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One of the main reasons for the White Sox’ improvement this year is an improved defense. One of the great mysteries of the White Sox’ improvement is how they improved that defense. Baltimore’s great manager Earl Weaver used to say that the time to work on defense was spring training; if a team didn’t have the fundamentals down by opening day it wasn’t likely to work out the kinks during the hectic season. The Sox, however, have improved their defense this year after an abbreviated spring training that lasted barely three weeks. White Sox general manager Larry Himes addresses this mystery as no mystery whatsoever. He says, emphatically, “They’re better players. We’ve got a better club. Better speed in the outfield, better range, better arms, better intensity, better urgency, better intelligence, better everything.”

Himes has an obvious interest in praising the players; he’s the man assigned to put together the roster, to bring in new players and replace the old ones. He is also, however, quick to praise the coaching staff, which he retained after firing Jim Fregosi as manager a couple of years ago. And he has a valid point about baseball skills. As we work to appreciate baseball as a craft, taught by coaches, understood by players, it’s important to remember that baseball at the major-league level is often no different than it is at the sandlot level: pick better players, and the team wins more games. This isn’t to dismiss the Sox’ defensive coach, Ron Clark, but it’s simply to say that there’s not much a defensive coach can improve upon when adding the wider range and stronger arms of Lance Johnson in center and Sammy Sosa in right. At this time a year ago, neither was a member of the White Sox. Neither was Robin Ventura or Scott Fletcher. If a team–even a last-place team–improves itself at four or five positions (more than half the lineup) from one year to the next, that’s likely to show up in the standings –coaching almost completely aside.

The Oakland Athletics managed to seize first place both at the Fourth of July and the All-Star break–baseball’s pair of oracular midsummer dates, predicting the eventual winners–but the White Sox held first for much of the time around those dates this month, and even after losing four of five going into the break, they were still only one game behind the reigning world champions. They’ve made the most dramatic turnaround in baseball this year and one of the most dramatic in baseball history. Placed side by side, the Sox’ 1990 record at the All-Star break is 21 games ahead of their 1989 record at the break. The Baltimore Orioles set the record of a 21-game turnaround only a year ago, and they defended it last weekend by dealing the Sox losses on Saturday and Sunday.

There are a number of similarities between the teams. Both improved their defense, which led to improved pitching. Yet Himes–who has a way of sidling up to one that insinuates that what he’s saying, if not an outright secret, is at least very important–appears taken aback and almost offended when the two teams are compared. “I don’t think we’re anything like the Orioles,” he says.

We looked for differences and not similarities between the two teams when the Orioles came to town last weekend, and they were there to be found. The Orioles are testimony to Roland Hemond’s baseball acumen, to his recognizing players slighted by other teams who belong in the majors. (They remind me of the misfit toys that eventually find homes in the annual Christmas television special Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.) Hemond was kicked upstairs by the White Sox when they brought in Ken “Hawk” Harrelson as general manager in 1985, and he then went on to work in baseball’s higher, bureaucratic offices before returning to the actual dirty work of rebuilding the Orioles. With nothing to offer in trade and nothing to draw from the team’s minor-league system, he went after players nobody else wanted, but whom he believed in. Look at the team’s lineup from last Saturday. The first three players were all National League castoffs: Mike Devereaux, Joe Orsulak, and Randy Milligan, a first baseman the New York Mets ranked behind both Keith Hernandez and Dave Magadan. Mickey Tettleton, the cleanup hitter, was released by the A’s. Cal and Billy Ripken are both homegrown mainstays, of course, but then there’s Tim Hulett, dumped by the White Sox, Bob Melvin, a backup catcher with San Francisco, and Brad Komminsk, waived earlier this season by Cleveland. The pitcher was John Mitchell, like Milligan a player with proven credentials in the high minors whom the Mets never gave a chance. That’s a patchwork team, made up of doubtful players who thrived when given the chance to play. That’s also a team that needs practice and a sound base in the fundamentals, which is perhaps why the abbreviated spring training appears to have had more impact on the Orioles than it has on the White Sox.

