Those Sagging Sox
Chicago's lifeless South Siders are dropping fast in the
American League Central

A certain former White Sox farmhand appeared on the television
inside Chicago's clubhouse late last Friday night at the
Metrodome in Minneapolis. Michael Jordan's visage loomed there
for all to see as he stood on the brink of leading the Bulls to
their sixth championship in the past eight years. By contrast,
Jordan's former parent club had just lost for the 38th time in
its first 64 games this season. The players were pulling off the
uniforms of a franchise that hadn't won a championship in 80
years--and was well on its way to 81.

Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the Bulls and the White Sox, can thank
his NBA team for gobbling up most of Chicago's attention in
recent months, but it won't be much longer before the White Sox
will begin enduring direct and humiliating comparisons with the
rejuvenated Cubs, who swept their crosstown rivals in
interleague play two weeks ago. Soon it will become sport in
Chicago to crack wise about that awful smell emanating from the
South Side, from those malodorous Sox. "We stink," said
righthander Jaime Navarro after a recent shutout loss against
the Tigers. "You call this a team? Bull. It's like a cemetery, a
bunch of dead dogs. It's not fun anymore. We've looked like a
Triple A team out there."

To locate one of the team's main weaknesses, Navarro need look
no further than the mirror. Masquerading as the ace of the White
Sox, Navarro had a 5-8 record with a 5.28 ERA at week's end. No
White Sox starter had an ERA below 4.77, and the 5.67 team mark
was the worst in the league. Meanwhile, the team was 12th in the
league in fielding percentage, thanks largely to rookie
shortstop Mike Caruso and second baseman Ray Durham, who have
combined for 24 errors. And on offense, Frank Thomas has often
griped that the umps have unfairly enlarged his strike zone and
that he's seen few good pitches. Also outfielder Mike Cameron,
the team's top prospect, was hitting .207 and nearly got sent to
the minors last week. "If games are won with pitching and
defense, then it doesn't take a genius to add up why we're
losing," third baseman Robin Ventura says. "Bad defense can make
pitchers throw bad pitches, which puts extra pressure on the
offense. The problems tend to snowball." After 67 games the Sox
hadn't had a winning streak longer than two games and were 11
1/2 games behind the Indians in the Central Division and 12 1/2
behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race.

With a mid-range $36.8 million payroll, the White Sox are
receiving precious little bang for the buck. Reinsdorf has
admitted it was a mistake to commit $75 million before last
season to free agents Albert Belle and Navarro, two players the
team would love to be rid of if anybody would take them. What's
worse, those inflated contracts may force general manager Ron
Schueler to trade Ventura, the team's most popular player,
rather than watch him leave as a free agent after the season.

For all of Reinsdorf's rhetoric last year about having a more
fan-friendly team, he still signed Wil Cordero, an admitted wife
beater, and is stuck with Belle, who isn't exactly lovable.
"We're being told to be more fan friendly, but what good does
all that do when you're not winning?" Belle says. "What is there
to be happy about? It's difficult for me; it should be difficult
for all of us."

It's not surprising that the White Sox attendance, which
averages 15,829, ranks 26th in the majors, but it is a little
shocking that the team is being outdrawn by the Chicago Fire of
Major League Soccer. Then again, who wants to watch miserable
men play ugly baseball?

Meanwhile, rookie manager Jerry Manuel, an admirer of Gandhi, is
trying desperately to remain patient, the calm eye in a surly
storm. "We have a lot of young players, and growth is painful,"
Manuel says. "As a tooth grows into a baby's mouth, that can
hurt. We're teething now, and I sure hope that means that we're
growing, because we're in a lot of pain."

Pirate Treasure
Paradise in Pittsburgh

John, Paul, George and Ringo never took on a fifth Beatle, but
if they had, chances are they would have picked another
mop-topped Liverpudlian. Perhaps that's why Jason Schmidt never
panned out as the Braves' fifth starter in 1996. Atlanta's Fab
Four--Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and the
since-departed Steve Avery--were a homogenous group of
experienced vets, family men who played golf together. Schmidt
was a single rookie who, when making one of his rare ventures
onto the links, would, in his words, "just get out there and
hack."

