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Ex-White Sox OF Rowand has empathy for Bears QB Cutler

BY NEIL HAYES
For the Sun-Times

For a fresh perspective about what Jay Cutler endured during the Bears’ miserable 2014 season, we present none other than … Aaron Rowand?

Optimism is bubbling this weekend at SoxFest in a way that hasn’t been seen in several years. Unanimous American League Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu and ace Chris Sale are preseason MVP and Cy Young Award candidates, respectively.

White Sox general manager Rick Hahn has added right-hander Jeff Samardzija, outfielder Melky Cabrera, designated hitter Adam LaRoche, closer David Robertson and lefty reliever Zach Duke to a promising core.

Anybody who knows Rowand, however, won’t be surprised to learn that another Chicago franchise also has been on his mind.

‘‘I know everybody wants to throw Jay Cutler on a stake and burn him, but I have faith in him,’’ said Rowand, a lifelong Bears fan. ‘‘When you make a lot of money, people expect a lot from you. Pressure comes with signing a big contract. The longer you’re under that contract, the more you get comfortable with it and yourself. He’s going to come back next year and be who everybody thought he would be.

‘‘I’ve been through it. It’s a tough deal.’’

After being a key member of the Sox’ World Series champions in 2005, Rowand struggled at times with the Giants after signing a five-year, $60 million deal before the 2008 season that made him their highest-paid position player.

Rowand didn’t make his first start in the 2010 World Series until Game 5 but was on the field when the Giants won their first title since moving to San Francisco in 1958.

‘‘The World Series with the White Sox probably means more to me because I came up through this organization,’’ Rowand said. ‘‘I came up knowing how long it had been since the White Sox won a World Series and aware of the race between the White Sox and Cubs. Who was going to do it first? It was like we were groomed for that moment.

‘‘Being a part of watching that come to fruition and what we went through that year to get it done means everything to me. It’s still something I can’t put into words.’’

Rowand encourages the 2015 Sox to dream just as big.

‘‘Key pieces to this team are still relatively young, but not to the point where they can’t dominate,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s why there’s excitement about what this team is capable of doing. When you have young kids on the field, there’s always going to be growing pains, but they should continue to get better. That’s the beauty of what Rick is putting together. I won’t say this team can’t go to a World Series because they can. They have that kind of talent.’’

Rowand has been living in Las Vegas and spending time with his wife, 13-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son since retiring after the 2011 season.

‘‘My dad was always there to play catch or throw batting practice,’’ he said. ‘‘My son was starting to go through that and didn’t have anyone to do that with. That was a big deal to me. I felt it was time to be there for my son the way my dad was there for me.’’

Playing in Chicago was special for Rowand because he grew up in Southern California admiring Walter Payton and the 1985 Bears. He never will forget driving past Soldier Field on his way home from the Cape Cod League in 1997. He said he only heard one word — ‘‘Chicago’’ — when then-Sox GM Ron Schueler called to say the team had selected him in the first round of the 1998 draft.

He said wearing the word ‘‘Chicago’’ across his chest during his five years on the South Side remains a point of pride, although it’s hard for him to believe the 10th anniversary of the Sox’ first World Series victory in 88 years is fast approaching.

‘‘It doesn’t feel like it was that long ago because everything we did and everything that happened is so clear in my memory,’’ he said. ‘‘Honestly, it makes me feel old.’’

Contact Neil Hayes at nhayes40@gmail.com or at neilhayeswriter.com.