White Sox

Bo knows Chicago: Why Jackson never left the Windy City

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Bo knows Chicago: Why Jackson never left the Windy City

If you live in the Chicagoland area, one of the greatest athletes in the history of sports just might be your neighbor.

He could be that guy walking his dog, or driving down the highway, or eating out with his family at a local restaurant.

He lives among us here in Chicago, but somehow, someway Bo Jackson has done it almost anonymously for more than two decades.

Bo knows baseball, Bo knows football, but what most people don't know about Jackson is that after signing with the White Sox in 1991, he decided to make Chicago his home—and he hasn't left.

"I've lived here for 25 years and I still run into people at the service station, right up the street from my house. They see me pumping gas in my pickup truck and they ask, 'Aren't you..?' And then they say 'What are you doing here?' And I make up some lie like, 'I'm just passing through. I'm on my way to the West Coast' and I live three blocks down the road," Jackson said in an interview with Comcast SportsNet. 

The eighth of 10 children growing up poor in Bessemer, Alabama, Jackson says his family never had enough food. But he soon learned that he did have something no one else did—special athletic ability.

"Sports always came easy for me. Not saying that from a bragging standpoint," Jackson said. "The first thing I learned how to do as a kid before baseball, before football, way before any sport—I learned how to run and throw a rock better than any kid in my neighborhood, so whenever a house window got broken or a car window got smashed, a kid came home bleeding from a hit in the head, they came to my house. 'Go to the Jackson kid's house because that's probably who threw the rock,' and 99.999 percent of the time it was true. So I learned how to do those two things better than I learned how to eat."

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He'd become a two-time state champion in the decathlon. He'd be selected by the New York Yankees in the second round of the 1982 draft, but instead chose to play football at Auburn where he won the 1985 Heisman trophy, rushing for 1,786 yards and 17 touchdowns. With the Kansas City Royals and Los Angeles Raiders, he became the only person to be named an All-Star in two different professional sports.

As for Jackson's White Sox career, it was a brief one. He played a combined 108 games in 1991 and 1993 as he attempted to come back from a major hip injury suffered during a 1991 playoff game for the Los Angeles Raiders. A seemingly innocent tackle by linebacker Kevin Walker of the Cincinnati Bengals led to something much worse: a degenerative condition of his left hip bone.

He would never play football again.

The Royals figured he'd never play baseball again either, so they cut him. However, two weeks later, the White Sox signed him to a one-year contract.

"No hard feelings, but I smelled a rat long before they released me," Jackson said of the Royals at the time. "It was actually a relief when it finally happened, and it's given me the chance to come play for a winner."

After playing only 23 games for the White Sox in 1991, his hip eventually gave out, forcing Jackson to have hip replacement surgery at the ripe old age of 30.

He'd miss the entire 1992 season rehabbing the injury. Then the following year, he tried coming back despite the fact that every time he took the field, he ran the risk of his femur literally popping out of the joint. 

In his very first game on April 9, 1993, Jackson came off the bench as a pinch hitter at Comiskey Park and homered off the Yankees Neal Heaton. Hawk Harrelson admits that when he called the home run, tears were running down his face.

It's these kind of moments that keep Jackson's career alive, even though he's been retired for so long.

"To this day, I've been out of sports for almost 25-30 years now. It's almost comical to me that people still get a rise when they see me," he said.

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When Jackson was a senior at Auburn, there was an incoming freshman who played tight end who was also pretty good at hitting a baseball. His name was Frank Thomas. 

"I think Frank ended up where he needed to be. History proves to us that he made the right decision to play baseball," he said with a smile.

How great of a hitter was Frank? 

"I'll put it to you like this: if you combine the hitting power of me, Rafael Palmeiro and Will Clark and the hitting knowledge of a Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, you get Frank Thomas. I had the eyes. I had excellent eyes. I challenge anyone, but Frank had the technique. Frank had the ability to identify pitches quicker than anyone and he adjusted. His batting average, his home run total, everything proved that. That's why he's a Hall of Famer."

