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Labor Day Blues

Labor Day is such an innocuous, nondescript holiday. No fireworks, no counting down the seconds until midnight, no turkey, no gift-giving, not much of anything. I heard there was a parade in Naperville but other than the Napervillians, I can't imagine circling September 2 on my calendar.

The first Monday in September simply has morphed into a marker for the end of summer. What sane person looks forward to the last day of summer? When I was a kid, school always began the day after Labor Day. Same deal when I was a teacher. Didn't make any difference. Labor Day was not something you looked forward to.

In fact, the origins of Labor Day pale in comparison to, say, the Fourth of July. The Pullman strike in 1894 paralyzed the nation's transportation system and resulted in the death of two strikers at the hands of the military and U.S. Marshals right here in Chicago. President Grover Cleveland, in an attempt to pacify workers and appeal for their votes, promptly pushed legislation through Congress creating the national holiday to honor the nation's workers.

It also superseded International Workers' Day, which everyone knew was a sly commie plot.

Despite Cleveland's purportedly magnanimous legislation, he nevertheless wound up being a one-term president. However, his namesake right-hander Grover Cleveland Alexander, who was born during the Cleveland Administration, went on to win 373 games during a 20-year career in the National League.

Few remember much about the president, but the pitcher is a member of the Hall of Fame.

The one similarity Labor Day often has with another holiday concerns the baseball standings. There are exceptions - see 2011 - but very often there is little movement of teams between the heralded holiday of the Fourth of July and the first Monday in September.

This season presents a shining example. Aside from the Los Angeles Dodgers, the standings this morning look quite similar to the beginning of July.

Our White Sox, after being swept by Boston over the Labor Day weekend, are last in the AL Central - exactly where they resided on the Fourth of July. At that time they trailed the fourth-place Twins by two games. Now they're three games behind the Twinkies. Sheesh! Two months of baseball and our athletes are basically one game worse than they were when Rahm cancelled fireworks on the lakefront.

The Red Sox and Tigers had comfortable division leads two months ago. Nothing new there. Oakland led the West by a half-game over Texas on the Fourth of July. Today the Rangers hold a one-game edge with the two front-runners beginning a three-game series this afternoon in Oakland. Regardless of the outcome, both teams will qualify for the post-season thanks to the wild card. Same was true two months ago.

Meanwhile in the National League, Atlanta has been running away with the East all season. Pittsburgh had a two-game lead on St. Louis as we celebrated our nation's birthday. Labor Day finds them deadlocked. In any case, the Pirates, Cardinals and Reds are headed to the playoffs. Nothing has changed since July 4th.

The one difference is the National League West - thanks to Yasiel Puig. The Dodgers were trudging along at 41-44, 3 1/2 games behind Arizona compared to 81-55 and an 11 1/2-game lead today. I may have been less than elated years ago when school began the day after Labor Day, but I still learned enough math to know that the Dodgers are 40-11 since the Fourth of July.

(Note: The Dodgers would have run away with their division from the start had Puig - whose slash line is .351/.408/.965 - been in the lineup Opening Day. But the presence of high-priced Andre Ethier, Matt Kemp and Carl Crawford left no room for the Cuban sensation. Once Kemp and Crawford went down with injuries, the door opened for Puig, and the Dodgers soon went into orbit.)

What's interesting - and more than a little pitiful - is that our guys, the White Sox, recently looked like they were intent on shedding their inept "loser" label of most of the season. That was until last weekend's visit to Boston. The three losses showed that June, July, and early August were no fluke. The team suffered a relapse.

After subduing the Astros at the Cell on Tuesday and Wednesday - making it eight wins in nine games and 16-7 since August 4 - the team made more mistakes in Boston than, well, the Cleveland Administration.

Let's start with the 4-3 loss on Friday. Transplanted pitcher Ryan Dempster struggled at the outset, going to 3-2 counts on both leadoff man Alejandro De Aza and then Gordon Beckham in the top of the first before walking each of them. What a great start. Dempster must have thought he was back at Wrigley Field. He was in trouble. Alexei Ramirez, arguably the Sox's best hitter, steps to the plate. I assumed he had been an astute observer of Dempster's control problems and was prepared to go deep into the count, just as he saw his two teammates do. Nah. Ramirez swung at the first pitch and grounded into a double play. Adam Dunn followed by striking out.

Dempster breathed a sigh of relief; his teammates knew they dodged a bullet, and the tone was set for the game and the weekend.

Ramirez is a seasoned veteran. Granted, he's having a miserable year in the field with 21 errors. Only the Pirates' Pedro Alvarez has more - 25 - in all of baseball.

But Alexei can handle the bat. I am wary of putting the blame for a one-run loss on a first-inning double play, but seeing a guy who should know better swing at the first pitch in that situation sends the message that these guys don't know what they're doing.

Like Dempster, Hector Santiago couldn't find the plate. He also wiggled out of a two-walk first inning, but a walk and a hit batsman contributed to the first Boston run in the third. Santiago never made it out of the fourth inning after 101 pitches and four Boston runs.

And - did I mention? - Santiago faced 22 hitters and not one of them swung at the first pitch! You think they might have noticed something that apparently escaped Alexei Ramirez?

There's no need to revisit all the details from the Boston Massacre other than to say that the usual dependable starting pitchers (Santiago, John Danks and Andre Rienzo) walked ten hitters in 11-plus innings, and none was around longer than five innings.

Meanwhile, Saturday's game received a bit of hype because Jake Peavy faced his former teammates. The teams were even at two going into the bottom of the fourth when Peavy enjoyed something he rarely got in Chicago - run support. Before it was over the Red Sox knocked out 15 hits in the 7-2 victory.

Jake was effective over seven innings of five-hit ball. One of those hits was a run-scoring single by Avisail Garcia, the 22-year-old outfielder who came to the South Side in the Peavy deal. Peavy is having a good season, and chances are he's going to win a few more games in September and beyond.

That's OK. At this point I'll take Garcia's .354 start in a Sox uniform. One of these years - let's hope sooner rather than later - Labor Day will signal a stretch run to the playoffs. Until then is there any reason - other than having a day off for a holiday meant to celebrate workers - to be joyful about Labor Day?


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

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