Like the opening day of school, the first day of the White Sox rebuild was full of anticipation and anxiety.
Sure, the Sox have been making moves since trading Chris Sale last December, and had just swapped Jose Quintana, Todd Frazier, David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle for prospects in the last week alone, so technically the rebuild has been in progress for quite a while.
But until Yoan Moncada jogged out to second base at 7:08 p.m. Wednesday night at Sox Park, there was really nothing much to do but wait and wonder if all the hype was merited.
Now that the Twinkie King was finally here, coincidentally on “Game of Thrones Night,” everyone could judge for themselves.
First impressions count, and Sox fans let Moncada know early they were ready to be wooed.
He was greeted like a conquering hero when he strode to the plate for the first time in the second inning. The entire ballpark stood and pointed their smartphones towards the batter’s box, some switching into photo mode, some taking video and others on square because they still couldn’t figure the darn phone out.
They cheered his foul balls. They cheered when Moncada worked the count from 0-2 to 2-2. There was dead silence before he took ball three, but then they were back on their feet again and gave him another standing ovation for coaxing his second major-league walk after a cup of coffee with the Red Sox last season.
This is how it’s supposed to be when a new face of a franchise arrives, and you could sense something different from the crowd of 24,907 as soon as you walked inside.
“I can feel the excitement,” Moncada said beforehand. “That’s something that makes me feel happy, too. I just want to try to take advantage of it.”
Moncada got even more cheers after a loud, line drive foul in the fourth, before grounding out to first. He wound up going 0-for-2 on the night in the 9-1, rain-shortened loss to the Dodgers.
While fans stood in a long line that snaked around the concourse in left field for a chance to take a picture sitting in the Iron Throne from the popular HBO show, Sox general manager Rick Hahn was appeasing the masses in the box seats, sitting on top of the Sox dugout before the game, signing autographs and letting fans take their pictures with him.
It’s good to be Hahn right now, and everyone was seemingly in a good mood on Moncada night, particularly the beer vendors.
What does it all mean?
“It’s definitely a big day, the start of a new generation,” said Simon Paciora, a 28-year-old Sox fan from Lincoln Park who grabbed one of the last Moncada jerseys at a souvenir shop across the street. “This is where the excitement starts. This starts the first step. Moncada is the first step. It can’t go any lower from here.”
Well, that was debatable after watching Carlos Rodon serve up four home runs over the first four innings to put the Sox in a 5-1 hole. But despite the lopsided defeat and the march towards 90-plus losses, the consensus opinion was the Sox finally were moving in the right direction.
Moncada even had a special chauffer on his first day in Chicago. Jose Abreu drove out to O’Hare to pick him up for the trip to 35th Street, which can take about four hours if you get on the Kennedy at the wrong time.
“We got a little bit nervous because the traffic was bad, but it was good,” Abreu said. “He’s going to do great here.”
Moncada’s big day was reminiscent of Kris Bryant’s debut at Wrigley Field on April 17, 2015, when the Cubs’ top prospect arrived in Chicago on three hours sleep and struck out in his first three at-bats in a 0-for-4 performance.
The forgettable debut didn’t matter as much as the fact a new era had begun.
“It’s a great day,” Cubs President Theo Epstein said. “And we hope the start of something special.”
Bryant went on to win the Rookie of the Year award in 2015, and the MVP award one year later, taking the Cubs to a World Series championship. But Bryant arrived in Year Four of the Cubs’ rebuild, while Moncada is the first of the Sox youngsters in Year One of the rebuild, arriving too late to compete for American League Rookie of the Year and too early to contemplate a championship in his second season.
Still, this day was his to remember, just as Bryant’s debut at Wrigley was one he won’t forget. Cubs manager Joe Maddon said that day that while it was Bryant’s “day,” the focus would return to the team by the time the sun came up again.
“He’s going to enjoy the day, but please understand, moving forward, this is about all of us,” Maddon said.
Two years later, on the other side of town, those words still rung true.
Wednesday surely was Moncada’s night, but it’s all about the White Sox moving forward.
By Paul Sullivan