Let’s take The Great Missed Opportunities series to the South Side of Chicago. The Chicago White Sox are an organization that had many lost chances over the generations.
Of course as all White Sox fans can tell you, THEY are the only Chicago baseball team to win a World Series in the last hundred years. The 2005 White Sox lost one single post season game en route to a rampage to the World Series title. Many from that squad returned for the 2008 Division Title as well. So much of the misery has been redeemed.
They could be the only team who we know for sure can blame themselves for one of their post season short comings: The 1919 squad famously threw the World Series against the Reds.
It was a terrible moment for baseball, but it DID yield two of the best movies about baseball, Eight Men Out and Field of Dreams.
In the decades following 1919, they had terrific teams that could not finish in first place. Between 1954 and 1965, the South Siders won 90 or more games six times, finishing in first place just once during that stretch.
The 1983 team lost a heartbreaking ALCS to the Orioles. 1993 saw the Sox fall just short in the ALCS against Toronto and a wonderful club had their pennant hopes crushed in 1994 by the strike.
According to my own ground rules for the Great Missed Opportunity Series, the honored team has to have played in the Wild Card era, which eliminates all of those teams (except perhaps 1994, but let’s let that slide.)
I almost picked the 2008 squad. If that team won it all after taking a one game playoff to win the Division, they would have championship team featuring Jim Thome and Ken Griffey Jr. Who wouldn’t have wanted to see that pair finally win a ring?
Also remember 2008 was the year that the Cubs had the best record in the National League and the 97 win squad had thoughts of breaking their own curse after seeing the Red Sox and White Sox exorcise long term demons. Winning a second title the year that Cubs fans were suffering the 100th anniversary of their last would have been a sweet if nasty victory on the South Side.
But the 2008 squad were not better than the Angels, Red Sox nor the eventual pennant champion Rays and were a long shot at best.
The team from 2000, however, was a solid squad featuring some of the all time greats in White Sox history. If they won it all that year, the White Sox would have had their most loved team ever.
The 1999 White Sox hovered around .500 until a series of midseason slumps pushed them into a losing record. They finished in second place behind Cleveland, but trailed by 21 1/2 games and were not contenders for manager Jerry Manuel.
Expectations for 2000 were not exactly sky high and the biggest off season move involved acquiring Jose Valentin and Cal Eldred from the Milwaukee Brewers.
But the team could hit, with Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee and Ray Durham at the heart of their lineup. They also had a young prospect who got kicked around between the Dodgers and Reds organization before breaking through with a solid 1999 in Chicago. Little did anyone know that Paul Konerko would become an institution in the South Side.
The main questions were “could they pitch?” and “could they beat Cleveland?”
Mike Sirotka, James Baldwin and Jim Parque all were clobbered in the starting rotation in 1999. Bob Howry was adequate as a closer, but set up man Keith Foulke put up better numbers.
The White Sox started 2000 with two straight losses, then a 4 game winning streak. Then they won 10 out of 11 games in mid April.
One of the games, played on April 22nd against the Tigers, featured 5 hit batters and a few bloodletting brawls.
16, count them, 16 players, coaches and managers were suspended and nine more were fined. It was not pretty but the White Sox were showing some fight, literally.
The White Sox pitching was holding its own. James Baldwin earned an All Star spot by starting the year 10-1 with a decent ERA. Jim Parque and Mike Sirotka were hardly Cy Young contenders but kept the White Sox in enough games to win. And Keith Foulke was developing into an elite closer.
Meanwhile the bats were explosive. Valentin was having one of his most productive seasons while Thomas, Ordonez, Kornerko and Lee gave the White Sox one of the most terrifying middle of the orders in baseball.
They had won 10 out of 12 games in early June and took a 2 game lead over the Indians when they went into Jacobs Field on June 12th for an early Divisional Showdown. In the first game, Frank Thomas launched a home run and the White Sox took an 8-3 lead over the five time defending Division Champs. The Tribe crept back and made it a one run game in the 9th. With the bases loaded and only one out, Cleveland was a single from victory and pulling to within a game. Instead Foulke got Sandy Alomar Jr. to hit into a game ending double play.
The White Sox would go on to sweep the Indians. They went to New York to play the back to back World Champion Yankees. They swept all four games, scoring in double digits in 3 of the 4 contests. Chicago was for real.
By the middle of the season, no opponent seemed to intimidate the overachieving club. They took 2 of 3 at home from the Yankees and swept the Red Sox. A rough six game road trip in August against the contending Mariners and A’s yielded 4 wins.
