For a while one night last week the invincible combination of Chicago White Sox Pitcher LaMarr Hoyt and Comiskey Park looked as if it might be vulnerable. Hoyt had won his first seven decisions of the year, and he started the game with a 14-0 lifetime mark at his home field, but in the fourth inning he was losing 1-0 to the lowly Texas Rangers. And the White Sox, who had staked Hoyt to 42 runs in his first four starts, were thrashing vainly at the deliveries of Doc Medich.
Hoyt, who had allowed just nine bases on balls in 44 innings this season, seemed to be a little off. He walked one batter and fell behind another in the first. In the second, a player he was determined to handcuff took him downtown. "I read in the paper that it was Jim Sundberg's 31st birthday." Hoyt said later. "Since I wear the same number, I said, 'The one guy I'm not going to let hurt me is Sundberg.' " Unfortunately, Texas Manager Don Zimmer distracted Hoyt by complaining that he wasn't touching the rubber while throwing to Sundberg, and on Hoyt's next pitch to the Texas catcher, a sinker that didn't sink, Sundberg homered to the Bull Ring area of the leftfield stands, which is reserved for kids who are guests of White Sox DH Greg (The Bull) Luzinski.
The White Sox did score twice in the fourth inning, but where was the barrage of runs Hoyt had come to expect? The man who usually gets things going, Centerfielder-leadoff man Ron LeFlore, had struck out and popped up.
But in the fifth LeFlore did his thing. He slashed a hard grounder by the third baseman and wound up on second when the leftfielder slipped on the wet grass. There followed a deluge of White Sox hits and Ranger gaffes. In the end, Hoyt beat Texas 10-2, giving up only five hits. Strictly routine, except that he had set a White Sox record with his 13th straight win over two seasons and had a shot at two other marks. The American League record of 17 is shared by Baltimore's Dave McNally (1968-69) and Cleveland's John Allen (1936-37); the major league record of 24 was set by the Giants' Carl Hubbell (1936-37).
In the tumultuous White Sox clubhouse, a radio broadcast of the game highlights was playing. "We're still scoring!" yelled Pitcher Steve Trout. "That's Hoyt for you." "Sign him up for the Roller Derby," chimed in the venerable lefthander Jerry Koosman. "It's just like when I was with the Phillies and Steve Carlton was pitching," said Luzinski. "You'd get all fired up. You knew that the way he was pitching he'd keep the game close, and sooner or later you'd bust out."
Hoyt was pitching well enough to win much closer games. At week's end his 8-0 record and his 1.53 earned run average were tops in baseball. And, oh, has he been versatile. Hoyt started the season in the bullpen, winning three times in his first five appearances, and became a starter on April 27 when Manager Tony LaRussa decided that rookie Salome Barojas gave him more than enough relief. Before stopping Texas last week, Hoyt whipped Milwaukee 13-2 and 11-2, and Detroit 10-3 and 8-5 in his four starts.
A 6'3" 225-pounder from South Carolina with a laid-back attitude and an occasional weight problem, Hoyt maintains the streak is no big deal. "When I lose, I'll just start another one," he says. Nonetheless, he has taken to letting his ample hair and beard grow. "Everyone's a little superstitious," he says.
Hoyt, 27, was 9-3 in each of the last two seasons, but he threw too much middle relief to accumulate double-figure wins or multitudes of saves, the prize statistics in pitching. "You are the best 26-6 lifetime secret in baseball today," a fan wrote him. "You are so underrated it is crazy. You pitch like Tom Seaver, Don Sutton and Lefty Carlton put together."
But opponents disagree as to exactly what makes Hoyt so successful. "He changes speeds," says Sundberg. "Lots of different pitches," says Texas Outfielder John Grubb.
Both are right. A master of hiding what he intends to throw, the high-kicking Hoyt is effective with his fastball, slider, curve, sinker or changeup. He throws three different hummers, the best one being a "cut fastball" that tails away from righthanded hitters. With all that plus an occasional changeup and—thanks to an off-season conditioning program—no elbow soreness, Hoyt has become a pitcher batters would just as soon not have to hit against.
"He's happy in his role as a starter," says his catcher, Carlton Fisk, "and that makes him more solid. A starter knows when he's going to work, so his approach is more structured. LaMarr can zero in his thought and concentration. When you do that, you can correct one mistake at a time. It all adds up to better control, the most important difference in his pitching this year."
Hoyt has always had an exceptional memory. "I remember everything I've ever pitched to anybody," he says matter-of-factly. "I faced Randy Bass twice in the minors and remembered that he liked it low and inside," When Bass, now with Texas, pinch-hit last week, Hoyt threw him low-and-away and struck him out.
