The line that divides the past and the future is West 35th Street in Chicago. Or so it is for the White Sox, whose inglorious history is baked into the giant white birthday cake that is 80-year-old Comiskey Park. The future is across the street at the new Comiskey Park, an elegant work-in-progress already decorated in graffiti with the words GO CUBS.
And the present? That's it in the crosswalk, dashing through traffic: The White Sox, 1990 version, are a team on the move. In the American League West, the division that the South Siders perennially finish on the south side of, the Sox, at week's end, had sprinted to a 20-13 record, second behind the world champion Oakland Athletics. (This will come as news to many in Chicago, including one member of the Sox bullpen.) The team's swift start may or may not have to do with the mere four months of baseball that remain at the condemned Comiskey. It has everything to do with baseball's youngest roster, the one that will fill programs for years to come at the new park, which opens on Opening Day of next season.
But what of this season? How exactly have the White Sox, who won 69 games to finish last in 1989, been beating the double-knit pants off their betters? "To be honest," says designated hitter Ron Kittle, "I'd have probably bet the house that we wouldn't be."
Well, you are. What of it?
"I'm as lost as you are," says 22-year-old reliever Scott Radinsky.
"You guys are what, 19-10?" he was asked last week.
"I have no idea what our record is," Radinsky replied.
"I love it," says Sox general manager Larry Himes. "I love that! He doesn't know what our record is! These young guys don't know we were picked for last. They come up and think they'll win every night. I've been here four years, and it's the first time the feeling is we expect to win."
Himes is regularly receiving glad-handers in his box above Comiskey these days. Last summer he would have been wise to wear a side arm to the park. On July 29 he traded beloved rightfielder-DH Harold Baines (and throw-in infielder Fred Manrique) to the Texas Rangers for second baseman Scott Fletcher, rightfielder Sammy Sosa and minor league pitcher Wilson Alvarez. The fans revolted—or, more accurately, those few still following the White Sox in July put up what fuss they could. Now, however, while Baines, 31, was struggling with a .228 average in Texas, Sosa, 21, was revealing himself to be the prototype of the White Sox player of the '90s: young, fast and nearly flawless afield. It is almost incidental that he was batting .271 through Sunday as the Sox leadoff hitter. "We knew he was very good," says Himes. "We didn't know it would come so quickly."
He should have. The lineup that Himes and his staff have assembled does everything quickly. At week's end, shortstop Ozzie Guillen, he of the .351 batting average, and centerfielder Lance Johnson (.294) had eight stolen bases apiece. Sosa had stolen six. Even 42-year-old catcher Carlton Fisk had three. Only Rickey Henderson's A's had stolen more in the American League. Though Henderson is not exactly looking over his shoulder, he may have raised an eyebrow on May 16, when Chicago leftfielder Ivan Calderon, all 218 power-hitting pounds of him, swiped three bases to match his career high of 10, fourth best in the league.
"Right now I steal a lot of bases," says Calderon, polishing off a pregame chicken breast before breaching a frightening confidence. "[Manager] Jeff Torborg gives me the green light to run whenever I want."
Calderon, who after Sunday's 3-2 loss to the red-hot Detroit Tigers was hitting .308 with four homers and 23 RBIs, will tell you that his transformation came in the off-season, when he shed 12 pounds on a daily diet of basketball and sprinting on the beach near his home in Luiza, Puerto Rico. Never mind that he could have gotten similar results by forswearing his jewelry—it's the effort that's important here.
"Even when we were losing last year we had a hell of an attitude," says the bubbling Torborg, in his second season managing the White Sox. "The guys never thought about our record. They didn't think about the standings." After last year's All-Star break, Chicago played one game over .500, giving rise to hopeful speculation over the winter. "We knew we'd be much better because of improved team speed and defense," Torborg says. "Those are constants. They'll be there every night."