And at the end of July, an old friend returned to the South Side. 41 year old Harold Baines was acquired along with Charles Johnson from Baltimore to give the team a boost down the stretch. Baines was playing in his 13th season on his third tour for the White Sox. One of the most loved players in franchise history and a key member of the 1983 Division Champion, Baines might have arrived in time to cash in a World Series title.
On September 25th, the Indians lost a game to the Royals and the White Sox clinched the Division Title, their first since 1993 and the 1994 strike season.
Their 95 wins was the highest total in the American League, who had homefield advantage in the World Series. The two time defending champion Yankees finished the season with a horrific slump and the pennant was up for grabs.
The Indians and their 90 wins were on the outside of the playoffs looking in. The A’s and Mariners each had 91 wins. But the White Sox felt like the pennant and possibly the title was theirs for the taking.
In the first Division Series game against Alex Rodriguez and the Wild Card Mariners, the White Sox fell behind quickly at home 3-0 after two innings. But the White Sox fought back. Ray Durham’s homer and a Magglio Ordonez RBI triple gave Chicago a 4-3 lead in the third. Jim Parque held the lead through 6.
In the top of the 7th with 2 outs and the bases loaded, Mike Cameron singled to right. The tying run scored but Ordonez threw out the go ahead run at the plate to end the inning.
In the bottom of the ninth, Charles Johnson hit a lead off single and the White Sox were an RBI from taking a 1-0 series lead. They got two runners on but Ordonez flew out to end the inning.
Edgar Martinez and John Olerud clobbered back to back homers off of Foulke in the 10th and the Mariners won by that margin.
The White Sox began Game 2 with back to back doubles and an early 1-0 lead, seemingly shaking the extra inning loss off of their shoulders. But again, the game became a back and forth affair.
Mike Sirotka coughed up the lead in the second inning only to see the White Sox tie it in the third. Jay Buhner of the Mariners answered with a go ahead homer in the 4th. Seattle starter Paul Abbott settled down and the Mariner bullpen shut down White Sox rallies in the 6th and 7th. Seattle won 5-2 and took a 2-0 lead to the Pacific Northwest.
Facing a shockingly fast elimination, the White Sox trusted the season on James Baldwin, who slumped badly after an All Star worthy start.
He was up for the challenge, letting up just 3 hits and 1 run over 6 innings. One of those hits was a 2 out RBI infield groundout by Stan Javier that tied the game 1-1.
Mariners starter Aaron Sele pitched into the 8th and kept the score 1-1.
In the bottom of the 9th, John Olerud singled off of Kelly Wunsch and took second on an error. No one less than Rickey Henderson was used as a pinch runner. Chicago manager Jerry Manuel used Foulke to try and get out of the potential season ending jam. With Henderson on third and one out, Carlos Guillen dragged a bunt that scored the series winning run, ending all White Sox dreams of a title in 2000.
With all the new post season blood in 2000, it was the slumping Yankees who would emerge victorious in the end. They beat the upstart A’s and the youthful Mariners to force a Subway Series against the Mets.
The 2000 White Sox fell into post season obscurity. Durham, Ordonez, Foulke and Baldwin would all soon be playing elsewhere. Baines would retire after the 2001 season. Manuel would give way to Ozzie Guillen.
Eventually the White Sox would win the World Series in 2005 and Konerko, Mark Buehrle and Jon Garland from the 2000 team got their rings.
Frank Thomas would get a ring as well, but injuries kept him to fewer than 20 games that year and he was sidelined for the post season.
Baines would get a ring as the team’s first base coach.
But the 2000 team would have been a wonderful combination of old heroes and future icons. The team could have taken the first crown of the 2000’s with their greatest slugger (Thomas) and beloved star (Baines) contributing on the field.
And they would have done so for a city that saw the Bulls dismantled and the Bears, Blackhawks and Cubs all under performing. The White Sox had a chance to be THE team of the city and Frank Thomas would have had his crowning achievement.
With a hit here or there in Games 1 and 3, the White Sox would have been in a position to move on. Instead, every bounce seemed to go the Mariners way and the White Sox walked off the field in Seattle dejected.
White Sox fans would have to wait another 5 seasons, which in the grand scheme of Chicago sports, isn’t that much time.
But the chance to start a new century with the greatest slugger in the team’s history hoisting the World Series trophy was a great missed opportunity.