For a few giddy moments last Friday night it seemed the Chicago White Sox were Cameroon, Buster Douglas and Cinderella all rolled into one and multiplied by the 40,417 people rocking old Comiskey Park. Just a few more outs, and the Pale Hose would assume sole possession of first place in the American League West from the defending world champion Oakland Athletics. Up on the scoreboard in centerfield the message read: DO WE BLOW THE BOARD? As the new legion of White Sox fans murmured yes, the scoreboard exploded in the pyrotechnics usually reserved for home-team home runs.
Then everything misfired. The coach turned into a pumpkin, the footmen into mice, and the White Sox into the team that finished last in the division last year. It was as if the Sox had seen a message that read: DO WE BLOW THE GAME? The A's scored four runs, just like that, in the eighth to take a 5-4 lead and remind everyone that they are, after all, the world champs. So instead of being in first place, Chicago remained in second, two games behind Oakland.
The next night the White Sox slipped another game back as the A's rode a first-inning TD and PAT to a 12-3 victory. Then on Sunday, the Sox were left drooping around the ankles, four games back, when the Athletics came from behind again to beat them 5-2. The four-game series, which had begun with such high hopes and a 3-2 Chicago win, was history; and so, at least temporarily, are the Sox. Well, Chicago, it was great fun. But it was just one of those things.
"They win round one," said Chicago coach Joe Nossek. "We'll just have to find some smoother stones to put in the slingshot next time." (See David vs. Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:49.)
Though the baseball season is only in its fourth inning, so to speak, this promised to be a fascinating series, and not just because the division lead was at stake. The Athletics and White Sox were, after all, the two best teams in the majors—or at least the teams with the two best records (Oakland's 39-19, Chicago's 36-20). They boasted two of the top three hitters in the American League: A's leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson, at .335, and Sox ninth-place batter Ozzie Guillen, at .342. They had the two best and deepest bull-pens in the league, and their ace relievers, Dennis Eckersley of Oakland and Bobby Thigpen of Chicago, shared the league lead (with Cleveland's Doug Jones) in saves, with 20 each. Their managers, Tony La Russa of the A's and Jeff Torborg of the White Sox, are both cut from the same high-quality cloth; shoot, they're probably one-two in the league in vocabulary.
There was, of course, a great underdog angle to the showdown: the world champs versus the team that finished seventh, a mere 29½ games back, in 1989. The White Sox have been so astounding (SI, May 28) that if their losing streak grows to 17 games, they could still be considered a pleasant surprise at .500. And there isn't one Sox who's ahead of an Athletic in the All-Star balloting. But here Chicago was, in mid-June, keeping pace with what many baseball people consider the best team of this generation.
If the A's are the Bash Brothers, then the White Sox are, well, a team in search of an identity. Over the years the Chisox have had some catchy nicknames: the Hit-less Wonders of 1906, the Black Sox of '19, the Go-Go Sox of '59, the South Side Hit Men of 77, the Winnin' Ugly team of '83. But there's no nickname for the '90 Sox just yet, though Bernie Lincicome, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, offered a couple of suggestions last week: the Young and the Faceless, and Mutts and Jeff.
Even without a nickname, the Sox have captured the attention of a city starving for a winner. Actually, starving is too weak a description, considering that Chicago hasn't had a World Series winner since 1917, even though it fields two teams. Not too long ago the Comiskey Park ticket office was so idle that it had a sign in front of its one open advance-sale window that read: RING BELL FOR SERVICE. Last week, four windows were available to handle advances, and the lines sometimes stretched out to 35th Street. The four-game series against Oakland drew 146,952, or almost 15% of last season's attendance of 1,045,651. This season has been a nice going-away present for 80-year-old Comiskey, which next year will be replaced by the ballpark under construction across the street.
Another intriguing aspect of the series was the return to Chicago of La Russa, the third-winningest manager in White Sox history (522 wins from 1979 to '86) and a man who still maintains great affection for Comiskey and its fans. "I'm a little sad coming in here for the second-to-last time," he said. "I'll miss this park." As for the fans, La Russa said, "The last few years we'd come in here, and they'd be sitting with their heads down. Now they're sitting straight up. I feel great for them." La Russa paused and, not wishing to appear too sentimental, added, "When these games are over, though, I want them to feel like——."
