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Playing The Game Right Now

I care not a bit what American League Player of the Month Tim Anderson does with his bat after he hits a home run. The direction, height and speed of said missile doesn't interest me in the least. I do experience a jolt of optimism and euphoria when the ball settles into the outfield seats, but any added appreciation for a drive that lands in the last row, as opposed to the first, is lost on me. Regardless of distance, Tim's homers are good for one run, no more, no less. And the time the ball takes to reach those seats is irrelevant as far as I'm concerned.

Tim keeps telling us that he plays for fun and that he's not going to change. Go by most any park in this city in mid-July, and you'll find all kinds of kids playing the game for the very same reason. You're not alone, Tim. Sorry, pal, you're not unique in that regard.

Major League Baseball continues to combat its inferiority complex with its current public relations movement aimed at making the game more attractive to kids and millennials. It's cool and encouraged for guys like Bryce Harper, Anderson and others to celebrate home runs and other hair-raising feats. MLB is doing its damnedest to shed its "old school" image, illustrated recently when the Royals took issue with Anderson's bat flip by throwing at and hitting him in the butt with the first pitch of his next at-bat.

"Playing the game right" now includes fancy fist bumps and pumps, bullpen dancing, rehearsed dugout celebrations, shimmying and hair flips. "Let the Kids Play" is the newest mantra. Apparently the Royals didn't get the memo.

All of this silliness, of course, is in response to the slow pace of the game, the disparity between the elites and the rebuilders, and decreasing attendance and TV ratings. How's the reboot working out? Apparently not very well.

ESPN and Yahoo Sports pounced last week on the near-empty ballparks in Kansas City and at Guaranteed Rate Field where doubleheaders were played on Wednesday after rainouts of regularly-scheduled games the day before. Predictably, both ballparks were near empty when the first pitches of the first games in mid-afternoon were thrown. Despite the fact that these were make-up games, the optic was pathetic, giving the media motivation to note that attendance is down once again with a fifth of the season now behind us.

Empty Grate.jpgEmpty Grate

However, gloom and doom don't pervade every place on the map. Teams like the Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals, Phillies and Yankees are doing just fine. You notice anything those four clubs have in common? Yes, they all are winners. They, and other frontrunners, do just fine at the gate because winning provides the good times and fun that put people in the seats.

Despite the meager turnout last Wednesday, the White Sox, who are improved this season, just drew more than 66,000 fans for two weekend games against the Red Sox, boosting their attendance 13 percent compared to their first 18 homes dates last season. However, that fact so far has gone unreported.

Beginning with the championship season of 2005, the White Sox drew more than two million fans for seven consecutive seasons. In 2006 when they qualified for the post-season, almost three million of the faithful filed through the turnstiles. Bat flips and exit velocities hadn't been invented, but fans arrived in droves because they entered the park with expectations of watching the White Sox win.

For fun we had Game 2 of the '05 World Series when Konerko's grand slam put the Sox ahead before Scotty Pods' walk-off homer put the boys up two games to none.

Or how about a week or so prior in Boston when El Duque entered the third game of the ALDS with the bases loaded and no one out? After two infield pop-ups, he got Johnny Damon to strike out on a nasty pitch in the dirt to preserve the White Sox' one-run lead. On that unseasonably warm October evening, my compadre Tom, who had been sitting nervously on the sofa beside me, leaped up when Damon whiffed, threw his arms into the air, and made solid contact with the ceiling fan, which was in full operation. Luckily no broken bones resulted. In today's parlance, he was on the IL with a contusion, but even a broken hand wouldn't have interfered with the joy and fun. To this day, if the two of us are having lunch in an establishment with a ceiling fan, all I have to do is point to it, and he knows exactly to what I am referring.

It's these kinds of stories that make the game attractive and compelling. In today's game, home runs account for almost half the runs scored, and highlights are filled with long blasts replete with exit velocities and distances and a host of other statistical trivia, thrown at us like a hailstorm.

Where is the romanticism? Baseball clearly is a statistically-oriented endeavor, especially when comparing different eras of the game. However, there are limits. Let the bean counters in the inner sanctums of club offices mull over spin rates, weighted runs created plus (wRC+), isolated power (ISO), and Total Zone with Location Data (TZL).

Our memories are legends like El Duque. After his masterful performance 14 years ago, teammate Aaron Rowand said, "Normal people don't do that" - a far better description than any number.

Years ago when the Sox played at Comiskey Park, there were "roof shots," balls hit by people like Greg Luzinski and Ron Kittle that landed upon or over the left field roof of the double-decked stadium. Fans didn't know or care how far the ball actually traveled. "Roof shot" said it all. Regrettably today the term refers to entertainment in apartment buildings as in, "Hey, youse guys wanna come over and hang out on the roof for some shots and beers?"

You can be excused for thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yeah, just another guy extolling how things were better in the old days." But consider the two walk-off victories last week for the present edition of the White Sox. On Wednesday in the second game of the doubleheader with the Orioles, Yonder Alonso's opposite field two-out single scored two runs, turning a one-run deficit into a 7-6 Sox win. The hit came around 11 p.m., and there were about the same number of observers in the park as there were when the teams started play eight hours earlier.

Then the next night, things appeared bleak for the South Siders against the defending champion Red Sox. That is, until Nicky Delmonico surprised even himself by stroking a three-run shot to right center in the bottom of the ninth inning that just cleared the fence and the glove of Jackie Bradley Jr. I may have missed it, but I don't think the exit velocity or distance was emphasized. Nicky's hit accounted for three runs, the same as it would have if his drive had landed in Kankakee.

However, the fun was short-lived as the Bosox slammed the local Sox the next three games, outscoring the South Siders 30-5. Former White Sox ace Chris Sale silenced Ricky Renteria's boys 6-1 on Friday before an embarrassing nine-run third inning doomed Ricky's guys 15-2 on Saturday. A horrendous seven-run, eighth-inning outburst on Sunday in which the White Sox contributed two errors sank the South Siders 9-2.

Meanwhile, Tim Anderson doesn't appear to be having nearly as much fun as he was the first month of the season. In his last seven games, Anderson has four hits in 28 at-bats, dropping his average from .402 to .333.

After 32 games, the Sox are 14-18. A year ago they were 9-23 so we must be having more fun than this time a year ago. Patience is a lovely commodity with these rebuilding projects, but sooner or later there is no substitute for winning. Bat flips and dugout celebrations only go so far. Winning is what keeps bringing us back.

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

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