The mood around the White Sox at the end of the season was dominated by a severe and almost tangible sense of loss. Another in a series of career years from Frank Thomas; 101 runs batted in from comeback-of-the-year candidate Danny Tartabull; the first 30-homer, 100-RBI season from Robin Ventura; unthinkable campaigns by 37-year-olds Harold Baines and Tony Phillips; a marvelous season, offensively and defensively (at several different positions), out of Dave Martinez; Ray Durham establishing himself in the majors; Alex Fernandez silencing doubts about whether he was a legitimate ace and a big-game pitcher; Roberto Hernandez bouncing back to regain his position as one of the dominant closers in the game; and even Terry Bevington’s early season job reinvigorating the players and instilling an appreciation for the fundamentals–all wasted. This was a team that should have made the playoffs. Instead their best efforts were squandered, and there is talk that the still-promising nucleus of what was to be “the team of the 90s” will be disassembled and dispersed. There were two possible responses for Sox fans: apathy and anger. The apathetic stayed home; the angry went out to the ball game.
We visited Comiskey Park for what turned out to be the final time this season two weeks ago last Tuesday. At the time the Sox were only three games behind the Baltimore Orioles with 11 to play in the race for the wild card playoff spot in the American League, but there was already a sense of doom about the club–a feeling reminiscent of what Jack Brickhouse used to call “a snakebitten Cub ball team” in the late 60s and early 70s, when the Cubs were squandering their prodigious talents on a yearly basis. We can debate all winter the primary source of that doom–whether it was Bevington’s claustrophobic intensity or general manager Ron Schueler’s flawed blueprint (not enough pitching depth; a wrongheaded decision to let Lance Johnson go) or owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s karma or (the answer we like least) the talent and character of the players. Yet there’s little doubt in our mind that doom was made most manifest in the Labor Day game at Comiskey against the Detroit Tigers. The Sox were leading the wild card race at the time, and they went into the ninth leading the Tigers. A few bleeder hits off Hernandez put the lead in jeopardy, and with the tying run on second base and one out, the Tigers got another hit. Phillips fielded the ball in left field and fired it home. Newly acquired catcher Pat Borders blocked the plate, knocked down runner and ball, fell on the runner to the side of home, seized the ball, and tagged him out to preserve the lead. The next hitter, Travis Fryman, worked the count full with the help of some foul balls. The fans were on their feet awaiting the final pitch of the game when Fryman smacked a Hernandez fastball into the left-field seats to deal the Sox a crushing loss.
Pennant-winning teams are known for mystical victories (remember the way light-hitting reserve shortstop Al Weis led the New York Mets to a sweep of those snakebitten ’69 Cubs when starting shortstop Bud Harrelson was away on army reserve duty?), and pennant-losing teams drop games the way the Sox lost that one to the Tigers. The Sox soon slipped behind the Orioles, but remained in the hunt going into the critical sequence of their season: three straight three-game series against contending teams–the Orioles, the Boston Red Sox, and the Cleveland Indians–the first two on the road and the last, when we caught them, at home. Not to get ahead of ourselves, but the Sox went 2-7 in those games, which all but finished them for the year.
So the Sox already seemed a whipped bunch when we saw them that Tuesday night; they had lost two of three in both Baltimore and Boston and were on their way to being swept by the Tribe. The mood around the batting cage was pro forma. Thomas, who answered criticism about a bad mid-season stretch of hitting in “late-inning pressure situations” by going on a tear during that critical nine-game sequence, took a few swings to work his way into a rhythm, lifting both his front leg and then his back leg high off the ground in his swing, so that he looked like some immense bird doing a mating dance. He sent a few shots sizzling to the fence, then took a few grounders at first base and was gone, leaving the others in his group, Phillips and Durham, to finish their allotted time. There were none of the usual batting-practice games that typically mark high-spirited and contending teams, and little chatter. Phillips was one of the few people to speak at all–and he was talking to no one in particular–when he glanced around the empty ballpark, which he knew would not be much more populated later that night. “It’s a goddamn shame,” he said. “One big motherfucking stadium.”
But the most discouraging thing, where the Sox were concerned, had to be when the Indians came out and started stretching in front of their dugout as the Sox finished batting practice. Among their ranks were Jack McDowell, Julio Franco, and Paul Assenmacher, all of them members of the 1994 Sox team that was headed for the playoffs before the strike, all of them since hired by the Tribe as off-season free agents at wages higher than they were paid here in Chicago. McDowell, in fact, had beaten the Sox the night before in a typically gritty performance, despite falling behind early on a homer by Thomas. (That was a regular occurrence during those nine games and down the stretch; over the last 20 games of the season, Thomas hit 10 homers, drove in 20 runs, and batted .350, at one point bashing eight homers in nine games. How’s that for hitting in pressure situations?) Yet McDowell rallied himself to hold on for a 4-3 complete-game victory. His scowl in the ninth was hauntingly familiar, and afterward Thomas paid him the ultimate compliment by saying his must-win attitude on the mound was what the Sox had been missing most.
The Indians were in a position to clinch the Central Division title with a win over the second-place White Sox that Tuesday night. Trying to stave it off was Fernandez, coming off two clutch pitching performances. He beat the Red Sox here September 7 to keep the Sox in front of the Orioles, then gave the Sox their only victory of the three-game series in Baltimore with a complete-game effort September 12. Almost two full seasons after McDowell’s departure, he had finally proved himself a big-game pitcher. On this night, however, he didn’t have it. His fastball lacked movement, and after getting the first two outs he surrendered four straight singles. That produced two quick runs, and then came something even worse. With runners at the corners and two outs, the Indians’ Manny Ramirez broke off first base in one of the oldest plays in the baseball book. The aim was to get hung up long enough to allow Franco, on third, to break for home and score before Ramirez was tagged for the third out. This is one of the most dependable ways for a savvy team to rattle a queasy team, and it worked. Catcher Borders skipped his throw to second base into center field, and Franco jogged home. Fernandez eventually struck out the batter, but three runs had scored.
