Making a Splash

Three young pitchers have emerged at the same time, giving Chicago a rotation that's the envy of the American League
April 03, 1994

They are the hardest-working men in throw business. The Chicago White Sox pitching rotation is fronted by Jack McDowell, a Cy Young-winning superstar and alternative musician. But you already knew that. If you don't know Black Jack, then you don't know Jack Squat.

It is the three pitchers backing up McDowell who make Chicago's starting quartet the next Big Thing in pitching. Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere averaged 15 wins apiece last season for the White Sox, whose starters had the lowest earned run average (3.72) and most victories (76) of any rotation in the American League. None of the three has yet turned 25. (McDowell is a grizzled 28.) Hot new records played over and over on the radio are said to be in "heavy rotation." Well, this is a heavy rotation.

"Hopefully, by next year our staff will be what the Atlanta staff is now," says White Sox pitching coach Jackie Brown, alluding to the Braves' rotation, one of the best ever assembled. "That is every staff's goal: to be as good or better than Atlanta's. Our guys know they have something going on here."

Meet the Beatles, then. Or at least, meet Jason, Wilson and Alex. One is from suburban Boston. One is from Venezuela. And one is a native of Miami, a bridge of sorts between Massachusetts and Maracaibo....

How to describe Alex Fernandez? He is a car radio stuck on SCAN, his voice drifting from English to Spanish to English, filling the air with conversation and Latin salsa. He is equal parts Larry King and Mambo King, a chatty Cuban-American who is comfortable on either side of the hyphen. "Alex is...different," says Alvarez. "He's Latin, but he's American, you know? He's a Latin guy who's living the American life."

"I'm a Cuban at heart," says Fernandez, the American-born son of Cuban immigrants. "I like to eat Cuban food, and you can eat Cuban food on any corner in Miami. You can eat American food on any corner too, but I like rice and beans. Breaded steak. I like paella...."

"Fattening," tsk-tsks reliever Roberto Hernandez, who has been eavesdropping. "All fattening stuff, man." While Fernandez and Hernandez slag each other in Spanish for a full minute, we should point out that there was a time when Alex Fernandez was in danger of becoming Sid Fernandez: As a high school sophomore, Alex was 5'9" and weighed 240 pounds.

But he grew to 6'1". And he shrank to 215 pounds. He did it through old-fashioned exercise and dieting, without the aid of Cuba's most famous appetite suppressant. (The cigar, not Desi Arnaz.) "No cigars," says Fernandez. "My dad used to smoke those." He crinkles his nose.

That the AL West-winning White Sox were close-but-no-cigar last season was no fault of this 24-year-old righthander's. Fernandez went 18-9 with a 3.13 ERA and a team-high 169 strikeouts while throwing 247 innings. Last season was, in short, the fulfillment of the enormous expectations that came with being the fourth pick overall in the 1990 draft. "We were in the same draft," Bere, a 36th-round pick, notes dryly—like Walter Mondale noting that he and Reagan were in the same election. "We all went to Florida for rookie league, and you could just see it: Alex was better than everyone else."

He was so much the best that the White Sox gave him $350,000 to sign, concluding an absurdly American success story that began in 1960 when Angel and Nelly Fernandez escaped from Cuba to Miami via Spain, where they stayed briefly with relatives. While Nelly worked in a medical laboratory, Angel held down two jobs—in a hospital accounting department by day, in a T-shirt factory by night—to support the couple's two children. For the last 15 years Angel has worked a single gig, for the Hialeah Housing Authority.

"My parents had nothing," says Fernandez, who is in the final year of a three-year contract that will pay him $868,000 ibis season. "But somehow I had everything. I was the luckiest child alive. I always had a good glove, nice spikes. They put me through Catholic grade school and Catholic high school...."

While at Pace High, he made an appearance as a FACE IN THE CROWD in this magazine, and in 1988 he was a first-round draft choice of the Milwaukee Brewers. Fernandez turned down a $125,000 offer from Milwaukee to accept a scholarship at the University of Miami, where he was named national Freshman of the Year by Baseball America and was personally responsible for an extra 1,300 fans in the seals whenever he pitched. To be eligible for the draft again, he transferred as a sophomore to Miami-Dade South Community College, where he was national Juco Player of the Year, after which he was selected by the Sox.

Fernandez chugged a cup of instant coffee in the minor leagues (he pitched in eight games in all) before going to the bigs in the summer of 1990. But over the next 2½ seasons he went 22-29 and was briefly optioned to Triple A Vancouver in '92. He was a confounding puzzle—Rubik's Cuban—until he developed an off-speed repertoire and became comfortable in his own spikes. "The main reason I felt so confident, so dominant, last season was that I had three years experience learning how to pitch in the big leagues," says Fernandez. "I had no minor league experience. But I really wasn't going to learn how to pitch in the big leagues by pitching in the minor leagues anyway."

