The White Sox might at long last have stumbled on the remedy for their attendance woes. Nothing draws a crowd of Chicagoans, especially on the south side, like a fight–and the Sox engaged in a full-scale bench-clearing, blind-punch-throwing, spikes-gouging brouhaha Saturday afternoon against the Detroit Tigers. A crowd of 38,912 had slowly filled Comiskey Park for a rare night-game home opener two weeks ago–but poor weather for the next four games pushed down attendance, which bottomed out at a mere 8,425 for a misty matinee a week ago Wednesday. Despite these numbers, the Sox were impressing with a ferocious attack, so fierce it overcame their shortcomings on defense (minor shortcomings in pitching, major shortcomings in the field) to lift the team to the top of the American League Central. The Sox clobbered the Tigers last Friday and were embarrassing them Saturday until the Tigers retaliated the only way they could–with rhubarbs in the seventh and ninth innings, both after the Sox had the game well in hand. Both clubs pounded their chests in preparation for Sunday’s series finale, but it was the Sox who established dominance on the field, scoring four runs in the first with the help of a three-run homer by Magglio Ordonez, and another four in the second. The Sox went on to claim a 9-4 victory for their fifth straight win, which put them a full game and a half in front of the Cleveland Indians, whose entire weekend series had been washed out. As important to the Sox as their good start was the fight they showed Saturday. That sort of thing gets fans–especially Sox fans–reinspired.
This might surprise most Sox fans, but I think the team has gotten a lot of that fight from manager Jerry Manuel. Manuel has a well-deserved reputation as a calm, considered baseball man. The desk in his office is always crowded with reading material; last Friday, as the Sox prepared to open the series with the Tigers, the most prominent book on the desk was I May Not Get There With You: The True Martin Luther King Jr., a companion piece to the framed charcoal sketch of King on the wall. Yet one should remember that King and Gandhi–another well-known influence on Manuel–were stubborn fighters in their own ways. Sure, Manuel can go on at length on the subject of “teaching” an anxious hitter without taming his natural aggressiveness, but he’s displayed a rather ruthless way of motivating his players–notably Frank Thomas and Mike Caruso–through the press, and he has a stubborn streak. When asked if the Sox’ league-leading batting average and run production proved they were a good offensive team, Manuel insisted they were a young club that would have to establish itself over a full season before making that claim. When asked if the resurgent Thomas was inspiring his teammates to new offensive heights–a leadership role people have been eager to put on “the Big Hurt”–Manuel denied him the credit and all but pooh-poohed his fast start. Manuel has goaded Thomas in the past by saying he has never seen the player with the big reputation who seemed headed for Cooperstown just two seasons ago; Friday, Manuel said that if Thomas returned to his old level it would be like adding a superstar to a young and already talented offensive team.
“Hopefully, that’s what is happening,” he said. He corrected himself by calling the other Sox batters “young men” instead of “kids,” which had been his first choice of words, but added, “We still have to call this potential.” Talk about a show-me challenge.
This year’s Sox aren’t merely young and talented; they seem to have a chip on their shoulder. They showed hints of spunk last year when they went to Wrigley Field early on and swept the Cubs. There were murmurs this spring in training camp that the team’s condescending The Kids Can Play slogan offended them. Now their attitude appears to be paying dividends. Manuel challenged Carlos Lee, Chris Singleton, Jeff Abbott, and Mike Caruso to improve their batting eyes and walk rates this season, and aside from the departed Caruso (made an example of for the others), they’ve responded. Lee was among the league leaders in on-base percentage going into the Detroit series, and he and Jose Valentin, who replaced the less patient Caruso, have made the Sox much more potent offensively. Of course, it hasn’t hurt that Thomas has returned to form. Since clashing with Manuel in spring training, he’s played like someone with something to prove. Booed at the end of last season, he started hot on the road and was welcomed back to Comiskey with cheers, and he responded in his first Chicago plate appearance of the year with a home run that sizzled over the center-field wall like a heat-seeking missile bound for the hot-dog stand on the bleacher concourse. With Ordonez hitting behind Thomas and Paul Konerko behind Ordonez, while Ray Durham continues to distinguish himself at the top of the order, the Sox led the league in offense even before pounding Detroit for 30 runs in three games.
The defense is still awful. The Sox went into the weekend last in the league in fielding percentage, their 18 errors topped only by the Montreal Expos’ 20 in the National League. Much as I like Konerko as a hitter, those high, black, stirrupless socks he sports make him look in the field like a farmer wearing Wellingtons in the mud. And he’s not the worst defender. (Valentin has seven errors at shortstop.) Yet the pitching has learned to deal with it. Junk-ball left-handers Mike Sirotka and Jim Parque survive on moxie and a steady diet of double-digit run support. (Parque was the pitcher who plunked the Tigers’ Dean Palmer to set off the first rhubarb last Saturday.) Phenom Kip Wells pitched poorly his first two times out, but shut down the Tigers Friday to win convincingly. James Baldwin, who developed a reputation as a head case after two straight years pitching with a split personality–looking terrible until the All-Star break and unbeatable afterward–has come out claiming he’ll win 20 this year. He looked excellent his first two times out until nailed in the chest by a line drive, then came back after missing a start to win his third game Sunday. The bull pen has become a strong point, and this year closer Bobby Howry and setup men Keith Foulke and Bill Simas have been augmented by the left-handed Kelly Wunsch, whose whipping sidearm motion sometimes sends the ball fluttering toward the plate like a whiffle ball. The way the Sox can hit, it was noteworthy that pitchers prompted Saturday’s two brawls on the pretext of defending their hitters. Both Konerko and Lee had been hit Saturday by pitches from Jeff Weaver (the former Sox draftee whose agent, Scott Boras, made the embarrassing claim that the Sox hadn’t tendered him an offer by a required deadline), and Parque responded by plunking Palmer. Palmer charged the mound to trigger a melee that, unlike most baseball fights–the sporting equivalent of prerevolution gavottes at the French court–quickly turned ugly, with Parque being strangled and other players punched from behind. Tanyon Sturtze and Howry were both ejected in the ninth for retaliatory hits, the second one prompting another donnybrook. It’s worth noting that not only was Manuel ejected in the ninth but Thomas–accused of being standoffish in the past by former teammates and Manuel–was in the middle of both fights.
This sort of us-versus-them thing builds solidarity not only between teammates but between fans and players. Look for much of the sporting interest in Chicago to be trained on the Sox this weekend when they travel to Detroit for the three-game rematch. There’s something effete about a team being promoted as talented and promising, but fans love a fighter, and they take to heart an underdog team determined to prove people wrong. That’s a quality shared by the 1977 South Side Hit Men and the 1983 Winnin’ Ugly division champs. I was reminded of those rowdy, rollicking days at the late, lamented old Comiskey–the world’s largest beer garden–this year on opening night. I was watching the game from a terrace skybox, with an unusually avid bunch of well-to-do fans. Everyone was thrilled by the Hurt’s opening homer, as well as by Durham’s great defensive play catching a pop fly with a flat-out extended dive after running away from the plate in short right field, and by the general thrashing the Sox delivered in a 9-4 victory over the Anaheim Angels. But what really caught the attention of these Sox loyalists was the fight late in the game between four drunken fans right below us in the right-field corner. Skybox or not, it was a Friday night, the place was rocking, and fans were trading punches in the stands. I could all but smell the old Thorn Apple Valley Polishes cooking down under the old Comiskey grandstand. It was just like old times, and how often have Sox fans been able to say that since the team moved to the new park?