The White Sox are stuck below .500. Fan enthusiasm has been tepid. Adam Dunn, their $56 million slugger, is hitting .176.
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Jerry Reinsdorf has seen this before.
Reinsdorf is in his 31st season as chairman of the White Sox. He’s been the majority owner of the Chicago Bulls for 26 years, too. On Monday, while Reinsdorf watched his team take batting practice before a series against the Seattle Mariners, I asked him if, over nearly 60 seasons, he could recall one of his players struggling as Dunn has after signing a big contract.
“Well, the money wasn’t the same,” Reinsdorf replied, “but Julio Cruz, back in the ’80s.”
Cruz had arrived in a trade – from Seattle, in fact – during the 1983 season. He helped the White Sox win the division title that year, and Reinsdorf rewarded him with a six-year contract.
According to a United Press International report that year, the total value of the deal was between $3.6 million and $4.8 million.
Not quite Derrick Rose money.
“He was the catalyst for this team (winning) the division,” Reinsdorf said of Cruz. “He signed what was then a very big free-agent contract. He couldn’t handle it.”
And what was the resolution?
“We traded him.”
So … you’re saying Adam Dunn is going to be traded?
A check of the essential Baseball-Reference.com revealed that Cruz technically was released, rather than traded, after batting a meager .213 over the next three seasons. But no matter: Dunn, 31, will neither be traded nor released anytime soon.
The irony, though, is that Dunn’s struggles could lead indirectly to changes elsewhere – if the White Sox can’t sustain their recent climb in the American League Central. Even after Monday’s 3-1 win over Seattle, Chicago remains six games behind first-place Cleveland.
During our conversation, Reinsdorf expressed confidence in general manager Kenny Williams and manager Ozzie Guillen, as only he could. When asked if he is satisfied in the job performance of Williams and Guillen, Reinsdorf smiled and replied, “They’re here, aren’t they?” The chairman added that he expects both men to return next year, as well.
But let’s not forget the essential storyline of the 2011 White Sox: After the team won 88 games last year, Reinsdorf was faced with a decision. As Paul Konerko, A.J. Pierzynski, and others hit free agency, would the chairman cut payroll and go with younger, cheaper talent? Or would he retain the veteran core and augment it by pouring millions more into the team?
Reinsdorf opted for the latter. He increased the Opening Day payroll to $127.8 million, up from $105.5 million last year, according to the USA Today salary database.
The White Sox now have the highest payroll in the division. Of equal importance, they have the highest payroll in Chicago.
So far, though, the dividend hasn’t been there – on the field or at the gate. Guillen’s guys haven’t had a winning record since Tax Day. And despite playing in the nation’s third-largest city, the White Sox ranked 20th in average home attendance through Sunday (22,886).
“We have a much bigger payroll than we had last year,” Reinsdorf said. “And we’re on pace to draw the same number of people. Obviously, that makes it tougher financially. But we’ll be OK.”
Think about it from a business perspective: A bigger investment in the product should equal more wins – or least more hot dogs sold. It’s enough to make you wonder whether a scorching six weeks will be necessary to prevent a selloff at the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline.
When asked if there’s a date by which the team must make serious progress in order to avoid cost-cutting trades, Reinsdorf said, “Not yet. We haven’t picked any dates. But we think we’re going to move (up in the standings). We think we’re going to be all right. I still think we have the best team in the division. Once Dunn starts hitting, he can carry a whole ballclub.”
That hasn’t happened yet. Dunn went 0-for-4 again Monday. He received polite applause when he came to the plate for his first at-bat. It didn’t last. He was booed after he struck out in the fourth. He was booed after he grounded into a double play in the seventh. He was really booed after he struck out with the bases loaded in the eighth.
For good measure, he committed an error at first base. He didn’t stick around afterward to talk with reporters, and it’s hard to blame him for that.
“You try to give him confidence, you try to help him out (as a teammate), but it comes down to him, and hopefully he figures it out real soon,” Pierzynski said. “He has good swings. That’s the thing. It looks like he’s on every pitch. He has these at-bats where you’re like, ‘OK, he’s got it.’ Then he has another at-bat where it’s like, ‘Oh, OK.’ But the one thing about him is he hasn’t really lost confidence. He’s still battling. That’s all you can really ask for. I tip my cap to the guy. He’s handled it a lot better than I would.”
White Sox hitting coach Greg Walker praised Dunn for his work ethic, mentioning that he has taken extra batting practice several times in the past week. “Listen, he’s going to be here for a long time,” Walker said. “He’s going to make this ballpark look real small.”
I asked Reinsdorf if he had spoken with Dunn recently.
“Not much,” he answered. “I don’t like to bother a guy when he’s not going good. Probably everybody’s telling him what they think.
“What’s past is past. I don’t know that he’s going to take his average all the way from what it is today to his normal average. But I would think, the rest of the year, he’ll be what he normally is. It’s just a matter of confidence.”
The faith of Reinsdorf and others in this team isn’t misplaced: One year ago this week, the White Sox started a 25-5 run to end the first half, tying a major league record for the best 30-game mark leading into the All-Star break. The White Sox went from 9-1/2 games back to a 1/2-game lead. If Dunn and Alex Rios (.199) revive their bats, a similar turnaround isn’t out of the question.
Perhaps with that in mind, Reinsdorf stood behind the batting cage for 10 or 15 minutes on Monday, chatting with Walker as the White Sox took their swings. “He’s been a great friend for a long time,” Walker said. “At the end of the year last year, we knew he had a big decision to make. He went all in. We know we’ve got a better team than what we’re performing. Handling pressure is the biggest part of this game.”
As the two spoke, the right-field scoreboard at U.S. Cellular Field scrolled through a series of Mariners photographs and factoids: historic achievements, important dates, notable players. It’s a nice, quasi-educational gesture that the White Sox offer in honor of visiting teams.
One image caught my eye: Under the heading of GREAT PLAYERS IN SEATTLE MARINERS HISTORY, there was a young second baseman, No. 6, wearing the powder-blue Mariners uniform of long ago.