If he stayed healthy, Jackson could have been a Hall of Famer in both baseball and football. Imagine that.

But his life took a detour, and as it turned out, it brought and kept him here in Chicago.

Ask Jackson for a favorite memory of his White Sox career, and he won't single out a moment or a game. What stays with him is "the" game and that he was able to play it for a living.

"It's going out and playing a game that 99 percent of us would play for free. And we're getting paid to do something that we've been doing since we were little boys out on the sandlot field. Playing in our sneakers with the bottom part half coming off and cutoff jeans and no gloves and the baseball bat being a broom handle and swinging at a tennis ball. So to make it all the way to the top of that pinnacle in that sport, it's something great. And to be rewarded for it, that's icing on the cake."

Everything that's gone right this year in the White Sox farm system

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USA TODAY

Everything that's gone right this year in the White Sox farm system

If there’s a sweet spot in the White Sox rebuild, you will find it in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. That’s where first-time manager Omar Vizquel and a surge of talent have quickly burst onto the scene in the Carolina League.  From big names like Dylan Cease, Luis Robert and Blake Rutherford to under the radar types like Jimmy Lambert and Ti’Quan Forbes, Vizquel has been in charge of an overflow of prospects the White Sox minor league system hasn’t seen in years.  

Injuries this year to Robert, Eloy Jimenez, Alec Hanson, Jake Burger, Dane Dunning, Micker Adolfo and Ryan Cordell may have put a damper on your spirits about the White Sox rebuild and the speed in which it will take for the big league club to be good again.  But despite those setbacks, the organizational depth Rick Hahn has preached about and has attempted to create in the farm system is starting to become a reality.

Even after some of Vizquel’s best players like Cease, Joel Booker, Luis Basabe and Bernardo Flores were promoted to Double-A Birmingham in June, Vizquel has inherited a brand new wave of talent from Class-A Kannapolis in the form of Luis Gonzalez, Laz Rivera, Tyler Johnson and Blake Battenfield and they haven’t skipped a beat, excelling in a higher league, creating more late-game drama like we saw from the Dash in the first half of the season.

Here’s 28th round pick Laz Rivera hitting a walk-off grand slam Tuesday night in the 10th inning.

If you want to feel down about the lost development time for Burger, Robert and Dunning, go ahead.  It’s real. Their timetables to the big leagues might be pushed back (although Basabe told me at the Futures Game that Robert “is going to learn very quick.” Store that in the back of your mind when he returns, possibly in the first week in August).  

But if you ask Vizquel about the players he has managed this year,  he believes that many of them are on an accelerated path for the major leagues.

“We’re seeing a lot of explosive players who can go through the system and maybe surprise some people and be in the big leagues a little sooner than people expected,”  Vizquel said in a phone interview.

Who is Vizquel speaking about?  Let’s start with Cease who started the year in Winston-Salem. Vizquel likened him to Justin Verlander.  Yeah, he went there.

“A guy I can compare (Cease) with, I would say he’s a Justin Verlander type.  I was with Justin the last four years in Detroit and obviously he’s one of the most veteran pitchers in the game.  Just the way he handles the situation when he’s on the mound, he’s just amazing. What impressed me about Cease was his composure.  The way he takes the mound every time,” Vizquel said. “Obviously, he’s got a really good fastball that can go up to 98, 99, and he can go to 100 pitches and he still has the strength to go out there in the 9th inning and shut people down.  At his age it’s really tough to find guys like that who can handle the pressure and everything that goes around the pitcher’s mound. And he has that.”

Cease and Basabe both played in the Futures Game.  If Robert wasn’t injured, he very likely would have joined them in Washington, DC.   

Basabe made a big splash in the game, drilling a 102 mph pitch from Reds prospect Hunter Greene deep into the right field seats.   The third player in the Chris Sale trade, Basabe battled a knee injury last season. Healthy this year, he’s showing off all the tools and promise the White Sox were expecting.

