There’s a curious stillness about Bill Veeck Stadium these days. It looks as if the White Sox are going to lead the American League West going into August, as they led at the All-Star break, yet the crowds have been moderate–in both size and temperament. A solid ring of fans surrounds the field, in the lower levels of the grandstands and in the outfield bleachers, but the upper deck remains, for the most part, an unbroken field of blue mingling with sky. That and the ballpark’s construction, open like a cereal bowl, allows the crowd noise to rise and disperse. The team’s position in the standings and the date on the calendar indicate pennant race, but it just doesn’t feel like a pennant race yet on the south side.
We went out to the Veeck last week with a single purpose: to decide, once and for all this season, whether the Sox are worthy of devotion, whether they have what it takes to earn our allegiance. This sort of attention is not routinely given by Chicago fans. It comes naturally where the Bulls are concerned, of course, but the Sox–in spite of high showings in the standings in recent years–have failed to capture our imagination. And after the Bulls’ third straight championship run, I think we’re all a little hesitant to make the leap again so soon; we prefer the low expectations of the Cubs or–already, for too many of us–the Bears.
The Sox have a tenuous hold on first, just as they have a tenuous hold on our attention. They have only three good starting pitchers, and two of those are freshly arrived in the quality-starter category. Can they finish the season the way they began it? Similar questions surround their bull-pen closer, who is also freshly arrived and lacking in experience. Their offense has sputtered like the engine on an old speedboat, and their defense has been less than constant. Their clubhouse chemistry, likewise, has been called into question by sportswriters and others in the know. And their fans, we admit to ourselves, are not likely to make the difference in a close race.
Still, this is a very likable team, and anyone with half a mind to give himself or herself over to it should have no problem. Looking at the team deployed in the field, one is struck by what a complete and solid group it is. The outfield of Tim Raines, Lance Johnson, and Ellis Burks has had a splendid year on offense and has excellent defensive range. Robin Ventura, at third, could repeat as winner of the Gold Glove; while his batting average is down, his homers and runs batted in are up. Across the infield, Frank Thomas is the best young slugger in the game. Behind the plate, Ron Karkovice and the newly acquired National League veteran Mike LaValliere have put together a solid platoon system. Up the middle, Ozzie Guillen has returned serviceably well, and Joey Cora, well, Joey Cora is one of the players who most give us hope.
Cora has established himself as the second baseman and as the second man in the batting order. He entered the week with an average of .274 and a .365 on-base percentage; at five feet eight inches (in cleats, on tiptoes), he takes a lot of pitches ahead of Thomas, who also takes a lot of pitches but who hits more than a few over the fence. Cora is a small, baby-faced player, but he’s been around awhile. The Padres rushed him to the majors in 1987, when he was 21, returned him to the minors, all but gave him the job at second base when they traded Roberto Alomar, then gave up on him when he broke an ankle playing winter-league ball. Cora returned to the majors with the White Sox and seized the second-base job in 1991 before suffering another injury. This year, however, he has regained it and held it. He turns the double play well and is a major reason for the team’s dramatic increase in DPs, from 13th in the league last year to 5th this year. On offense, with his big helmet and grizzled, unshaven, face, he has the look of the littlest guy in the platoon in a World War II movie. He’s going to get the job done, goddamnit, even if it means falling on a hand grenade.
The Sox don’t seem to enjoy their work–that’s a major reason for their lack of a following–but they do seem committed to getting it done, an attitude reflected in no one so much as ace Jack McDowell. Look at McDowell’s stats: he gives up a hit an inning, walks one about every three innings and has an earned-run average closer to 4.00 than to 3.00, the customary mark of quality. Yet he wins, year in and year out. He entered the week with a major-league-leading 15 victories; his 15th, a week ago Thursday, was a vintage performance.
The Milwaukee Brewers’ leadoff man, Pat Listach, opened the game with a double and scored on a single by Robin Yount. One out later, another single moved Yount to third–runners at the comers, one out, and McDowell about to fall into a deep hole before the Sox even came to bat. He worked out of the jam, however, with a strikeout on a curveball. The first two Brewers reached base in the second inning, but McDowell again worked out of it with the help of a strikeout on a curve. The leadoff man doubled in the third, but McDowell retired the next three batters. The leadoff man singled in the fourth, but again McDowell steadied himself.
