Robin Ventura took a leisurely approach to batting practice after he returned to the White Sox this summer. He would step into the Comiskey Park batting cage with the first group of hitters in the late-afternoon twilight and, rolling his wrists, lance line drives to left field and right. Frank Thomas, also typically in that first group, began with what looked to be the same approach. Of course, he had to emphasize his disciplined batting eye–if only to himself–by taking the first pitch; then he sent soft, arcing shots into the outfield. Thomas, however, was only getting started. Ventura kept hitting the ball almost entirely with his hands, just sharpening his eye and timing, but Thomas slowly got his entire body involved. By his third turn in the cage he was crushing pitch after pitch, raising his left foot off the ground to begin his stride and then his right foot at the end, with a sweeping, punishing swoosh of the bat in the middle. He looked like some great wading bird beginning a mating dance, or like that desert lizard that keeps its feet cool by alternately raising first its left front and right rear feet, then the opposing feet off the ground. Thomas sent balls soaring deep into the left-field bleachers, and with each swing there was a twitch, twitch of the bat behind his head and then a moment of stillness before it sped into motion.

There is something studied and scientific in Thomas’s swing, quite unlike that of Albert Belle. Belle has a way of rearing himself up as the ball approaches home plate, and with his eyes all wide he looks like a big cat about to pounce on its prey. His swing is beastly, especially when compared to Thomas’s. While Thomas uses his tremendous overall size to generate tremendous bat speed, Belle generates his power largely with his wide shoulders. He keeps his hands ever so slightly separated, then starts the bat with a strong weight shift–looming up and then bringing his left foot down as if stomping into a temper tantrum–but it’s the left shoulder that leads the bat through the hitting area; the right hand seems to do little more than guide the bat on its course. He seems to bludgeon the ball.

On a typical evening, Thomas and Belle would send fearsome cracks echoing through Comiskey Park. The reports would issue from bat meeting ball, then bounce off the far corners of the upper-deck bleachers, the way the crack of a shotgun resounds through a canyon in those Anthony Mann westerns from the 50s. There is something desolate and fateful in that sound, and in Comiskey Park as the season dwindled to a close last month it represented nothing more–and nothing less–than the proverbial tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it.

The image of Thomas and Belle taking batting practice is rendered here in detail in part because it is an experience unseen and unheard by most Chicago baseball fans; it’s a scene reserved for the privileged few. Usually this season, Thomas and Belle ended their turns in the cage before the Comiskey gates were opened to the public. In fact most of the Sox–even the impressive rookies Mike Cameron and Magglio Ordonez–finished their swings before the fans were allowed entry. This seems symptomatic of all that is wrong with the Sox right now, a point proved in the week after I made note of the Sox in batting practice when the Saint Louis Cardinals’ Mark McGwire performed awesome displays of power during batting practice at Wrigley Field. McGwire, of course, finished the season with 58 home runs, tying Jimmie Foxx’s single-season record for a right-handed hitter and only three shy of Roger Maris’s 61. Yet while the pursuit of Maris might have added to McGwire’s attraction, it was by no means necessary to make him worth seeing at b.p. He is, quite simply, an amazing sight and an amazing hitter. In marked contrast to Thomas and Belle at Comiskey–his expected home batting-practice times are printed in the Saint Louis paper.

Thomas and Belle are eminent professionals, and their cloistered approach to b.p. is fully intentional. Both have been eloquent about how sacred their pregame routines are, and they would no more seek an audience for them than a priest would for the task of writing his Sunday sermon. But things are in a bad way on the south side, and nothing would signal a greater change in the team’s attitude to its fans than if they were either to move their hitting time back or open the gates earlier, so that fans could see them bashing the bejeezus out of baseballs. Fine, make it clear that they’ll honor no requests for autographs, ask for moderation in shouts and screams, and even post ushers in the first row to shush overzealous pleas for attention. But let the fans in to see one of the great sights in Chicago sports.

As usual, Thomas was one of the bright spots at Comiskey Park this season, but he stood out unusually far from his teammates. He won his first batting title going away with a .347 average, and completed a record seventh straight season in which he hit at least .300 with 20 homers, 100 runs batted in, 100 runs scored, and 100 walks. Those are figures rarely combined even by the likes of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Ted Williams, but Thomas has made them seem routine. This season, the only one of those levels he really struggled to achieve was the 100 bases on balls (thanks to the presence of Belle hitting behind him, pitchers were more reluctant to put Thomas on). Yet he finished with 109 walks, 110 runs, 35 homers, and 125 RBI, making all the goals with room to spare.

There were a couple of other bright spots in rookies Cameron and Ordonez. Cameron seems to have finally arrived for good in the majors, hitting a respectable .259 with 14 homers, 55 RBI, and 23 steals (in 25 attempts) in just 116 games. He is a thin, speedy player who patrols center field like a whippet running loose, but he also has a wide neck and Popeye forearms that promise power. He could become very, very good as soon as next year, and he projects to be a 30-30 homer-steals player. Ordonez was called up at the end of the season after being named rookie of the year and most valuable player and winning the batting title (.329) at AAA Nashville in the American Association. Cameron will be 25 next year, Ordonez 24, and they both figure to be in the outfield along with Belle.