Oddly enough, Chicago was the hot team coming into the series, having just concluded a 5-1 road trip, while Oakland came to Comiskey as the A minuses—minus Jose Canseco, who's on the 15-day disabled list with a bad back. "We're not exactly awesome right now, so I don't think we're in any position to teach the White Sox a lesson this weekend," said Eckersley. "We're just trying to keep our heads above water."
Both teams tried to downplay the importance of the four games, though Sox catcher Carlton Fisk did say, "It's going to be a great experience for a lot of our young guys. They've never been through something like this. I think they're going to enjoy it." Before Thursday night's game, Fisk gave some of them instructions on how to acknowledge a standing ovation properly by going to the top step of the dugout and doffing one's cap.
The weather for opening night was splendid, and so was the game. The matchup was between Oakland's Dave Stewart (9-3) and Chicago's Eric King (5-1), ranked first and fourth, respectively, in ERA in the American League, but both struggled early. The Sox scored in the first on a walk, a single and a sacrifice fly. In the second, Stewart nearly hurt his left leg coming off the mound, and the game was held up for several minutes while groundskeeper Roger Bossard raked the mound to Stewart's satisfaction. "I've never gardened in front of so many people," said Bossard of the crowd of 30,076. Chicago then raked Stewart for two more runs, the second one coming on an RBI single by Lance Johnson.
King, meanwhile, dodged bullets in the first and third. In the fourth, with the bases filled with A's and nobody out, Henderson lined a shot to Robin Ventura at third. King then struck out Doug Jennings and induced Carney Lansford to hit into a groundout, preserving the Sox's 3-1 lead. The fans were so moved by the rally-killing that they actually gave their team a standing ovation.
Stewart settled into a groove, but after King gave up his ninth and 10th hits in the sixth, Torborg turned the game over to his relievers. The White Sox bullpen is structured very much like that of the A's, with several left-right combinations leading to the closer. First came a left, Wayne Edwards, then a right, Barry Jones, and then a left, Scott Radinsky. That left Thigpen to protect the 3-2 lead in the ninth. With one out, Mark McGwire singled for the A's 13th hit of the game, but then Thigpen blew the ball by both Dave Henderson and Felix Jose to get his 21st save of the season.
"Wasn't that great?" said reliever Donn Pall, who grew up in Chicago as a White Sox fan. "That brought back '77 and '83. It's so unbelievable to me that I'm actually pitching for a Sox team fighting for first place. What's even more unbelievable is that I dress in the same clubhouse with Carlton Fisk and Ron Kittle."
"This must have been how Buster Douglas felt after the first round with Mike Tyson," said Chicago outfielder Dan Pasqua. (A few days later, the Sox would know how Henry Tillman felt.)
One Athletic, however, remained decidedly unimpressed after the White Sox victory. "They don't have anybody in their lineup," said Rickey Henderson. "They got the best breaks. I think we outplayed them. I know we outhit them." (That they did, 13-8, but hockey games are not decided by shots on goal.)
"The White Sox are legit," said La Russa. "I just have to convince Rickey of that." Asked if he thought Henderson's comments might fire up Chicago, La Russa said, "If a team needs that to get up for a game, they're in trouble."
The White Sox fans were certainly up for the second game of the series. Comiskey had a sellout crowd of 40,417, its first since 1984. The banners were out in full force, and they provided a nice backdrop to the proceedings: WORST TO FIRST; SOUTH SIDE REVIVAL; COMISKEY PARK: FIELD OF DREAMS; and the lovely sentiment YUPPIE SCUM GO BACK TO WRIGLEY.
In a move suggested by La Russa's 80-year-old father, also named Tony, the A's batted the slumping Dave Henderson second in the order, and in the first inning Hendu hit a shot into the upper deck off Greg Hibbard to give Oakland a 1-0 lead. But the White Sox tied the score in their half of the first when Johnson drew a leadoff walk from Bob Welch, stole second and scored on Ventura's single.
