By Rick Firfer
It may be more than a decade since the Chicago White Sox last won a World Series, but that fact has definitely not cooled the ardor of their most loyal fans, many of whom came to the Chicago Hilton & Towers Hotel the last weekend of January for the 25th annual Soxfest.
What motivated them in particular this offseason was the promised rebuilding plan that General Manager Rick Hahn and his front office staff have been slowly putting together the last few months. And what a plan it is.
The first thing Hahn did was trade the franchise’s most valuable player, pitcher Chris Sale, for a handful of Boston Red Sox prospects, including the overall No. one rated MLB.com prospect, Yoan Moncada, and flame-throwing pitching prospect Michael Kopech. Kopech, of course, is the guy who was famously clocked at 110 mph on a practice video last year, and who was also clocked in an actual minor league game at 105 mph.
In addition to the Sale trade, Hahn also pulled off another coup when he traded outfielder Adam Eaton, a defensive stalwart, to the Washington Nationals for another bucket of prospects, including 6’6” pitching prospect Lucas Giolito. Giolito, like Moncada, is also in the top 10 of MLB.com’s top prospects.
Add to that several home-grown first round draft picks, like Carson Fulmer and Zack Burdi, and you have an explosive future major league roster on your hands.
The draw of having all these young talents at Soxfest, along with current stars like former Rookie of the Year Jose Abreu, Melky Cabrera, Tim Anderson, Todd Frazier, and a number of other players currently on the active roster was enough to bring the fans in from all over the Chicago area.
And like their cross-town brethren, the Chicago Cubs, the White Sox and their fans are also very loyal to their past heroes. Such franchise heroes as Hall of Famers Carlton Fisk and Frank Thomas were there, as well as perennial favorites Bo Jackson, Harold Baines and former Rookie of the Year Ron Kittle. All of them were there to mingle with the fans, sign autographs, pose for pictures, and generally relive the adulation that was constantly poured on them during their playing careers.
Like most other fan conventions, Soxfest started with a rousing Opening Ceremony, where all of the players, coaches, manager, alumni and front office personnel were introduced. While the applause for the front office people and the coaching staff was somewhat muted, there was no holding back when the players and all of the new prospects were introduced. Each player entered the ballroom from behind a dark curtain and hit the runway to overwhelming applause, handshakes and high-fives.
Smartphone flashes lit up the entire venue as fans kept snapping away for their picture galleries. New Manager Rick Renteria and General Manager Hahn gave short speeches to stir up the crowd and then it was off to the races, chasing autographs, running to the seminar rooms, and grabbing some ballpark food on the way.
Over the course of the weekend, there were numerous seminars focusing on the club’s plans for the future. The fans were very curious about those plans and wanted to know such things as who would replace Sale at the top of the rotation, who would bat lead-off in place of Eaton, and how did the team plan to develop all of the phenomenal young players it had recently acquired? Obviously, some of those young guys were just as eager to hear the answers to those questions as were the fans. Because a lot of “boots on the ground” evaluation remains to be done in regard to these players, the answers were really just speculation and necessarily vague.
In addition to the seminars, Soxfest also provided a multitude of other activities for fans, including five general autograph stages, one kids-only autograph stage, two photo stages, a Garage Sale where game-used equipment could be purchased, and a Little Sluggers Field where the kids could get hands-on instruction in the fundamentals of baseball from actual major league players and coaches.
The set-up for the autograph stages was interesting. There were no vouchers like the Chicago Cubs and the Milwaukee Brewers use at their fan conventions. Instead, the team announced ahead of time when and where each signer would appear over the weekend and how many autographs each player would sign during each designated appearance. Fans could then line up in advance at those stages where the players they wanted would be signing, and one hour before each scheduled time the line monitors would attach color-coded wristbands to their forearms. When the wristbands for that signer’s appearance were all gone, the line was cut off and fans who did not get the coveted wristbands could run to another line in hopes they would receive a wristband there.
The number of wristbands was also limited to one at a time. Thus, you could not be wearing multiple wristbands at the same time. When you got an autograph, the monitors would cut off your wristband, and only then could you go to another line and get another wristband. This system did create a lot of long lines for wristbands that began forming hours before the monitors handed out wristbands for the key players. At least the fans standing or sitting in those long lines got to meet other fans and become friends with them by the time they got to the stage for their autographs. The same wristband system was also used for the photo stages, and the monitors closely watched those stages so that fans did not pester the players for autographs, which were prohibited at those locations.
Like at the Cubs Convention, the White Sox also prohibited fans from asking for posed photos at the autograph stages. But, depending upon how long a particular line was, it was pretty much at the players’ discretion if they wanted to pose. It was awfully hard for them to say no to little kids or to fans with disabilities, so everyone remained calm and patient when such photos were being taken.
Prior to the start of Soxfest, SCD, along with other media representatives, had an opportunity to circulate among the players and other signers to ask any questions that came to mind. While most of the media types in attendance were laser focused on asking about offseason training programs and players’ plans for the coming season, SCD wanted to know instead whether any of the players collected baseball cards when they were growing up and who their favorite players were. Another favorite was to ask about their reactions the first time they saw themselves on a baseball card.
Not surprisingly, all but one of the players queried by SCD laughed and admitted to being a collector at some point in their childhood. Michael Kopech said that he admired Nolan Ryan so much that he had accumulated about 200 of his cards. Kopech also said that he had collected many, many Bo Jackson cards because he also admired Jackson quite a bit. The irony was that Jackson was standing only a few feet away when Kopech told that story.
Asked if he intended to snag an autograph from Jackson at Soxfest, Kopech said, “My jaw drops open whenever I see him. I haven’t asked for anything yet because I am not sure I can actually talk in front of him.”
Many of the players said they no longer knew where their cards were, but hoped that their mom had not thrown them out. Kopech was certain that the cards he collected were still at his parents’ home because his father was also a collector and there was no way those cards would get thrown out. He also said that he signed the very first baseball card he ever appeared on and gave it to his father for his collection.
As for their reactions at seeing themselves on baseball cards, virtually every one of the players queried used some variation of the word “amazing” to describe the feeling.
Some also said it was surreal and that they just stood there for a few moments staring at their cards, not believing what they were looking at. In some cases, however, the feeling of amazement went away pretty quickly because the players were being asked to sign upwards of a thousand cards for insertion in packs or for other reasons.
Charlie Tilson, a home-grown Chicago area player, who is ticketed to be the Sox’ new centerfielder, said he became a card collector as a youngster.
“Of course I collected baseball cards. I collected with my older brother,” Tilson said. “We loved the jersey cards and opened a lot of packs looking for those cards. Then we discovered card shops and our Christmas wish list kept growing as we added the cards we wanted to that list. I am not sure where those cards are now; maybe mom threw them out.”
Tilson also said that he loves signing for fans, particularly little kids.
“I remember being that little kid,” he said. “I used to go to the ballpark with my family and hang out at the railing and ask for autographs. I remember going to White Sox games and trying to get autographs from Paul Konerko, and now I find myself standing on the same field with him. It is just an amazing feeling.” [Note: Konerko has done some instructional work for the White Sox.]
All in all, the 2017 Soxfest seemed to go very smoothly. Not many complaints were heard from fans.
And, not to be outdone by their cross-town rivals, the White Sox also brought their Commissioner’s Trophy, emblematic of a World Series championship, to their convention so fans could admire it and have their picture taken with it. No one seemed to mind that the Trophy said 2005 on it.
Rick Firfer is a freelance contributor to Sports Collectors Digest.