The White Sox' first month of play came to a glorious end in the eighth inning last Saturday with one short stroke of a borrowed bat. Chicago's Richie Zisk, a man without a contract, sent a pitch from the Indians' millionaire, Wayne Garland, over the center-field fence in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium, sewing up a 5-2 Sox victory. As the ball sailed out of the park Garland hung his head amid a cantata of boos. His record was now 0-4, and his team was at the bottom of the American League East. Meanwhile, Zisk danced around the bases, all those boos sounding like sweet music to him and the rest of the low-paid, high-flying White Sox. Zisk had added to his league-leading home-run and RBI totals, and his team remained a hair's breadth out of first place in the Western Division. "What we are," said Chicago pitcher and restaurateur Steve Stone, "is one gargantuan Rocky."
Sure, there were people who thought the White Sox had a chance at finishing first. Finishing first in baseball's race to bankruptcy court. In December 1975 the American League tried to move the Sox to Seattle, only to have the combined efforts of the late Mayor Richard Daley and owner Bill Veeck save the club for Chicago. But by this spring there were rumblings that Veeck's salvage job might be short-lived. The Sox were dangerously undercapitalized and didn't have enough talent on their roster to attract many paying customers.
Chicago had the worst record in the league last season (64-97), and began 1977 with the poorest spring-training performance (11-20) in the majors. The players who were still around from 1976 had to put on the same uniforms they wore last year, many of them inelegantly patched. Before the season opened. Shortstop Bucky Dent and his hefty salary were unloaded to the New York Yankees for $200,000 and three bodies, and Reliever Clay Carroll was dumped because of his $100,000-a-year contract.
And while mediocre teams such as Cleveland and California had attempted to improve their prospects in the standings and at the gate by spending millions on free agents, all the White Sox could afford in the re-entry draft were four players whose combined salaries add up to less than what the Indians are paying Garland. Stone had been 3-6 with a sore arm for the Cubs; Third Baseman Eric Soderholm, a former Twin, had not played since falling into a 12-foot hole in August 1975; and Shortstop Tim Nordbrook and Outfielder Royle Still-man could pool their major league stats and still only come up with one extra base hit.
But all this did not bother Chicago's indefatigable General Manager Roland Hemond, Manager Bob Lemon or Zisk. "I worked for the Braves when they drew only 296,000 in Boston in '52, and I was in on the first franchise shift to Milwaukee and the first expansion in California, so nothing fazes me," says Hemond, who has had to scout possible acquisitions by their salaries, not their baseball credentials.
Lemon does not worry about unsigned players—"If they leave we'll rent some more next year," he says—and has directed the Sox as if they were a real major league club. "Last year was a joke," says Shortstop Alan Bannister of the managing of 68-year-old Paul Richards. "He'd post the lineups 10 minutes before the game, and only then we'd find out who was playing and where. Lemon's made it a serious operation."
Chicago's inability to sign high-priced players—or to retain those it had—may have turned out to be an advantage. "Unlike the guys who the fans know got a lot of money, we're loose," says Stone. "More important, nearly everyone on this team has something to prove to someone."
After having averaged .299 and 17 homers in four seasons in Pittsburgh, Zisk felt he had proved a lot. It was just that nobody seemed to notice, because a Willie Stargell or a Dave Parker or the legend of Roberto Clemente always seemed to have the spotlight. "I asked to be traded from the Pirates because I felt like I was being buried alive," says Zisk. "I was the Joe Rudi of the National League, except that Rudi at least got into the World Series for exposure. In Chicago, it's been great. Even if I don't end up signing—and I hope I will—it's an opportunity to make a name for myself in a major city. And being Polish doesn't hurt. There's a tremendous Polish population in Chicago. I'm all for promoting the team and myself. I'm all for going along with Veeck, and I hope he goes along with me on a couple of my ideas." A typical Zisk brainstorm: one night at Comiskey Park he would like to play his accordion while teammate Lamar Johnson sings the national anthem.
