Baseball instituted division play for the 1969 season in an effort to add fan excitement in cities across the league. The fact is, the sport's long grind of a season has led to fans becoming disgruntled and fatigued if their team isn't in contention as the temperatures heat up in the late summer months. The concept of divisional play has seen a few variations since its inception, and there are wide-ranging rumors of changes coming with potential expansion in the coming years.
Our beloved Chicago White Sox are one of only a handful of teams that have never won consecutive division titles during this timeframe. That should change when the 2022 season kicks off (whenever that is), as this team looks primed to stay perched on their AL Central throne. As we go back through the team's history of divisional play, they have not done a particularly strong job of following division-winning seasons for a variety of reasons.
The Sox put an end to the stigma of having never made consecutive playoff appearances on the afternoon of Thursday, September 23, when I drove four and half hours to the Mistake by the Lake and single-handedly willed them to a division title at the expense of the hated Cleveland Indians. Let's take a moment to acknowledge the final memory of the Indians franchise being the White Sox celebrating on their field. What a glorious memory I will always carry with me.
I could reminisce all day about that, but I'll try to get back on track here. The Sox followed their Wild Card performance during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season by grinding through an injury-plagued 2021 campaign to win their first division title since 2008. The hope is that history will not repeat itself for this franchise as they look to finally have the coveted sustained success we were promised at the inception of the rebuild in December of 2016.
Fall From The Top
As we go back through the team's history during divisional play, they've never really positioned themselves to repeat. When the "Winnin' Ugly" Sox became the first Chicago baseball division winner by going 99-63 in 1983 (as I was marinading in the oven), many thought the young ownership group led by Jerry Reinsdorf was going to bring about sustained success for the American League charter franchise. The following year, the team was in first place at the All-Star break with a record of 44-40 on July 11, only to have the bottom fall out and finish in fifth place with a record of 74-88. The team would have a slight dead cat bounce in 1985 finishing in third place with an 85-77 record, but for all intents and purposes the decade of the 1980s was one that was, well, ugly.
Fast forward 10 years later to 1993. The White Sox have moved into New Comiskey Park and Frank Thomas wins the first of his back-to-back MVPs. The team finishes 94-68 and wins the AL West in their final season in the division. After the defending champion Blue Jays broke my heart in the ALCS, a 10-year-old Steve anxiously awaited the 1994 season. The team wouldn't disappoint, jumping out to a 67-46 record as Frank Thomas was at the peak of his powers slashing a Herculian .353/.487/.729 with 38 homers in 113 games! Big Frank was well on his way to being the first player in franchise history to eclipse the 50 home run total en route to his second consecutive MVP award.
Then on August 11, it happened. The MLBPA went on strike while the White Sox were still in first place ahead of the upstart Cleveland Indians. I still remember where I was on the afternoon of September 14, 1994 when I watched that slimeball, Bud Selig, announce that the season would not resume. The Sox were going to win their first AL Central title en route to winning the World Series in 1994, I don't care what people think about the Expos, it was happening. This was taken away from us, in large part by the man who still owns our beloved team, and 10-year-old Steve still has not gotten over it, to this day.
New Millenium, Same Story
After the White Flag trades of 1997, the Sox sat dormant for the following two seasons as the Indians controlled the division but continued to choke in the playoffs, because they're the Indians. But in 2000, "The Kids Can Play" was all the rage and the Sox steamrolled their rivals winning their first AL Central title with a 95-67 record. A young core with a mixture of veterans appeared poised to make a run at a World Series the following year but, alas, it was not meant to be. The team finished in third place with an 83-79 record, only seeing first place after winning on Opening Day.
The rise of the hated Minnesota Twins in 2002 would see the Sox finish in second place for three consecutive seasons from 2002-2004. Then 2005 happened. The White Sox became the first team since the 1990 Cincinnati Reds to go wire-to-wire, winning 99 games en route to a division title. We all know what happened from there. The team won 16 of its final 17 games, including an 11-1 mark in the postseason (which matches the 1998 Yankees for best playoff record all-time), on their way to ending an 88-year championship drought at 11:01 PM on October 26.
The euphoria of the long-awaited title lasted the entirety of the winter and only strengthened when the team added reinforcements. Javier Vazquez entered the mix to help fortify a rotation that pushed on the gas until the very end, and some DH that spent most of his career in Cleveland joined on as well. In retrospect, letting franchise icon Frank Thomas walk out the door to Oakland was a mistake that should've never happened. Nevertheless, the Sox came out of the gates hot in defense of their title sitting in first place on May 20 with a record of 28-14. Sadly, they would not see the top of the division for the remainder of the year, finishing 90-72 but all the way back in third place thanks to a late September swoon.
A retooled team would grind their way to an 89-74 mark in 2008. An unbelievable three-day stretch that took years off most of our lives saw the team defeat the Indians, Tigers, and then the hated Twins in a winner-take-all game for the division title. On September 30, 2008, the original "Blackout" happened and was still to this day, yes I'm going to say it, the most exhilarating game I've ever attended. Joe Mauer and Justin Morneau having to watch the White Sox celebrate a division title will forever be one of my favorite baseball memories.
The 2009 team started sluggishly but found a way to catch the Tigers for first place on July 23 with a record of 50-45. You may remember that day. That was the day Mark Buehrle authored a perfect game at the corner of 35th/Shields against the Tampa Bay Rays. Yes, he threw a perfecto to push the team into first place. However, it was short-lived as the next day the Sox got swept in a doubleheader against the Tigers and would never see first place again, finishing 79-83.
Tony La Russa was the man at the helm when the team captured the first division title in Chicago baseball history 39 years ago. How fitting that he would be the man at the helm once again as the team looks to keep the crown of the AL Central.
Given all the adversity the team faced in 2021, I struggle to envision a scenario in which this group will be overwhelmed by expectations placed on them as division favorites. They overcame obstacles beginning in mid-March a year ago, and I don't think anything they face in 2022 will stand in their way of raising another division championship banner. It isn't the ultimate goal, but make no mistake, winning a division title in baseball is something that shouldn't be taken for granted.
Our White Sox have not done it in back-to-back years, but just as they made history last season breaking their hex of never reaching the playoffs in consecutive seasons, this too should come to an end in 2022.