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Abreu Outfoxes ESPN

The cagey folks in Bristol had about as much chance tricking Jose Abreu as major league pitchers have had through the season's first 96 games.

ESPN has duped the masses into thinking that calling out names for the NFL and NBA drafts is an earth-shaking event, worthy of prime-time television, exaggerated hoopla and the celebration of making millionaires out of 19-year-olds.

When the Milwaukee Bucks with the NBA's first pick tabbed Lew Alcindor in 1969 - 10 years before the founding of the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network - the hype was real. The team added 29 more wins with Lew - double what they won the previous season - but my mind is foggy trying to recall a similar immediate elixir since then.

Yet ESPN treats the annual name-calling, not only for the NBA and NFL but also for major league's amateur baseball draft when none of the draftees have immediate impact on the big league roster, with all the publicity it can muster. And the public loves it.

Similarly, for the 30th time this evening, a full house at Target Field in the Twin Cities and I don't know how many millions watching on TV will witness batting practice. Or what is known as the Home Run Derby. Dave Parker slammed six over the wall in that initial contest, also held in the Twin Cities but at the since-demolished Metrodome. Parker hit 34 dingers that season for Cincinnati and finished with 339 in his almost-Hall-of-Fame career.

Abreu, who almost single-handedly has made the White Sox worth watching this season, politely declined an invitation to participate despite being the major league leader in home runs with 29. Citing a concern about altering his swing in order to hit batting practice homer uns, the 27-year-old rookie will confine his participation this week to being a substitute for the American League in Tuesday's All-Star Game.

All of which in my mind adds to his image as just a little bit north of mortality. Whereas Jose occasionally got himself out by swinging at off-speed breaking balls earlier in the year, pitchers now find that they have to throw something in the strike zone to get the big guy to swing.

He sprinted to the All-Star break last week with 13 hits in 28 at-bats for a .464 mark. Add in a few walks, and his OBP was .516. He hit two more homers last week, and drove in four runs for a season total of 73. On Thursday, when Red Sox catcher David Ross threw to first base on a pickoff attempt, Abreu, who was on second, stole third. I'm not making up this stuff.

Looking back, when Abreu played for Cienfuegos in Cuba in 2011-12, he hit .394 in 87 games with 35 home runs and 99 RBI. That topped all the present-day Cubans, including Yasiel Puig, in the major leagues today. When Jose signed his six-year, $68 million contract with the White Sox, Baseball Prospectus projected him for 19 homers and a .262 average this season. FanGraphs was a bit more generous at .272 and 34. The sky is out there some place, but no one is quite sure where it is.

This so-called home run contest that Abreu has chosen to skip actually was staged long ago in 1960 when stars of that era teed it up at Los Angeles's Wrigley Field. Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Harmon Killebrew, Ernie Banks, Hank Aaron and other icons took their swings in an empty ball park with broadcaster Mark Scott trying to inject as much drama and enthusiasm as humanly possible.

When one slugger was straining to knock one out of the park - it was only 345 feet to each alley - Scott would conduct these insipid interviews with the other contestant. The show met an early demise when Scott died prematurely at age 45 of a heart attack. He wasn't replaced and the show died right along with him.

The episodes were noteworthy on two fronts: 1) they were indicative of the limitations of the early days of TV, and 2) they illustrated the difficulty for hitting homers even for the game's best players when that's exactly what they were trying to do.

Hank Aaron's $13,000 in prize money led all sluggers from that original Home Run Derby.

Abreu simply tries to make good contact like he did yesterday when he had three singles, two coming with two strikes. Because he's exceedingly proficient at making solid contact, though, a good number of Abreu's hits wind up in the seats. He doesn't need to swing for the fences; it comes naturally. And that's precisely why something like a Home Run Derby doesn't suit him.

As exhilarating as Abreu has been, the White Sox bullpen more often than not puts a damper on any momentum the team can create. Two runs in the top of the eighth inning Sunday gave the Sox a 2-1 lead, leaving John Danks, who had another fine outing, with a chance to notch his ninth win.

Javy Guerra took care of that by yielding a soft single to Nick Swisher to lead off the bottom of the inning followed by an opposite field home run by Yan Gomes as the Indians won 3-2 and got themselves back to .500 at the break, 7 1/2 games behind the division-leading Tigers.

This was the third loss by one run on the seven-game road trip which saw the Sox split four games in Boston before dropping two of three in Cleveland.

Surely the most painful defeat last week - and quite possibly of the season thus far - occurred Wednesday night at Fenway Park when Chris Sale departed with two outs in the eighth inning leading 4-0. In came Jake Petricka, who gave up four straight hits. Guerra got the last out in the eighth with the Sox clinging to a one-run lead, but he hit a batter before a double and Brock Holt's walkoff single doomed our guys 5-4.

On Thursday, Conor Gillaspie, pinch-hitting in the ninth inning with a man on in a 3-1 game, homered to tie it. Thrilling to say the least, but Old Unreliable Ronald Belisario walked the leadoff man in the bottom of the tenth. After a sacrifice bunt, Belisario yielded a game-winning base hit to Mike Carp.

As hot as Abreu is, Gillaspie has matched him in the past week, hiking his average to .326. One of the big surprises of the season, Gillaspie went 10-for-19 on the road trip with three round-trippers. Gillaspie failed to homer in the team's first 84 games. Now he's hit four in the last 12.

In addition to Sale and Danks, Jose Quintana has a sparkling 1.51 ERA over his last five starts, and in two starts on the road trip Scott Carroll pitched 11 2/3 scoreless innings, giving up just three hits.

Did I mention the bullpen flips potential victories into stunning defeats? That more or less summarizes a team with a 45-51 record, heading into the four-day moratorium for the All-Star Game. After splitting their first 58 games, the Sox have gone 16-22. Still, a year ago at the break, the Sox were 37-55, so obviously this is a notably better ballclub than last season's edition.

This was a week featuring paralyzed sports fans held captive waiting for two NBA stars to declare their most favored franchise while Hockey on Quaaludes, otherwise known as the World Cup, came to a merciful conclusion with - what else? - a scoreless tie in regulation. Meanwhile, the greatest talent to join the Chicago baseball scene since Frank Thomas simply continues to perform at a level few could have envisioned. Jose Abreu could have elected to share his talents with a national TV audience this evening, but he's too smart for that. The next home run he hits won't come in batting practice.


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

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