Monday, June 28, 2010

A Tale of Two Teams in One City


     When the White Sox visited Wrigley Field two weeks ago to open this year's crosstown series against the Cubs, they were seven games under .500. Like the Cubs, who were six under, they appeared to be going nowhere.
     We didn't know it at the time, but the South Siders had already turned the corner. Their wins over the Cubs on June 11 and June 12 were their third and fourth in succession. After losing 1-0 to Ted Lilly and the Cubs on June 13, the Sox reeled off 11 victories in a row to make it 15 out of 16. They've crept to within a game and a half of the division lead, and the remainder of the season now beckons promisingly.
     All of a sudden, no one is talking about the supposed feud between Sox manager Ozzie Guillen and general manager Kenny Williams, about the inflammatory tweets of Guillen's son Oney, or about whether the Sox insulted Guillen's other son Ozney by drafting him in the 22nd round. Side issues are placed to the side when a team is focused on winning.
     The Sox have employed excellent pitching, tight defense, and just enough offense to turn their season around. "They're playing good baseball," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "Give them credit." The Sox are playing the way Guillen envisioned they would all along. "Whoever's surprised out there about what we do," Guillen declared, "they're crazy!"
     There is a long way to go, but if he continues at his current pace and the Sox keep winning, veteran first baseman and team captain Paul Konerko will be an MVP candidate. So far he has clouted 20 homers, knocked in 56 runs, and is batting over .300. "He gives it all he has every day," said Guillen. "A very quiet leader. When the game is on the line, he is more relaxed and more confident."

     As for the Cubs, what can you say? They are headed in the opposite direction as their crosstown rivals, having fallen to 10 games below .500 before (barely) salvaging yesterday's game against the Sox. Their problems include lack of any consistent offensive production (especially from erstwhile mainstays Derrek Lee and Aramis Ramirez), spotty defense, frequent mental lapses, and a general malaise.
     On Friday, the Cubs were coming off a 13-inning marathon the day before, and everyone knew that they needed starter Carlos Zambrano to give them some innings. Alas, Zambrano gave them just one (and a bad one at that, in which he yielded four runs) before a ridiculous tirade in the dugout earned him a suspension of indefinite length.
     It is certainly Piniella's and general manager Jim Hendry's fondest wish that Zambrano has already pitched his last game in a Cub uniform--but how eager will another club be to take him off their hands, given his exorbitant $18.75 million salary, his very unsatisfactory performance, and his increasingly intolerable behavior?
     The contrast between Zambrano and a real professional like Konerko is striking. It would be hard to imagine Zambrano's manager saying, "He gives it all he has every day." He gives what he wants when he wants. He has no shortage of talent, but he is woefully short in the categories of focus, discipline, and maturity. Unlike Konerko, who time and again has been at his best in clutch situations, Zambrano generally comes up empty when his team needs him the most. For Carlos, it is not about the team. It is always about Carlos.
     Harry Caray once pungently said of a certain pitcher (whose name unfortunately escapes me), "He has a million-dollar arm and a ten-cent brain." In Zambrano's case, the arm is valued at $18.75 million per year.

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