To almost everyone's surprise but the owner's, the Chicago White Sox are challenging for the lead in the American League West, and they are doing it with a cast composed almost exclusively of DHs and lhps—designated hitters and lefthanded pitchers—a collection of castoffs and the grateful waivered, players whose minor league way stations read like the bus itineraries for a country-and-western band. Yet this club of snips and snails and puppy dog tails (and one left-handed-throwing catcher) also has a handful of sugar-and-spice phenoms, who are the luckiest, most spoiled of players: so fortunate to have come straight from Nowhere without having had to waste summers riding buses.
This mèlange is presided over by a wounded—but not reformed—old rebel, the owner, and a well-chiseled young member of the Florida bar, the manager: two self-professed "scufflers" who are divided by age but united in spirit. Somewhere, too, there is a Wizard of Waxahachie. And so, considering the modest attributes of the rest of the AL West, there is no reason why the Chisox might not just as well win the thing.
Which would be fine with Bill Veeck, 66 now and resembling a wise old rabbit. "I can't see, I can't hear, and I can't walk, even on my good leg, but otherwise I'm fine," he said the other day, lobbing an empty beer mug to the bartender. "Sooner or later all the lame and the halt and the blind end up with us because they know they'll fit in."
The pale hose Some would say, do say, Pale Hose. Of all the sobriquets of the diamond, nothing approaches Pale Hose for its lyric honesty. Perennially lacking, the Pale Hose are always a team of thrift and reality, like the world about them on the South Side. Not for nothing is Comiskey Park known as "the biggest saloon in Chicago." Under the stands it is like a midway at a county fair.
Unlike Wrigley Field, where the wind wafts short fly balls over the ivied walls, there have never been any cheap home runs in Comiskey Park—or Kaminskey Park, as it is usually pronounced in the immediate area. The best Chisox teams were known as The Hitless Wonders, and the only pennant to fly on the South Side in the last 60 years was for the 1959 Go-Go Sox, when Veeck owned the team the first time, before he was supposed to go away and die.
The incumbent Sox, managed by Tony LaRussa, LL.B., 35, who recently dislocated his left shoulder in a donnybrook against Milwaukee, and led by downycheeked southpaws, have more hitting than usual, but there is a lot of grousing that they can't possibly win with their ragtag infield. At least at home, however, this is a tempest in a teapot. Like most young flamethrowers, the Chisox throw stuff that rises, and when hit, the ball goes well out over the infield toward the vast centerfield expanses, where Chet Lemon runs it down.
Neverthless, you have your nitpickers. On the air a few days ago, Sox TV-radio announcer Jim Piersall, who doubles as a coach (what the hell, the traveling secretary pitches BP and the media coordinator inspects the ladies' rooms), allowed that "we have the worst infield in baseball." Piersall unequivocally denies making this statement. He says his broadcast partner, the indefatigable Harry Caray, was the one who made that assessment. All he ever said, Piersall avers, is that "every ground ball is an adventure." Case dismissed.
The most famous member of the Pale Hose inner cordon is 5'5" Harry Chappas. But he is an irregular. The starting second baseman is Jim Morrison, a converted third baseman from the Phillies' chain. Greg Pryor, much maligned, the thinking man's Bucky Dent, is the shortstop. I Don't Know is on third. Lamar Johnson is the first baseman. Recently, he missed two games because of a chest rash, which is being treated with applications of Crisco.
Johnson is an aberration even on this odd team, a senior player who actually came up through the system. At 29, Johnson is something of an oldtimer; only Wayne Nordhagen, the hefty righthanded DH, is over 30, and he is only 31. "In the locker room I look around, and I still don't feel like it's the major leagues," says Richard Dotson, the lone righthanded starter, a 21-year-old rookie. "Then one day I had to face Tony Perez—I grew up in Cincinnati with Tony Perez!—and that's when I finally felt like I really was in the majors."
So Johnson, a large, gentle man, with the smoothest of swings—"I just lay back and use my hands"—has fallen into the leadership role that might normally be expected to go to Lemon, the team's most complete player. Lemon is only 25, though, and a withdrawn and sensitive soul. A Jehovah's Witness, he avoided taking part in the players' strike vote, and often he even goes to an early batting practice by himself so that he can return to a quiet clubhouse and study the Bible.
This behavior is perceived as standoffish by a few players, nettling them, but the Chisox scufflers are hardly a team that can afford finger-pointing. Dissension and backbiting can only surface as virtues with the well off—early Oakland, the Martin Yankees. Chicago waffled last year under the uncertain direction of Manager Don Kessinger, the former Cubbie who was hired in the forlorn hope that he might win over a few North Side fans; the players also got the wrong signals from a couple of self-centered veterans, since dispatched. Every team has a persona of its own, and LaRussa, a goal-oriented scuffler, could show the way for this crowd. Pro sports is a high-low poker game now, and the trick is to gather a team that knows it is either 1) overpowering or 2) undervalued—witness the last two American League champions, the Yankees and the Orioles.