The White Sox are built mostly of players of recognized talent, obtained in trades for proven players. The Sox had to give up quality to get quality. Lance Johnson– obtained for Jose DeLeon–was one of the brightest prospects of the Saint Louis Cardinals, but he couldn’t crack their outfield. Sosa came in last summer’s Harold Baines trade, as did Fletcher. Robin Ventura was a first-round draft pick two years ago. Likewise, on the pitching staff, Melido Perez and Greg Hibbard both came from Kansas City in the Floyd Bannister trade. Himes is right to be defensive about the comparison to the Orioles; he was bringing in highly touted players all along, who were simply slow to develop. (Johnson especially. After the Sox traded for him, he couldn’t win a spot in their outfield. This year, he may be their most valuable player.) The last couple of years must have nearly driven Himes crazy. And he must hope that the differences will show when the White Sox, after competing this season, avoid the Orioles’ backslide next year.

There’s an argument to be made that the Cubs are more like the Orioles than the Sox are. The Cubs got very lucky last year with players brought in whom nobody else wanted: Mike Bielecki and Lloyd McClendon foremost among them. This year, Bielecki and McClendon have both been busts, and the team enters the All-Star break 13 games under .500, 15 games out of first, in fifth place, buoyed up out of last only by the confused Cardinals, who just lost their manager, Whitey Herzog. The Cubs and the Orioles are both victims of what Bill James refers to sometimes as the Plexiglas principle, which states, basically, that when a team excels dramatically beyond its perceived potential, it is likely to return to its old ways by reflex. The Cubs last year led the National League in hitting, but even then they had a problem with on-base percentage, and this year, when the hitting isn’t as good, the on-base problem is back (although not to 1988 levels). The shortened spring training has also done obvious harm to the team’s fundamental defensive play, especially in the case of Dwight Smith.

Yet one quick look at the Cubs and one sees the opposite of the situation with the White Sox: the Cubs simply don’t have the players they did a year ago. Rick Sutcliffe and Mitch Williams are both gone to arm injuries (victims of the shortened spring?), Damon Berryhill has not returned, they’ve lost 100 to 150 at-bats from Jerome Walton, who’s also been injured, hurting both the team’s offense and its defense. (Walton, who came in a little overweight this year, has a slightly diminished range in the field, but has actually improved his on-base percentage.) Combine that with the sudden realization that Bielecki and Mark Grace are still trying to find their actual major-league level (is Grace the next Keith Hernandez, or simply a Hollywood Sid Bream?) and one has ample problems to offset the career year enjoyed by Ryne Sandberg and the recovery of Andre Dawson.

George Will was in town this week to see the All-Star game and to champion his book Men at Work (conservatives never promote or hawk, they “champion”). It’s been at the top of the New York Times best-seller list after being widely acclaimed. I purchased the book and read it, but not without some prodding; my experience is not typical in this instance. I picked it up in Denver, while attending an alternative-newspaper convention, after reading a glowing review by Roger Angell in his latest baseball piece in the New Yorker. John Raeside, the editor of the East Bay Express, told me that he, too, had gone out in San Francisco to buy the book after reading Angell’s recommendation, but he couldn’t find it; it had been sold out at the several bookstores he tried, immediately after Angell’s piece appeared.

It’s not a bad book. In fact, it’s quite good in spots, especially in the section on managing, where Tony LaRussa successfully makes his case that his style is the new way, the improvement on Earl Weaver’s methods. Will, however, sometimes blurs his facts to make his points (which should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with his political commentary), such as in saying that the hit-and-run is safer than the bunt and in his data on Cal Ripken’s fielding. He also cites the Eric Show-Andre Dawson beanball as an illustration that hitting is naturally dangerous and that pitchers don’t throw at batters, forgetting to mention that Dawson had tagged Show a couple of times that day before he was thrown at. It is, however, a good and necessary book–necessary because it does need to be emphasized that baseball is played by men trying to master a craft. The book’s need couldn’t have been illustrated any better than it was earlier this year in an interview between Will and Harry Caray during a Cubs television broadcast. Caray kept asking Will why he called it Men at Work instead of Men at Play? To Caray and his antiquated way of looking at the game, the idea that these men are working and not natural athletes remains foreign. Will fended him off gently by saying that they were the luckiest men of all because their work appeared to be play to the rest of us.

Still, my mid-season All-Star honors go to the return of Bill James with The Baseball Book 1990, a more opinionated, less number-filled book than his usual, which includes a remarkable and for the most part overlooked attack on the Dowd Report that led to Pete Rose’s demise. It also includes the first volume of what appears to be James’s baseball encyclopedia, with entries for every person ever associated with baseball from Aaron to Anson. This small group is almost as aggravating in what it leaves to the future as the A-C first volume of the Dictionary of American Regional English. It will be interesting to see who finishes first–James or the DARE project.