At game time last Saturday evening, Bill Veeck Stadium was about half full–if that. Here the White Sox were, in first place by three and a half games on the first weekend in August, trying to end a three-game losing streak, with their charismatic ace, Jack McDowell, on the mound, and most Sox fans couldn’t make it for the first pitch. A crowd of 42,535 eventually showed up in time for the postgame fireworks, but they never seemed more than half interested in what was going on on the field; it was something to sit through on the way to the main event. In the seventh inning, with the Sox trying to pad an uneasy 5-4 lead, the bases loaded and one out, fans started doing the wave. Now, it’s true that the Saturday night fireworks tend to attract the rabble among Sox fans, but on this evening they took over. Those few fans booing the wave were greatly outnumbered by those taking part; it wasn’t even close.
A week ago Thursday, I got up from the television and went to do the dishes in the bottom of the sixth inning, the Sox in the field and the Texas Rangers at bat. The Sox were approaching the end of what had looked to be a terrific road trip. They had gone into Seattle and showed the Mariners who was the best team in the American League West. They had gone into Texas with a chance to all but put the race away. But they had lost the night before, Wednesday, in bitter fashion. Now they needed a victory to end the road trip a comfortable six and a half games ahead of the second-place Rangers.
Tim Belcher, the Sox’ new hired gun, a stretch-run acquisition to fill out the starting rotation, was making his debut, and he had the Sox in a 1-1 tie in a pitchers’ duel with the Rangers’ Kevin Brown. I put the radio on while I was in the kitchen. Belcher gave up a leadoff single to Doug Strange, and one had the impression that the game had reached the juncture when it would be won by one team and lost by the other–which way, who knew? This was when the Sox’ broadcasting team of John Rooney and Ed Farmer began talking about the voting for the Clinton budget in the House of Representatives.
At first they simply mentioned that the Clinton forces had a two-vote lead with only four votes yet to be cast, and I thought what a strong show of civic responsibility it was to break into a ball game with word of what was happening in Washington. Then, however, Farmer and Rooney began talking about what a bad budget it was and the increased taxes and how awful it would be for the country if it passed, and meanwhile Belcher was trying to pitch out of a jam fraught with pennant-race implications. I turned off the radio and left the dishes to soak and went back to the television– where Ken Harrelson and Tom Paciorek offered no relief from stupidity. So I turned down the volume and put on some music to think for myself.
These two incidents–the wave and the political commentary– are linked in my mind. Many people–fans and writers alike– have noticed that there’s a distinct lack of interest in the Sox this season, even as the team closes in on its first division title in ten years, and I’ve traced the cause to the broadcast crews. With the Sox announcers–Rooney and Farmer on radio, “Hawk” Harrelson and “Wimpy” Paciorek on television–it’s an unpleasant experience to watch or even just listen to a Sox game. Harrelson and Paciorek, with their passion for nicknames and their insider’s cliches (“gas” for fastball and “hook” for curve; why don’t they just break open their Official Crash Davis Hollywood Baseball Thesaurus and start calling the opponents “meat”?), are members in good standing of the jockocracy, and they never let the audience forget it. They reached a new low recently when they got into it with Milwaukee Brewers manager Phil Garner by calling on Chicago pitchers to retaliate after the Brewers’ Cal Eldred plunked Ron Karkovice in the elbow with a pitch. Of the three–Garner, Harrelson, and Paciorek–nobody conducted himself well: they issued playground invitations to fight through the media. But Garner was right in saying that as former athletes Harrelson and Paciorek should know better. Yet Farmer, also a former jock, on that same night the Clinton budget was struggling through the House, kept urging Chicago pitchers to retaliate against Texas batters for an incident the night before that we’ll shortly address.
It’s astounding that south-side fans would put up with this ex-jock, know-it-all chest thumping, and that’s just the point: they aren’t putting up with it. Interest in the first-place Sox is atrociously low because fans refuse to buy those steep, sky-high upper-deck seats for any reason other than what they’re best used for–i.e., the viewing of fireworks–and because they find it unendurable to watch the game on television or listen in on radio.
That’s too bad, because the Sox are involved in high drama. They had their way with the Mariners, thanks in part to a tremendous performance by McDowell and a colossal home run by Bo Jackson. They opened the four-game Texas series six and a half games up on the Rangers, able to put them ten and a half back by sweeping the series. The teams split the first two games, then the Rangers won the third with one of those moments that–like the appearance of the black cat in front of the Cubs dugout in 1969 –appears poised to define the pennant race.
