We return to our baseball teams unusually late in the season, to find that they have each taken drastically different paths. At the end of last weekend’s games, the Cubs were in first place, the White Sox in last. For anyone looking at the big picture, this season has been particularly excruciating for the Sox. The standings last weekend bore much worse news for Sox fans than that the Cubs were in first. In fact, the day the Cubs fell into second place was the worst day of all: at that time, three of the four division-leading teams were being run by former White Sox employees fired either for or by Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, the former professional baseball player and golfer who became the club’s television announcer and then–in a fairy-tale promotion–the team’s general manager for one brief but far-reaching season. If the Harrelson story was a fairy tale, for the Sox it was a particularly grim one out of the Brothers Grimm; a bedtime story mixed with Greek tragedy, in which–like the rise to the throne made by Oedipus in answering the riddle of the Sphinx–there were unseen consequences to be paid for years on end.
Through last weekend, the Oakland Athletics were in first place in the American League West, managed especially skillfully this season by former White Sox manager Tony LaRussa, who’s kept the team winning without Jose Canseco. LaRussa was fired by Harrelson in 1986 in particularly inept fashion, as the Hawk wooed Billy Martin in a poolroom courtship that failed, and then left LaRussa hanging while all of baseball counted the days to his demise. Since then, LaRussa has gone on to some notable successes in Oakland–previous to this year’s first-place position–which need not be repeated here. In the AL East, meanwhile, former White Sox General Manager Roland Hemond has so transformed the Baltimore Orioles that they have turned from last year’s laughingstocks to this year’s single biggest baseball surprise. They too are in first place, and while they may not hold on to win this year (I’m sticking with the Cleveland Indians at the moment, even while rooting for the Orioles), they are destined to be one of the powers of the next decade. Hemond’s first draft choice for the Orioles, Gregg Olson of the class of ’88, is already an impact player in the Baltimore bull pen, and with this year’s top pick Ben McDonald joining the team almost certainly next season, they are going to have a strong pitching staff for a long time. Hemond–in case Sox fans have forgotten or erased the fact from their minds (the memories being, for the most part, painful)– is the man who built the 1983 AL West champions; he was later brushed aside by the Sox’ Reinhorn ownership in order to hire Harrelson at the end of the 1985 season. Three years later the Sox’ 1986 draft–for which Harrelson is responsible–still has not produced a single player to match Olson, Hemond’s top 1988 choice. There’s more, however. Harrelson also fired Dave Dombrowski, a Hemond protege who did not agree with his way of running a ball club. Hemond had been grooming Dombrowski to replace him as the White Sox’ GM, but instead Dombrowski moved on to accept that position with the Montreal Expos. He has since pulled off a series of sweet deals–including one bringing the coveted Mark Langston to Montreal–and the Expos, too, were in first place last Saturday after beating the Cubs Friday night. Though they lost the next two games to the Cubs and fell back into second place, they remain top contenders in the division.
For the White Sox, the only thing that could have made it worse would have been if LaMarr Hoyt were 10-0 and the San Diego Padres in first place in the National League West. Then again, that deal would have reflected poorly on Hemond, instead of paying testimony–as it does–to his foresight, for the Sox got Ozzie Guillen in that exchange.
Bad managing can mess a team up from day to day and destroy its chances for the season, but bad management goes on and on. The Sox’ current GM, Larry Himes, has done an admirable job getting the team back on some sort of track, but the end results of the team’s lost year, 1986, are simply too much to overcome–at least in the short run. Three years after the 1986 draft, that class ought to be producing some major-league talent, but not a single rookie on the White Sox was drafted that year–with the exception of Greg Hibbard, who made a brilliant debut last weekend in losing to Roger Clemens but who was drafted not by Ken Harrelson but by the Kansas City Royals, and who came to the White Sox in Himes’s 1987 trade involving Floyd Bannister and Melido Perez.
Without rookie talent to fill the gaps, the Sox lineup was crippled this year by injuries. (The Cubs, meanwhile, filled holes this year with Jerome Walton and Joe Girardi, to name just two products of the 1986 draft, and Dwight Smith–another key fill-in–is a 1984 draftee who simply required extra time. So while the Sox starters have been fighting to fill the lineup, the Cubs bench has been fighting to fill the open spots in the lineup.) When Perez and Himes’s first draft choice, Jack McDowell (’87), suffered some predictable setbacks this season, the pitching went down the tubes too, producing a team struggling to win one game out of every three.