Zisk's most important promotional instrument is his bat. Actually, the bats themselves are not his—because of a mixup over his order to the manufacturer, he had to borrow a few bats from Manny Sanguillen of the A's. At the end of last week Zisk was hitting .312, with 10 homers and 26 RBIs. "I like to think this is the kind of hitter I am," he says, "but I won't end up leading the league in homers." Eighteen of the Sox' first 26 games were on the road, where Zisk's statistics read .367, nine homers and 22 RBIs. At home, where it is 445 feet to dead center, they read .167, one and four. "When I was traded I was told they'd move in the fences," he says. "Then the day before the season began, Lemon told me they couldn't because of our pitching. I've already hit four balls that would've been homers almost anywhere else but were just outs here in Chicago."
Despite his poor hitting in Comiskey Park, Zisk has given the Sox exactly what they hoped for when they sent two first-rate relievers. Rich Gossage and Terry Forster, to Pittsburgh for him. The White Sox have not only been bad—one season over .500 since 1967—but they have also been vapid ever since Dick Allen departed in 1974. Zisk figures to make the Sox considerably more entertaining by putting muscle in the middle of a lineup that was so weak last season that team home-run co-leader (with the paltry total of 14) Jim Spencer topped the league in intentional walks. There was no one behind him—or ahead of him, for that matter—whom opposing pitchers feared. "Maybe you can't win the pennant," says Hemond, "but you can provide some fun." In other words, more fans might be more willing to pay to see the Sox if they were losing 10-9 instead of 3-1.
And they should be even happier to come to watch the Sox if the club keeps winning by scores like 10-9. Which is just what they have been doing with a lineup that leads the league in homers (33) and runs (5.5 a game). Zisk and four other regulars are batting over .300. Surprisingly, some of the Chicago holdovers are among the most productive hitters. In the first and third batting slots. Left-fielder Ralph Garr and Second Baseman Jorge Orta have been on base an average of 2.69 times a game. Second-year Centerfielder Chet Lemon has had a streak of 18 RBIs in 11 games. Even Catcher Jim Essian, a .237 batter until this season, has zoomed up to .292. But it has been the newcomers, Zisk and Soderholm and a man at a new position, Bannister, who have added most of the spark to the Sox.
"The Twins figured I'd never play again," says Soderholm, who after a year's layoff is batting .322 with five homers. Bannister was billed as a star shortstop when he came out of Arizona State in 1973, but the Phillies, who drafted him No. 1, already had an All-Star at that position in Larry Bowa. So Bannister was tried at five positions, then traded to Chicago after the 1975 season and shuttled around again. When the Sox decided that the unsigned Dent had to be traded late in spring training, Bannister became a regular at short for the first time since college. "It's like I'm relearning the position I grew up playing," he says, but the process has gone well. Bannister has added speed to the second spot in the order, has batted around .330 and has left no one asking for Dent. "The only difference between Al and Bucky defensively," says one pitcher who is critical of Dent's reluctance to dive for grounders, "is that Bannister's uniform has to be sent to the cleaners."
Oh, the Sox still have problems. The pitching, which was the league's worst last season, remains shaky. Ken Brett, the staffs best in '76, is recovering from arm troubles, and the Sox' erstwhile ace, knuckleballer Wilbur Wood, is just getting started after missing almost an entire year because of a knee injury. So far, Stone (1-3) has been Chicago's most effective starter—and the only one not to get heavy batting support.
But a few pitching problems are minor compared to the troubles the White Sox were expected to have. "I don't know what would have happened if we hadn't gotten off to a good start," says Hemond. "But we did, and we're already up 100,000 in attendance. We're going to be all right." Hemond may still have to trade a couple of the unsigned players, but for a month it has been fun. "Who'd have ever thought we'd be able to look at the standings and find ourselves 5½ games in front of the Angels?" asks Hemond.
While the Angels, who spent a bundle on free agents, were in sixth place last week, the only team ahead of Chicago in the Western Division was Minnesota, which resolutely refused to sign even a Tim Nordbrook. All of which would tend to lend credence to the sign Brett has had hanging in his apartment since the days when he was billed as a phenom in Boston. It reads: THE WORST CURSE IN LIFE IS UNLIMITED POTENTIAL. That's a problem the Sox certainly do not have to worry about.