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PHOENIX – Imagine you’re out for a stroll in your local city park when an Australian man throwing a baseball nearly 100 miles an hour starts screaming profanity under your favorite tree.
That, apparently, was life during the lockout.
It’s all over, of course, and Liam Hendriks can start testing out his latest bleep-worthy exclamations at the White Sox’ spring training facility. This is official, team-sanctioned cussing, now.
But the All-Star closer and back-to-back AL Reliever of the Year provided a glimpse into just how different life had been just days ago, when players were locked out of their typical training locations, forced to settle for any open patch of grass in the Valley of the Sun.
“We went to random different parks,” said Hendriks, who might have refrained from his usual on-mound antics with dog-walkers present and playgrounds nearby, “a couple in Tempe, a couple in Paradise Valley, there was a place in Arcadia. There are places all over the place, and luckily we were able to make it work.
“I got some people saying, ‘You are throwing pretty well.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, not too bad.’”
Everyone’s a scout these days.
But truly, after three months of the sport on lockdown, baseball is back. It will be anything but normal as the work stoppage means a shortened spring that already has Tony La Russa fretting about the effects on his pitchers’ health. New rules and a new schedule are coming to the national pastime. And Hendriks even let slip a few words that make you think the wounds from the latest battle between owners and players are far from healed.
This was baseball, though, on my first day in Arizona since 2020. This was spring training.
No amount of “how weird was that lockout?” questions can replace the seeming normalcy of watching someone throw live batting practice on a backfield while the sun beats down. Team brass was zooming around in golf carts. Tim Anderson was cracking wise. Camelback Ranch was as well groomed as ever, and though minor leaguers have been at camp for a couple weeks now, the fields looked like they’d been waiting for the big boys for months.
This is no normal spring, though, and “highlights” of intrasquad games will live on Twitter right next to Hot Stove rumors for the next few weeks. Not only is camp condensed, but so, too, is the rest of baseball’s offseason. Usually, Rick Hahn spends the spring watching his roster from a golf cart. He might not see much of it this year as he takes calls – so many that La Russa joked it’s been hard to get in touch with Hahn and Kenny Williams in the hours since the lockout was lifted.
Sunday is report day, the big leaguers who got here as soon as possible – Anderson, Hendriks, Lance Lynn, Andrew Vaughn, Dallas Keuchel, Garrett Crochet, Gavin Sheets, Yasmani Grandal and more – joined by the rest of their teammates. But the arrivals should continue for days, perhaps even weeks to follow. José Abreu and Eloy Jiménez were already pegged as probable late arrivals, if only by a day.
But it’s those new additions Hahn will be working on that I’m talking about, guys like Joe Kelly and Josh Harrison, the first reported post-lockout additions to this roster. They might show up to meet their new teammates Sunday. But there will be more, be it in right field or at DH or in the rotation.
The bottom line, though, is that after that rude interruption, the high hopes and World Series level aspirations can finally take hold for this White Sox team. Hendriks briefly reflected on the upsetting end to last year’s brief postseason appearance, expressing his hope for experience gained and the next step in this journey. But before the lockout, it was Hahn who didn’t like the sound of incremental progress in the playoffs. Friday, he set the expectations, in no uncertain terms.
“I don’t think any of us would be doing our jobs properly – and by that I mean the front office, players, coaches – if our aspirations weren’t to win a championship and feeling we need to do everything in our power to win the World Series in 2022,” he said. “I’m not real good at feeling that we’ve met our expectations or satisfied our expectations if it doesn’t end with us winning a championship.”
In the end, that is what spring is about for anyone not wearing a jersey. The realities of guys practicing to get ready for six, hopefully seven, months’ worth of games that count apply to them, and they’ll be the talking points in interviews and media sessions for the next few weeks. But spring training, to everyone else, is about the preface to the main event. And the main event for these White Sox is expected to be another AL Central title and a deep October run.
This is baseball’s starting line. And though the marathon itself was delayed by frustrating talk of economics, the starter pistol is about to go off. In the same conditions it always does.
Hello from Arizona, where the White Sox are about to hear, “on your marks, get set, go.”
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