The White Sox remain the south-side equivalent of what Jack Brickhouse used to call “a snakebitten Cubs ball team,” and that’s even truer off the field than on. The Sox returned from a road trip in mid-May with a record of 18-16 and with every sports reporter in town repeating the club slogan “the kids can play” and chiding Sox fans–that dying breed–for not supporting their club. The Sox at the time had the lowest average attendance in the American League, and were beaten in the National only by the soon-to-be-moving Montreal Expos, who have been completely abandoned by their fans. Then rain threatened the first two games with the Cleveland Indians, and though late-afternoon sunshine defied the weatherman both days the forecast was enough to hold attendance to the low teens, only a few thousand above the meager season-ticket base. The Sox didn’t help their cause when the league-leading pitching staff gave up 13 runs in each game, and the Indians went on to sweep the three-game series. On Friday rains washed out the opener of a three-game series with the world-champion New York Yankees, forcing a Saturday doubleheader. The Sox already figured to have a decent crowd on Saturday, thanks to a postgame fireworks display, so a Sunday doubleheader would have made more sense; it was no doubt precluded by baseball’s getaway-day union rules. So the Sox salvaged a split of the Saturday doubleheader in front of a reported 35,310 fans (there were probably never more than 30,000 in the ballpark at any one time), and lost Sunday’s finale in miserable fashion in front of 22,845. By Memorial Day, which the Sox took off, they’d dropped to 22-25 and were a distant third in the AL Central behind the Indians and only slightly closer to the Yankees in the wild-card race. The kids could play, but they’d also proved they could screw up royally.
That’s the downside to trading established stars for phenoms during a playoff race, which the Sox did two years ago. Bringing in exciting young talent raises expectations. When a team’s management insists it isn’t content to be merely competitive, that it wants to build a champion, then the players, exciting or not, have to be assessed as championship material. The main problem with the Sox right now is that their young talent often plays at cross-purposes. General manager Ron Schueler has put together a staff of promising pitchers but has hindered their development with clumsy fielders. A likable group of slashing young hitters pales next to the powerhouse lineups Cleveland and New York have put together. There’s nothing wrong with Sox attendance that a 90-win season couldn’t help fix, but the Sox have done such a good job of chasing away their core south-side fan base that they’ll probably never again see the day when the new Comiskey Park is packed to the top row of the upper deck. Sox fan that I am, I can’t yet argue that south-siders should feel guilty about not supporting their team. The Sox are still a work in progress.
Check the progress of that 1997 trade that saw the Sox deal Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez, and Danny Darwin to the San Francisco Giants. Three of the six players the Sox received in exchange are on the major-league roster: shortstop Mike Caruso and pitchers Bobby Howry and Keith Foulke. Caruso, I think, is a problem–Ozzie Guillen revisited. Guillen, remember, was picked up as a phenom in exchange for LaMarr Hoyt. He was popular, to be sure, but with his wet-noodle hitting style, relatively weak arm, and utter unwillingness to accept a walk, he was never a championship player. The lantern-jawed Caruso has a little more extra-base pop in his bat, but otherwise offers the exact same player profile. He has to be pinned down and force-fed a base on balls. Through Sunday, he had walked six times all season–less than one time a week and fewer times than even .164-hitting rookie backup catcher Mark Johnson. His .297 on-base percentage was a hole in the lineup, yet manager Jerry Manuel persisted in batting him second. Caruso just turned 22 and should continue to develop, but until he learns the strike zone he’ll be more of a problem than a solution. Along with Sean Lowe, Foulke has been a star of the impressive middle-relief corps this season. His windup is deceptive–as if he’s hesitating in mid-delivery–but his stuff isn’t overpowering; he seems to be a role player and not starter or closer material. Truth be told, Howry’s stuff isn’t overpowering either, but he was thrust into the closer role late last year. He’s struggled with it this season–he’s no more menacing than the old-man-of-the-mountain goatee he sports–and he lost the job when he jeopardized his team’s win in the nightcap of the Yankees doubleheader.
Mike Sirotka, pitching in tough luck but the team’s most dependable starter, took a shutout against the Yankees into the ninth inning of that game. He throws with a delivery in which his left arm goes straight out front, his right arm goes straight back, and then he strides down the mound like someone walking a balance beam. He changes speeds, moves the ball around, and works fast. That last quality was especially appreciated by those of us sitting with children in the upper deck, there for the fireworks as much as for the game. Sirotka allowed the leadoff man to reach base and Manuel went to Howry, who proceeded to walk in a run. Ahead 2-1 with two out in the ninth, Manuel brought in Bill Simas, who’s a better all-around pitcher when he’s on but who like Howry has been troubled by wildness and also by injuries. With even the fireworks aficionados now into the game, Simas struck out the next hitter with the bases loaded to preserve the win. I like Simas; he’s tough, gritty, and has an explosive pitching motion in which he seems to burst out of a compact leg kick, finishing with a flourish of his trailing right leg. Yet one game later he got flustered in the ninth, balked in the tying run, and accused New York’s Derek Jeter of tricking him into balking by shouting “Balk!” That’s something a big-league closer should know how to deal with, otherwise what’s next–big-league infielders chanting “Hey batter, hey batter, hey batter swing”? Simas allowed the game-winning run in the tenth.