After that, however, the Sox were a woeful bunch this season, finishing under .500 at 80-81. Belle hit 30 homers, drove in 116 runs, and batted .274, but those were disappointing numbers for him, and he seemed to spend most of the season in a funk. Second baseman Ray Durham struggled with the responsibility of batting leadoff after Tony Phillips was traded, and turned only 77 double plays on defense. (A good second baseman, like the Minnesota Twins’ Chuck Knoblauch, turns 100.) Shortstop Ozzie Guillen was his culprit in crime on the double play, and now appears gone–and, though this may be a minority opinion, good riddance to him. His speed and range were greatly diminished after his 1992 knee injury, and in his 13-year career with the Sox he never drew more than 26 walks in a season. He was praised for his clubhouse camaraderie, but as a player the Sox will be hard-pressed to do any worse at shortstop next year. How ironic that in what appeared to be his final at-bat with the Sox, on the last day of the season, he drew a walk, then was replaced by a pinch runner.

Jorge Fabregas was a remarkable pickup as a starting catcher salvaged from the scrap heap, but he can be blamed for the to-be-expected problems adjusting to a new pitching staff. While general manager Ron Schueler gets the credit for Fabregas, he’s also responsible for the starting rotation, which is now in shambles. Jaime Navarro, Doug Drabek, and James Baldwin all put up earned-run averages above 5.00. Jason Bere returned from arm surgery at the end of the year and won four games, but also displayed the wildness that plagued him two years ago. Minor-league call-up Mike Sirotka also pitched well toward the end, but none of these guys is an ace to lead the staff, and none ever figures to be. The bull pen converted 52 saves, an amazing figure second in the league to the Baltimore Orioles, who won 98 games overall, but that reflects the starters’ problems: they completed just six games all year, and even when the Sox were scoring runs in droves they rarely won in blowouts because they were giving up so many runs themselves.

Schueler also deserves blame and little credit for manager Terry Bevington, whom he appointed three seasons ago and fired at least one year and probably two years late.

Schueler and Sox boss Jerry Reinsdorf have stated that they’d like to put together a team next year that would be like the Pittsburgh Pirates only with Thomas and Belle, and with Cameron and Ordonez and the still-developing Durham they have the nucleus of such a team–at least on offense. Yet there are a couple of problems with the premise. For one thing, the Pirates, while surprisingly competitive with players who had little major-league experience coming into this season, actually won fewer games than the Sox–79. They stayed in the National League Central race longer than the Sox stayed in the AL Central race only because of the weakness of the first-place Houston Astros. What’s more, the Pirates’ strong manager, Gene Lamont, is the man the Sox fired to make room for Bevington. Most important, the Pirates have proved themselves skilled at finding and developing young talent, especially pitchers such as Jason Schmidt, Rich Loiselle, Francisco Cordova, and Ricardo Rincon (the latter two were scouted and signed out of the Mexican League). The best players Schueler received in his season-ending trade of Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez to the San Francisco Giants on July 31 won’t be ready for the majors for probably two more years. So the Sox are looking at a situation in which they need to spend money on a manager, a pitching ace, and a bull pen closer–estimated cost, $12 million a year–merely to begin looking competitive.

What’s more, Schueler muffed a chance to obtain Jose Cruz Jr., a star-to-be who hit 26 homers in two-thirds of a big-league season this year. If the Seattle Mariners were willing to trade Cruz for a journeyman like Mike Timlin, they certainly would have parted with him for Hernandez–if Schueler hadn’t been so eager to obtain pie-in-the-sky kids who won’t be ready for years. (The idea of Cruz, a left-handed stick, forming a double lefty-righty power punch with Thomas, Ventura, and Belle is tantalizing.) Finally, don’t overlook the negotiations Schueler muffed to keep the Sox’ AAA team in Nashville. The Pirates, the team the Sox aspire to be, have claimed Nashville as their highest minor-league affiliate, meaning borderline Sox players will now be shuttling back and forth to remote Edmonton, Alberta. Schueler, the man who was expected to take the team from B to C after inheriting the job from Larry Himes, has instead taken them to the point of no obvious return.

The Sox were 53-53 when Schueler made those moves July 31. The Cleveland Indians won the division with a record of 86-75, meaning the Sox would have had to go at least 33-23 the last two months to tie the Tribe and force a one-game playoff. Would they? Bere and the departed Alvarez each won four games from then on, and Sirotka won three. As many Sox players and fans said, the saddest thing was that no one will ever know how close the Sox would have come.

The team showed an almost morbid fascination for death rituals in the wake of the big trade. Carlton Fisk’s number 72 was formally retired, and the week before that the players got together on the field before the gates were opened and held an informal but similar ceremony for Fisk’s replacement, Ron Karkovice, now at the end of his career. As “The Way We Were” played on the public-address system, Karko was presented a junker bicycle with a Harley-Davidson decal on the front, and he went riding through the outfield on it as his teammates guffawed and the bright-orange tail flag bobbed in the breeze. Before the last game of the season the Sox prepared to take the field, but then everyone but Guillen remained in the dugout. Guillen was on the infield before he noticed that he was the only player out there, and the fans cheered and the Sox starting lineup went out to embrace him one by one on the way to their positions. Throughout the year, in every way, the Sox excelled at shoveling dirt on their own graves.

There were 24,062 tickets sold for that final home game–not quite the 29,922 that said good-bye to the Cubs the week before, but respectable. Many of them remained in the stands until the end–again, not as many as at Wrigley, but more than anyone would have expected. There is a schism on the south side. There are the Sox fans who will never come back no matter what Reinsdorf does, and there are the Sox fans who will never be driven away no matter what Reinsdorf does. At this point there is little hope those factions will ever be reunited.