Meanwhile the Sox tied the score in the first, on a triple by Cora and a sacrifice fly by Thomas, and they went ahead with three in the fourth. At that point McDowell seemed to become a different pitcher. With his riverboat-gambler looks–a long, lean face enhanced by a mustache and goatee–he seems prone to wild wagers until he gets a little ahead in the game; then he hunkers down over his chips and plays it close to the vest to make sure he’ll rise from the table a winner. He got the leadoff man for the first time in the fifth on the way to a relatively easy inning, retired the side in order in the sixth, with two strikeouts, and got the leadoff man again in the seventh before allowing the Brewers to bleed him for a run. By that time, though, the Sox were up 7-2. McDowell turned the game over to the bull pen in the eighth, and the Sox won by the same score. As good as McDowell has been, Alex Fernandez has actually pitched better, although he hasn’t won as many games. In 154 innings, he has allowed only 124 hits, walking 51 while striking out 110. Short, stocky, muscular, and still young, just about to turn 24, he appears to have shortened his stride and simplified his arm motion this year, and it’s made all the difference. He won five games in a row going into last Sunday, and the last of those was the best of the bunch, a four-hit, no-walk, complete-game 2-1 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays, which many people we talked to called the best game of the year. Fernandez allowed only a home run to John Olerud; the Sox won on a two-run homer by Thomas.
Last Sunday, even while losing, Fernandez displayed the maturity that has suddenly made him one of the best pitchers in the league. He had what he called “average stuff,” but average for him now is much better than what it was a year ago, when he went 8-11 with a 4.00-plus ERA. He threw his curve for strikes at will, and after an unearned run in the first had the Brewers completely dumbfounded. His curve was breaking so sharply that he struck out Milwaukee catcher Tom Lampkin with one that scooted past LaValliere for a wild pitch, allowing Lampkin to take first. That’s a cardinal sin for a catcher, and Lampkin seemed to feel some solidarity for his counterpart. He came up in the sixth looking for the curve, and he dropped the bat on one and lined it past the right-field foul pole for a two-run homer–this after the Brewers had already scored on a triple and a flare to the outfield. It was a hot, sunny, above all muggy day, and the Brewers’ next batter, Tom Brunansky, took a tiring Fernandez to a full count before getting around on his fastball, homering into the left-field seats to put the Brew Crew up for good. They went on to win 7-3.
That diminished Fernandez’s record to 12-5. McDowell was 15-6. Third starter Wilson Alvarez–another young, wide-body pitcher with a short stride–was 8-6 with a 3.28 ERA entering the week. Throw in closer Roberto Hernandez–who, like Alvarez, has a stride so short it seems to pitch him over the top like a wave hitting the beach–and one has the four arms the White Sox are counting on to get them through the race. One might well call it, “McDowell, Fernandez, and Alvarez and two days of praying you can just get it to Hernandez.”
With the White Sox offense working the way it’s working, though, those hopes and prayers are legitimate. Thomas has begun his annual second-half improvement–this after the best first half in his major-league career. And just as George Bell has gone on the disabled list with arthroscopic knee surgery, the team has found a designated hitter.
Bo Jackson is on a tear. He entered the week leading the team in runs batted in during July with 15. He got the go-ahead RBI (formerly known as the gamewinning RBI) in McDowell’s last win when he muscled a grounder up the middle and through the glove of the Milwaukee second baseman. He followed that with a two-run homer the next inning. Two nights later (Hernandez blew a save in the ninth inning in the game in between), Jackson had four hits, including the game-winning RBI in the bottom of the ninth. Last Sunday, after Thomas and Ventura had put Fernandez in front with back-to-back solo homers in the bottom of the first, Jackson padded the lead–and, unfortunately, drove in the last Chicago run of the day–when he hit a hanging curve on a line into left field in the third, bringing home Thomas. Most important, after the Brewers had taken a 5-3 lead in the sixth, Jackson got the crowd back in the game simply by taking Milwaukee starter Cal Eldred to a full count to lead off the bottom half of the inning. Fans want Jackson to do well; he involves them in the game. For a first-place team that has been unable to draw more than 30,000 fans without offering fireworks afterward or a Michael Jordan softball game beforehand, he could be invaluable in the next month.
Of course, he could go into a slump–with no Bell to step back in to replace him. Hernandez, Alvarez, or even Fernandez could go south. Manager Gene Lamont could fail to answer these challenges with the proper intensity. The Sox could wind up just contenders in Palookaville, again. Any sports columnist can recite the team’s shortcomings; it takes a fan to regard them as the stuff of drama.