Sox chemistry starts with Guillen
Unique environment for 'fun' sets table for success
"Team chemistry" is a term that is often overused, misunderstood, and simply overrated.
But it's OK today, because the Chicago White Sox have it. They are where they are, waiting to begin the 2005 World Series, because they have had terrific pitching. But the team chemistry doesn't hurt.
There may be no sport in which team chemistry is more important than baseball, because these people are together on a daily basis from mid-February to the end of September -- and beyond if they're lucky. There have been a few instances of teams that had notable internal feuds and won regardless, but they invariably had such overwhelming talent they could rise above their differences.
Team chemistry does not mean everybody has to be closest chums, anyway. It means that an atmosphere exists in which each player can give it his best shot on a daily basis and in which each player believes that everybody else is on that same page. The White Sox have this. Why?
It starts with the manager, Ozzie Guillen, although this is just a start. Guillen has a buoyant, positive personality, but it's credible, because he doesn't always remain positive. He's there in the clubhouse telling jokes, patting backs, being a presence on a daily basis. He's there, rain or shine, relentlessly.
This is who he is. You can't fake something like this. White Sox players, when asked about the experience of playing for Guillen, almost invariably have a response that includes the word "fun." Over the marathon season, you can't realistically ask much more from a manager.
And Guillen is believable in this role because he isn't Pollyanna. When the Sox were suffering their second-half slump, he once opined, "We stink." He also said the team's performance was making him "vomit." These are not the words of a man wearing rose-colored glasses.
Guillen has been known to make statements that appear to the rest of the world as bizarre. This turns out to be all right, because the veteran players on this club know enough to essentially tune him out when he goes too far on either the plus or minus side.
"Good thing my players don't listen to what I was saying to the media," Guillen said with a smile after the Sox had won the AL Championship Series. "We stuck together."
Exactly. What helps on this club is some of the leading performers are people who bring to the ballpark each day a workmanlike, determined attitude. These are pros, who, in the face of potential disaster, tend to remain calm while a lot of other people are indicating panic would be the only appropriate response.
Among the tranquil in times of crisis, there are prominent players such as Jermaine Dye and Paul Konerko. The list is not limited to them, but their experience makes them people other players would look to as examples. This is not about clubhouse speeches and rah-rah stuff. This is about trying to play the game the way it should be played every single day. This is about, when adversity strikes, looking for the way to rise above it, rather than finding the easy excuse.
Dye and Konerko, and others, were those sorts of people in both the good times and the bad for the 2005 White Sox. You can build a ballclub around people such as these. In fact, you could build a community around people such as these.
There are a couple of other intangible factors that give the Sox the team chemistry edge. It has been said they play with a bit of a chip on their shoulder. This is true, but it's not an obnoxious thing. It's more of an honest recognition.
The White Sox are the Second Team in the Second City and they understand all that comes with that particular territory. If it serves as one more bit of motivation, then it's good. This club had the best record in the American League. But when did it receive the most national publicity during the regular season? When its AL Central lead was shrinking from 15 games to 1 1/2.
They were called "chokers." They were going to stage one of the biggest collapses in the history of baseball. But they didn't choke, and they didn't collapse. All of this proved that, if the Sox weren't the kind of team that was going to win a division by 15 games, they were the kind of team that had an individual and collective toughness. It is always rewarding to persevere in these kinds of circumstances.
Guillen touched on that when he said, "I think it's great because we proved a lot of people wrong, and I think I like that. We took a lot of beating this year, my team, and we just kept playing."
Then you throw in Guillen's belief in his players, which turns out to be a matter of action, not just words.
When the Sox were slipping in the second half, and everybody else was demanding that they get a big bat -- will Ken Griffey Jr., please, please, please report to the South Side? -- Guillen steadfastly maintained the job could be done by the players on the current roster. He was right. They were the right players.
When Jose Contreras struggled in the first half, Guillen stayed with him in the rotation and Contreras emerged as the staff ace in the second half. When Jon Garland struggled in the middle innings, Guillen gave him a chance to work out of those jams and Garland emerged as an 18-game winner.
It all adds up to a nice, solid, positive team chemistry. Now without talent, you can have team chemistry and not go anywhere in spite of it. Over in the National Football League, for example, the Minnesota Vikings are 1-4, but 17 of them went on that boat excursion together. Wait a second. That was probably team biology. Back to the White Sox.
As factors in success, you like great pitching, clutch hitting and solid defense. Without these, team chemistry does not get you through October. But when you have all those tangible factors and you add the intangibles of a really sound clubhouse environment in which everybody knows that everybody else has his oar in the water, the possibilities become endless.
And it has helped here. Team chemistry? A lot of people talk about it. The Chicago White Sox actually have it.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.