“He’s one of those guys who can run balls down in every outfield position.  We used him in every spot. Right, center and left. With his speed and his arm he can play anywhere.  He can hit the ball with power, he can hit consistently for average,” Vizquel said about Basabe. “He can be one of those players who can change the game with one at-bat.  He can bunt, he can hit for power and he can also steal a base. When you have a player that is complete in every aspect of the game, he can be a really good player for anybody.”

Basabe and Joel Booker have both had big comeback seasons.  Booker has been a revelation, raising eyebrows in the White Sox farm system.

“Joel Booker is the most underrated guy we have,”  Cease said during an interview before the Futures Game.

Booker was named the MVP of the Carolina League All-Star Game, got promoted to Birmingham where he’s leading off for the Barons, hitting ahead of fellow outfielder Basabe.

“(Booker) is another guy who has the same tools that Basabe has, except he’s a little faster than Basabe,”  Vizquel said. “I think he wasn’t being mentioned too much in the White Sox organization because there are so many high top prospects here that he probably gets lost in that group of people.  Obviously, when the game starts you can see that he’s one of those players who can bring a lot of attention. He can steal bases, he can hit the ball hard. Even though he’s a leadoff guy he can hit the ball a long way.  He’s a guy who is still learning the game and I think because he hasn’t played baseball that long, people overlook him a little bit, but he’s going to be a great player, too."

When Booker got promoted to Birmingham, that opened up a spot in the Winston-Salem outfield for Luis Gonzalez.  The White Sox 3rd round pick from 2017 immediately became one of the Dash’s best players.

“Luis Gonzalez is one of these guys who can hit in every spot in the lineup.  He’s a good leadoff guy and is very aggressive with the count. He likes to swing the bat.  As a matter of fact, he got mad at me because I don’t let him hit in the 3-hole sometimes. He can tell you that he’s ready to swing at every pitch,”  Vizquel said about Gonzalez who is slashing .306/.349/.449 in 22 games in Winston-Salem.

“He’s a left-handed hitter who doesn’t care if he has a left-handed pitcher on the mound.  He still sticks his nose in there and he’s going to give you a great at-bat every time. That’s who I have at the top of the lineup right now and he’s another player who’s learning the game real quick.  Even in his young age, he looks like a veteran out there.”

But wait, there’s more.  Outfielder Blake Rutherford who the White Sox acquired in the Todd Frazier/David Robertson/Tommy Kahnle trade last July, has quickly made people forget about his struggles in Kannapolis last year (.213/.289/.254 in 30 games).  This year in a higher league, he’s been one of its top hitters (.300/.345/.459), ranking 2nd in RBIs and 4th in hits.

“Rutherford is a guy who is really young too.  I love to have him with runners in scoring position because he can bring an RBI anytime,” Vizquel said about the Dash right fielder who turned 21 in May and is batting .343 with 57 RBIs with RISP.  “He’s a guy who makes contact. He’s going to be good. He’s another great outfielder, not as good as defensively as (Booker and Gonzalez), but he still does have great tools to be out there playing everyday.”

When it comes to starting pitching, Cease, Dunning, Hansen and Michael Kopech get most of the attention in the minor leagues.  But there are some other pitchers making names for themselves this year. Left-hander Bernardo Flores has combined for a 2.56 ERA in 109 innings for Winston-Salem and Birmingham. Since being called up to Double-A, Jimmy Lambert is 3-1 with a 3.13 ERA.  He flirted with a no-hitter in his last start against the Cubs AA team, giving up 1 hit over 7 innings with 10 strikeouts.

“He’s gross,”  Cease said about Lambert.  “He throws his fastball 92 to 95. Disgusting change-up.  He can throw 15 change-ups in an inning and he’ll get 11 swings and misses on it.

Good curveball and slider.  He’s gross.”

