Reserves will have to stay ready
With games in NL park, bench will be more important
CHICAGO -- There is a place of business in a city named Pennsville, N.J, known as Rudy's All-Season Sporting Goods, which figures to get a little more publicity than usual during the upcoming World Series between the Astros and White Sox.
This store on 133 N. Broadway also just happened to sponsor a men's 12-inch fastpitch softball team last summer that featured Chris Widger as one of its star players. Widger, a resident of Pennsville, played middle infield on this championship team, before joining the Camden Riversharks of baseball's unaffiliated Atlantic League.
As the White Sox push toward four more victories and their first World Series title since 1917, the closest Widger has come to the infield was taking grounders at third base before playoff games. In fact, Widger has not played an inning or taken a single at-bat during the eight games in either the Division Series or the American League Championship Series.
Yet, Widger stands as one of the very unique reserves on the bench for the American League's top team. Widger backs up starting catcher A.J. Pierzynski, after backing up on short infield popups in his softball league last year. The 34-year-old veteran backstop was completely out of affiliated baseball in 2004, taking a year off after falling in the last round of roster cuts for the second consecutive Spring Training. Simply put, Widger needed a break from the game, but the White Sox non-roster invite to Arizona was a good enough reason for him to return.
Pablo Ozuna was back home in Boca Chica of the Dominican Republic last October, a man without a team, despite posting a .307 average and driving in 76 runs for Triple-A Scranton Wilkes-Barre in 2004. He was signed by the White Sox as a free agent in December, made the team out of Spring Training and was the only reserve to see the field during the ALCS.
In fact, Ozuna scored one of the most disputed runs in ALCS history, pinch-running for Pierzynski in Game 2 after Pierzynski reached on a trapped third strike call. Ozuna swiped second base and came home on Joe Crede's walk-off double.
Willie Harris thought he had made his last appearance with the South Siders after he was sent down to Triple-A Charlotte on July 31. But the utility infielder, a one-time disgruntled former starter at second base, is making the most out of an addition to the playoff roster for his speed and versatility. Harris even tempted fate and joined in the ACLS post-victory celebration, despite an allergy to champagne.
"There have been some ups and downs for me this year," Harris said. "When I was sent to Triple-A, it was a little disappointing. But it all boils down to where I'm at right now, and I'm glad to be here and a part of what's going on."
Timo Perez, a left-handed pinch-hitter and possible defensive replacement in the outfield, is one of the handful of White Sox players with World Series experience. He had two hits in 16 at-bats for the Mets during the 2000 loss to the Yankees. Despite his dearth of current trips to the plate, Perez is as good in the clutch as most everyday players.
And then there's Geoff Blum, the jack-of-all-trades infielder, who has the most direct connection to the opposition in the World Series. The switch-hitting Blum was the White Sox lone acquisition at the non-waiver trade deadline, coming over from the San Diego Padres.
Blum previously had played semi-regularly for the Astros during the 2002 and 2003 seasons, before Morgan Ensberg took over his job at third base. Blum watched Houston finish off the Cardinals on Wednesday night and couldn't help feeling a sense of happiness for two of the classiest players in the game, Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, living out their postseason dreams after almost two decades in the Majors.
"When the final out was made, they showed Bagwell and Biggio," Blum said. "The first thing they did was a little handshake and then a hug. It wasn't jumping up and down and shouting or anything overexaggerated. It shows their respect for the game and other ballplayers and their class as ballplayers.
"I got traded [to Houston] early in my career. I kept my mouth shut for a month once I got there, watched what they did, listened to what they said and I learned a lot about how to handle myself as a professional from those guys."
While there was no call for anyone but Ozuna during the ALCS, and Blum, Harris and Perez only got into Game 1 of the Division Series because it was a blowout, the reserves will be ready for the World Series. With three games at Minute Maid Park, pitchers will be pinch-hit for or pinch-run for a little more often later in the game.
The need for an extra player even could lead to one less pitcher on the White Sox World Series roster and left-handed first baseman/pinch-hitter Ross Gload joining the 25 active players. If the roster stays the same, then it will be up to Widger, Harris, Perez, Blum and Ozuna to come through in a pinch or on the run.
It's a far cry from unemployment for Ozuna or from softball in Pennsville with his friends for Widger.
"I remember where I was last year, and this is just awesome," said Widger, who has heard words of congratulations from former softball teammates during last summer's 2 1/2-month season. "I have to keep myself from saying this is too good and too fun. It has been a long road, but I wouldn't change it for the world."
"My goal is to try to focus on the game and be ready for any situation," added Ozuna through a translator. "But let me tell you something. Last year, I was in the Minors and looking for a job. Now, I'm super happy to be here, on this team and where we are in the playoffs."
Scott Merkin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.