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The relationship between athletes and their fans has always been more or less a double-edged sword for the men and women who play the games.
Seattle's 12th Man propelled the Seahawks to the NFL championship. It's become de rigueur when players in winning locker rooms and clubhouses thank "the greatest fans in the world." Fantasy camps let fans hobnob and play catch with current and former stars. Offseason conventions like SoxFest enable fans to mix with the likes of Ron Kittle, Tony LaRussa, Gordon Beckham and Paul Konerko.
On the other hand, boos will echo throughout the Cell when Adam Dunn strikes out yet again with guys on base. Ryan Braun will be rudely treated this summer in ball arks across America. And whatever you do, don't invite Moises Alou to the same dinner party with Steve Bartman.
All of which brings us to the annual rite of spring training, a time when players are far more accessible than during the regular season when the games count. The mood is relaxed and laid back. More likely than not, any fan asking for an autograph can find a cooperating athlete. Want a baseball? Just ask.
At Camelback Ranch - "a state-of-the-art baseball facility like no other" that the Sox share with the Dodgers in Glendale - the ballplayers show up in the morning for drills on the myriad of fields laid out over 141 acres. Around 11:30 a.m., they walk back to the clubhouse for lunch. Separated from fans by only a chest-high fence, opportunities for conversation and autographs abound.
After lunch, the Sox file into the 13,000-seat stadium - the Sox rarely fill it unless they're playing the Dodgers - from the right field corner on their way to their dugout on the first base side. No ushers tell fans they can't crowd the railings so cries of "Hey, Paulie, over here" or "Alexei, how about an autograph?" usually result in guys like Konerko and Ramirez complying. Even Robin Ventura stops long enough to converse with folks who truly love the White Sox.
Our friend Diane, an exuberant 20-something, had no problem getting Avisail Garcia's attention last week before Tuesday's game with the Angels.
Curious about his eating habits, she asked the promising Venezuelan right-fielder what he had for lunch.
"I didn't eat lunch," Garcia said, which, judging from his 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, was good news for the rest of the team as there might have been a shortage of sandwiches.
"How about breakfast?" Diane asked.
"Scrambled eggs and bacon," Avisail disclosed.
All this without so much as a translator. Yes, Sox fans, Avisail is learning the language.
Meanwhile, pitchers are learning that Garcia hits to all fields, makes contact more often than not (he's struck out just 13 times this spring in 57 plate appearances), has awesome power, and he can run. Bo Jackson visited Camelback last week and proclaimed that Garcia has talent that "oozes from his pores." Bo knows.
Chances are Garcia will bat third with first baseman Jose Abreu in the cleanup role. Forget 2013. This is exciting stuff. Last Wednesday - a 14-10 loss to the Angels - Abreu sent a line drive over the left centerfield fence off Tyler Skaggs, who will be in the Angels' rotation this season. Like Garcia, Abreu uses the entire field, and he's whiffed just seven times this spring.
Another observation about Abreu is that in last Tuesday's 9-0 win over the Brewers, he was still in the dugout in the ninth inning long after the regulars had been pulled from the game and exited the premises. While Paulie and the guys might have been enjoying a post-game beverage, there was Abreu on the top step of the dugout intently watching every pitch.
There's more that makes the pulse pound. The Sox have a legitimate leadoff man in Adam Eaton, who came over from the Diamondbacks in the Addison Reed deal. He's hitting over .300 this spring with an on-base mark above .400. He'll steal some bases and will be more than adequate defensively. This kid, a product of Miami (Ohio) University, is visibly ecstatic about having an opportunity to play regularly for the Sox.
Matt Davidson, also a product of the Reed trade, was optioned to Charlotte on Monday, but he's just 23, has notable power, and will play third base for some big-league club in the future. Furthermore, he pushed incumbent Conor Gillaspie, who has had a splendid spring. He'll get his shot. If Gillaspie falters, Davidson is just waiting for his chance.
Lest we become foolishly enthusiastic about this bunch, consider the post-A.J. Pierzynski dilemma of having a catcher who barely hits .200 and the DH combo of Konerko and Dunn. While giving Paulie one more contract is a lovely gesture, he needs to produce for the team to be successful. It's been a season-and-a-half since Konerko was one of the league's better hitters, and why should he turn it around now in the twilight of his career?
The prospect of having both Konerko and Dunn in the lineup on the same day is no longer necessary or desirable.
We had the unfortunate experience last week of watching Jose Quintana - who signed on Monday for the next five years on the South Side - face nine Athletics in the first inning and failing to retire any of them. Two walks and seven hits were enough to compel Ventura to rescue his No. 2 starter. I was prepared to hear Don Cooper proclaim that Quintana "will be fine," but Jose himself allayed some of the trepidation by pitching five innings Sunday against the Rockies, giving up just one hit - he then picked the guy off first - and walking no one. Seeing as the Sox visit Colorado in the season's first week, this is very good news.
Aside from Chris Sale, the rest of the rotation creates apprehension since no team does well without effective starters. Can John Danks regain his pre-surgery form? Does Erik Johnson have the talent to be a big-league starting pitcher? Who is Felipe Paulino?
This being spring training, none of those questions truly matters. A guy like Jordan Danks can blast five homers and still will begin the season at Triple-A. Johnson may have an ERA over seven, but he'll still get the ball when the season begins. Conversely, Dominican reliever Maikel Cleto can be nearly unhittable in Arizona and still not be assured of making the big club.
What is real is the interaction with the folks in the stands. Six weeks of warm, cordial public relations puts everyone in a festive mood as time shortens between frigid weather and games that count. We can only hope that reality turns out to be as wonderful as spring in the desert.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.
1. From Bob Vanderberg:
I keep worrying that Eaton is merely a present-day version of John Cangelosi . . .
In 1970, the last time the Sox were this bad, the only dependable starting pitchers were Tommy John and Joe Horlen (and then Horlen hurt his knee!) . . . the "battle cry" that one of the beat writers came up with - with apologies to Johnny Sain and Warren Spahn, 1948 NL champ Boston Braves ("Spahn and Sain, and pray for rain") - was this:
Tommy and Joe
and pray for snow.
For 2014, I submit:
Quintana and Sale
and pray for hail.
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