Friday, February 22, 2008
Winter's Just a Dream
We can find mythology in the strangest of places. This morning I found it in an ESPN article. It was the story of Chris Shelton, Corn God. I remember Shelton well. He came out of nowhere at the beginning of the 2006 season; a season that was supposed to be magical. It was supposed to be an impossible season, one unlike any since 1919. For those who aren’t up on such ancient history, in 1917 the White Sox won the Series. In 1918 the Red Sox represented the American League and won, but then in 1919 the Palehose made it back. And threw the Series. It was one of those events that made it in to the national mythology. Refer to Shoeless Joe Jackson or the Black Sox and even people who don’t watch baseball will probably know what you’re talking about. It was a scandal, a horrible deed punished by the baseball gods with an exclusion from the Promised Land for 88 seasons. Books were written about it. Movies were made (including Field of Dreams, one of the greatest movies of all time, no questions asked). A whole generation of Sox fans came and went without seeing their team win. And, over time, the pain of the White Sox was overshadowed by the other, more popular Sox team and the other, more popular Chicago team. White Sox fans largely suffered in silence, unable and unwilling to be heard over the whining from Boston and the North Side. Then 2005 came. It looked for all the world like the team had taken a giant step backwards. The 2004 trade deadline had brought Jose Contreras, an overpaid disappointment, over from the Yankees. Fan favorite Magglio Ordonez was allowed to walk. Frank Thomas was injured and wouldn’t be around for at least the first couple months of the season. Kenny Williams traded left fielder Carlos Lee to Milwaukee for some random bullpen guy and Scott Podsednik, who had defined the term sophomore slump the previous season. That was the lowest point since, well, the tail-end of the ‘90s or that sweep at the hands of the Mariners in the 2000 division series. Oh, and the David Wells fiasco. So, now that I think about it, it wasn’t a new low. But then something different happened. Kenny Williams turned the money saved in the Carlos Lee deal in to Orlando “El Duque” Hernandez, a pitcher with questionable health but who defined “gamer,” and A.J. Pierzynski, a catcher who everyone hates to play against and had plenty to prove after a disastrous stint in San Francisco. It looked like the Sox might have a chance to make a noise. And did they ever. The 2005 season was kind of insane, as the Sox started out looking like they’d win 140 games, but wouldn’t win any of them by more than 1 run. Buerhle, Garland, Garcia, and Contreras were a four-headed ace and when El Duque inevitably went down with an injury, Brandon McCarthy stepped in and pitched as well as any of the others. Shingo Takatsu started the season as the closer, but got the jitters and was replaced by Dustin Hermanson, who shut the door 34 times before an injury knocked him out and Bobby Jenks took over, pitching better than Hermie or Mr. Zero with an insane three-figure fastball. The offense could never get the team too far ahead, but a resurgent Scott Podsednik made sure the opposing pitcher was always uncomfortable and a run seemed to appear whenever one was needed. I’ll tell you the moment when I knew the White Sox were going to win the World Series. It came just before the All-Star Game. Fans had a chance to vote in the 32nd player on each roster and Podsednik was one of the five choices on the AL ballot, going up against two Yankees (Hideki Matsui and Derek Jeter), Torii Hunter of the Twins (I think) and someone else who was also far more likely to get the vote than Pods. Podsednik, you see, had zero home runs at that point in the season and was playing a corner outfield position, which is pretty much a sin in baseball. But he had 60 or so steals already, batted lead and was responsible more than any other player for the improbable ways the Sox just kept winning. Everyone who donned the cap of White Sox fandom, even (maybe especially) those of us who had cried loudest when we heard the news Podsednik was a South Sider voted as often as possible. Mark Buerhle stumped for him at Sox games. And at the end of the day the final man added to the All-Star roster was Scott Podsednik. When the news came I knew the Sox were going all the way. Nothing could make me believe otherwise. Not the injuries to Hernandez, Hermanson, or Podsednik, not the trade deadline that started and stopped with the acquisition of Geoff Blum, a utility bench player. Not the end of the season slump that saw the Cleveland Indians nearly catch up and had everybody in the sports media talking about the most improbable breakdown over the stretch in history. I was in college at the time, at a place where it would be impossible to find White Sox Championship gear (yes, it was in Illinois, but it was St. Louis Cardinals territory). I saved every Tribune sports section and had my parents get me the Division, ALCS, and World Series Championship shirts. 2006 was supposed to be even better. The core mostly stuck around, but the offseason brought Javy Vazquez and Jim Thome. Sure, Thome cost the team Aaron Rowand, but Brian Anderson was supposed to be nearly as good and Thome was one of the best sluggers in the game and Philadelphia didn’t want to keep him around because he was blocking Ryan Howard. The Sox did win 90 games in 2006. There was only one problem: Detroit and Minnesota won more. Minnesota has managed to contend pretty much every season over the last five or ten years, so that was no great surprise. Detroit, though, came out of nowhere. They had young pitchers who all matured at the same time and a lineup that could straight mash. Central to that lineup for the first couple months of the season was a slugger named Chris Shelton. He came out of nowhere and drew comparisons to The Babe. Then the league figured out how to pitch to him. He struggled as the season wore on. The Tigers busted him back to the minors and replaced him with Sean Casey for the World Series run. Shelton hasn’t put cleats to a major league field since. Mythology is full of gods who can be referred to as “corn gods” in shorthand. They’re the gods in charge of the harvest who died each fall and were re-born in spring. They may not lead armies to war, call the sun to rise in the sky, or wield lightning, but they’re powerful in their own right. They remind us that to everything there is a season, but after death there is life. In the corn gods we can see the sorrow of past loss, but at the same time the hope of future bounty. And every year, in the depths of dark and dreary February, we can hear those magical words: Pitchers and catchers report. It’s baseball time, time for the boys of summer to rise and shine once again. It’s time for stories of teams trying to repeat, rebuild, or build on past success that still just wasn’t enough. Every spring there are the stories of the corn gods of baseball. They often pass with a single line on the transaction column detailing the old, the washed-up, the “can’t miss” prospects who couldn’t hit either who were invited, en masse, to compete for a couple of slots that might open up on this club or that over the course of the spring. Most won’t make the cut and won’t be heard until they’re part of the cattle call the next spring, if they’re even that lucky. But some will become corn gods. They’ll capture (or re-capture) lightning in a bottle and pass through the spring batting .500 or striking out every other hitter. They’ll be invited to join a club that desperately needs their help. They’ll be re-born on that impossibly green turf surrounded by screaming fans dreaming championship dreams. So godspeed, Chris Shelton. You may have helped ruin the magic of 2006 for this Sox fan, but there are many types of magic and myth out there in the world. Summer’s coming. Winter’s just a dream.