Look at them. Fire in their eyes, the sheen of true belief on their faces, they wait for their boy kings to arrive. These White Sox fans have come from near and far for a glimpse of tomorrow. Just try denying them.
They are jammed together in a downtown hotel ballroom to eye players they have never seen in person before but know of through Baseball America, online videos, word of mouth and quite possibly vision quests. And here the players come. Dylan Cease. Alec Hansen. Blake Rutherford. Zack Collins. Eloy Jimenez. Michael Kopech.
Judging by the roar of the sold-out crowd at SoxFest on Friday, fans have completely bought into the team’s rebuild and the necessary evil of losing big now with the promise of winning big later.
In case there was any doubt, one of the biggest cheers was reserved for general manager Rick Hahn. A GM’s job description includes being booed to within an inch of his life at all times.
“Thank you, Rick!’’ one fan screamed.
“I heard from many Sox fans over the course of the offseason about how they’ve never been this excited over a team that lost 95 games,’’ Hahn had said earlier in the day.
Jimenez, an outfielder, is the Sox’ future, as are second baseman Yoan Moncada and pitcher Lucas Giolito — the fans at SoxFest are sure of it, and who can question their fervor? More to the point, who am I to question them? I used to be a virulent anti-tanker. Think of Paul (the saint, not the former first baseman) before the blinding light. That was me with the Cubs seven years ago, when they began losing with gusto in the hopes of amassing high draft picks. I didn’t like any of it – the tanking, the blind faith in minor-league prospects who might or might not become serviceable big-league players and the ticket prices that didn’t reflect the depths of a 100-loss team.
But it worked, a World Series title eventually arrived and somewhere along the way, I unfurled a white flag. So the guy who railed against the outrage of losing on purpose is now telling the Bulls that if they want one of the top picks in this year’s NBA draft, they better knock off the winning. And that same person is here at SoxFest to revel in the notion of another terrible season on the horizon. Because bad is good, subtraction is the new addition and … did I mention the Cubs won the World Series?
It’s fair to say that if Cubs president Theo Epstein had failed at his rebuilding project, the Sox wouldn’t be doing what they are doing now. He created an appetite for it in Chicago. It’s also fair to say that the rebuild fever that is raging through baseball wouldn’t have such a high temperature if the Cubs had failed to win.
Cubs fans embraced the idea that, because Epstein had drafted players ranked highly by Baseball America, the bible of minor-league baseball, it followed that good times were ahead. It was an interesting study in human nature, in the selling and buying of hope.
It still makes me a tad uncomfortable. There’s a part of me that thinks it’s a way for teams to save money on big-ticket salaries by dangling the prospect of a shiny but distant future.
Some people aren’t quite so kind in their description of what’s happening in baseball.
“We kicked people out of the game when they tried to not win,” agent Scott Boras said recently, referring to the 1919 Black Sox scandal. “We have to get rid of the noncompetitive cancer. We can’t go to our fan bases and sell the promise of losing to win later. That is destructive to our sport because it has removed one-third of the competition.”
Boras, of course, is concerned that all the tanking means fewer options for his free-agent clients. But that doesn’t make him less right. It’s not good when eight or nine teams are in some stage of not trying to win baseball games.
The Marlins are gutting their roster and slashing payroll in a rebuild, and the players’ union has complained. It is strange to see Marlins chief executive officer Derek Jeter, the embodiment of winning, working to lose on purpose.
“The strategy the Marlins have adopted is tried and true in baseball,’’ Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred told ESPN Radio. “I’m not saying it’s without pain. … But it was a process that ultimately produced a winner [for Houston in 2017], in terms of smaller markets’ ability to win.’’
It’s the ultimate justification: It can’t be wrong if it ends up so right. It’s a scam if it doesn’t work. It’s a parade if it does.
Which will it be for the Sox and the Bulls? I don’t know. I just know that this route can work. It’s not the only route. Tanking wasn’t the only way the Cubs could have built a winner. But they did, and now, in a copycat world, other teams have dived in.
Keep those losses coming, fellas.