NOT EVEN TRYING/AL CENTRAL
Ten minutes before his first full-squad spring workout as the
White Sox manager, Jerry Manuel thumbed through a dog-eared
paperback copy of The Essential Gandhi, found a passage to share
with a visitor and then placed the book atop a stack of tomes on
his desk that included the Bible and a text about the power of
Dr. Martin Luther King's speeches. Call those books Manuel's
manuals. In those pages he says he finds inner strength and
humility, which naturally elicits a question about Albert Belle.
Not surprisingly, Manuel's responses tend to sound a little like
"If you institute rules without having relationships, that
equals rebellion," said Manuel, sipping from his Isaiah 40:31
coffee mug. "I'm here to change these players' hearts to the
commitment it takes to win a world championship, and that might
be uncomfortable for a while. I've never had to push my teams
through a wall. I want my teams to run through a wall without
Talk about the irresistible force and the immovable object.
Jerry Manuel, meet the White Sox. This serene man who has never
managed a full season above Double A has been handed the reins
of baseball's most churlish team of recent years. Despite having
the majors' second-best record in the '90s--behind only
Atlanta--Chicago has produced only one division title and four
second-place finishes in the decade. (They were also in first
place when the strike-shortened '94 season ended prematurely.)
"In recent seasons this team just hasn't played as well as it is
capable of playing," White Sox general manager Ron Schueler
admits. "I question at times the intensity we've taken out on
the field. It's as if our club has thought it was good enough to
turn it on and off."
Management's lack of faith in its players was never so clear as
it was on last July 31. After an off-season of trying to
purchase a pennant by signing free agents Belle ($55 million)
and pitcher Jaime Navarro ($20 million), the White Sox suddenly
gave up on the American League Central race, trading the guts of
their pitching staff--closer Roberto Hernandez, ace lefthander
Wilson Alvarez and sometime-starter Danny Darwin--to the Giants
for six undistinguished minor leaguers. Explaining the
controversial deal, owner Jerry Reinsdorf said, "Anyone who
thinks this club can catch Cleveland is crazy." At the time
Chicago was just 3 1/2 games behind the Indians with 57 games
remaining, which prompted third baseman Robin Ventura to say, "I
thought the season ended in October."
Reinsdorf considered his club's poor attendance--eighth in the
league--and surmised correctly that the fans despised their own
team. So after the season, Chicago also dumped veterans Ron
Karkovice and Ozzie Guillen. The '98 White Sox are rebuilding
with a lineup that will be younger than last year's by about two
years per man and will also be $20 million cheaper. Apparently,
the franchise is adopting the philosophy that if you're going to
lose, you might as well do it economically.
"We have more unknowns on this team, but I don't think we're
underdogs," first baseman Frank Thomas says. "I think we're
still a force to be reckoned with, but I'm happy if everybody
else believes differently."
The White Sox should have no trouble scoring runs with Belle,
Thomas and a full season out of Ventura, who missed 99 games at
the start of the '97 campaign with a broken right ankle. But the
pitching is shaky at best. The top two returning starters are
Navarro and James Baldwin, who combined for a 21-29 record and a
5.54 ERA in '97. Unless new catcher Charlie O'Brien, who has
caught Cy Young winners in each of the past four seasons, can
work some magic on Chicago's young pitchers, things could
quickly go south on the South Side. "I know there will be tough
times as we develop this team," Manuel says. "But I believe it
is my time to go through the fire. That's part of the process
that makes gold."
Speaking of which, Manuel is pleased to report that just as he
pondered his initial approach to Belle, the mercurial
leftfielder showed up unannounced at the manager's office and
expressed a burning desire "to play more than 162 games." One
morning early in training camp Belle was even spotted smiling.
Twice. Belle was wearing a faded T-shirt issued after the
infamous trade last season, a garment bearing a message that
assumes even greater import in '98. On the front it says,
CHICAGO LEFTOVERS. And on the back it reads, WE MIGHT JUST BE
DUMB ENOUGH TO WIN THIS.
It ain't Gandhi, but it's a start.