Bruce Kimm is a catcher who got trapped in the Detroit system. He was too smart for his own good, and the Tigers preferred to keep him Triple A, nurturing their young pitchers. The White Sox drafted him to look after their kids, to call their games, to show them when to bring it in tight, to intimidate. "I collect guys like this," Veeck says. The other night, with a runner on second, even with the count 3-2, Kimm, at bat, gave himself up, grounding to the right and moving the runner up. The scufflers knew what he had done. When he got back to the dugout, they got up for him. As if on cue, Pryor, the next batter, produced the sacrifice fly.
Ed Farmer is suddenly the most effective reliever in the league—three wins, eight saves. But he has been in seven organizations. He made the majors as long as nine years ago, a 21-year-old kid ordered to bring heat. His arm went, and by 1975 he couldn't win at Union Laguda, Mexico, the last stop.
Farmer quit the game and was operated on. It was his wife, Barbara, who made him get back in shape. "She told me she'd given up her career as an actress to have our baby, and she wasn't going to watch me give up mine when I didn't have an excuse," he says. Out driving, she would stop the car and make him run home. Farmer taught himself a curve, and decided he had the disposition to be a reliever. "I told a kid on this team who isn't playing much about my past," Farmer says. "I told him: you can't ever look back at what you were."
As recently as 1977, Outfielder Bobby Molinaro was ready to quit and become a dealer in Vegas. He had a lead on a solid $20,000 job at the Golden Nugget. He had been knocking around the Tiger farms since 1968, when he had been a certified phenom, hailed as the successor to Al Kaline. In the end, only a complicated paperwork error and the new free-agent laws freed him for a chance at the majors. He gave Chicago one good year, but last spring Kessinger sent him back to the minors, to Iowa. He just dug in again and hit .328.
"When I was down at Iowa last year, Thad Bosley [now a Sox outfielder] used to ask me, 'How do you do this, Bobby? How do you play like this after all these years?' " Molinaro said. "I don't know. I give so much to this game. I never got married. How is any woman going to understand? All the moving around. Lots of times I couldn't sleep. I had to take pills. And all I ever wanted was just the one thing: a chance to fail up here. It's taken me 12 years to get here, playing every day. The great thing is...." He stopped, scratching his head. Sometimes ballplayers really do use in speech the stock phrases they have read for so long in the sports pages; life follows clichè. Molinaro said, "What's great is, I know that what I do every day is going to dictate how well this club fares this year."
At present, Bobby Molinaro is hitting .364, fourth best in the league, and his team is two games out.
The portsiders While it is an accident that the Chisox ended up with so many lefthanders, the wealth of good young pitchers is no coincidence. When Veeck took over the club in '76, he lacked a number of advantages, notably money and athletes. Consciously, then, the decision was made to draft pitchers, because, as every mother's son knows, pitching is 75% of baseball. Or 80% or 90%. Only last year did the organization—headed by the cagey Roland Hemond—turn to selecting the "skill positions" up the middle. The result is that the pitchers are a couple of years ahead of the hitters, the best of whom are in Double A on what is known in the trade as a "prospect club"—at league-leading Glens Falls, N.Y. in the Eastern League.
The other reason the Chisox sought out pitchers was that Veeck had hired the Wizard of Waxahachie, or Paul Richards, as he is sometimes known. Richards, 71, is a master at developing pitchers, most prominently the fabled Kiddie Corps of Baltimore, which he managed 20 years ago: Pappas, Walker, Estrada, Barber, Fisher. The vu in Chi is overwhelmingly dèjà. Richards specializes in teaching the slip pitch, which is what you call a change-up if you are a very good wizard. Richards also has a name for people. He calls everybody "boy," including the venerable Veeck. He scares the wits out of folks.
Last Thursday, Chicago's top new portsider, a 6'5", 20-year-old named Britt Burns (1.62 ERA, 3-2, six walks in 39 innings), was messing around with the Royals, mixing it up, moving it in and out, dropping down occasionally for a lefthander, but poor LaRussa was fretting, pacing in the dugout, as Burns threw 110...120...130 pitches. Richards was 1,000 miles away, but LaRussa could feel his glare. Boy, don't you let my boys throw too many pitches.
