White Sox

Michael Kopech is ready for 2020: 'Tommy John has been the best thing to ever happen to me'

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USA TODAY

Michael Kopech is ready for 2020: 'Tommy John has been the best thing to ever happen to me'

Here’s a bit of a head-scratcher from Michael Kopech.

“I think Tommy John has been the best thing to ever happen to me.”

Really? The White Sox and their fan base might beg to disagree, the promising young pitcher having what was supposed to be his first full season in the majors delayed until 2020 thanks to the surgery and the recovery thereafter.

But Kopech has used the time to recover, refocus and ready himself to be a part of something big on the South Side.

While getting Kopech back for 2020 is certainly a positive — as well as something that could help the White Sox transform their rotation and shift into contention mode — there are legitimate questions about what will happen once he returns to action.

As hyped as Kopech is as a fireballing pitching prospect, his next start will be just his fifth appearance as a big leaguer and will come 18 months after his last. We don’t know what kind of pitcher he’ll be in the aftermath of his recovery. We don’t know if he’ll need the same kind of time to get acclimated to the bigs that Lucas Giolito needed, that Dylan Cease is currently needing. There are plenty of unknowns.

One certainty is that Kopech is ready to return.

“I am about as ready as I can be,” he said during a conference call Thursday. “I’ve done everything I can to prepare. It’s been a long time coming, I feel like. But yeah, I feel ready to go, ready for next spring.

“Being part of the rotation is just going to be a relief once I’m able to work my way back there. First thing’s first, I have to come to spring and compete for that job.”

General manager Rick Hahn has addressed the possibility of Kopech beginning the season in the minor leagues if spring training isn’t enough to work him back to full strength, but the team expects Kopech to be ready to go once the team gets to Glendale, Arizona, in February. He’ll be a part of a very different-looking rotation for these White Sox, who have starting pitching on their offseason shopping list.

Only time will tell what Kopech will look like on a big league mound following his recovery. But he’s got nothing but great things to say about the recovery process. And he specifically touched on the effects on the mental side of his game, something that Giolito focused on last offseason and used to transform himself into an All Star.

“I’ve really been able to take a step back away from the game and allow life to catch up and for the game to slow down,” he said. “I’m taking a results-based mentality I’ve taken for most of my career and kind of rewired that. The results are only as good as the preparation I’ve put in.

“I’m trying to make sure I’m fully prepared and a well-rounded athlete, not just a hard-throwing pitcher, and come back next year with the velocity I already had as a tool but also some well polished tools I’ve tried to develop over my rehab here.

“It’s kind of tough to do with this kind of adversity, especially when you see the team sort of starting to click and you desperately want to be a part of it. And it’s what we worked hard for, to be a part of it. But at the end of the day we’re all getting a different perspective about the game altogether. And we’re getting time to work on our weaknesses.

“Absolutely, I think Tommy John has been the best thing to ever happen to me. Not just for baseball but in general.”

It’s great to hear somebody take such positivity out of something that was initially met with such dread, and Kopech speaks with plenty of confidence — no surprise there — about the future and his ability to make a successful return.

His return also adds to the growing list of reasons to be excited about the 2020 edition of the White Sox, who have the ingredients to make their long-awaited transition from rebuilding mode to contending mode. The steps forward for Giolito, Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson and Eloy Jimenez this season, the consistent production of Jose Abreu, the huge minor league campaigns for Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal, the expected moves this offseason, it all adds up to high hopes for the White Sox next season.

And Kopech is ready to be a part of that.

“To see everything coming together and what everyone has done — Timmy is going to win the batting title, Jose is going to do what Jose does, Giolito had a hell of a season — it’s just going to be a lot of fun to be a part of.

“We’re realizing how good we can be.”

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The 15 most underrated players in White Sox history

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AP

The 15 most underrated players in White Sox history

The term “underrated” is loosely defined and almost always is accompanied by some personal bias, but in general it can used to describe fan favorites who don’t always command the bright spotlight.

