Chicago fans aren’t comfortable unless they’re worried. Remember the Bulls’ first-game loss to the Los Angeles Lakers in the 1991 NBA finals, or their seven-game slugfest with the New York Knicks in 1992, or losing the first two games to the Knicks last spring, or even the feeling everyone in Chicago shared as the Phoenix Suns rallied in the sixth game of the finals this summer, before John Paxson hit his three-pointer. Those moments tend to be forgotten in the afterglow of victory–ah, we knew it all along, never doubted–but deep down they’re what we savor. Chicago fans think that sports without anxiety is like an Italian beef sandwich without hot peppers. That’s why I almost welcomed the White Sox’ erratic play the first couple of weeks in September. Suddenly, everyone I ran into was talking about the Sox. Sure, most of them were saying, “I don’t know, they’re not gonna make it,” but that’s just the Chicago fan’s way of getting involved. Panic, ergo empathy: I worry about the White Sox, therefore I am a White Sox fan.
Of course, where I was concerned it helped that I had surrendered all fear. At some point in the last month I came to accept Gene Lamont’s Earl Weaver imitation and the team’s even-keeled, almost aggravating professionalism at face value. There was Lamont on the field before the game talking about how he hadn’t expected Joey Cora to play as he has played this season; about how, as he was only too eager to point out, Craig Grebeck had been the starting second baseman when the team broke camp, before an injury in a Las Vegas exhibition game left Cora the opening-day starter; about how he hadn’t expected Cora to turn the double play the way he has or hit the way he has; about doubts that Cora, at five feet eight inches, 155 pounds (in cleats, soaking wet, just out of the shower, with a dripping Indian blanket over his shoulders), had the stamina to last through a 162-game schedule. There were Cora and Lance Johnson and Ron Karkovice and the newly returned Ivan Calderon lashing balls to all fields in batting practice, all under the watchful, sober eyes of coach Walt Hriniak, and without even a hint of the batting-practice banter and bullshit games that surround the batting cages of most September contenders. There was Jack McDowell, downplaying the losing streaks just as he downplayed the winning streaks.
Most of all, there was Frank Thomas, “the Big Hurt” (that nickname is the only truly inventive and enduring creation of Ken “Hawk” Harrelson’s career as a broadcaster). At some point in August Thomas made the transition from merely one of the best young sluggers in the game–a player whose attributes were evident to the aficionado but beyond describing to the fair-weather fan–to a first-place, hands-down Most Valuable Player candidate. He was amazing.
Thomas has become the first member of the White Sox to hit 40 home runs; his 41 at the beginning of the week had him tied for second in the majors. His 126 runs batted in led the majors. He set a team record for extra-base hits, breaking “Shoeless” Joe Jackson’s record of 74 set in 1920, and was on the way to a team record for slugging percentage (total bases per at-bat). He was named the American League’s player of the month in August, when he hit 10 homers–that, after hitting 11 homers in July. Not only had 22 of his 41 homers either tied the score or put the Sox ahead, but this was the case with 13 of his last 16. (Of course, it helps that he has hit 15 in the first inning.) As the Sox went on the road ten days ago he had hit .360 over the previous 46 games, with 40 runs scored, 19 homers, and 51 RBI; he had averaged an RBI a game for the previous 85 games. What’s more, he was trying to become the first 40-homer hitter with twice as many walks as strikeouts since Ted Kluszewski did it in 1954; and he’d become already the first hitter ever to amass 100 walks and 100 RBI in each of his first three full seasons in the majors. (Most sources cite Babe Ruth as the first and only other player to do that, but that counts from Ruth’s switch to an everyday player, in 1919; he had already seen 678 major-league at-bats as a pitcher, part-time outfielder, and pinch hitter, so his “first full season” as a hitter hardly qualifies as the beginning of his career.)