When the Cubs appointed a radio announcer as their general manager before the 1988 season, many foresaw the same sort of decline in store. Jim Frey, however, has pulled off a number of good trades, and his draft record appears already strong in only its second year. The Rafael Palmeiro-Mitch Williams trade has been a boon for both clubs; it draws criticism only from writers and commentators who insist on reading it as a case of one or both clubs souring on young talent, which is simply not the case. The Cubs were disappointed in Palmeiro last year, but they certainly hadn’t soured on him. They needed a relief pitcher; they had many promising outfielders in the minors. The Texas Rangers had another relief pitcher; they needed hitting. It’s worked out well for both teams.
Yet no one could have foreseen how significant injuries to Walton, Andre Dawson, and Mark Grace could turn out well for the Cubs. The key to the Cubs becoming a first-place team–at least in the short run–is that those injuries have made Don Zimmer a better manager and, therefore, the Cubs a better team. Zimmer is a traditional manager with a high personality quotient in his day-to-day tactics: which is another way of saying he prefers to stick with a set lineup, no platooning, and his game-situation decisions are utterly unpredictable. This latter quality has not changed, and it’s what makes Zimmer such a delight some times and such a disaster at others. He is as subject to whims as a teenage girl: he lets the pitcher hit-and-run sometimes when a bunt is called for, and he changes pitchers to play the lefty-righty percentages when he knows (or should know) that the other team will pinch hit to deny those percentages. At the very beginning of the season, we asked him if batting Ryne Sandberg third he might be inclined to hit-and-run more often up and down the lineup. He responded: “I’ll hit-and-run with anybody. I might hit-and-run with Dawson. Hell, it’s funny that you would ask that question. I talked to him just the day before yesterday, and I told him to be aware.” Playing fast and loose with the team’s cleanup hitter is not typical baseball managing, but it’s typical of Zimmer, and this unpredictability is what keeps the team on its toes (until the whims backfire too often) and upsets the rhythm of the opposing team.
The other major quality of Zimmer’s managing–his disinclination to platoon–is more of a problem, but it has changed drastically in the last month. The injuries to Dawson, Grace, and Walton left the team plugging holes, and Zimmer was doing just that with a newfound platoon system. There was one game against a left-handed pitcher in which the Cubs’ entire lineup (except pitcher Rick Sutcliffe, if memory serves) was right-handed, and when was the last time that happened? Talented minor-league players like Smith suddenly found themselves expected to deliver in the majors, while major-league retreads like Domingo Ramos and Lloyd McClendon found new life hitting almost exclusively against left-handers. Smith and McClendon particularly were surprises under the platoon system, and at writing they have the two top batting averages on the team–two players who began the year at Iowa.
The Cubs and Sox now face the future in two widely divergent ways. The Cubs–surprisingly finding themselves in a pennant race–concentrate on this year. As long as their pitching holds up, they’ll contend, and if any of the starters falters Mike Harkey (’87) has shown signs of life of late at Iowa. Dombrowski’s Expos are the team to beat in the NL East, but the Cubs, really, have as good a shot as anyone, now that Dawson is back, Grace is returning, and Zimmer is willing to admit he has some useful players on the bench.
As for the White Sox, they look to a future where Perez, McDowell, and Hibbard must make up the core starting staff. By the end of the year–after the pressure is off everyone–the pitching should turn around, McDowell should return from the minors, and the Sox will begin to win some games. They are nowhere near as bad as their record indicates, but when a team goes bad and injuries abound there’s no explanation for the interesting ways it can find to lose games (e.g., two errors and five unearned runs last Sunday in a 7-4 loss to the Boston Red Sox). They’ve added a massive collegiate slugger, Auburn’s Frank Thomas, to last year’s number-one pick, college hit-streak record-holder Robin Ventura, and both could be in the majors next year. As for the Cubs, Ty Griffin–at Class A Peoria–is probably two years away, and new top pick Earl Cunningham was rated the number-two prospect by Baseball America but was still available when the Cubs picked because he is a high school player requiring an extra couple of years in the minors. Griffin and Cunningham, however, should be ready in 1991 and ’93, and in the meantime there is talent enough–too much talent, as far as jealous White Sox fans are concerned.