They’re no longer the rebuilding White Sox. They’re the playoff-bound White Sox.
Four years ago, Rick Hahn’s front office traded Chris Sale and Adam Eaton and launched a full-scale rebuilding project on the South Side. While the massive amount of talent the team acquired matriculated through the minor leagues, the big league club spent 2017, 2018 and 2019 losing a combined 284 games.
And here they are on Sept. 17, 2020, the first team in the American League to clinch a playoff spot.
“I think everybody in there is extremely happy. I mean, it's a culmination of a lot of work over the last few years,” manager Rick Renteria said after Thursday afternoon’s win over the Minnesota Twins punched the White Sox first postseason ticket since 2008. “Give credit to all those guys, give credit to the front office, all the work they did collectively, player development, everybody, for continuing to put these guys in a good position.”
But as much as White Sox fans celebrated on Twitter, popping champagne bottles in their backyards and living rooms while the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic kept them away from Guaranteed Rate Field and most local watering holes, Thursday didn’t sound like much of a “culmination” for the team.
It was a muted celebration, if you can even call it that, on the field. The postgame handshake line looked like it might have after any old regular-season game. While the length between postgame interviews made it seem like some form of out-of-the-ordinary post-win revelry was happening behind closed clubhouse doors, the comments all reflected the same message we’ve heard from the White Sox in recent days and weeks: This is just the very beginning.
“We want the bigger goal,” shortstop Tim Anderson said. “These are just steps along the way. We did this, now it's onto the next. What else can we do?”
If Hahn is the one setting definitions for rebuilding success, then indeed he’s remained committed all along to the “culmination” of this whole thing being a world championship. He likes to use the word “parade,” but if the White Sox rapid rise from rebuilders to contenders continues on its current blistering pace, social-distancing regulations might still be in place for a championship celebration this fall.
But true to their big preseason talk, the White Sox have their eyes squarely on the biggest prize of all. They seemed to be just fine with clinching a playoff berth Thursday. They’ve been respectful of the questions about them owning the best record in the AL. But what they really want is to win the World Series.
“I definitely see that as a nice milestone for us after what we've been building toward the last three years. But at the same time, making the playoffs was expected,” starting pitcher Lucas Giolito said Wednesday night. “So for us, the ultimate goal is to win the World Series, straight up.”
“At the beginning of the year, at SoxFest, I said we'll be disappointed if we don't make the playoffs,” outfielder Eloy Jiménez said Thursday. “So now we made it, and now we just need to continue to play hard and win our division.”
Onto the next.
Of course, their in-game actions contradicted their postgame tone just a little bit. The White Sox entered the bottom of the seventh trailing the Twins by a 3-2 score. José Abreu, who went through six losing seasons with the White Sox before signing a new contract over the winter, beat out an infield single to drive in the tying run. When Jiménez put the team ahead with a double immediately after, he let out an emotional “LET’S GO!” at second base. When a ground ball preserved the White Sox one-run lead and ended the top of the eighth, Abreu pumped his fist hard while tagging first base.
These guys were excited, competing in another playoff-style game — there were a few in the four-game series between the division rivals — this one with some stakes.
But two things can be true at once, and the White Sox are simultaneously happy to have come this far and ready to find out just how far they can still go.
“This moment is really special. It's something we're never going to forget,” Jiménez said. “Especially because we're building something, and now we make the playoffs. For us it's really good as a team and as an organization.”
Hahn’s plan all along has been for this to be a long-term endeavor, to put the White Sox in position to have these kinds of moments on an annual basis. And with the way things are clicking right now and the team set up to keep clicking for years to come, it looks like more than just a possibility. This is the direction the White Sox are heading.
And so while it might take a socially distanced parade or a Zoom championship rally or Abreu presenting Jerry Reinsdorf with a sanitized ball from the final out of the World Series to really bring this project to a “culmination,” this is the first time this has happened for the White Sox in a dozen years and it’s a direct result of the rebuild.
So folks, go ahead and party like it’s 2008.
“I know how hard it is for people from the outside to look in toward us and see all the steps that are being taken and feel at times like you're spinning your wheels and maybe not moving forward as fast as you'd like in terms of how we continue to develop as an organization, as a team,” Renteria said. “We as coaches, trust me, feel the same pain that everyone else feels when we're trying to grind through and work and help develop these young men.
“The fans, I hope they're really, really happy right now to see the steps the organization has taken. They should be happy. We've talked about winning since Day 1. We haven't wavered.
“Right now, it's just a stepping stone. We haven't done anything yet. We're still moving forward. We have to move forward. At the end of the day, we will continue to strive toward excellence, and hopefully everybody will be along for the ride.”