Cease and Lambert are now throwing to catcher Zack Collins, who leads the Southern League with a .409 on-base percentage and 77 walks.  The next closest in the league in walks has 53.

We know Collins can hit and get on base.  What about his defense?

“From when I threw to him during spring training to now he’s like almost a new guy,”  Cease said about Collins. “He’s framing well, calling a good game and blocking and that’s all you need from a catcher.”

In Charlotte, there’s 23-year-old reliever Ian Hamilton, who got called up last month and gave up only 2 hits in his first 6.2 IP with 9 strikeouts and 1 walk. His fastball can hit 98 mph and he has a hard slider that can reach 90.  He’s a possible future closer for the White Sox.

He also has a teammate named Eloy Jimenez.  I hear he’s having a big season as well.

In a perfect world, every White Sox prospect listed here will stay healthy, all of them will max out their potential, and in the coming years they’ll win every World Series title from 2020 to 2023.

But life isn’t perfect, especially in baseball.  Too much can go wrong, and often does.

The way to withstand the inevitable setbacks is by stocking your organization with waves of talent.  For a long time, you could only find ripples of this in the White Sox farm system.

Now in Winston-Salem, it’s surf’s up!   The hope is that one day they’ll be hangin’ ten from Kannapolis to Chicago.

For now, Omar Vizquel is handing out longboards to his first-place Dash who have been the class of the Carolina League.  

If he can create a winning culture like he experienced with the Cleveland Indians in the 1990’s, and have that success flow upstream into the big leagues,  the future at 35th and Shields will be very bright.

“I’m glad that I have this opportunity to be involved with all these young bright stars and make a difference and teach them the right way to play fundamental baseball and just play the game the right way,”  Vizquel said. “It’s something that I learned with all my years of experience. I think we’ve been trying to let these guys know how to play the right way and I think it’s paying off.”

Who knew? Stat nuggets from the White Sox pre-All-Star break season

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USA TODAY

Who knew? Stat nuggets from the White Sox pre-All-Star break season

It’s the All-Star Break, so why not take a look back at the first 58.6% of the White Sox season.

 

They may not be contending quite yet, but there have been several interesting moments. 

 

Focusing on the hitters, let’s take a look at ten amazing achievements this season.  And while there may be several to list for some players, I’m going to limit it to one fact per player.  Let’s go.

 

  • On March 29 (Opening Day), Matt Davidson became the 1st player in MLB history to hit 3 Home Runs in a game in March.
  • On April 23, Yoán Moncada (22 years, 331 days) became the youngest player in White Sox history with a double, triple & HR in the same game, passing Tito Francona (24 years, 205 days) on 5/28/1958.
  • Daniel Palka recorded a triple on May 22nd, making him the first player in White Sox history with 3 triples & 3 HR within his first 20 career MLB games.
  • On July 3, Palka (LF) & Avisaíl García (RF) became the second pair of White Sox outfielders to each hit 2 HR in the same game; the other pair? Minnie Miñoso (LF) and Larry Doby (CF) on July 30, 1957.
  • On May 28, Matt Skole became the first player in White Sox history with a home run AND a walk in his MLB Debut.
  • The lone White Sox walkoff Home Run of 2018 was off the bat of a player who hit .116 for the Sox this season (Trayce Thompson on May 3 – he went 14 for 121 this season for the Southsiders).
  • The White Sox have started a game with backto-back home runs four times in franchise history. 9/2/1937, 7/4/2000, 9/2/2017 & 6/12/2018.  Each of the last 2 times, Yolmer Sánchez hit the second home run.
  • On June 23, Tim Anderson became the first White Sox shortstop ever to homer on his birthday.
  • On June 27, José Abreu hit his 136th career HR and passed Minnie Miñoso for most by a Cubanborn player in White Sox history.  He hit one more since.
  • Leury García managed to become the first White Sox player with at least 10 stolen bases (he has 10) without being caught before the AllStar Break since Mike Cameron (13 for 13) in 1997.