In '89, the White Sox had the second-worst defense in the league, committing 151 errors—nearly one a game. As of Sunday, they had just 21 in 1990. Vanna White turns more E's on a slow night. "We're better man-by-man defensively than we've been the last three years," says Himes, who set his mind to finding better gloves to flank the brilliant Guillen.
The Sox now vote on a defensive play of the week, and Guillen won in a landslide in the most recent tally. In a 4-2 win over Baltimore on May 16, the Orioles' Randy Milligan hit a shot off Fletcher's collarbone; Guillen barehanded the ball and, in a single motion, touched second and submarined the ball to first to complete the double play.
Fletcher, who was a shortstop with the Sox from 1983 to '85, before he was traded to Texas, snugly fits the team's new profile too. He is batting .167, but because he wields a heat-seeking glove, he has started every game. Rodney McCray was batting .180 for the Double A Birmingham Barons when he was promoted to the Sox on April 30 as a late-inning, stopgap centerfielder. That night, with two men on in the 12th inning against the Rangers, McCray made a game-saving grab, bolting crosstown to catch a Ruben Sierra drive in deep left center. Chicago went on to win 5-4 in the 13th.
Like McCray, third basemen Robin Ventura and Craig Grebeck also spent 1989 in Chicago's suddenly stellar farm system. The organization won championships in three minor leagues last season—a feat matched in the last 20 years only by the farm systems of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1970 and the New York Yankees in '80 and '82. "I won't tell you we'll be in the pennant race," says Guillen. "But in the next five years...."
The average age on the Sox is 26 years, six months, nearly a year younger than the Seattle Mariners, baseball's next-youngest team. "One reason the guys play so hard here," says Kittle, "is so they can make it home before curfew." Of course, if the American League allows Chicago to suit up 67-year-old Minnie Minoso at Comiskey later this summer, that average age will make a hefty leap. The idea is to give Minoso the opportunity to play in his sixth decade, but the league appears to be balking.
The Sox trot out Minoso, a star turned goodwill ambassador, and are accused of exploiting him and the game. The Cubs, meanwhile, constantly invoke the name of Ernie Banks, a star turned goodwill ambassador, and the fans go bonkers. The Cubs play in regal Wrigley; the Sox play in dilapidated Comiskey. The Cubs, 18-19 in the National League East through Sunday, are averaging nearly 23,000 fans—8,000 more than the Sox. On May 15, White Sox reliever Bobby Thigpen reached 100 saves at an earlier age, 26, than anyone except Bruce Sutter. Still, Thigpen walks the streets undisturbed. Last season Mitch Williams saved 36 games for the Cubs, and the Wild Thing joined Air and Sweetness as household nicknames. "No one ever talks about the White Sox," says Guillen, "and I don't blame 'em. This has been a last-place team. Who cares about the White Sox?"
"It's brought up all the time here that the Cubs are more popular," says Thigpen, who with 10 saves anchors the league's best bullpen. "But it's up to us to get people to watch."
Enter Rads, on a mountain bike. Radinsky, who can be called Bill Veeck's posthumous present to the South Side, pedals only to day games now, having decided, after a few scary trips, against negotiating the uncertain terrain of the crime-ridden neighborhoods near Comiskey at night. A surfing buff and 1986 graduate of Simi Valley (Calif.) High, Radinsky is the former lead singer of Scared Straight, an amp-busting punk band that played dives around the nation before Rads discovered he might make a lot of money "throwin' strikes."
Radinsky doesn't know it, but this spring he joined an elite group of pitchers—the last being Dwight Gooden—to make the majors after spending the entire previous season in A ball. Nor is he aware that at week's end his ERA was 1.88. He has no doubt forgotten that he retired George Brett twice to end consecutive games against the K.C. Royals. There was, of course, that one at bat in Cleveland—a single by five-time All-Star Keith Hernandez—that lingered in Rads's mind all the way to the dugout, where he asked, "Who's the Mexican?"
Says Thigpen, "We were 11-4, 3½ games behind Oakland, and Scott says out of the blue, 'What are we in, last place?' He's telling the truth. He doesn't know."
