Catch White Sox Opening Day on CSN tonight with coverage beginning at 8:30 p.m. with White Sox Pregame Live followed by Chris Sale taking on the A's.
OAKLAND, Calif. - Even as spring training lingered in its final week, the White Sox continued to make noise on Camelback Ranch’s backfields in their morning workouts.
Rather than simply go through the motions of yet another practice, players hollered or cheered each other on in friendly skills-based competitions.
Team A faced off against Team B to see which could make more plays during infield drills. Or the outfielders might see who could come closest to landing a throw in the ball bin just beyond second base. The stakes normally ranged from the losers fetching the victors a Gatorade from the refrigerator or serving them lunch. Another competition resulted a championship wrestling belt being awarded.
In the process, a group of veteran White Sox players encouraged their teammates to remain engaged in what is normally a monotonous part of camp. Whether fueled by the desire to win or avoid the payoff, players focused on producing quality work and forging important bonds. There’s also a hope those sessions created a foundation that helps the White Sox - who open the 2016 season at 9:05 p.m. CST on Monday at the Oakland A’s - get back on track after three consecutive losing seasons.
“You’ve got to find some way,” third baseman Todd Frazier said. “Whether you miss a ball you do 15 pushups, or you get my Gatorade today. Something as simple as that. You owe me a Wendy’s burger later on or something.
“It makes for a little more competition, and it builds character and builds game-ready situations.”
The White Sox added plenty of character this offseason. Before Sunday’s workout, manager Robin Ventura described his team as a “saltier” bunch with much more experience than in the past.
In an attempt to fill in the holes around a talented young core, the White Sox added veterans wherever they could. Free agents Dioner Navarro and Alex Avila were the first to join. Frazier arrived next from Cincinnati in a December trade. Jimmy Rollins joined the club in late February and Austin Jackson soon followed.
Collectively, the group has played for 21 division winning teams and made 23 postseason appearances.
The White Sox are intrigued to combine a veteran group of winners with a hungry young core that includes Chris Sale, Jose Abreu, Adam Eaton and Jose Quintana.
“That’s the kind of formula it takes to do special things,” pitcher Zack Duke said. “You have superstar players in their prime and you build around that, you complement those guys, to give them a situation where they can be best equipped to succeed. They’ve done a great job of that. It’s pretty nice to see the way its shaping up here. It gives us a lot of hope and motivation to go out there and make it happen.”
General manager Rick Hahn said he hoped to add some experience when the front office constructed its offseason plan. He didn’t expect to land Rollins and Jackson when he did. But, they fit the bill, as Hahn desired players with postseason experience.
“There is an element of what guys bring to the clubhouse and guys who do have a history of being integral parts on winning teams bring a little something extra,” Hahn said. “Being able to add guys with that much experience is a big positive.”
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The group’s collective know-how helped sooner than the White Sox originally expected and perhaps in a way they never could have foreseen after the mid-March retirement of Adam LaRoche.
In the days after LaRoche abruptly quit, Ventura felt as if his club would be better-suited to handle the tumult. Soon thereafter, the White Sox were back to their boisterous ways and they haven’t slowed down. Rollins said he senses a winning vibe.
“I don’t know what it was like last year, but I hear we’re in a better place already and we have guys that have played on winning teams and you need that,” Rollins said. “It’s important to have guys that know what it’s like to win. When you know what its like to win, when someone or things are going the other way, when you’re not doing things that are conducive to winning, it stands out and you make a correction because you know better.”
Avila has played on winning teams in each season of his career until 2015. He said an attitude and belief that the Tigers would win persisted from the first day - they just knew how to carry themselves - in each of the five winning seasons.
While that same feel wasn’t there last season, Avila senses it once again with the White Sox.
“You have to have a business attitude when you come in every single day,” Avila said. “You have fun, you have a good time, you’re playing a game. But it’s only fun when you win. So when the guys come in, you’ve got to get your work in. You’ve got to make sure you prepare because if you’re not, you’re going to get eaten alive in the league. This is a very professional group right now and that’s half the battle.”
They’re a tight-knit group, too.
Duke credits Hahn for investigating the all-around package of each player. He said the combination of players has led to positive attitudes and “crisp” work.
Sale has noticed that many of his new teammates have brought a winning attitude to the mix, that they act as if they’ve been there before.
“They know how to handle it,” Sale said. “They know what it takes to get there.”
Eaton said that confidence and attitude made a big difference at the end of camp, a time of the spring where things get stale. The daily competitions have allowed players to stay upbeat and have fun while they remain focused on improving as a club.
“It’ll allow spring training to go by a little bit quicker, but at the same time you’re getting good work in,” Eaton said.
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And that’s all that matters in Frazier’s mind.
With six weeks of pitcher’s fielding practice, grounders to take or fly balls to track, things can get tiresome. But the White Sox found a way to make it enjoyable when they recently had to go through rundown drills again after several mishaps on the field.
If they can take their work seriously yet still have fun, the belief is that will carry over when the results really start to matter - as if they haven’t already.
“We won a competition (last Sunday),” Frazier said when asked about the wrestling belt above his locker. “The corner infielders and catchers beat out the middle infielders and outfielders in this agility game. It was fun. I don’t know how we did it, but we came out on top. It was concentration.”
Frazier admitted infield work is tedious. But he and his teammates found an engaging way to take it seriously, knowing that it'll pay off when the season starts Monday.
“We’ve got something to prove.”