"When I was in the minors," says Hoyt, "my pitching coach, Hoyt Wilhelm, told me to figure out what I had going for me on a particular night and stay with it. That was excellent advice. When I get a big lead, though, I can also experiment or hold back on pitches. A couple of pitches were working so well against the Rangers that I put them on a shelf around the fifth. I'll be going down to Texas; no reason to let everything out of the bag at once."
Hoyt also has learned to exploit an uncommon sense of touch. "The balls are never perfectly round," he says. "I throw mostly fastballs, but sometimes you have to go with what's given to you. A ball with a high seam is easy to grip: I throw curves. A high mark on the narrow part: slider. A generally uneven ball: sinker. Some people think too much; the game's not that hard."
The White Sox have found the going pretty good even when Hoyt isn't pitching. At week's end, having won 15 of 20 games in May, they were 16 percentage points ahead of California in the AL West and clearly much stronger than in 1981, when they contended for the first half and collapsed in the second.
The biggest day-in, day-out difference has been LeFlore, a .246 hitter last year but among the league leaders this season at .318. In spring training LeFlore approached the club's new batting coach, the celebrated Charley Lau, who told him to move back from the plate, change the position of his hands and transfer his body weight. As a result, LeFlore is pulling pitches for the first time in his career.
In the front office much credit is due General Manager Roland Hemond, a onetime 115-pound high school shortstop who is so affable that even agents like him. Hemond signed Lau and strengthened the lineup by trading for Detroit Leftfielder Steve Kemp and Seattle First Baseman Tom Paciorek. Typically, the two were scouted for more than just their on-field talents. Kemp (hitting .285) has modeled the Sox' giveaway jackets for a TV promotion. And wrapped in a black cape, Paciorek (.331) touted Bat Day with a Bela Lugosi routine. "Just theeenk of it," he says with a leer, "thousands of bats flying around Comiskey Park!"
With the addition of Paciorek and Kemp, the White Sox lineup is so deep that .322-hitting Shortstop Bill Almon is batting ninth. So what if Paciorek, Almon and Third Baseman Jim Morrison have defensive shortcomings; Second Baseman Tony Bernazard turns the pivot so deftly that the White Sox lead the league with 52 double plays. Pitching? Hoyt, Koosman, Dennis Lamp (4-0) and the latest Mexican marvel, Ernesto Escarrega, can start or relieve; Britt Burns (5-2) is a Carlton-like lefty; and the team's other Super Mex, Barojas, has 10 saves.
The White Sox have been able to win even while playing badly. The night after Hoyt won No. 8, LeFlore let a fly ball drop in front of him, setting up a four-run Texas inning, and after that Chicago had to scratch. The White Sox finally won 6-5 in the ninth on an infield single by third-string Catcher Marv Foley with men on first and second. When the ball got away from the shortstop, Jim Hairston, a 30-year-old pinch runner who wears tinted glasses, chugged in from second. "It's still May and everybody's contributing," LaRussa chortled.
The Chicago organization comes at you in a variety of ways, too. There are not one but two electronic scoreboards, and not one but two mascots, Ribbie and Roobarb. While the matrix board does cartoons and stats, the Orwellian Diamond Vision flashes instant replays and features, and pans the stands in search of attractive women—the fans holler, the beauties blush.
The White Sox go to great lengths to keep their fans amused. A script for each game carries specific instructions for the P.A. announcer, organist, mascots, promotions director and scoreboard operator. The 7:10 p.m. notation for Diamond Vision before Hoyt's start was: "If no band: This Week in Baseball, musical piece, something; shots of fans in stands, something to keep fans totally entertained. The board should never be black, if possible."
The highlight of the nightly Sox show is the seventh-inning stretch, during which a selected fan stands in the broadcast booth, mike in hand, and leads the singing of Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Among those chosen have been 90-year-old Al Gielow and 8-year-old Mike Kavanaugh. On the job last week was Dan Nono, a bulky, 32-year-old microphone salesman with a stentorian voice. "I was asked if I could sing, and I said I studied under Pavarotti," said Nono. "I call myself the Advocate General. I'm like a superfan, except with more quality."
Fireworks nights—the idea of previous owner Bill Veeck—are but one example of the club's 24 different special promotions. In other words, show business. And no one in the White Sox cast is happier than Hoyt. Last week he was asked how he was taking his new celebrity. "It's fun," he replied. "That's why we're at the ball park, to have fun. Throw the ball, hit the ball—it's all fun."