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Column: The Chicago White Sox returning to the field — with fans in the stands — puts a spring in everyone’s step

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 3/1/2021 Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune
a baseball player holding a bat on a field: White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu during pregame practice. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu during pregame practice.

“Won’t this season ever end?”

That was the question former Chicago Sun-Times baseball writer Joe Goddard would pose after the first pitch of the opening game of spring training every year, whether he was covering the Chicago White Sox in Sarasota, Fla., or the Chicago Cubs in Scottsdale, Ariz.

a group of baseball players standing on top of a dirt field: Jose Abreu watches Tim Anderson kick Yoan Moncada from behind during White Sox spring training. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Jose Abreu watches Tim Anderson kick Yoan Moncada from behind during White Sox spring training.

Goddard would shout it from his press box perch for dramatic effect, and like Jim Nabors singing “(Back Home Again in) Indiana” before the Indy 500, the annual rant to no one in particular became a tradition for Chicago writers, a signal the new season officially was underway.

a man standing on a baseball field: White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu during batting practice. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu during batting practice.

How that tradition would play in the Zoom era is anyone’s guess, but with the Sox’s Cactus League opener limited to six innings Sunday because of COVID-19 protocols, the marathon season that never ends started off with a mini-game — and it felt just fine.

The Sox wound up losing 7-2 to the Milwaukee Brewers in manager Tony La Russa’s return. He said it felt “familiar” and admitted to being nervous, but a game is a game, whether it’s in the Cactus League or the World Series.

“Everybody thought I was foolish my whole career, you know?” he said. “You’ve got to practice winning. You get 30 chances (in spring training), so you don’t want to wait until opening day.”

As much as it meant to La Russa, who was returning to the Sox dugout after a 35-year absence, it was equally gratifying to third base prospect Jake Burger, who spent the last three years wondering whether this day would ever come.

a man holding a baseball bat: White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu during batting practice. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu during batting practice.

It was three years ago in spring training that the Sox’s 2017 first-round draft pick tore his Achilles tendon in a game, ending his season before it started. He ruptured it again that year, and a heel injury ended his comeback attempt and led to another lost season in 2019.

Burger spent last summer at the Sox satellite camp in Schaumburg, which led to a spot on the 40-man roster and another shot in 2021.

“I kind of broke down in tears on the way to the field for the first day (of camp),” Burger said after going 0-for-3 on Sunday. “This was just another milestone in the comeback ... thinking about the mental grind I went through and realizing that’s in the past and all the things that are behind me and all the things to look forward to in the future.”

a man standing on a baseball field: White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu leaves the field after batting practice. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu leaves the field after batting practice.

Burger battled depression during those three years but now feels like he “belongs” again. He’s 40 pounds lighter than he was during the 2018 season, and he laughed about how the Sox need a new photo to show on the video board when he steps up to the plate.

It would’ve been easy to call it quits after the baseball gods kept raining on his career, but Burger credited his family and friends for keeping his spirits high when everything appeared bleak.

“They were the most important piece to the puzzle there, and the White Sox support was awesome,” he said. “Chris Getz (assistant general manager/player development) was great with me, talking about what I’m going through mentally, physically and always having my back in that case.”

a baseball player pitching a ball on a field: White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu fields a ground ball during pregame drills. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu fields a ground ball during pregame drills.

For those back in Chicago watching on TV or listening on the radio, the sounds of summer were as refreshing as a dip in the lake on the Fourth of July.

a baseball player pitching a ball on a field: White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu throws to second after fielding a ground ball. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS White Sox first baseman Jose Abreu throws to second after fielding a ground ball.

It was nice to hear Jason Benetti and Steve Stone trading barbs like a couple of old guys sitting around a barbershop, even though they actually were in a booth with a partial view of the field at Camelback Ranch.

Meanwhile, former Cubs TV broadcaster Len Kasper made his White Sox radio debut on WMVP-AM 1000 and revealed that La Russa wakes up at 3:30 in the morning, just like the rest of us old men. But La Russa reads notes he took during the game, according to Kasper, while the rest of us are up only to make a brief pit stop.

a group of baseball players standing on top of a field: White Sox left fielder Adam Engel walks with manager Tony La Russa before Sunday's game. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS White Sox left fielder Adam Engel walks with manager Tony La Russa before Sunday's game.

At one point Kasper couldn’t see who was pinch-running for the Sox, but fortunately Darrin Jackson brought his binoculars and pointed out it was Marco Hernandez. In the other booth, Stone fretted over a paper cut, acting as though he might have to go under the knife.

Stone even gave a shoutout to former manager Rick Renteria, who set the table for the Cubs rebuild and was replaced by Joe Maddon, then did likewise for the Sox before being replaced by La Russa. If Renteria was watching at home, he at least could be glad he wasn’t forgotten.

a baseball player standing next to a fence: Yoan Moncada walks off the field after batting practice. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Yoan Moncada walks off the field after batting practice.

It’s early. It’s spring training. And it doesn’t really matter what anyone says, as long as they’re talking baseball.

The start of the exhibition season means baseball will be played almost every day for the next eight months, a fact that made a dull February day a little less dreary. The Sox are guaranteed only seven of those months, with October yet to be determined. But consensus opinion seems to be playing in the postseason is a done deal, so you can probably pencil that in as well.

a group of people riding on the back of a fence: Bill Devore, 72, claps while watching the White Sox play the Brewers. Camelback Ranch required all attendees to wear a mask. © Armando L. Sanchez / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Bill Devore, 72, claps while watching the White Sox play the Brewers. Camelback Ranch required all attendees to wear a mask.

Either way, there will be plenty of baseball to watch, or listen to, in the coming weeks. And hopefully Illinois and Chicago will soon announce the reopening of our two major-league ballparks to a limited number of fans, as other teams have done.

The “sellout” crowd of 2,347 at Camelback Ranch on Sunday was small and socially distanced. They didn’t have a lot to cheer besides Adam Engel’s home run in the first.

Still, for the Sox players and coaches, seeing people in the stands instead of cardboard cutouts was a sight for sore eyes.

“If I stopped and tried to remember the number of players and coaches that mentioned the fact that there were people there, I bet I could get to two handfuls,” La Russa said. “That’s the way the game is supposed to be played. After what we went through last year, it was a dramatic difference. Before the game the guys all noticed, and they appreciated the fans being there.”

The Sox season finally has begun. And at this point, you hope it never ends.

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