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Sox 2019 preview: Confident Tim Anderson vows improvement for himself and Sox

Tim Anderson has been around the block a time or two in life, been through a lot in his 25 years. In baseball, though, it’s probably fair to say the shortstop is a young 25, his background in the sport less intensive than those of most of his White Sox teammates.

That at least partly explains numbers like these: his 28 errors in 2017 that led the major leagues, and his 12 throwing errors in 2018 that did the same. His ridiculously puny 2.1 percent walk rate in 2017 was the lowest in baseball among all qualified hitters, and his growth in that area — from 13 bases on balls in 606 plate appearances in 2017, to 30 in 606 plate appearances in 2018 — almost isn’t even worth talking about yet.

To pull a nutshell around it: Anderson — entering Year 4 as a big-leaguer after setting career highs in homers (20), RBI (64) and stolen bases (26) and modestly improving his defensive numbers last season — is an imperfect player.

He didn’t wish to talk much baseball when the Sun-Times spent exclusive time with him at the Sox’ spring-training home in Glendale, Arizona, but he does want Sox fans to know this:

Chicago White Sox's Tim Anderson prepares for an at-bat during a baseball game against the Baltimore Orioles in Baltimore, Friday, May 5, 2017. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky) ORG XMIT: OTK

“Each year, I am getting better. Last year, my glove came a long way. What’s it going to be this year? It could be my bat. I feel good. I did a lot of things to change up a lot of things with my swing. I feel a lot better. I’m expecting to have a career year.”

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He wants everyone to know this about his team — which lost 100 games in 2018 — as well:

“I think it’ll be a lot different from last year. I don’t know what’s going to happen — nobody knows what’s going to happen, so I don’t want to say what’s going to happen — but I know a lot of positive things are going to happen. A lot of positive things happened last year, even in a bad season. When you’re on the outside looking in, man, you’re just looking at wins and losses. But when you’re on the inside, you’re looking at a whole different picture.”

Let’s step inside and look at a more complete picture of Anderson than we have before.

***

‘I really don’t think it was a question for him in his mind whether it was his position or not.’

Sox manager Rick Renteria during spring training

The first thing Anderson did upon learning that blockbuster free agent Manny Machado had spurned the rebuilding Sox and signed with the rebuilding Padres: smirk. Then he let out a little laugh and shook his head. Or maybe the laugh came first. Who can remember such tiny details? What Anderson knows for sure is that he spent no more than a fleeting moment giving a damn.

“It takes nine to win. He’s just one,” he said. “You know what I mean? He’s just one. He ain’t going to win it by himself. It doesn’t push anything back.”

Anderson would’ve been excited enough to see Machado in a Sox uniform — anywhere but at shortstop — but something about the team being rejected felt, quite frankly, right. If the whole world wants to overlook the Sox, fine. If Machado wants to do it, too, bless his heart.

“One of the reasons I love it here is because people count us out,” Anderson said. “I’ve always been on teams like that. I always like to be the underdog. That’s why I’m all in, man.

“A 100-loss season doesn’t faze me. That’s motivation. I like being down at the bottom where people doubt you, so then, when you bust through, once we get there and win — and we’re going to get there, and we’re going to win — the recognition will come. Not that I care about being known; I couldn’t care less. I just want to win.”

And, just saying, anybody who thinks he’s going to take Anderson’s position had better be prepared to fight him for it. Maybe Machado would’ve played third base with the Sox, but he was at short for 146 games last year in Baltimore. There surely would’ve been voices in Chicago calling for Anderson’s head if he hit a rough patch.

“I never was going to move,” he said. “I never once thought if he did sign here that I would move. In my mind, it was going to be tough to move me. When I first got here, man, it was, ‘You’re not a shortstop.’ I’m still at short, ain’t I? All that stuff is noise. I know the work I put in to become the shortstop that I am. I know what I’m capable of. I feel like this is my year to take it to the next level.” 

***

‘I’m definitely going to be there. That’s mandatory.’

—Anderson on baby No. 2, due in late April

Anderson’s placement in the organization was on the line as daughter Peyton prepared to wave hello to the world during spring training in 2016. What to do? Stay in Glendale and attempt to seize the moment for the sake of his career? Or rush to the side of Bria Evans, whom Anderson would wed in November of 2017?

Please. Next question.

“I didn’t know what was going happen [with baseball], and honestly, at that moment, I couldn’t care less what was going to happen because it was all about my daughter and my wife,” said Anderson, who would begin the season at Class AAA Charlotte and be called up to the Sox in June. “My family’s always first for me.”