Anyone who has waded through the above statistics can see part of the problem: 40 homers is impressive to anyone, bestowing instant MVP-contender status, but the rest of Thomas’s talents are elusive. They need to be explained to the Saturday night fireworks fan. Thomas is a great player because he is huge (six feet five inches, 257 pounds, a former tight end at Auburn) and has great hand-eye coordination, but he is truly great because he is deliberate, thoughtful, considered. He will not swing at a bad pitch–he just won’t–and that makes him a special talent. I’ve written before that Thomas has a threatening manner at the plate as he awaits a pitch, but the more I watch him the more I think that’s wrong. Willie Stargell was threatening; he wasn’t as big as Thomas but he had a limber, menacing way of waving the bat at the pitch–a flick past the head, like a propeller being cranked–that combined size with strong, flexible wrists. Thomas has size to spare, but the big cheeks of his face give him a pleasant baby-fat appearance, and he keeps his forearms firm as he waves the bat; there’s something of the priest delivering last rites in Thomas’s patient readiness. Patience, in fact, is key. His entire demeanor expresses something calm, poised, and unforgiving, a tiger crouched in the reeds, with an attitude of “I’ll get you this time if you make a mistake, and if I don’t get you this time I’ll get you next time, and if I don’t get you next time I’ll get somebody else, because I’m going to get what’s mine.”
Thomas plays baseball with an almost passionless precision; in that, he reflects the strengths of this team, which has been criticized for being low on either character or characters at various points of the season. Each of his at-bats must be watched and, if possible, studied. A fan can’t walk in at the end of the game and expect to catch Thomas in his element, the way, say, one can tune in two hours after the start of a Bulls game and watch Michael Jordan. But when the fates conspire and Thomas does come up with the game on the line, there is a tension in the air to match the best of Jordan–and I offer that fully aware of what high praise it is.
My favorite at-bat during the Sox’ last road trip (which brought them home for a final series with the hot-in-pursuit Texas Rangers beginning Friday night) came in Kansas City. The Royals were up 3-2; Thomas came to the plate with one out in the seventh inning. The Royals had decided–as almost everyone has the last two weeks–that Thomas was not going to beat them. They had walked him time and again the night before; they had already walked him intentionally this night. Thomas took a pitch low and in.
Thomas has been criticized by both stupid fans and so-called experts who should know better for “walking too much.” He has been immune to such criticism; he will not swing at a bad pitch. Yet he must have been expecting a bad pitch on the next delivery; he was probably thinking another low fastball, this one probably away. That’s where it was, just off the plate, but Thomas swung anyway and lashed it down the right-field line for a double. That led to a four-run rally, and the Sox went on to win easily. The next night, he declined to bite on bad pitches and led off the top of the 11th inning with a walk. He went on to score the winning run.
So no, I haven’t been worrying about the White Sox. There have been too many prime moments in their favor, even during their erratic stretches. George Bell returned from arthroscopic knee surgery and immediately carried the team through a series in Detroit against the Tigers, homering in three straight games. When the Athletics’ Bob Welch threw behind his head during the most recent road trip, in Oakland, Bell responded by hitting one out two pitches later. Calderon returned to Chicago and won a game in Kansas City with a double down the third-base line. Young fireballers Jason Bere and Wilson Alvarez carried the team through a rough stretch when McDowell and Tim Belcher went sour.
On the other hand, there have been those rough outings of McDowell’s; after winning his 21st game he stalled, and he failed to make it out of the first inning against the Tigers. Belcher ran out of gas in the middle innings several times before pitching well last Sunday against the A’s. Most ominously, the Sox were unable to pull off the old third-and-first delayed double steal in Kansas City. Ozzie Guillen took off from first, the Royals catcher faked the throw through, then threw to third, catching Johnson off the bag. That was heads-up managing by Lamont–the kind that wins games down the stretch against would-be spoilers–but it frequently goes foul against teams that are prepared, like teams in the play-offs. It reminded me of the 1987 AL play-off game in which the Minnesota Twins catcher, Tim Laudner, caught the Detroit Tigers’ Darrell Evans off third base with a pitchout and quick throw to third baseman Gary Gaetti.
In the last few games of the pennant race and on into the play-offs and the World Series, every detail and contingency must be studied for possibilities. The Sox are a detail-oriented team; if their minds wander from time to time, that’s just to keep the fans in the game.