The day dawned with a blue and unsullied sky, but by game time early last Sunday afternoon, clouds extended from horizon to horizon. They were big, puffy white clouds that gave the field at Bill Veeck Stadium a dappled, shady appearance; they were bottom-heavy, dark on their undersides, but they were so spread out and disorganized that they weren’t even capable of threatening rain. Too bad for the White Sox, because by the time the game became official, after five innings, they had already blown a 1-0 lead and were down 6-1.
The Sox’ season so far has been as mediocre as Sunday’s weather: delightful enough in and of itself, but disappointing compared to what was expected. They went into the All-Star break last week at exactly .500, 43-43, in fourth place, nine and a half games behind the defending champion Minnesota Twins in the American League West. Actually the second half, after the three-day break, couldn’t have begun better for the Sox. Down 3-1 to the Milwaukee Brewers last Thursday night, they rallied with two out in the bottom of the ninth to tie the score. After the Brewers scored in the tenth, the Sox tied it again, then won in the 12th when George Bell drove home Tim Raines. If any game should have triggered a second-half surge, it was that one.
Friday night they got a terrific pitching performance from Alex Fernandez, just back from a refresher course in the minors. Problem was, they were facing (or surrendering to) an even better pitching performance by the Brewers’ Jaime Navarro, who took a no-hitter into the eighth inning. Again, however, the Sox rallied like champions-to-be. Warren Newson, the young, left-handed Walt “No Neck” Williams, walked, stole second, and came home on a triple into the left-center gap by Steve Sax (who had also driven in a run in the ninth and scored the tying run the previous night). Sax then scored on a sacrifice fly by Lance Johnson. The Sox were up 2-1 and heading into the ninth.
Left in to finish the game, Fernandez gave up a homer to the Brewers’ Kevin Seitzer to lead off the inning. The Sox’ radio crew managed to find a bright spot here –if Bobby Thigpen had been brought in to finish the game and had allowed the homer, the fans would have gotten the rope ready for a lynching–but the game was tied and bound for extra innings. The Brewers scored again in the tenth, when B.J. Surhoff homered off Scott Radinsky. Again, however, the Sox clawed back. Shawn Abner tripled and scored on a Johnson single in the bottom of the inning. Yet in the 11th the Brewers scored again off Radinsky, and the Sox by this time were in no mood for miracles. They lost, 4-3, and went on to lose 3-1 the next night, squandering a seven-hit complete game by Jack McDowell.
The Brewers were in the process of showing how a team of overachievers puts together a pennant-contending season. They had gone into the All-Star break four games above .500, in third place in the A.L. East, seven and a half games behind the Toronto Blue Jays. With a patchwork pitching staff and a remodeled offense–going from the old bash ’em Brew Crew to a hit-and-run team that led the majors in stolen bases–they scrambled for victories and earned them with a combination of vim and execution. They could easily have folded up after the 12th-inning loss to open the second half. Instead, they made the Sox fold. The margin of victory in their 3-1 win Saturday night came on a two-run double by former Chicagoan (both north and south sides) Scott Fletcher, who got the green light to hit on a 3-0 count from McDowell. That’s how good things go when they go good, and, of course, vice versa.
So it was that I went out to the Veeck last Sunday on a painful mission to see my worst suspicions confirmed. And confirmed they were. This baseball season is over on both sides of town.
Greg Hibbard, the “Little Bulldog,” was on the mound for the Sox, the second straight game I’ve been so cursed. Hibbard’s across-the-body delivery again failed to give the requisite snap to his breaking stuff. The Brewers tied the score and went ahead 2-1 in the third, when Greg Vaughn’s leadoff triple, on a slider, was followed by Tim McIntosh’s double, on a slower breaking pitch. The go-ahead run was particularly discouraging. After McIntosh, a catcher, went to third on a sacrifice bunt, Chicago manager Gene Lamont called for a pitchout on a 2-1 count. Nothing doing. Almost as if he had been given the idea by Lamont, and realizing it was now doubly brilliant with the count 3-1, Milwaukee manager Phil Garner called a suicide squeeze. McIntosh trotted home. “We called it one pitch early,” Lamont shrugged afterward.
The Sox hadn’t earned their 1-0 lead anyway. The resurgent Sax, returned to the number-two spot in the order, tripled into the right-field corner in the first. Frank Thomas–who would leave seven men on base over the course of the game (eight if you count his third-inning walk)–struck out. But the Brewers’ big, pale pitcher Cal Eldred–fresh from the farm, making his season debut in the majors–threw one in the dirt to Bell, and when McIntosh made an uninterested stab at it Sax came home.
With two out in the bottom of the third, Eldred walked Sax, allowed him to steal second, and then walked Thomas. Two straight walks, and yet Bell, the next batter, spun around on a high, tight, first-pitch fastball closer to his chin than to the strike zone. Down in the count 1-2, Bell fouled one off and then grounded a fastball right back to Eldred.
Hibbard gave up three runs in the fourth and was gone to open the fifth, replaced by Donn Pall. Pall is so thin his uniform seems at least two sizes too big; his sleeves flop from his shoulders, and this, combined with his delivery–in which he deliberately steps toward the plate and then puts everything he can into spinning the ball– gives him the impression of being an oversize Little League pitcher. His slow delivery allowed the Brewers’ terrific rookie shortstop Pat Listach to steal both second and third after a one-out single, and he came home on a Paul Molitor hit: 6-1.
The Sox looked as lethargic as a snake-bite victim left to wither in the sun. The poor first halves of Raines and Sax had been blamed by many people as the main reason for the Sox’ struggling, but on this afternoon Raines and Sax got on base six times and scored only once, as Thomas and Bell went a combined 0 for 9. (The oddest statistic of the season is that, while the switch-hitting Raines is batting .209 right-handed and .281 left- handed, his on-base percentage is a respectable .349 right-handed and .357 left-handed; explain that one, Bill James.) The Sox hit a number of shots off Eldred, who displayed a hard overhand curve to go with his corn-fed fastball, but that was about it. Eldred stranded seven runners over his six innings. Once the Sox got into the Milwaukee bullpen, they rallied, but they left the bases loaded in both the eighth and the ninth–the sure sign of a slumping ball club–on the way to losing. The final score was 6-3, even though the Sox had outhit the Brewers 11-7. The Brewers just made them look bad; it was a team that wanted to win against a team that felt it ought to win.
After the game, McDowell, who hadn’t pitched, and Dan Pasqua, who was on the disabled list, were both out of the locker room before it was even opened to the media. There was no music and little conversation in the clubhouse; players came and went in dribs and drabs. In his office, the beagle-eyed Lamont had the look of a hound that has lost the scent. “We’ve dug a pretty good hole for ourselves,” he said, “and we sure as hell can’t get any deeper.” When reminded that, just before the All-Star break, he had said his team couldn’t afford any more three-game skids, he nodded and said, “And I was right. And I was right.”
The Sox had worn their “Good Guys Wear Black” jerseys at home for the Sunday-afternoon game, in hopes, I suppose, of catching what energy they could from the sun as it darted between the clouds. Whoever thought up that slogan last winter should have been reminded where it is that nice guys finish up.