He missed three days of camp in all, and is preparing to potentially miss a game or more — whatever it takes — after second daughter Paxton makes her grand entrance. Bria and Peyton have been fixtures at Sox games, home and away, but that’s about to get harder. Anderson vows to make up for any lost time by ratcheting up the kisses, cuddles, feeds, sweet songs and diaper changes.

“I’m hands-on anyway,” he said. “Everything that a mom does, I do because I want to experience those things. For me to be there for my daughters — and my wife — it means the most to me because there are a lot of kids who don’t have father figures in their life. My dad did 15 years of prison, so I want to be sure I’m there every moment so they can feel the love and not the distance. And I want to show them how a lady is supposed to be treated.”

Anderson didn’t refer even indirectly to the Cubs’ Addison Russell — who begins his own season with 28 games left on a 40-game suspension for domestic abuse — while discussing marriage and fatherhood, but it’s difficult to imagine one shortstop in this context without also imagining the other. This is where Anderson stands:

“I don’t need to make nobody feel less than,” he said. “I used to have a lot of anger built up in me just from being hurt. My wife was an eye-opener. When we got pregnant, we weren’t married. What are you going to do? I was like, ‘I’ll adjust to it. I know what I have to do now in my life.’ And it’s been great. I think I’ve grown a lot as far as how to treat and handle other people. Treat people with respect. Leave a good mark. I love to get positive reviews on what type of person I am.”

***

‘I’ve hit some homers. I keep running the bases. I don’t get loud like you.’

—Royals catcher Salvador Perez, at home plate,
after Anderson celebrated a 2018 home run

OK, so Anderson might not receive the most positive reviews from some members of the Royals, whom the Sox will meet on Opening Day at Kauffman Stadium. It was there last season that Anderson had run-ins with esteemed veteran Perez at home plate and later, as benches and bullpens cleared, at second base. Other Royals chirped at Anderson from the mound and from the dugout. Boos rained down.

He summed it up then in three words: “I don’t care.”

In fact, all Anderson did to set the whole thing off was yell — loudly — as he commenced his voyage around the bases after hitting a home run. What’s the big deal? To Anderson, baseball could stand to be a bit more like basketball when it comes to brief expressions of self-satisfaction. He figures he’s just not on the same wavelength as old-school types and, again, plain doesn’t care.

“I’m all about style, on and off the field,” he said. “I love fashion, clothes, music. I think that’s kind of different in this league. I’m kind of like the NBA guys are, how those black guys are over there. It’s a culture thing, fly and dressed up. I love to be fresh.”

And he isn’t in the game to buddy up to the opposition. His favorite shortstops? Derek Jeter and Ozzie Smith. But what about current guys?

“Why would I follow a guy who plays the same position on the same level that I am?” he said. “Nothing against them, but they ain’t my friends. I’m competing against them.”

***

‘The person he is, the man he is, the father he is, the husband he is, it’s all special to me because I see myself — I see that I could have done the same things that he does.’

—Tim Anderson Sr.

Anderson’s father was released from prison last May and caught his first Sox game at Wrigley Field. He’d done a much longer prison stretch, after a drug conviction, that lasted the first 15 years of his son’s life.

But an emotional bond between the two has always existed. Anderson, from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, the youngest of his mother’s five children, was the only one raised in a different home; an aunt and uncle took him in and reared him as their own. Sad, but true: Though he says he felt loved and secure throughout his childhood, senses of abandonment and loss generally lived just beneath the surface. One thing that always felt right, though, was visiting his dad. His paternal grandfather made it happen regularly enough to really mean something.

“He accepted me for who I was,” said Tim Sr., 46 and living in Los Angeles. “He didn’t think of me no different. ‘That’s Dad.’ And I never disrespected him or the situation he had going on with the other side [of his family].”

Today, when he sees his son with Peyton and Bria — he calls the three of them “best friends” — he feels a mix of inspiration and relief.

“My dad did 15 years, but I learned from him,” Anderson said. “I learned not to do anything to hurt my relationship with my kids. And he did a great job when he was in prison of showing how much he loved us. I always knew.”

Things have happened in Anderson’s family over the years that have been, well, complicated. The older he gets, the more details he learns that he wishes he’d known long ago or, at least, not been lied to about. There also has been what he terms “relationship damage” over money since he signed for a seven-figure bonus as a first-round pick in 2013.

“Just a lot of confusion,” he said.

But his relationship with his father is growing in earnest. His relationship with his birth mother — “my mom,” he called her during this conversation — has improved, too.

“I’m starting to connect with a part of my family that I didn’t really have connections with,” he said. “I think it’s good for me to know my people regardless of what went on. I kind of got to a stage where I wanted to know them and, regardless of what people have done to me, I don’t hold that against them because people are going to be people.”