The Rangers’ 46-year-old ace, Nolan Ryan, hit Robin Ventura on the arm with a fastball. Ventura charged the mound. Ryan got the best of him, trapping Ventura in a headlock and rapping him on the skull with his knuckles. Ventura later described the punches as “noogies,” but he and the Sox came out hurting a lot more than that. Ventura was tossed out of the game; Ryan stayed in and shut down the Sox in short order. The next night, while Farmer and Rooney were moaning about their soon-to-be-shrinking paychecks, the Rangers rallied for two runs in the sixth on a two-out double by Ivan Rodriguez (freshly returned from a broken jaw, talk about heroic), and went on to win 7-1.
The Sox came home Friday and immediately put one of their potentially fatal weaknesses on display, losing to a left-handed pitcher, the California Angels’ Chuck Finley. The Rangers won to pull within three and a half games of the lead. Yet the next day manager Gene Lamont remained unconcerned about the Ryan incident and the apparent shift in momentum.
“Hell, everybody thinks that’s the sort of thing that’s gonna pick you up, you know,” he said, sitting in the dugout before the game. “I don’t think we need to be picked up. I just want guys to be ready to play on a daily basis, and I think they are.
“You’ve just gotta guide your players. Make sure that they’re ready to play every day. Make sure that you put the right guys out there. Make sure the guys are in the right spots. Don’t ask somebody to do something they really can’t do. If your guy can’t bunt, well, don’t ask him to bunt.”
This attitude of manage well and you’ll just naturally lead the team is straight out of the Earl Weaver textbook, and it certainly worked well for Weaver. Likewise, I’m suspicious of the sportscasters’ conventional wisdom that a good team has to get over a hump to be great. As Lamont put it, “I think there’s a point to get to as far as the league [is concerned], but I don’t think there’s any spot to get over.” When good teams finish first– Lamont cites the 1990 Pittsburgh Pirates, which he coached–it’s because they recognize they’re simply the best team. But when the best team fails to finish first–look at the Cubs of the early 70s, especially ’73–it’s because it has placed a mental hump in its way that it fails to get over. Lamont, by managing calmly and confidently and putting the right guys on the field, is trying to remove all thoughts of a hump from the team.
He put the right guy on the field Saturday night in McDowell. McDowell was not sharp at the outset; his split-finger fastball was sailing rather than dropping, and he said after the game that he was suffering from jet lag. But he survived a three-run third inning that was a lot more hard-luck than it looked in the box score (a broken-bat single to right field to lead off, followed by a trickling grounder down the first-base line that died in short right field for a triple).
“When Jack’s not throwing what he wants to throw, he battles out there,” said catcher Ron Karkovice. “He tries to make good pitches,” throw what he has in good spots. “In the early part of the game he was jamming people. Everybody was looking for the forkball and he’d throw fastballs.”
McDowell did, eventually, right himself–as he almost always does–and the Chicago bats were as usual strong in support of their ace. Karkovice himself smacked a couple of “hit me” mistakes for homers off California starter John Farrell, and the Sox led 5-4 after five innings. They sneaked across an insurance run in the seventh, while the crowd was busy doing the wave, and went on to win 6-4.
After surrendering two hits in the ninth, McDowell allowed Roberto Hernandez to get the last out, but it didn’t spoil his mood. He had moved to 18-6, the most wins in the majors (and a decision in each of the 24 games he had started, which threatens to tie some sort of record). “It’s nice to pull out of that little spin we had,” he said afterward. “We ran into some pretty good pitching the last four or five days. It’s good to get back on track.
“The last few years, we’ve been chasing, in second or third place and been chasing. You know how that end of it can be, and how frustrating it is when the other team goes out and wins. I think that makes us even more fired up to keep winning, to throw another win up, because I’m sure those other teams are looking at the scoreboard.”
But those other teams were pleased with what they saw the next day, when the Sox were once again helpless at the hands of a left-handed starter, the Angels’ ace, Mark Langston, who beat them 2-1, lowering their record to 15-20 against lefties on the season. That again cut the Sox’ lead to three and a half games over the Rangers and the Kansas City Royals. I watched at home on television, setting the remote so I could switch to MTV’s Beavis and Butt-Head Moron-a-thon between innings. I wish I could say it made Hawk and Wimpy seem smarter, but it didn’t. You can put it on the board: those ass-wipes still suck.