There is one other small factor in his success. Just as Cuban-American bandleader Ricky Ricardo was blessed with Little Ricky, so was Cuban-American righthander Alex Fernandez blessed, last spring, with Little Alex. And that, to hear Fernandez tell it, has made all the difference. "It's the best thing that's happened in my life," he says. "Until my son was born, I thought baseball was everything. I know better now, and that made me a better pitcher last season. Friends told me fatherhood would be awesome, but it's better than awesome. I am determined to be the best father that I can be."

Given the lesson of his own parents, and of his wile's parents, Fernandez should have no trouble in that pursuit. He is married to the former Lourdes Gandarillas, and her mother and father also escaped from Cuba to Miami via family in Spain. Lourdes is expecting another child on Oct. 17. Says Fernandez, "I hope I'm pitching in the World Series."

And why shouldn't he be doing just that? With a father named Angel, with a wife named for a miraculous shrine to Mary, Alex Fernandez would seem to have more than the second base umpire looking over his shoulder this season.

Jason Bere pitched in the same suburban Boston high school conference, Merrimack Valley, that produced pitchers Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves, Pete Smith of the New York Mets and 1987 Cy Young winner Steve Bedrosian of the Atlanta Braves. "We're like mailmen up there," says Bere, attempting to explain the phenomenon. "Rain, snow, sleet—we'll pitch in anything."

Such perseverance comes in handy when you're chosen in the mildewed sub-basement of the draft, and you weigh only 170 pounds, and your high school season is a weather-shortened 20 games long, and your next showcase for scouts is at...Middlesex (Mass.) Community College.

But persevere, and after three years in the bushes you find yourself here: in the big leagues, with a 12-5 record, a 3.47 ERA, 129 strikeouts, a seven-game winning streak to end your first season and a second-place finish in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. You find yourself being called a classic power pitcher, like your idol, Roger Clemens of the Red Sox.

Bere (rhymes with hurray) carried a Clemens baseball card in his wallet while growing up and attended games at Fenway Pahk, as he pronounces it. Rocket-like, he was leading the American Association in strikeouts for Triple A Nashville last May 24, cruising in a game against the Iowa Cubs, when manager Rick Renick gave him the hook.

"Did you think you could have gone another inning?" Renick asked Bere.

"Yes."

"Do you think you can go another inning on Thursday against Kansas City?"

Silence.

"Congratulations," said Renick. "You're in the major leagues."

Trouble was, Bere didn't know if he was ready to make his big league debut only one day after he turned 22. But he assumed the White Sox knew what they were doing. "We all said that he was ready," says Brown. "But no one ever knows. The only way to know is to throw him in the fire and hope he doesn't get burned. He didn't get burned."

Bere's dexterity in avoiding burns surely derives from his extensive experience in front of pizza ovens. This past winter was the first in the last seven that Bere did not spend spinning pies at Uncle Micky's on Shawsheen Avenue in Wilmington, Mass., which is just as well. Make 70 pizzas a night, and you lose your appetite for the stuff, even if Uncle Micky did have the best pie in Greater Boston. Right, Jason?

"Uh...yeah," says Bere, catching on with a smile. "Yeah. I guess we better put that in there."

He is new to the publicity game, and so is still a helpful interviewee. He was raised by his mother, Adrianne. "A-D-R-I-A-N-N-E," he offers. Bere's parents were divorced when he was in grade school, and he has little contact with his father. "My mom's been there through everything with me," he says. "Hockey practice at five o'clock in the morning? She drove."

She put food on the table too, but Jason couldn't gain any weight until he reached the minor leagues, and then he "just grew," expanding to his current 6'3", 185 pounds. He seemed a little fuller than that last Aug. 18, when he pitched against the Red Sox for the first time, and at the Pahk, no less. "It was just a rush being at Fenway," he says. "But that was the day Danny Darwin took a no-hitter into the eighth inning." Darwin lost his no-hit bid; Bere lost the game. But three weeks later, in Chicago, he struck out 13 Red Sox and got the victory.

Life has been spinning like a forkball ever since. This spring the young man from Wilmington, Mass., found himself sharing a clubhouse with the man from Wilmington, N.C.—Michael Jordan. "I had a couple of friends down here who wanted me to get his autograph," says Bere. "I said, 'You ask him yourselves.' He signed my basketball. That's all I wanted. I'm not big on collecting autographs. But I did get a ball from Clemens: he signed it this spring."

There's that name again. You congratulate Bere on his courage in approaching the Rocket, who happens to be the world's most intimidating man, and he looks at you as if you are certifiable. "I didn't approach him," Bere says. "Hermie, our trainer, brought the ball to the Red Sox clubhouse for me. I haven't talked to Clemens." He sighs. "I'm going to approach him this spring." Bere does not sound convincing.

On Nov. 26 he will marry Dinelle Erwin. ("D-I-N-E-L-L-E, Erwin with an E," he says. "My high school sweetheart, I guess you could say.") With Dinelle in mind—along with the fact that the White Sox renewed his contract for a relatively paltry $110,000—he fears that his apartment in Chicago's Loop is too close to Michigan Avenue shopping for the Bere credit line. ("Tell me about it," he says, turning his eyes heavenward.) The effect of all of this is endearing. For now, anyway, Jason Bere is still closer to rolling the dough than he is to rolling in it.

