Robin Ventura invested four months of sweat equity recovering
from an ankle broken so grotesquely in the spring that the sight
of it made one of his teammates vomit. Then last Thursday, only
six games into his astounding ahead-of-schedule comeback, the
Chicago White Sox third baseman walked into the visitors'
clubhouse of Anaheim Stadium and knew something was terribly
wrong. "Guys were sitting around on couches," Ventura said,
"looking like their dog had just been run over."
The news spread quickly. Righthander Jaime Navarro blurted out,
"Nice team. Nice f------ team! What the heck is going on around
here?" Eight months after signing Albert Belle to the biggest
contract in major league history and with his ball club only 3
1/2 games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians with more
than a third of the season left to play, White Sox owner Jerry
Reinsdorf committed one of the most egregious breaches of honor
in the arena of competition--he quit. Reinsdorf conceded the
American League Central title to the Indians, the juggernaut
that had just completed a 4-10 home stand, and then cleared
general manager Ron Schueler to trade his closer, righthander
Roberto Hernandez; his best starting pitcher, southpaw Wilson
Alvarez; and one of his most consistent pitchers, righty Danny
Darwin. The San Francisco Giants benefited from Reinsdorf's flop
upon his sword by getting all three pitchers in a trade for six
minor leaguers, only one of whom is considered a top-flight
Chicago's Men in Black? Don't bother watching, was Reinsdorf's
review. Lamar Alexander will go down as having lasted longer in
his race than the White Sox owner. Not even Jack Kevorkian pulls
the plug this quickly. "Anyone who thinks this White Sox team
will catch Cleveland is crazy," Reinsdorf said last week. He
apparently forgot that in each of the past two seasons teams
that were in worse shape than his club on July 31 still reached
the playoffs--the 1995 Seattle Mariners, who were 11 games out
of a postseason berth, and the '96 Baltimore Orioles, who were
10 games back. Reinsdorf took his place in sports infamy among
boxer Roberto Duran (No mas), his Chicago Bulls forward Scottie
Pippen (No shot) and boxer-turned-Marine-for-a-minute Riddick
Bowe (No, sir).
"This is tough to take," Ventura said. "I've never heard of a
contender giving up before August. If I had known it was going
to be like this, I would have taken my time and gotten ready for
next year. I still can't figure out why it happened. And you
know what? I don't think I ever will understand, and I don't
think I want to know."
First baseman Frank Thomas, the White Sox's best player, who is
signed through 1998 with two option years for the club, reacted
to questions from Chicago reporters about the trade with
detached understanding. He declined to be interviewed for this
The White Sox quickly took on a hangdog look, losing a weekend
series to the Anaheim Angels. On Friday and Saturday they played
poorly behind a pair of rookies, lefthander Scott Eyre (called
up from Double A Birmingham after the trade) and righthander
Chris Clemons, who were making their first major league starts.
Clemons and Eyre--who upon his arrival waited nearly three hours
at Orange County's John Wayne Airport on the incorrect
assumption that the White Sox would send a car to pick him
up--yielded 11 runs in seven innings combined. They are two of
seven rookies now on the roster, including Nelson Cruz, a
righthanded reliever who was out of baseball from 1992 through
'94, when he worked as a car salesman's aide and played sandlot
ball in South Florida.
What gives, other than Reinsdorf's resolve? The spin from
Reinsdorf and Schueler was that dumping the 32-year-old
Hernandez (5-1 with 27 saves and a 2.44 ERA at the time of the
trade) and the 27-year-old Alvarez (9-8, 3.03) was a preemptive
strike against losing them as free agents following the season
and getting nothing in return. (In fact, the White Sox would
have obtained two additional high draft picks for each
departure, as they did after righthander Alex Fernandez left
following last season.) The two best prospects they received
from the Giants, 20-year-old shortstop Mike Caruso and
19-year-old righthander Lorenzo Barcelo, are thought to be at
least two years from the majors. The other prospects are
considered more marginal: pitchers Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry and
Ken Vining and outfielder Brian Manning.
So hard did Reinsdorf strain to sell the deal to the astonished
Chicago fans and media that he gushed he had not been "this
pumped" since his Bulls obtained Pippen and Horace Grant in 1987
to complement Michael Jordan. Of course. Winning five NBA titles
and one American League West title and signing Belle can't
possibly match the rush of getting Bobby Howry.
Left unsaid by Reinsdorf was his culpability in two colossal
mistakes that contributed to this surrender: investments in the
new Comiskey Park and in Belle, one as charmless as the other.
Reinsdorf was a pioneer in demanding public money to finance a
stadium. But he didn't see the coming craze for immensely
profitable retro-styled, quaint urban ballparks. He wound up
with a Betamax ballpark, a monstrous symmetrical bowl in an
undesirable neighborhood, that was dated almost as soon as it
opened. On the same night that Reinsdorf cited a lack of fan
support as contributing to his unloading of players, the
last-place Cubs drew 39,145 across town at cozy Wrigley Field,
or 15,549 more than the White Sox's season average, which ranks
eighth in the American League.
"Comiskey Park is too big for baseball," shortstop Ozzie Guillen
says. "What they should do is give it to the Chicago Bears
instead of building a new stadium for them, and build a new
ballpark for us. [But] I understand Jerry made a business
decision. The fans in Cleveland could be mad if this happened to
them, because they support their team. In Chicago, if you don't
support the team, why should you be mad? The fans have to look
in the mirror."
