By Scot Gregor
SoxFest is always a great time to catch up with current players, and it capably serves as a kick-off to the upcoming baseball season.
At this year's annual winter gathering, White Sox fans were also able to reconnect with a slew of 2005 World Series heroes, headed by Jermaine Dye, Joe Crede, Aaron Rowand and Paul Konerko, the only active player left from Chicago's first championship team in 88 years.
As an added bonus, Sox fans were treated to seeing plenty of faces from the 1983 "Winning Ugly" team.
Truth be told, I was still locked in on my favorite baseball team back in '83 -- the once-proud, now-pathetic Pittsburgh Pirates.
But I kept tabs on manager Tony LaRussa's team from 30 years ago and remember the 99 wins and first-place finish by 20 games over the Kansas City Royals in the old American League West.
The most remarkable thing about the 1983 White Sox? They were 34-34 on June 24 before standout players like Ron Kittle, Harold Baines, Greg Luzinski, Carlton Fisk, LaMarr Hoyt, Richard Dotson and Floyd Bannister banded together and closed with a 65-29 record.
Unfortunately for those Sox, the Baltimore Orioles barreled through the East and won 98 games. The O's went on to win 3 of 4 in the AL Championship Series, ending the White Sox' season.
Tom Paciorek split time with Greg Walker at first base and batted .307 for the '83 Sox, later returning to the TV booth alongside Ken "Hawk" Harrelson from 1988-99.
At SoxFest, Paciorek still had fond memories of the "Winning Ugly" season.
"We had great players on that team," Paciorek said. "And we had great guys and a great chemistry. We really had a lot of fun."
Winning 99 games and running away with the division undoubtedly contributed to the fun factor, but Paciorek said that was only part of it.
"It was like there was a different joke played on somebody every day," Paciorek recalled. "My favorite one was with Ron Kittle, who was a rookie that year. Remember the 'Tonight Show' with Johnny Carson and the Carnac routine he always did?
"Somebody would hold up a card to their head like Carnac and another guy would yell out: 'Catch 22.' And then everybody would yell out: 'Catch 22.' And you open the card and it would say: 'What would Ron Kittle do if you hit him 100 flyballs.'"
Paciorek still has the hysterical laugh, and it came out again at SoxFest after he told the Kittle story.
Shifting to a serious tone, Paciorek noted a comparison to the 1983 club and the 2012 White Sox.
"We lost two really great guys after the '83 season," he said. "Charlie Lau was our hitting coach, he was the greatest hitting coach of all time, and he had colon cancer. And Loren Babe, who was a longtime White Sox scout, he traveled with us the entire year, we lost him (also to colon cancer) after the season, too.
"I think one of the reasons we played so well that year was because of those two guys inspiring us. We knew at the end of the season, chances are we weren't going to see them again. And we were right because they both passed that winter."
In 2012, Sox ambassador Bill "Moose" Skowron died in April and pregame instructor Kevin Hickey passed away in May. Hickey was a relief pitcher for the 1983 White Sox, going 1-2 with a 5.23 ERA and 5 saves.
"Two great guys, just like Charlie and Loren," said Paciorek, who was moving gingerly at SoxFest following artificial replacement surgery on both hips. "Gosh, being able to be here is really nice. You just have to live every day like it might be your last. That's one reason why it's so much fun to see all the guys again."
As a tribute to the powerhouse team, the White Sox will wear the 1983 S-O-X uniforms during Sunday home games this season.