The White Sox score any way they can, and in the third they strung together two singles, a stolen base, three walks, a passed ball and a wild pitch for a 3-1 lead. In the seventh, shortly after the DO WE BLOW THE BOARD? message, they added another run when Ivan Calderon singled, Pasqua walked and Fisk blooped a single into right. Fisk took second on the throw to the plate, sliding thunderously and safely into the bag. Not many catchers run that well, much less 42-year-old catchers.
So there the Sox were, in the top of the eighth, sitting on a 4-1 lead with Hibbard breezing along and their fans silently calculating that with this victory, Chicago would move five percentage points ahead of Oakland in the race. Then Mike Gallego and Walt Weiss both singled off Hibbard to start the inning. Uh oh. In from the bullpen came Jones, 7-0 for the year. Rickey Henderson singled to load the bases. And Dave Henderson doubled into the hands of a fan in the rightfield corner to drive in two runs. Oh no. Then Lansford struck out. Whew. McGwire was walked intentionally—good move, especially with Terry Steinbach, batting .215, coming up. Steinbach, though, singled in between Guillen and Ventura, and the A's took a 5-4 lead. Jerome Holtzman, the eminent baseball writer for the Tribune, was so distraught that he started cheering for the White Sox in the press box. And Holtzman is the man who wrote the book No Cheering in the Press Box.
With two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the ninth, La Russa brought in Eckersley to face Calderon and get his 21st save. Calderon, seeing the infield playing way back, dropped a beautiful bunt down the third base line, setting up a similar situation—winning run at the plate in the person of a lefthanded power hitter—to the one Eckersley faced in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Coming to the plate instead of Kirk Gibson, though, was Pasqua. He took a mighty swing and...flied out to center.
The loss made the third game of the series, Fireworks Night, something less of an occasion for the second straight sellout crowd. Throwing out the first ball Saturday night was Ken Olin, one of the stars of thirtysomething and an odd choice, considering White Sox fans' feelings about yuppie scum. Thirtysomething was pretty close to the number of batters the A's sent to the plate in the first inning. The Sox had given up 11 first-inning runs all year, but their ostensible ace, Melido Perez, gave up seven in the first this time. Fans were still arriving when the game was effectively over, and those who were in their seats booed Perez and cheered Torborg when the manager came to take him out after only two thirds of an inning.
What had been a sublime series—two exciting one-run games—turned ridiculous. A two-run homer by Steinbach in the fifth and a solo shot by Rickey Henderson in the sixth stretched the lead to 10-0, and when the eighth inning rolled around, Torborg had utilityman Steve Lyons on the mound. Actually, Lyons, whose nickname is Psycho, acquitted himself quite nicely after walking in a run in the eighth.
Torborg kept his equanimity after the loss. "Maybe the A's are tired. You know, doing all that swinging and running." In the background one could hear the bombs from Fireworks Night bursting in air. Or that might have been the sound of the bubbles bursting for Chicago.
Actually, this was a five-game series, counting the Equitable Old-Timers Game between the White Sox and the Athletics prior to Sunday's contest. And wouldn't you know it? The A's beat the Sox 11-2. The regular game was considerably closer. In fact, after seven innings the White Sox led 2-1, with the A's lone run coming on a homer by—you guessed it-Dave Henderson. In the eighth, McGwire hit a windblown solo home run to left and the A's hit back-to-back-to-back singles off three different White Sox relievers to take a 3-2 lead. In the bottom of the eighth, Chicago had a man on second with two outs when La Russa brought in Eckersley. Torborg countered with pinch hitter Fisk, for three years a battery mate of the Eck in Boston. It had all the makings of a classic confrontation, but Fisk popped out to the catcher on the fourth pitch. Oakland added two more insult-to-injury runs in the ninth.
Said La Russa, "It's not that we are trying to show the White Sox that we are world champions. What we want to show them is that we're trying to be world champions again this year."
As for Chicago, well, as Guillen says, "We have been showing people that we are a big league team." The Athletics, however, are a bigger league team.