Almost every White Sox fan can think of at least one player they believe wasn’t appreciated enough during their time on the South Side. Trust me, I’ve seen your Kelly Wunch jerseys in the stands.

So with a historical assist from Chris Kamka and a few other members of the NBC Sports Chicago team, I came up with the 15 most underrated players in White Sox history. 

Click here to see the 15 most underrated players in White Sox franchise history.

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Former White Sox bullpen catcher Man Soo Lee still impacting young fans

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NBC Sports Chicago

Former White Sox bullpen catcher Man Soo Lee still impacting young fans

Excuse me while I get nostalgic and recognize White Sox legend Man Soo Lee.

OK, he might not be a legend to everyone, but for anyone who was born between the mid-1980s and mid-1990s and frequented the left field bleachers at Comiskey Park/U.S. Cellular Field between 2000 and 2006, then you probably know of Man Soo Lee. In fact, there’s a good chance he threw you a baseball at some point.

Man Soo Lee – or Lee Man-soo in his native South Korea – was the White Sox’s bullpen catcher from 2000-06. He has a World Series ring to his name and was one of the most fun-loving members of the 2005 White Sox.

But why am I writing about some random bullpen catcher? Well, it starts with Lee being briefly shown on the television broadcast of the May 8, 2005 White Sox-Blue Jays game that was replayed Monday on NBC Sports Chicago as part of our #SoxRewind series.

Just that quick shot of Man Soo Lee brought back some great memories of being at the ballpark. Like many young baseball fans, I was the type of kid that loved to get to games super early for batting practice. I would camp out in a perfect spot in the front row next to the White Sox bullpen and that meant Lee was close by, usually shagging fly balls.

And he was very generous with those baseballs.

Lee’s English wasn’t perfect, but he could still communicate with fans and he would always be goofing around. For example, it might take a quick game of Rock-Paper-Scissors to get a ball from him.

Over time, Lee came to recognize the fans he saw often, and that included me. I’d see him on the road in Minneapolis or Kansas City and he’d come by the stands, thank me for making the trip and usually drop me a ball. Today, working as a reporter, that type of interaction doesn’t seem like a big deal, but back then, as a young teenager, the bullpen catcher knowing your name was one of the coolest things in the world.

And I know I’m not the only one who still appreciates Man Soo Lee’s relationship with the fans. Just in sending out that tweet on Monday, I received similar sentiments in response:

Sadly, in doing some research for this piece, I came to find out that while Lee always looked like he was having so much fun, his time in Chicago wasn’t exactly easy on his family.

"It was a very tough time. Nobody understood my English although I studied it quite hard in Korea,” Lee told the Korea Times in December. “Racial discrimination was also bad, especially in the minor leagues. In the Major League, it was much better. Players were more relaxed."

The thing is, Man Soo Lee is an actual baseball legend in Korea. He was one of the first stars of the Korea Baseball Organization and pulled off the Triple Crown in 1984, leading the league in home runs, RBIs and batting average.

But in that same Korea Times story, he said he wasn’t prepared for being a nobody in the United States and spoke of the “meaninglessness” of his fame. The Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s also made things tough. It’s not like bullpen catchers make a lot of money, even in Major League Baseball.

"We didn't have money,” he said. “We ordered one drink at Starbucks and shared it between (my wife and two sons). Chicago is very cold and one night we lost electricity. To save money, we stayed home under one blanket. It was a really tough time, but I got to spend lots of time with my boys and did many things with my family."

Lee went back to South Korea in 2006 and eventually became manager of the SK Wyverns. Today, he’s helping develop baseball in the country of Laos, teaching the game to underprivileged children. 

And hopefully he knows he had a strong impact on young baseball fans during his time in Chicago too.

The White Sox-Rangers game from May 17, 2005 will air Thursday at 4 p.m. on NBC Sports Chicago. For the full White Sox Rewind schedule from the 2005 season, click here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the White Sox easily on your device.