***

‘Officers found Branden Moss, who had multiple gunshot wounds, lying in the parking lot. Moss was taken to DCH Regional Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.’

—Tuscaloosa News, May 7, 2017

The Sox clubhouse is full of cool dudes, but Anderson’s closest friends are the ones he grew up with back in Alabama. Though it must be pointed out that they’re way more into football and basketball than baseball.

“They watch baseball because of me, and only because of me,” Anderson said. “I mean they only watch me. They always crack jokes about my teammates, but the only things they know about them is the stuff that’s put out there [in the news]. They’re definitely not baseball dorks.”

The best friend Anderson ever had, however, was Moss. He was Anderson’s confidant. He had Anderson’s back. According to Anderson, Moss, a security guard by trade, died trying to break up a flight while not at work. It all made baseball far more difficult to play in 2017.

“He was someone I could lean on as far as talking to him about problems,” Anderson said. “When I lost him, that took a major hit out of me. I felt my outlet of talking to people was no more. That took a toll. It kind of took me on a little roller-coaster ride. I had a bad year that year.”

Anderson has discovered a silver lining in this tragic circumstance, too.

“Everything happens for a reason, whether it’s good or bad,” he said. “Now that he’s gone, I kind of feel like his spirit is on me because I’m talking more; I’m a different guy than I used to be. I didn’t talk. I was shy. Now, I talk. I try to connect with different people.”

***

‘He is shifting from a basketball player that is playing baseball to a baseball player that used to play basketball. That’s where’s he’s at right now.’

—Renteria, during spring training

Anderson didn’t really watch baseball back in Tuscaloosa. He didn’t even play high school ball until his junior year and was better at basketball, the starting point guard on a Hillcrest High hoops squad that won the state title in 2011. A junior college in Mississippi wanted him for basketball, but he took an analytical look at the young man of modest stature in the mirror and wondered: How far can I go in this other sport?

Choosing a different path than most of the guys he knew appealed to him, too.

He showed promise on the diamond as a freshman at East Central Community College in Decatur, Mississippi, but then he exploded as a sophomore — batting .495 with a cartoonish 1.447 OPS and 41 stolen bases. Until that season, it had never occurred to him that he might get drafted.

“I didn’t know I could turn this into a job, so this is all good for me,” he said. “That’s why I’m always in a good mood.”

The Rangers, Tigers and Diamondbacks all put Anderson through pre-draft workouts; the Sox did not. On draft day in 2013, he thought there was a good chance Arizona would take him at 15. Chicago became a surprise destination — if only he could play his way there, that is.

For nearly all of Anderson’s time in the organization, there has been at least some consideration given internally to having him switch positions. That’s likely over now.

“He’s worked so hard to do what he does at shortstop,” Renteria said. “The big question always was, when I first came on a few years ago, whether he could go in the hole, and you’ve heard me talk about that a lot. That’s become one of his marquee [strengths] now. So, his glove side and backhand play has improved immensely.”

Anderson has only one question about that. Actually, has nothing to do with that. It’s about basketball:

“If I’d stuck with it, how good a jumper would I have?”

***

‘The South Side, we’re different. We’re different over here. It’s a grinder’s side. We want to go out and attack. You expect us to hustle. And we’re moving forward. We’re going to rise up and carry those South Siders. Let ’em know.’

—Anderson, during spring training

The Andersons live in the south suburbs, and life is good.

“I love it here,” he said. “I would love to retire here. I’d love to spend my whole career here. The White Sox have been nothing but great to me. The South Side has been nothing but great to me.”

Anderson feels a growing fondness for denizens of the city. One thing he hopes to see more of is African-American children all over, but especially in Chicago — “all those kids who look like me” — playing baseball. He jokes that “black kids don’t want to play because they’re afraid of getting hit with the ball, and that’s why they play football, to hit and not get hit.” It never fails to get some laughs when he visits with students at South Side schools, but he knows it isn’t true. He knows it in his heart because of all the trips he has made to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri — five so far, and counting. So much history.

“I am proud to be a black baseball player,” he said. “I’m proud because it’s rare. It’s huge for me to be on a major-league club, and to be a starter is huge. You have to think about how many black kids are out there who could be inspired by that to play the game of baseball.

“On the South Side, you think of the ’hoods and gang violence and black kids being shot and killed. For me to be on the South Side where that stuff’s happening, by my being black and doing something positive as a major-league player, I’m able to reach these kids.”

The most important thing he tells them?

“I’ve been there. I know what you feel. When you feel lonely, I’ve been there. When you feel sad or scared, I’ve been there. When you don’t feel love, I’ve been there, too. But if I can make it in the game of baseball — and in life — maybe you can, too.”