Burns, from Birmingham, proudly wears a gold chain that reads HOSS, which is what his teammates have taken to calling him. All his life he blew the ball past everybody, and now he loves to get cute. "When we were playing the Yankees the other day," he says, "Bruce called for a change-up on 3-2, and I couldn't believe it." He struck the guy out, swinging, although he hasn't the foggiest notion who it was. "I never was a fan," Hoss says. "I knew about Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle and those old guys, but the modern players, I never knew them. But, boy, I was pleased. I thought about that: I'd heard about guys who could throw the change on 3-2, and here I had thrown a change on 3-2."
Ross Baumgarten, 24, is home, a Chicago boy. He is a Cubs fan, and before coming to work at Kaminskey Park the other day, he went up to Wrigley Field to see the Cubbies. You know, they play days. Baumgarten's brother is a vice-president at Paramount.
Steve Trout is 22, the ninth child (of 10) of Dizzy Trout, who, his name notwithstanding, was a righthander. Dizzy was the first employee Veeck hired (in public relations) when he originally took over the Sox in '58. The elder Trout bought an abandoned convent to hold his brood, but he died when Steve was only 14, and the son was molded less by his father, the pitcher he became, than by two older brothers, a professor and nutritionist.
The two aging portsiders are Richard (Tex) Wortham, 26, and Ken Kravec, 28. Wortham, the team's player representative, is the only father among the southpaws. Scholarly-looking in horn rims, he belies his cool appearance; he is a thrower. Kravec, a newlywed, is an assortment pitcher, and he was the pick of the litter from last season, when his record was 15-13. Wortham was 14-14, Baumgarten 13-8, Trout 11-8.
But there is an old pitching axiom that Earl Weaver likes to quote: Six is too many, 12 not enough. Which means that when things are going bad a dozen pitchers can't get a man out; when the going's good, half your staff is superfluous. Late in spring training, LaRussa walked out to Wortham, who was running in the outfield, and told him he was sorry but he was sending him to the bullpen. Wortham had won 14 games in his first full major league season—"Future stardom for the hard-throwing southpaw," declares the press guide—but now here was Dotson, only 21, and Burns, 20. Wortham, 26, reminded one of a line F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote right after he got out of college: "She was a faded but still lovely woman of 27."
Last week, when Trout had a little shoulder soreness, LaRussa left him out of the rotation and brought Wortham in for his first start. He pitched a three-hit shutout against Kansas City for seven innings, and Farmer topped it off. Final score: 2-0. Six is too many. There are bullpens. There are options.
The Roomies Thad Bosley is 23, tall, swift, strong. Since 1977 he has had 532 at bats in the majors, hitting almost .300, but has never played a full season. When he first came up, to California, the general manager told him he would be the Angel centerfielder for 15 years. He was traded to Chicago a few months later. Last spring Kessinger assured Bosley he would be a regular, but he sat him on the bench for a month and then shipped him to Iowa. Bosley couldn't understand. He hit a weak .264. "How do you do it, Bobby? How?" he asked Molinaro.
It is a month into the season now, and Bosley is hitting .292—but has only 24 at bats. Harold Baines has 90 at bats, and he's a rookie, barely 21. Everybody gathers round just to watch Baines take batting practice. "Just like Billy Williams," says Orlando Cepeda, the Sox' roving batting instructor, whom Veeck hired after he was released from jail after being convicted for importing and possessing marijuana. Baines' back foot is up on its toe, a dancer's pivot. "Oliva did that some," somebody says. "Earl Battey," says another. Jim Frey, the Royals' manager, watches one swing, then another. He spits. "What's it matter?" he says. "I seen enough. He could hit with one leg up in the air. The kid hits." He's lefthanded, just like Bosley. And a right-fielder, just like Bosley.
Also, they share an apartment, Bosley and Baines. Bosley comes home after sitting, again, and tries to calm himself, playing the flute or the piano.
"Somehow this is good for me," says Bosley. "Some September, maybe this one, they're going to turn to me, and I'll remember this, what I'm going through now, and I'm going to be smokin' when it counts. And they're going to see it then, and they'll say it: Bosley is a gamer."
Baines is from St. Michaels, Md., a hamlet down on the Eastern Shore, tucked between chicken farms and oyster beds. Chicago, he suggests, is a big, strange place. "Thad helps me, and looks after me. He calls me his little brother."
Upstairs, in the club saloon is where Veeck makes his office, where he chucked the bartender his empty mug. He was a phenom, too. Cleveland, 1948: age 34, a major league attendance record. He says, "When I tried to buy this club back, there were owners who said I was too old, that the game had passed me by. They'd been in baseball for two years, and they were tellin' me my game had passed me by. Oh, but now. We've got the best farm in baseball, and we're close to having the best team, and...I'm going to stick it to them."
The bartender brought another draft over. "Excuse me," Bill Veeck said, "I shouldn't get emotional."
The fact is, nobody has ever won anything with phenoms. It is how your exphenoms respond to themselves that tells every tale on the diamond.