The series this weekend looms large for the Cubs not only for the traditional reason that any Cub/Sox series does, but also because the White Sox currently sport the best record in baseball, and as such represent a good test for the Cubs.
The Cubs are on a mini-roll, having won two straight games in the 9th. This represents a small triumph; as you probably know the White Sox have been rolling over everyone, leading in 37 straight games from the start of the season and winning games in practically every way you can think of.
My SportsBLOGS colleague from South Side Sox, "The Cheat" and I recently asked each other "Five Questions" about our respective teams ... here are the questions and answers, starting with his questions for me:
Q: The Cubs have been struggling, they come into this series with a losing record. Be honest now, does this series have any more meaning because it's the Sox, who still hold the best record in baseball?
A: First of all, the timing of this series feels odd, as if it just popped up out of nowhere. I know why it's being held in May for the first time -- FOX-TV wanted the "rivalry" interleague series for its first TV weekend, so you have this one, Mets/Yankees, Angels/Dodgers, rangers/Astros, A's/Giants, Diamondbacks/Tigers (??).
But it still feels wrong for the Cubs and Sox to play before June.
It will be the first series the Cubs have played against a team with a record this good, notwithstanding the two games they split with the Cardinals in April. So in that sense, I do look at it as a good barometer of where the Cubs can go if they play well. There will be energy in the stands, and they will be full, and the weather's supposed to be great.
Q: Where would the Cubs be right now without Derrek Lee?
Probably last in the Pacific Coast League.
Seriously -- Lee has stepped up and taken over the offensive mantle that we all thought he could when the Cubs acquired him last year. He had 30 HR seasons in a bad hitter's park in Miami and I thought he could put up 40+ seasons in Wrigley Field. He didn't last year because he had a tired bat which died in September. This could be one of those years.
And considering that with Nomar Garciaparra and Todd Walker out and Aramis Ramirez slumping, that puts even more pressure on Lee to lead the offense. He has been up to the challenge.
Q: Corey Patterson insists that he's not a leadoff man. Jerry Hairston has split time with him leading off. Where would you bat them? What about when Walker comes back. Does Hairston go back to the bench? Or is it Dubois? I know it's not Neifi.
A: Patterson isn't a leadoff man. He hacks at everything, and he thinks he's a power hitter. The type of hitter Corey is should be hitting sixth or seventh. But Dusty Baker sees Patterson's speed and thinks "speedy leadoff man". Speed's useless if you don't get on base. Hairston should be leading off every day, since he has the second highest OBA on the team (behind Lee). Baker only sees the .253 BA and benches him. (Patterson's not hitting that much higher.)
Walker will push Hairston to the bench when he comes back, which could be in the next few days, and Walker's also a good OBA guy who should lead off.
Q: You're Dusty Baker -- scary thought, I know -- You've got a 1-run lead headed to the bottom of the ninth. The starting pitcher is not an option. He's already thrown an unhealthy number of pitches, or been pulled for some mysterious muscle issue, or whatever. Who do you bring in to close out the game? Why?
A: Just about everyone in the Cubs bullpen has already been tried as a closer, except the one guy who actually has some experience in that role -- Mike Wuertz, who was a successful closer at Triple-A Iowa last year. Dusty, for some reason, doesn't see that experience as relevant.
Wuertz seems to have the makeup to be a closer, plus good velocity and a good assortment of pitches, and he throws strikes. Ryan Dempster has the velocity and the makeup but he walks too many people.
My choice is Wuertz, and it has been even before all the injuries and the LaTroy Hawkins blowups.
Q: You're the aforementioned closer. Who are the three Sox hitters that you want to see due up in the 9th? Who are the three who you don't want to see?
A: The one guy who all Cub fans feared on the Sox was Carlos Lee, who wore us out, especially at Wrigley Field. In fact, I was hoping that if the Sox wanted to unload him after last year (and clearly, they did), that the Cubs might try to acquire him. I was VERY unhappy to see him traded to Milwaukee, where we now have to face him 18 times a year instead of six.
On the current team, the guy the Sox got for Lee, Scott Podsednik, is someone I'd hate to face in the 9th of a one-run-lead game. He's a pest. He drove us nuts when he was a Brewer -- lifetime .292/.356/.417 in 120 AB. Aaron Rowand has also hit the Cubs well. So has A. J. Pierzynski (though in only 18 career AB).
Who would I like to face? Willie Harris, Joe Crede and Timo Perez. All very, very overrated, particularly Harris, who is another one of those "speed" guys who has tremendous trouble using his speed because he can't get on base. Crede, for longtime Sox fans, is this generation's Pete Ward -- a guy who looks like a power hitter, and you think one day is going to be a great one, but never quite gets there.
You may note I didn't mention Paul Konerko. Konerko's a great hitter, and I can't believe both the Dodgers and Reds simply gave up on him. He hits everybody. Keep him on the bench. I also didn't mention Carl Everett, and because he's primarily DH'ing this year, he'll be limited to pinch-hitting duty at Wrigley Field. I realize this makes him more likely to appear in the 9th inning, but it also may make him a less effective hitter.
And now, here are "The Cheat"'s responses to my Five Questions:
Q: This White Sox team isn't all that much different from the one that finished barely over .500 last year -- in fact, many people said that giving up Carlos Lee was a mistake. What do you think has made the difference in their great start this year?
Actually this Sox team is much different from last year. Only center field, first, and third base are manned by the same players that were there to start last season. In the rotation, only Garland and Buehrle started the season with the Sox last year. That's a pretty big turnover for the just two seasons.
The biggest difference has been the pitching. For as long as I can remember, the Sox had been trotting an automatic loss every 5th game. They filled the #5 spot by picking up El Duque, and strengthened the pen with Hermanson. It's amazing what being able to string together a few games can do to a team's confidence.
