The Tampa Bay Rays are the best team in baseball, according to ESPN’s most recent power rankings. ESPN also has a story on its site with the headline, “How did the San Francisco Giants become the best team in baseball?’’ You might be asking yourself, “Which is it?’’
The internecine disagreement could mean that ESPN’s divided house will fall any moment now, or it could mean that everybody and his brother and his brother’s significant other has an opinion these days.
I’d wade in with my own assessment, which would be that the White Sox are the best team in baseball, but I think that would be missing the bigger point of the Sox, which is this:
They’re the most entertaining team in baseball.
They’re also the most interesting and, possibly, the most volatile. It’s why, if I were tasked with introducing someone to the game, I would shepherd them to the South Side.
Much has been made of Tony La Russa’s managing, pitting traditionalists who dig the experience a 76-year-old manager brings to the field against forward thinkers who think La Russa walks to the mound backward. It’s a show unto itself, with both sides taking the discussion very seriously. It’s a little like the God-vs.-science debate, only more emotional.
It’s the electrically charged backdrop to everything that’s going on with a terrific ballclub. La Russa can’t take a breath without being questioned about a move he’s made. The most surprising part, given his decades-long reputation as a man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, is that he has yet to blow up publicly at a second-guesser. I’ve been expecting a reaction like the post-home run fireworks at Guaranteed Rate Field. Hasn’t happened. He has been calm — too calm. The anticipation of an eruption is part of the Sox’ entertainment experience.
So there’s an interactive dynamic to this that other teams and their fan bases don’t have. Sox fans have a club with championship-level talent and a manager many of them simply can’t stand. It has made the zealots a huge part of the storyline.
The old-school manager embraces the unwritten rules of baseball, many of them created, he believes, with respect for the game in mind. His players, many of them young, have about as much use for the unwritten rules as they do for Morse code. This came to a head last month when rookie Yermin Mercedes ignored instructions and swung on a 3-0 count with the Sox leading the Twins 15-4 in the ninth inning. La Russa publicly criticized the kid. Mercedes pretty much shrugged and rolled his eyes, as many of his teammates surely did.
We have in this conflict the classic themes of young against old, father against son, new against time-honored. Whatever you’re seeing with the Sox right now, you see in ancient Greek literature. Without all the reading.
Some important Sox players have gotten injured, yet the team hasn’t missed a beat. The latest casualty is second baseman Nick Madrigal, who finds himself on the 60-day injured list with a hamstring injury. We’ll see how the Sox absorb this most recent body blow, but their perch atop the American League Central division and their 38-24 record (as of Friday afternoon) would seem to indicate they’ll wince, say “oof” and carry on as if nothing had happened.
The Sox have played without left fielder Eloy Jimenez (ruptured pectoral tendon) for the first 2½ months of the season and center fielder Luis Robert (torn hip flexor) since early May. And have played well. The team is hoping as hard at it can hope that both players find their way back to the field in 2021, but one of the more impressive accomplishments of the season has been its ability to find a way, no matter who is on the field.
With all the injuries, you can see why the fan base might be a bit jittery. On Wednesday, an umpire accidentally hit Sox star Jose Abreu in the knee with a bat. Abreu went down as if a poisoned-tip blow dart had hit him. The standard Sox fan immediately thought amputation was a real possibility. Abreu was unhurt, but do you see? This team can’t not be exciting!
Even with all the injuries, there’s still a lot of talent on the field. Abreu, the reigning AL Most Valuable Player, is tied for the major-league lead in runs batted in with 48. Tim Anderson’s batting average is around .300, the way it always is. Lance Lynn’s earned-run average is 1.23 (second lowest in the bigs), and Carlos Rodon’s is 1.96. Liam Hendriks’ 16 saves are tied for second most and … are you getting the picture? Lots of talent. Lots of excitement.
And a swagger to go with it. The Sox’ new City Connect uniforms are black and white and bold. They say, “Don’t mess with me.’’ Perfect. (By comparison, the Cubs’ alternate uniforms look like something an NFL expansion team would introduce to a focus group.)
The White Sox are hard to beat.
Let’s be fair to ESPN. It’s not as if the network is denigrating the Sox. They’re ranked second behind the Rays and one spot ahead of the Giants. A good ranking is a fine thing. It’s just not everything.