You'd think he take his money, return home to Venezuela, and pose for one of those beach scenes from the Corona beer ads.

Not Freddy. Injuries dictated that the front-running Atlanta Braves needed pitching help, and they purchased Garcia's contract in August. So far in five appearances - two as a starter - Garcia has a 1.31 ERA. Baseball is what he does.

The same is true for Juan Uribe. What a survivor! While dwelling on pleasant memories, his ninth-inning diving catch while falling into the seats in Houston in Game 4 of the World Series is an ever-lasting testament to how the guy plays the game.

The Dodgers tried a few guys at third base at the beginning of the season and Uribe, who now is 34, has become the regular on the strength of a .273 average with a lot of clutch hits. It appears that he also is supplying a mature influence on Yasiel Puig. Uribe is heading toward another post-season appearance, his fourth in 13 seasons. That's no accident.

A less-prominent member of the '05 Sox, Brandon McCarthy, will be tonight's starting pitcher for the Diamondbacks. Eight years ago as a 21-year-old, McCarthy was a promising right-hander in the Erik Johnson mold, but the Sox dealt him to Texas in the winter of 2006 basically in exchange for John Danks.

(Even though we are focusing on the past, Johnson's outstanding effort in the Sox 6-3 win Sunday provides a ray of hope for next season's rotation.)

McCarthy has been plagued by arm problems, and last September while pitching for Oakland, he was nailed by a line drive in the side of the head, one of the ugliest baseball moments in memory. Whether McCarthy will ever realize the potential he showed on the South Side remains unclear.

Of course, the other member of the 2005 Sox still in the big leagues has gone nowhere since that classic season. Sadly the Paul Konerko we've seen for the past season-and-a-half bears little resemblance to the guy who hit 40 homers and drove in 100 runs when the Sox were champs.

Paulie has had a great 15-year run on the South Side. His number 14 will wind up pasted to the facade down the right field line next to Nellie, Harold, Luke, and the others. Who knows? He'll probably get a bronze statue one day out there in centerfield.

But time moves ahead as Konerko strokes an occasional single to right field instead of a prodigious shot into the seats in left. It's time, Paulie. You've done your job, and you've done it with dignity and grace. And now the memories will have to suffice.


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

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