The baby was born three months premature. Doctors said that if the boy lived more than 48 hours, he was in the clear. He lived five days, then died. "It can get you crazy," says Wilson Alvarez, his face knotted with emotion. "I just wanted to say forget about this, forget baseball. I didn't go to the ballpark for 10 days. But my wife, Dihanna, told me to stay with it. She said, 'That's why you are here.' "

That was in the summer of 1990, when Alvarez was playing at Triple A Vancouver, when he very nearly quit the game. He had been traded to the White Sox the summer before by the Texas Rangers, for whom he had made his only major league start: He'd faced five hitters, given up two home runs and three earned runs, and gotten nobody out. He'd been shipped to Chicago's farm system five days later. At about the time of his son's death, Alvarez says, Vancouver manager Marv Foley told him that he would never again pitch in the big leagues. "I cried that day," says Alvarez. "I'm not going to lie to you. I cried. I have no hard feelings, but...it's not like he said."

Baseball, it appears, is why Alvarez was put here. Things are not, thankfully, as his Triple A manager said. The White Sox gave Alvarez a chance to make his second major league start on Aug. 11, 1991, and he threw a no-hitter in Baltimore. "It was like a holiday in Maracaibo," says Alvarez of the no-hit aftermath. "A party. My mom told me everybody came to the house and congratulated her. Even the, how you say, the governor.

"Back home in Maracaibo," Alvarez continues, without a whiff of ego, "I'm like Jordan is here in the States. I can't say that it's bad. People treat me like a hero. But sometimes I need my privacy."

Last year he signed 1,000 baseball cards for his mother, Ada, to hand out to autograph-seekers who rang her doorbell. She handed out every one of them as her son went 15-8 with a 2.95 ERA, all but suturing up the division title for the Sox in September. That month Alvarez was 5-0 with a 0.93 ERA, threw 31 consecutive scoreless innings, was named the league's Pitcher of the Month and clinched the division title with a win over the Seattle Mariners. In Game 3 of the American League playoffs, he beat the Toronto Blue Jays 6-1 with a complete game.

The toasty streak was all the more astonishing when you consider that in the final week of August the Sox had sent Alvarez to Triple A for a single start. The objective was to clear his brain, and the strategy worked. "I had lost my confidence and lost my head," says the lefty Alvarez, who led the league in walks last year, with 122. "It was not mechanics. It was all here." He pats his noggin.

Now it is all where it ought to be again, in his left hand—which narrowly escaped disaster recently. In mid-March a line drive hit Alvarez on the left wrist, and as he headed into the season, the ball's seam marks were still visible on his skin, like a cattle brand. Perhaps it is just as well that his parents can't be stateside to see this. "My parents won't come to Chicago because they say I don't make enough money yet to bring them here," says a blushing Alvarez, who will draw a $265,000 salary in '93. "Next year I hope they will come and stay for one or two months."

Alvarez, 24, is the second oldest of five children in a family that is laudably low-key about baseball. His father, William, is a furniture maker. Wilson's big brother, William Jr., 26, could have signed a minor league contract with the Red Sox, but his dream was to go to college. "I told him, 'C'mon, let's play baseball,' " says Wilson. "If he had worked at it, I think he could have been a big league shortstop. But he wanted to go to the university. He did, and he works in an office now, with computers."

Wilson himself signed at 16, a week after legendary Ranger scout Luis Rosa saw him strike out all six hitters in two innings of relief in a Big League World Series in Fort Lauderdale. In his fledgling career Alvarez had already pitched 12 no-hitters for various Venezuelan national teams. When Rosa followed Alvarez back to Venezuela, he asked the kid to throw for him. After seeing seven pitches—all fast-balls—he swept the boy off to Arlington, Texas, within 48 hours. There, Alvarez signed a contract, picked up a bonus check and watched a Ranger game.

"I can't forget that day," says Alvarez, his gaze fixed in the distance. "I can't forget that game. You grow up in a country far away from the States, and you see the big leagues on TV, and it's unreal. It isn't real, you know? I cannot forget that day."

He was put here to play baseball, the boy with the name of a glove manufacturer. He was put here to play a game that blooms in spring, like nature itself. On the first day of last season Wilson Alvarez became a father again. Vanessa was born on April 6, the official start of the finest year of her father's young career. Opening Day, indeed.

PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONAs new stars, (from left) Bere, Fernandez and Alvarez got a boot out of spring camp. PHOTORONALD C. MODRAMaracaibo is not Chicago, but Alvarez gets the Michael Jordan treatment in his hometown. PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMON[See caption above.] PHOTOCHUCK SOLOMONThe arrival of Little Alex has been an uplifting experience for Fernandez, who says parenthood has made him a better pitcher. PHOTOBRIAN SMITH[See caption above.] PHOTODAMIAN STROHMEYERBere is another in a line of New England pitchers who can deliver in all kinds of weather.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)