So label the Alvarez-Caruso trade still dubious, and consider the deal that brought Simas to town for Jim Abbott in 1995 a definite if limited gain, simply because Abbott wasn’t much to begin with. Also included in that trade were McKay Christensen, back in the minors after being rushed to the majors out of spring training, and John Snyder, who has become the team’s most successful starter–all good location and changing speeds. Though he looks menacing with that growth of beard and his cap pulled low, he has an elegant little kick in mid-delivery, as if he were a vaudevillian strutting onstage. Otherwise, the pitching has been erratic at best. Jim Parque gives up a run every other inning, and James Baldwin and Jaime Navarro–yes, he’s still around–are lucky to do that well. Navarro keyed the three-game fiasco against Cleveland by getting bombed the first night and then complaining about the umpiring. It seemed Baldwin was squeezed by the home-plate ump the following night, and he gave up seven runs in two innings. He threw a first-pitch ball to each of the seven batters he faced in the first, and he walked the bases full in the second, at which point he gave up a grand slam to Manny Ramirez on a first-pitch fastball. Baldwin doubled over as if he’d been kicked in the stomach.
Who can expect Sox loyalists to come out and accept such punishment night in, night out? There has been some solace in the hitting. Just as pitching coach Nardi Contreras has tightened up the mechanics and the performance of the mid-level Sox hurlers, batting coach Von Joshua has several hitters whaling away with big, flowing swings in which they drop the bat on the ball and watch it fly. Carlos Lee arrived with a bang in left field, where his fielding shortcomings are least costly. In center, Chris Singleton has a swing that has been compared to that of Bernie Williams, perhaps because Singleton was stuck behind Williams in the minors until the Sox acquired him from the Yankees over the winter. He’s looked good, though there’s little in his past performance that suggests he’ll be able to keep it up. Magglio Ordoñez has the best swing of all, a crisp golfer’s cut with a high start and high finish, and he has thrived batting cleanup behind Frank Thomas to lead the team in homers and runs batted in.
Yet that’s just the thing. Ordoñez is a good hitter, but he is not the sort of fearsome presence that compels a pitcher to give Thomas something to hit. While Thomas began the season looking fully recovered from his abysmal ’98 season and led the league in batting average much of April, more recently he has seemed aggravated by the lack of decent pitches he sees. He’s hitting .316 but has just five homers and sometimes seems a big kid held back on a low-level Little League team. Ray Durham remains an all-star and a budding Joe Morgan at second base, but he and Thomas just aren’t receiving enough help from the rest of the lineup, even if most of the players are outperforming expectations. Greg Norton enjoyed a recent hot streak and is on a 100-walk pace for the season, but his fielding at third base has been atrocious. Besides, the Sox might have to consider trading him just to keep announcers Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek from saying his name in that annoying way of theirs. Returning to the subject of trades, Paul Konerko has not performed up to the level of the departed Mike Cameron in the my-disappointment-for-yours deal the Sox made with the Cincinnati Reds over the winter.
That’s the thing about trades. They don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to; deals that initially thrill sometimes turn out to disappoint. For Sox fans, for instance, there is the trade of the old Comiskey for the new, and of the Bill Veeck ownership for Jerry Reinsdorf’s. If only those deals could be undone.
Over the winter I corrected a longtime shortcoming by finally reading Veeck’s autobiography, Veeck: As in Wreck. Toward the end of it I was reminded of what an astute feel Veeck had for Sox fans, for their heavily scarred sentimentality–“If there is any justice in this world,” Veeck wrote, “to be a Sox fan freed a man from any other form of penance”–and class consciousness. Veeck added that the old Comiskey was a wreck, but a wreck that belonged to Sox fans, so that even when renovated “the exclusive grandstand clubs and the executive boxes were left to the Yankees and their fellow aristocrats.” So fans of the Cubs can harp all they want on Lou Brock for Ernie Broglio. The Sox have more painful and more recent trades to bemoan, including one that benefited the Cubs: Harry Caray and Jimmy Piersall for Don Drysdale and Harrelson.