For the first time since José Abreu sat out his final game in a White Sox uniform — the game that put an unwelcome bow on a massively disappointing .500 finish to the team’s 2022 campaign — the franchise icon was back at 35th and Shields.
The only thing that’s changed?
The White Sox team he left behind is in an even worse spot, 13 games below .500 as Abreu’s Astros pay their annual visit.
The Astros themselves are disappointing, the reigning champs hovering around .500 as the third-place team in the AL West. Abreu is beyond disappointing in the first season of a three-year free-agent deal. He returned to his old stomping grounds in the middle of a horrendous slump, with an OPS-plus of just 47 and without a home run.
So you’ll have to forgive Abreu and the White Sox both if it was far from a celebratory atmosphere — planned video tribute aside — as rain soaked the South Side on Friday night.
“It kind of stinks to see what they’re going through,” Abreu said of his old mates, with the help of an Astros interpreter, “but it’s part of the game. It’s a very tough game that we all play, and I think I’ve been going through a lot more struggles than the White Sox have.
“It’s part of the challenge. Got to fight through them, and try to move on.”
Abreu sounded like the same old guy, blaming last year’s misfortunes on injuries and not bringing up any of the stuff he brought up during the spring, when he made headlines for telling the Sun-Times that the 2022 White Sox “weren’t a real family,” despite “family” being the two-year motto during Tony La Russa’s tenure as manager.
Months after sitting out the season finale and not allowing White Sox fans to say their goodbyes in the form of a standing ovation, Abreu was complimentary of the organization Friday but couldn’t think of too many nice things to say about the city, saying he was happy his family enjoyed its time here.
But more interesting than whether the fans miss Abreu — Twitter calls for loud ovations made that known — it’s a wonder how much this team misses Abreu as it slogs through a frustrating start that even the most pessimistic onlooker couldn’t have seen coming.
He was the leader in the clubhouse, not to mention the team’s best offensive player. His struggles through the first month and a half of this season might answer the question about how much better the team’s offensive production would be if he was still wearing the uniform. But would it be in any different place, from a record standpoint? Would it be easier for the White Sox to emerge from this hole they’ve dug themselves if Abreu was still setting up shop in his corner of the clubhouse?
Maybe. Maybe not.
“He taught us to never put your head down,” Yoán Moncada said through team interpreter Billy Russo. “No matter what, the good moments, the bad moments, just keep working hard. Try to go out and do your best. That’s how he did it, right? I think that that was one of the biggest things that he taught us.”
“Respect the jersey you’re wearing,” Abreu said when asked what advice he imparted on the White Sox could be leaned on during this dark time. “I think you have to respect that jersey as part of the uniform and work hard every day.”
Those sound an awful lot like the answers Abreu gave throughout last year’s march to 81-81, save for the little bit of edge that leaked out of player meetings, when Abreu was revealed to have judged the White Sox as verging from confidence into cockiness.
Fans looking for behavior that would shock the team out of its doldrums weren’t likely to find it with Abreu, who despite his model behavior was more of that classic “lead by example” type.
Presently, though, that’s what Pedro Grifol is trying to do, angrily declaring his players “lacked urgency” after they were walked off Thursday afternoon in Kansas City. There was a clubhouse meeting before Friday’s game, and though Grifol kept the details under lock and key, he revealed a bit of his frustration when asked why the meeting was held.
“Maybe we’re 13-26,” the first-year South Side skipper said. “Maybe that’s the reason.”
Grifol assured that the chat addressed what’s been going wrong, though that’s been a lengthy list for the White Sox through the season’s first month and a half. Whether it will fix any or all of those problems remains to be seen, or if there’s anything that can provide enough of a fix to lift the White Sox out of the basement of the AL Central.
Every bit of good news has been accompanied by bad lately. Moncada made his return from a near month-long absence Friday, only for him to return to a team without Eloy Jiménez, on the shelf for a month or more while recovering from an appendectomy. Similarly, the White Sox have yet to make a decision on whether Yasmani Grandal requires a trip to the injured list after experiencing hamstring soreness Thursday while running the bases. Liam Hendriks, on a remarkable comeback trail from cancer, might need more time than initially believed on his rehab assignment after allowing a couple homers Thursday night and evaluating himself as not yet ready.
Regardless, though, of who has been available — and for the third consecutive season, injuries have been an overwhelming storyline for this franchise — the White Sox have simply played poorly. Whether without urgency or without fundamentals, without offensive firepower or without a bullpen that can throw strikes, the issues that dragged them down last season haven’t gone anywhere.
If anything, while he might not recognize the record, Abreu should well recognize the team in the other dugout this weekend.
Not even the supposed reason for the White Sox’ decision to move on from their franchise icon — that it would allow players to fit into a more natural defensive alignment — has yielded better results. Heck, with Jiménez on the IL and Oscar Colás demoted to Triple-A, Gavin Sheets is still taking up fairly regular residency in the outfield.
And because so little has changed when it comes to the team’s bad habits, so much has changed when it comes to their outlook. A team that Abreu once said he would force himself onto because his hopes were so high is now more than a dozen games underwater and on pace for triple-digit losses.
Could it use Abreu? Sure, why not?
But would the presence of one of the best hitters the South Side has ever seen even help pull the White Sox out of their tailspin? It doesn’t look like it.
“I think it’s not a secret that we haven’t been playing at the level that we all know we can do it,” Moncada, Abreu’s chief disciple, said, “for many reasons. One of those factors is injuries, but it’s not an excuse.
“I think everybody wants to do their best, I think we are all going to come together and start playing better. It’s something we have to do on a daily basis, just go out there and do our best. There’s plenty of season to play, and hopefully we’re going to be able to turn this around.”