"By the way," says an image-conscious White Sox executive in an unsolicited remark about a recently published rumor that had Radinsky winning a stripping contest at a bar, "that never happened. He couldn't have even been in a bar in Schaumburg last Friday night. He was here, working out."
The other inscrutable resident of Comiskey's notorious centerfield bullpen—"It's a dungeon, either hot and wet or cold and wet," says Thigpen—is middle reliever Barry Jones. As of Sunday, Jones was undefeated and had six wins, one behind league leader Dave Stewart. "Talk about a guy in the right place at the right time," says Jones. "Every time I come in, the guys score. I know they don't like me this much."
Jones, 27, is in his fifth season in the majors, the first three spent with the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had amassed 11 lifetime wins through last year, and spent most of '89 on the disabled list, recovering from surgery to remove bone chips in his right elbow. "It's very gratifying," he says of his and the team's overhaul as he surveys the walk-in closet the Sox call a clubhouse. "Look around," he says. "Last year there were a lot of sad faces. It's so good now to see a sparkle in the eyes."
Since winning 99 games and the AL West under Tony La Russa in 1983, the Sox have played 74 games below .500. They have had three managers, three general managers and almost as many players as fans in the stands. "The people who have really suffered are the secretaries and office people," said Himes while watching Chicago fall behind 1-0 to the Orioles last Thursday. "They were the ones getting their brains beaten out every day all those years."
The phone rang in Himes's box. It was White Sox owner Eddie Einhorn, calling from out of town. As Himes and Einhorn chatted away the sixth inning, Chicago put runners on first and third for Kittle. "Eddie!" Himes shrieked. "Kittle got a base hit! Johnson scores! Oh no, Kittle's picked off first. No! They threw it away! He's safe! Two-one Sox!"
The Sox's 7-3 win was their sixth straight, the third in a row in which they had come from behind. They swept Baltimore out of Chicago to improve their season record at Comiskey to 15-3, the best home record in baseball, before dropping three games to Detroit over the weekend, betrayed by two members of the mediocre starting pitching staff, Melido Perez and Jack McDowell.
Still, Kittle's two home runs in the Detroit series set off scoreboard explosions and called to mind the roof-shots of his Rookie of the Year season, '83. "This place would rock," he says. "Teams hated to come in and have to hear 'Na-na-hey-hey.' " Kittle will miss the old Comiskey. Among White Sox players, he is in the minority. "I love Comiskey. It's my first big league ballpark," says Guillen. "But it has to go."
"I'll be more happy in the other stadium," says Calderon. "I can get my home runs." He believes, without any evidence whatsoever, that the wind always blows in at old Comiskey and that at new Comiskey, where home plate faces in a different direction, the wind will always blow out.
Donn Pall knows better. He gets to watch most games from the bullpen, from where he is occasionally called on to pitch in relief. A Sox fanatic all his life, Pall grew up in Evergreen Park, a 20-minute drive from Comiskey. He is a delightful person who only speaks ill of the Cubs and who hates Wrigley Field with every fiber of his being. "I know I'm going to end up there someday," he says. "That would not be good."
Pall has suffered. "Seventy-seven and '83 were exciting," he says. "Before and after? Nothing." He was 17 on July 12, 1979, when he brought a record to Disco Demolition Night and got in to the ballpark for 98 cents. He felt the heat as Comiskey's centerfield went up in a bonfire of bad music between games of a twinight doubleheader. He was miffed when the ensuing riot forced the Sox to forfeit the nightcap. "I was one of about three people who actually wanted to see the second game," he says.
Pall left town only to tour the minors. He played at Birmingham in 1987, the year the Barons' Rickwood Field was condemned, and by all preseason forecasts, so was the team. "But we had a scrappy team," he says. "A lot like this one."
The Barons won a championship in that final season in the rickety park. "So I believe," says Pall. "It can happen."