The White Sox have been in operation since 1901, but they arguably are on the nation’s baseball consciousness now more than ever.
(Let’s overlook that little game-fixing scandal in the 1919 World Series, which surely didn’t sit well with baseball fans.)
The Sox have had teams that were revered locally. The 1959 “Go Go Sox,” the 1983 “Winning Ugly” Sox and, of course, the 2005 World Series champion Sox. But those teams didn’t catch the nation’s attention like the 2021 Sox have. Heck, ESPN has forgotten twice that the 2005 Sox won the Series.
The current Sox hold a 10-game lead in the American League Central and are poised to be World Series contenders for a while. As the Cubs enter another rebuilding phase, the question is: How will Sox fans react to the new dynamic? The Sox finally have gained a foothold nationally, but can they attain a stronger one locally?
They have something for everyone. There’s the flair for the dramatic with Tim Anderson, the stoic, steady leadership of Jose Abreu and the childlike flamboyance of Eloy Jimenez. There’s the old-school, tough-as-nails nature of Lance Lynn and the rollicking behavior of Liam Hendriks.
And the national TV networks have noticed. ESPN chose the Sox-Angels game for its first “Sunday Night Baseball” broadcast of the season. When the network found an opening to air an “SNB” game on ABC for the first time, it chose the Sox-Cubs game.
The Sox have had several appearances on Fox and FS1 on Saturdays, and ESPN has picked them up for multiple weeknight broadcasts. They were picked for the YouTube game of the week, and they played in the game to end all games at the Field of Dreams — a rare instance in which the Black Sox scandal went in their favor.
The Sox first grabbed the nation’s attention before the season, hiring 76-year-old Tony La Russa to manage the team. The decision was not welcomed warmly by fans, who feared La Russa would be out of touch with the game, having last managed in 2011. He has had some hiccups, but winning is winning.
“Tony is very interesting to people,” said Sox senior vice president Brooks Boyer, the team’s chief revenue and marketing officer. “Here’s a Hall of Famer coming out of retirement. We all heard what was going on, whether social media or sports media. We knew there were risks associated with it. But the conviction was we had a club that, with the right manager, could win a division and get into the tournament and see what happens.
“Someone got thrown out [of a game], and Tony went out, and he ended up getting thrown out. And as he was walking back to the dugout, there was a chant of ‘To-ny! To-ny! To-ny!’ I was like, ‘Man, in April or May, I never would have thought I’d hear that.’ It was like Rocky fighting in Russia [in the movie ‘Rocky IV’]. Now all of a sudden they’ve turned.”
That could be the situation with Chicago baseball fans if merchandising is any indication. Brad Rosen, an owner/partner of Sports World Chicago, said he has been “killing it” with Sox gear, especially jerseys. That’s saying something for a store located across from Wrigley Field.
“I haven’t sold this much Sox stuff in the last 10 years combined,” he said.
Rosen said the Sox’ City Connect jerseys — the black tops with white pinstripes and “Southside” across the chest — sold out in 48 hours. He has regular Sox jerseys in stock, having planned his inventory well, but that isn’t the case everywhere.
“I was in a Dick’s Sporting Goods in the west suburbs, and I was like, ‘Hey, you’ve got Cubs jerseys. I was just curious, where are the White Sox jerseys?’ ’’ Boyer said. ‘‘ ‘We can’t keep ’em in.’ There’s a shortage of jerseys. That’s the impact this team is having.”
Rosen said Fanatics, which manufactures MLB-licensed fan apparel, was understandably lean with its Sox inventory, as opposed to better-selling teams such as the Cubs, Dodgers and Yankees. Hence, the company hasn’t been able to meet the demand. The pandemic has played a significant role, as well, with the cost of shipping dramatically increasing and logistical issues causing significant delays.
But does interest in buying Sox apparel equal interest in buying Sox tickets? We might see some evidence this week. The Pirates, who have the second-worst record in the National League, are in town Tuesday and Wednesday. What will attendance be after the park was sold out for three games against the Cubs?
Consider: When the Athletics — who have a similar standing in the Bay Area as the Sox do here — hosted the Giants on Aug. 20-22, they averaged 35,569. But when the Mariners visited the next two days, the games drew 4,140 and 4,508.
Granted, there are other factors hurting the A’s attendance (the stadium, its location and frustration with ownership). And the Sox’ attendance for the Pirates games probably isn’t going to be in four figures. But it also probably won’t touch the 38,375 average for the Cubs series, not with school starting.
When the Sox return home after the Pirates series, they have a homestand Sept. 10-16 against the Red Sox and Angels. They figure to draw well with the Bosox in over the weekend. Those midweek games against the Angels will be interesting. You’d figure that Shohei Ohtani would draw a crowd.
But that’s just it: These Sox shouldn’t need a guest on their own show.