Crunch Time

It was only July, but the showdown between the Indians and the White Sox had the look of October
July 31, 1994

"Chewing up the scenery" is what they call it in theatrical circles—that is, the uncontrollable urge of ham actors to overplay their parts. In Cleveland last week, a couple of troupes of baseball performers showed how gloriously amusing such emoting can be when the hams have talent. For four days the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox played Division Showdown at Jacobs Field as farce, drama and burlesque, with numerous aerial bombs added for spectacle. Before it was over, even the prop men and carpenters had taken center stage, and if it isn't acclaimed as the season's best show so far, the critics are blind.

In pure baseball terms, of course, it was merely the two best teams in the American League Central Division winding up their season series in July instead of late September, when such showdowns are usually staged. By winning 4-2 on Sunday the White Sox gained a split of the four-game series, maintained a two-game lead over the Indians and left town with a tenuous advantage for a playoff spot, should a players' strike end the regular season (following story).

There were all the conventional baseball star turns—six Tribe homers on Friday night, including shots on three consecutive at bats by third baseman Jim Thome; a spirited slugging duel over the first three games between the teams' two big bangers, Frank Thomas of Chicago and Albert (Corky) Belle of Cleveland; a third-game pitching gem by the Indians' fifth starter, Jason Grimsley; a dazzling, series-long display of hitting and baserunning by Cleveland leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton; and a three-RBI performance by Julio Franco of the Sox in Sunday's finale.

But the performances beneath the bright lights were only half the show. There was also the offstage intrigue concerning Belle's bat that had begun a week earlier, during a series between the two teams in Chicago. In a game on July 15, Sox manager Gene Lamont accused Belle of using an illegal corked bat, and the umpires confiscated the bat. But before it could be examined, it was mysteriously pilfered from the umps' dressing room. Though the culprit has never been identified, the bat was produced later by the Indians and, indeed, found to be corked—an offense for which Belle will serve a 10-day suspension should he lose his appeal this week to American League president Bobby Brown.

Since last week's series in Cleveland started just four days after the one in Chicago, the Indians and the Sox were suddenly reputed to be bitter rivals. Chicago fans condemned Belle as an ethical pariah. Tribe loyalists ridiculed Lamont as a weasel. From the West came the call "Cheaters!" From the East, "Whiners!"

Professionals fanned the flames. "Two angry, venomous teams," wrote a fulminating Chicago columnist, were engaged in "baseball's meanest grudge match in years." Stirring the bubbling pot, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reminded its readers that 35 years ago—which was the last time the Indians hosted a meaningful series—it was the same dastardly White Sox who swept four games and condemned the Tribe to decades of despair.

The players, one has to report, took the imagined grudge match about as seriously as they take autograph requests. "Thirty-five years ago? I wasn't even born then," said a bewildered Jason Bere, the White Sox' starter in the second game. An expansive Thomas, holding court while cleaning his dinner plate after Chicago's 6-5 victory last Thursday night, was more blunt. "You can try to build a rivalry there," he challenged reporters, "but it's just not going to happen."

Ah, but what about the managers—Lamont and the Indians' Mike Hargrove? Before Thursday's game, the two skippers met in the tunnel behind home plate and had words.

"See you later, Grove," said Lamont.

"See ya, Gene-o," said Hargrove.

Which is not to say that the series wasn't strongly partisan and spiced with gamesmanship. If you're scoring at home, here's a quick recap of the week's principal gambits:

Ploy. The White Sox landed in Chicago with three security men, ostensibly to act as bodyguards for Lamont and to patrol the visitors' clubhouse overnight. Security guard Richard Fletchall, who'd had chewing gum attached to the top of his cap by pranksters on the Indians a week earlier in Chicago, was assigned to keep watch over a battered black trunk filled with the White Sox' bats. ("Have no fear, Fletch is here!" yelled Chicago second baseman Joey Cora.) To frustrate television crews, the trunk was decorated with pornographic photos.

Counterploy. Hargrove, asked if the White Sox' security detail reflected poorly on the Indians' hospitality, said, "I don't think it makes us look bad. I think it makes them look paranoid."

Ploy. The Cleveland front office preceded the introduction of the White Sox' lineup on the stadium's JumboTron scoreboard on Thursday with a clip from the film A League of Their Own—the scene in which Tom Hanks asks one of his players, "Are you crying? There's no crying in baseball!"

Counterploy. Lamont, leaning back in his office chair and smiling mischievously, told reporters he might, or he might not, call for another Tribe bat to be inspected.

It was also a week of ludicrous accusations, most made with tongues placed firmly in cheeks. Former Tribe pitcher Steve Farr, now with the Boston Red Sox, alleged that the Indians had long maintained a woodworking shop where players could build birdhouses or—when the need dictated—doctor their bats. Tribe infielder Alvaro Espinoza wondered aloud if maybe White Sox general manager Ron Schueler—who denigrated the Indians earlier this season, saying, "They ain't that good"—might have sneaked into the visitors' clubhouse in Chicago, looking for corked bats. Meanwhile, unnamed sources fingered Indian traveling secretary Mike Seghi as the cat burglar who had clambered through the Comiskey Park ductwork to recover Belle's bat before it could be examined. ("A wild guess, and wrong," said a knowledgeable source.) Finally, a radio talk show host charged that White House staffers had taken documents out of the umpires' locker room before Park Police could secure the crime scene...or was that a different scandal?