Actually, this is what the fans have to look at: a team that
buried itself with an 8-17 start, a club that through Sunday had
fielded worse than any other in the league and, despite the
addition of Belle, had scored 12% fewer runs than last year's
85-77 team. In the off-season Reinsdorf spent $76 million on
free agents--pitchers Navarro and Doug Drabek, whose respective
ERAs at week's end were fourth-worst (5.58) and the worst (6.10)
among American League qualifiers, and Belle, who ended the week
in a 12-for-75 slide and with a .259 average with runners in
scoring position, down from .351 last year. Not since May 25 had
Belle hit a home run that tied a game or put Chicago in front.
Moreover, his bang at the box office is virtually nil, hardly
surprising for someone who regularly blows off the media, who
blew off a mandatory White Sox pregame autograph session (he did
attend three others) and who blew off most of the All-Star Game
"The fans have told us they don't like this team," Schueler said
last Thursday. "We're going to have a more fan-friendly team."
Belle's image and contract do not dovetail with the team's
Pittsburgh Pirates-wannabe philosophy. If, as Schueler insists,
"Jerry is intent on building this team around Frank Thomas and
Albert Belle," why would the White Sox entertain the idea of
trading Belle, as they have at least twice? As early as May,
according to one American League source, a White Sox executive
called the New York Yankees and said, "We'll talk about
[trading] anyone except Frank."
The Yankees official asked, "Even Belle?"
"Anyone except Frank," came the reply.
According to White Sox and Yankees sources, on July 30, the day
before the major league deadline to make trades without needing
players to clear waivers, Brian Cashman, an assistant to Yankees
general manager Bob Watson, telephoned Danny Evans, an assistant
to Schueler, to ask about Alvarez and Hernandez. Evans, in the
routine course of tossing out trade possibilities, asked
Cashman, "What about Belle? Are you interested?" Cashman said he
would pass along the information to Watson, who the next day
pressed Schueler not about Belle but about outfielder Lyle
Mouton. Schueler told Watson he could not move Mouton, partly
because the White Sox liked to keep something to show for
trading righthander Jack McDowell to the Yankees in '94.
"I get the feeling," says one American League executive, "if
they put Albert Belle on waivers and somebody claimed him, they
would let him go."
It was on July 23--without the heralded trio of Thomas, Belle
and Ventura having played one regular-season game together--that
Schueler and Giants general manager Brian Sabean talked for the
first time about a trade, with Alvarez the primary subject. They
spoke again two days later before San Francisco dispatched
director of player personnel Dick Tidrow to scout the White Sox.
As Chicago stumbled to a 2-4 home stand, Reinsdorf made his
decision to give up on his team. After one of those losses he
summoned Schueler to a meeting in which he asked his general
manager, "What do you honestly think of this club?"
Schueler replied, "At this point I don't think this club can go
all the way. If everything goes our way, we could win the
division." Reinsdorf was even more pessimistic. He also figured
that "advance tickets have already been sold" and, in contention
or not, "we'll draw within 100,000 of projections"--or about 1.9
On July 29, two days before the trade deadline, in what Chicago
management framed as a charitable endeavor, the White Sox
jettisoned veteran DH Harold Baines, who was hitting .305 with
12 homers and 52 RBIs at the time, to the Orioles for a minor
league player to be named. "This gives Harold the chance to
finish his career at home in Baltimore with the opportunity to
win a championship," Schueler said.
Said Ventura, "I thought that's what we were trying to do."
Guillen, a close friend of Baines's, heaved a bat through a
clubhouse television set that night, though he later claimed he
did so because of his anger over an error he committed.
On deadline day Schueler juggled calls from at least five clubs,
including the St. Louis Cardinals, who inquired about Ventura.
He did not intend to package the three pitchers, but when Sabean
told him that to part with Caruso, Schueler's prime target, the
Giants would also have to get Hernandez, the deal expanded to
Sabean, the same man who traded third baseman Matt Williams to
the Indians last winter in a deal so unpopular with Giants fans
he thought he needed to declare "I'm not an idiot," did not
flinch. "We're living for the present," he said, "and that's why
we did this."
An 8-13 nosedive since the All-Star break had whittled San
Francisco's six-game lead over the Los Angeles Dodgers in the
National League West down to nothing by last Thursday. The
Giants have not won a division title since '89, and this season,
one in which they were generally picked to retain their
last-place standing of '96, their success had fallen from the
sky as unexpectedly as snow in July. The opportunity, Sabean and
Giants ownership figured, could not be wasted, not when ground
would be broken in November for a downtown stadium in which seat
reservations and luxury boxes needed to be sold. Not when next
year could bring a realigned division in which the Giants might
not only be fending off the Dodgers but also the Mariners, the
Angels and the revenue-flushed expansion Arizona Diamondbacks.
San Francisco, a team that draws 19,192 fans per game, saw the
glass half full when Chicago saw it half empty. "I still can't
believe it, to a certain extent, that we've acquired the people
we've acquired by giving up minor league talent," Sabean says.
Alvarez won his first game for the Giants last Friday, over the
Cincinnati Reds. That night Hernandez and Rod Beck--the American
League and National League saves leaders, respectively, since
1993--finished by applying the sort of late-inning formula used
last year by the world champion Yankees with Mariano Rivera and
John Wetteland. Both Alvarez and Hernandez sounded as if they
had swum ashore from Alcatraz. "We never were close as a group
in Chicago," Hernandez said. "I wanted to get out of there as
soon as possible." Said Alvarez, "In Chicago it was like a
funeral in the dugout."
The mood is even more somber now. Drabek has inscribed with
silver ink upon his black cap the uniform numbers and initials
of his departed teammates. Ventura, too, has turned his cap into
some sort of shrine, gracing the front of it with Baines's
number 3. Of course, no one, not even anyone's dog, actually
died in Chicago. But to look into the sad eyes of Ventura, after
he'd somehow rebuilt an ankle that broke like a popsicle stick,
is to understand that hope did.