Thomas answered with a homer in the bottom half of the first. On a 3-1 count, with two outs and no one on base, pitcher Brian Anderson threw a low fastball on the outside corner. Thomas, clearly looking for the fastball, reached out and ripped it into the left-field seats. The Sox were in it.
Yet not for long. Fernandez opened the second inning allowing a single, a walk, a single, and then a grand slam to Kevin Seitzer on an 0-1 change-up. The Indians added three more hits and another run in the second and got the leadoff man on in the third before Fernandez righted himself. By that time the score was 8-1, and our scorecard looked like a quilting pattern.
It’s worth pointing out that while the Sox were demoralized early and often this season, they never did quit. Phillips singled and Durham tripled in the third, and with two on, Thomas slugged one to center for a sacrifice fly, but not the homer the Sox needed to get back in the game. In the fifth, Durham dumped a bunt down the third-base line for a hit and Thomas smashed a curveball to the left-field wall–but again, it was caught. Ventura, batting against the left-handed Anderson, hit two shots to right field, both caught, and even in the ninth Martinez doubled and Baines singled him in, both as pinch hitters, but the final was 9-4 and the Indians had clinched.
Over the next ten days we kept an eye on the White Sox, waiting for them to make a move on the Orioles, but it never happened. By that time apathy had overwhelmed our anger, but the anger resurfaced whenever we tuned in the Sox on TV or whenever we looked at the season statistics. Fernandez finished 16-10 and had one of the best earned-run averages in the league. Hernandez saved 38 games. Wilson Alvarez won 15, Kevin Tapani 13, and James Baldwin 11, though all three struggled down the stretch. Hernandez aside, the bull pen also struggled as the year went on. Was it overworked early? We don’t know about that, but we do know that Bevington was asking for trouble when he pitched Bill Simas two-plus innings in a Saturday win in Boston in the middle of that critical nine-game stretch, then brought him back the next afternoon to defend a 9-8 lead. Simas allowed a game-tying homer and the White Sox lost in extra innings, squandering a three-homer game by Thomas in the most wasteful single event of a long and wasteful season.
Also wasted: 40 homers, 134 RBIs, and a .349 batting average by Thomas in an injury-shortened 142-game campaign; 34 homers and 105 RBIs by Ventura, who also recovered from last year’s concentration problems to have a stellar season defensively; 27 homers and 101 RBIs from the unlikely source of Tartabull, who was hot behind Thomas with six homers and 17 RBIs in the last 20 games; 22 homers, 95 RBIs, and a .311 batting average by Baines, at 37 enjoying his best season since his 1985 year with the White Sox; 119 runs scored by the equally ancient Phillips; and a .318 season with 85 runs scored in part-time duty by Martinez. All of those players, even granting Thomas a full season, will be hard-pressed to equal those numbers next year.
Attendance for the game that Tuesday night was 18,763, about one-third of them Cleveland fans there to see the Indians clinch. They were the only ones left in the stands toward the end. But when Bevington finally came out in the seventh to remove Fernandez, three beefy White Sox fans marched deliberately down the aisle just to the left of the screen behind home plate, and as Bevington returned to the dugout they leaned out over the railing and let him have it. We couldn’t hear what they were saying, but they were ferocious. Bevington marched on with his head down, but as he went down the steps even the dugout security guard felt compelled to tell those guys enough was enough, and he waved them back to their seats. They marched dutifully back up the aisle, and toward the top another loyalist Sox fan held up his hand to give them a high five as they passed. Also seen: a banner reading “Cut payroll: Trade Reinsdorf.”
The Indians’ celebration was subdued on the field, but in the locker room the champagne flowed, and one of the main ones shaking it up and spraying it around was an uncharacteristically cheery “Black” Jack McDowell. Back in the Sox locker room, Bevington was saying, “We haven’t gotten to the point of reflection yet,” but Judgment Day will probably arrive without him reaching his point of reflection. Waiting outside the manager’s office for reporters was Thomas. “You guys in the wrong locker room, ain’t you?” he said. He was already dressed in slacks, shirt, and a natty vest, and he briskly gave the reporters the quotes they expected and then left. We followed him out and watched him go down the corridor toward the parking lot, a box of autographed baseballs under his arm, probably to be dropped off at some charity. At that moment, we must confess, we were angry: angry at the waste and the lost opportunity, angry that McDowell, Franco, and Assenmacher were celebrating without Thomas and the rest of the Sox, angry that the franchise was in the hands of an embittered owner, with a manager and a general manager to match. Angry, most of all, that Thomas had joined Al Simmons, Joe DiMaggio, Hal Trosky, and Ted Williams as the only players to drive in 100 runs in their first six full seasons, and had become the first since Williams to hit 20 homers, drive in 100 runs, score 100 times, walk 100 times, and bat .300 in six consecutive seasons, and the first to do it in six straight years (as Williams’ streak was broken up by three years of World War II), only to end up with nothing to show for it. We watched him walk slowly down the corridor and we could almost hear his thoughts. “Another season of putting up great numbers, for what?” We could hear them because we were thinking them too.