Q: What IS it with Ozzie Guillen? Why does he seem to want to run his mouth so much? Why should he care if he has to park across the street when he comes to Wrigley Field? Why has he dissed people like Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas so much? Is this going to wind up hurting the Sox eventually?
A: Ozzie just says what he feels, and that's shocking to many people, specifically the media. I wasn't there, but I assume all of his comments about Wrigley Field were prompted by a direct question about what he thought of playing at Wrigley. He answered truthfully. If you had to sit and watch you team lose a ball game while the game was called to "poor field conditions" because of a rain storm that would have been easily weathered at the other 29 major league parks, you might have the same feelings.
On the Maggs situation, I couldn't care less what was said. Maggs took it to the media that Kenny Williams and Ozzie had driven down the market price for him by saying he wasn't healthy. Meanwhile he's jetting to foreign countries to get experimental surgeries, canceling workouts, and coming down with mysterious ailments. Ozzie probably shouldn't have gone off like he did, but I don't think it affected anyone on the team at all.
The Frank tussle is much like the Wrigley scenario. He was asked a direct question about how Frank would fit in with his style of play. Ozzie just spoke the truth. He's going to do what Ozzie asks him to do. Frank's going to have to play the way Ozzie wants him to. There won't be any pouting about being moved down in the line-up. Frank moved from 3rd to 4th last year, and back, without incident.
I love Ozzie's honesty. I know where he stands on everyone. He's not going to say a player sucks even though they might, but otherwise he's going to shoot straight from the hip. Will it get him in trouble? Yes. Will it hurt the team? Yes, but I can't see it happening anytime soon. There's going to come a time when the Sox are bad, just terrible, and Ozzie just might have a Lee Elia moment. Right now, his players love him, the fans love him, and the front office couldn't be happier with the way he's running the club, so that time is well beyond the horizon.
Q: Is the starting pitching really this good? Specifically, is Jon Garland this good, has he finally matured, or will he come back to Earth?
A: The starting staff isn't going to post a 3.5 ERA for the entire year, but 4.00 isn't out of the question. Garland is the real deal. He's not going to go undefeated for the entire season, obviously, but he's a completely different pitcher than he was the last 4 years. He's figured it out, mainly that if he challenges hitters and trusts his defense, he's going to win a lot of games.
Q: What's going to happen when Frank Thomas comes back? Will that disrupt team chemistry?
Who knows what's going to happen? I fully expect one more set back to his recovery before we see him on the big club. Regardless of whether it's his fault, if the Sox falter upon his return, he will be the one who gets the blame from the media.
Q: Finally, it's been said "Sox fans hate the Cubs; Cub fans hate the Sox fans". What is it with Sox fans? Why do they hate the Cubs so much? And do most of them really feel that they don't care if they win the World Series as long as they win the six games with the Cubs?
I can't speak for all of Soxdom. I can only give you my opinion. Your little quote sounds like something you would hear a Cubs fan say or that you might find posted on a Cubs message board. I can honestly say that I don't hate the Cubs. I have, however, recently become incredibly irritated by some Cubs fans though...
I'm going to answer this one with a little story... I was one of the 15,000 people who bothered to show up at "the Kerry Wood game," and have two ticket stubs to prove it. You'll hear a local columnist do nothing but rip Sox attendance. He did it twice in the past few days, while they're drawing 25-30K to the games on the day his column appears in print. But nobody seems to remember how few people went to Wrigley just a few years ago. I bought tickets for "the Kerry Wood game" at the Cubs box office, day of. I parked for free a few blocks away on Sheffield. The Cubs... were just another baseball team.
If I had to pin point a single moment in time when the Cubs went from just another baseball team to The Cubs it would be that Kerry Wood game. Later that year, Sammy went on his tear, and the cubs back-doored into the playoffs for the first time in 9 years.
The Cubs exploded that year. The Bulls run was over. The city was primed for another sports championship. They didn't get a championship, but the Cubs put on a good show. News vans descended on Wrigleyville to broadcast from the inside of pubs. The brand was sold. The Cubs were the destination if you were looking to have a good time.
I like to compare the rise in popularity to Starbucks. I don't like coffee, but I occasionally stop by a coffee shop to have a chat with a friend. There were always coffee shops, but then one day I woke up, and there was a Starbucks on every corner. I don't hate coffee shops, but Starbucks sucks. They're ubiquitous. It's the same way with Cubs fans. I coexisted with them in harmony for about 20 years. Then one day I woke up, and they were everywhere. I'm left thinking to myself, where were you a few years ago?
I could list a bunch of bad experiences that I've had with Cubs fans, but you guys could counter with similar poor experiences that you've had with Sox fans. It's stupid to let a few bad seeds ruin your opinion of an entire fan base. There are knowledgeable fans on both sides of the fence. The thing is, Sox fans are easy to avoid. We're the Giant Pandas of baseball fandom. Cubs fans are everywhere. You can't avoid them.
The rest of your question is bupkus. Nobody chooses six games in the middle of summer over a World Series title. At least, nobody that can call himself a baseball fan, let alone calling himself a Sox fan. I'd be ecstatic if the Sox went 0-6 vs. the Cubs, but went on to win the Series. We all know neither of those are happening.
Note: Before you start typing irate comments, or searching for my email, by visiting this site, you are almost certainly not the type of Cub fan that irritates me. You have searched out alternate content to that of the spoon fed mass media. You watch every game that you can, don't need to pay the $2 for the scorecard because you know all the players numbers, and know that Dubois should be getting more playing time. Just acknowledge that there is a sub-culture of fans who go to Wrigley because it's the in place to be, and just because you go there doesn't make you one of them.