With rumors so abundant, it took a feat of discipline to focus on the salient facts, which were these:

1) The Indians' long run of good fortune this season seemed to have ended. In the 48 hours before the White Sox arrived, second baseman Carlos Baerga, who was batting .328 with 14 homers and 70 RBIs at the time, suffered a severe ankle sprain that forced him to miss the series and righthander Mark Clark (11-3) had his throwing wrist broken by a line drive hit by the Texas Rangers" Gary Redus. And then there was the likely suspension of Belle, who homered in four straight games against Texas and Chicago and drew within two of league RBI leader Kirby Puckett, with 90.

2) The White Sox were on a roll. On June 20 the Chicagoans languished in third place, six games behind Cleveland. The reasons for their revival: Thomas's power, the league's deepest pitching, a return to form by 1993 American League Cy Young Award winner Jack McDowell, Thomas's league-leading batting average, Franco's production (.324, 17 and 86 through Sunday), Thomas's ability to intimidate pitchers (98 walks, tops in the majors).

3) Time is running out because of the looming strike, which may last at least until the time the postseason would begin. Through Sunday the White Sox, as division leaders, and the Indians, as a wild card, would qualify for postseason play. But Baltimore, second in the American League East, trailed Cleveland by only two games in the wild-card race. White Sox reliever Roberto Hernandez recalled sitting on the bullpen roof Thursday night and asking bullpen coach Rick Peterson, "Doesn't this feel like October? It feels like when we played Toronto last year in the playoffs."

Certainly Chicago and Cleveland put playoff-caliber lineups on the field. Hargrove, needing someone to bat third while the gimpy Baerga walked a treadmill, turned to Thome, who was then batting .247. Thome, a 23-year-old from Peoria, Ill., who was last year's International League player of the year, responded with a power surge. In Friday's game, he drove three straight tape-measure jobs to center and right and revived memories of Rocky Colavito, the only Tribesman to hit four in a game, by crushing yet another one deep into the rightfield seats—but foul. An unspoiled hero who wears his baseball pants the old-fashioned way, with his red socks showing almost to his knees, Thome observed that there were benefits to hitting ahead of Belle's bat, be it corked, uncorked or fully decanted. "I've been getting a lot of good pitches to hit because of Albert, that's for sure," said Thome.

It doesn't hurt to face a pitcher with only half his mind on pitching, either, and that's what you get when Cleveland's leadoff hitter, Lofton, is on base. In Friday night's imbroglio, won by the Indians 9-8, Lofton reached base four times, hit a two-run homer, stole four bases, scored three runs and played a sleek centerfield. In Saturday's 1 1-2 Indian romp, he bumped his batting average up to .365 with three more hits and stole bases number 53 and 54, tops in the majors. "A lot of people talk about Ken Griffey Jr. and Frank Thomas," said Chicago shortstop Ozzie Guillen, "but when you talk baseball, you better mention this kid." Added Lamont, "He's the premier leadoff hitter in this league, for sure, maybe in all of baseball. And he hurts you so much with his defense too."

Lovers of muscle had no complaints with the series, as Thomas and Belle each hit a homer in Thursday's game and Belle hit his 30th on Friday. Thomas, who finished the series with a .374 average, ripped a single and two doubles on Friday night. On Saturday the Indian pitchers, blessed with early run support, walked Thomas four times.

Ironically, the two biggest plays Thomas figured in were outs. He took a hotly disputed called third strike from reliever Eric Plunk in the eighth inning of game two, with two outs and the tying run on second. Saturday, he was tagged out at the plate in a patty-cake collision with catcher Sandy Alomar, when a more conventional slide might have scored the run.

But then, it wasn't a conventional series—not with stone-faced guards babysitting bats and with fans holding up signs reading CORK THIS LAMONT!

"I'm real tired of all this bat controversy," said Hargrove, speaking for himself and possibly for Lamont but not for the fans, who were digging it. "I think the game is bigger than the stuff that's been surrounding this."

He spoke, of course, as a sportsman. not as an impresario. Upstairs, in the Indian front office, the executives were giddy. "It's a big series, and we haven't had a big series in 35 years," said Bob DiBiasio, vice president for public relations. "Why not have some fun?"

Indeed, why not? Division Showdown at Jacobs Field was a hit; the audience went home happy. Surely, with the curtain of a labor stoppage poised to fall on baseball, the chewing of scenery is better than no scenery at all.

THREE PHOTOSJOHN BIEVERThomas went from Big Hurt to Big Easy when he tried unsuccessfully to tiptoe past Alomar in Game 3. TWO PHOTOSJOHN IACONOBelle attempted to put his bat controversy behind him, but it kept bobbing to the surface. PHOTOJOHN BIEVERLofton slid past Cora for one of his six steals during a stellar series in which he also had eight hits.

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)