CHICAGO – As expected, the Chicago White Sox's annual fan festival, known as SoxFest, was more of a lovefest, with fans eager to praise rather than criticize the makeup of the team’s roster.
Offseason moves to add proven veterans such as Adam LaRoche, Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, David Robertson and Zach Duke have resonated well with the fan base. In fact, the annual SoxFest opening seminar featuring the general manager and the field manager was filled with compliments instead of the criticism of the past.
At one point, consecutive fans who took the microphone to ask questions of both GM Rick Hahn and manager Robin Ventura gushed in praise of the team that has been assembled. It even prompted Ventura to ask one of the fans if there was a “man crush” going on between him and Hahn.
“We’ve gotten a lot of outstanding feedback from people -- not just the last few days since we’ve been around here, but over the last two months,” Hahn said. “The letters and phone calls have certainly changed their tone from the middle of the ’13 season, and it’s nice to have that. It’s nice to get the fans to feel the same level of anticipation for the season to start and the high hopes.”
Ventura did get some criticism Thursday at a fan event not connected to SoxFest, with his use of the bullpen being questioned. But even the most reasonable fan could see that his hands were tied on a team without a true closer, one which didn’t have the use of Nate Jones for basically the entire season and which also saw Matt Lindstrom spend a significant amount of time on the disabled list.
The improved roster means Ventura will get even more scrutiny this season, and it’s something he said he welcomes.
“Sure, I think you want that,” Ventura said. “If there isn't [pressure] then you're not playing for the right things. If that's what it is, that's great. I'm not going to act any different or do anything different. That's fine. That's what we're shooting for. You want to have that.”
At the SoxFest opening ceremonies Friday, Hahn and Jose Abreu seemed to get the loudest applause when they were introduced. Also announced to the crowd were eight members of the 2005 World Series champions, including Aaron Rowand, Joe Crede, Tadahito Iguchi and Bobby Jenks.
If the current White Sox team aspires to emulate that '05 outfit, the road will be long, starting with the fight in the American League Central against the Detroit Tigers and the defending AL-champion Kansas City Royals.
“We view ourselves as a contender, absolutely, but at the same time when we started this process midway through 2013, the intention was not to jump up and contend for one season, it was to put us in position for sustained success,” Hahn said. “We feel that we’ve acquired, in most every instance, an important piece for us for not just ’15, but for ’16 and beyond. And at the same time we were able to do this without leaving too big a dent on our minor league system, which is getting to the point now of being able to add guys who are going to contribute at the major league level not just in ’15 but beyond.
“Our absolute belief was that we were going to contend this year. That said, what we’re trying to do is put us in position so we feel that way every year.”
The sense from the SoxFest crowd was that a contending team was in their midst. It led to the profound level of optimism at the downtown event, with that feeling expected to last the entire weekend.
“We knew that at some point we were going to find ourselves in position where it made sense to start stretching and adding and being aggressive on the free-agent market and with our trades,” Hahn said. “Now, in retrospect, fans seem to understand that that process began in ’13, of putting ourselves in position to accumulate a young core to grow together, and merited the additions that we made this past offseason to put ourselves in position to contend.
“The enthusiasm is great and, personally, the things I enjoy hearing most about is the people saying they get it, they understand why the moves were made when they were made.”