"They were all buddies," says Schmidt. "It was always the Fab
Four. People would ask me, 'When is it going to be the Fab
Five?' I would say, like, 'I just got here.'"

Schmidt showed promise in early '96, winning his first two
starts, but he never pitched with the kind of confidence
expected of a starter on baseball's best staff. It also didn't
help that in order to keep the Fab Four on schedule, Schmidt
would be moved in and out of the rotation. He bottomed out when
he went 15 days without pitching and was then sent to the minors
in May '96. He stayed on the farm for only three weeks, but the
experience unnerved him. He went 1-3 with a 7.41 ERA after being
recalled, and when the Braves had the chance to get Denny Neagle
in late August, he was shipped to the Pirates without hesitation.

It was a trade that was good for both players. Schmidt got a
chance to blossom in relative anonymity, and the Braves got
Neagle, a lefty with All-Star credentials--and a seven handicap.
"Coming to the Pirates really benefited me," Schmidt says. "I
got a chance to learn in the big leagues instead of the minors.
With the Braves, you've got to be ready as soon as you get there."

Last season Schmidt went 10-9 with a 4.60 ERA for the Pirates,
and this year the 25-year-old has emerged as the Bucs' ace,
going 8-3 with a 3.80 ERA at week's end. The key has been that
he is sticking with his strengths--a fastball in the mid-90s and
a good, hard slider--the mark of a confident pitcher. "I had a
hard time figuring out what kind of pitcher I was," he says.
"One day I'd try to pace myself [with fastballs] in the
80-to-90-mile-per-hour range, and I'd throw a lot of changeups.
This year I've gone with what got me drafted, and that's my arm.
I've gone after guys."

"He has always had the ability to get anyone out," says Braves
pitching coach Leo Mazzone. "The question was maturity, and he
has matured. He can be a heck of a pitcher." --Mark Bechtel

Twin Killer
Delivering on His Promise

One of the only things in baseball more anonymous than shining
for the Pirates is blossoming as a star with the Twins. But just
as Schmidt has come of age in Pittsburgh, Todd Walker has
overcome a bad start and is making a name for himself in
Minnesota.

Until last year Walker had been a standout wherever he played,
first learning his sweet stroke from his high school hitting
coach, Albert Belle, father of the White Sox's Albert Belle.
Walker then became a star at LSU, where he broke the school
record for RBIs, which had been held by the younger Belle. A
first-round pick of the Twins in the 1994 draft, the young
second baseman rose quickly through Minnesota's farm system.
After hitting .339 with 28 homers and 111 RBIs for Triple A Salt
Lake City in '96, Walker entered spring training last year as a
candidate for the Rookie of the Year award. But with All-Star
Chuck Knoblauch already playing second, Walker was moved to
third, where he struggled not only with the new position but
also as a platoon player. He hit just .194 in 108 at bats, and
in late May he was demoted to the minors.

"At the time I was sent down, I had this big softball swing and
I was trying to hit 600-foot home runs every time up," Walker
says. "I felt like a failure, and I questioned whether I was
good enough. Did I even want to keep playing baseball, or should
I just get a real job? If I had a dollar for every time I wanted
to quit...." The word on Walker was that he was easily
overpowered by major league fastballs because his swing was too
long and loopy and his hands were too slow.

After returning to Triple A and successfully shortening his
swing, he was called back up to the Twins in September and
showed improvement, batting .364 with two homers and 10 RBIs in
44 at bats, raising his season's average to .237. Still, the
last week of the season, Walker criticized Twins manager Tom
Kelly, who is notoriously tough on prospects, for platooning him
and not giving him the chance to prove himself as an every-day
player. "You really have to have the people who are in charge of
you believe in you," Walker said.

After the season Walker played winter ball in Venezuela and
further honed his swing. Then came the news on Feb. 6 that
Knoblauch had been traded to the Yankees, clearing the way for
Walker to return to his natural position at second base. Little
more than a year after his demotion, Walker was fifth in the
American League in hitting, with a .333 average through Sunday.

Says Kelly, "He's smart enough to know it wasn't anybody else's
fault and that he needed to fix his swing to establish himself
up here. We still hound him about his defense, but he's hitting
well."

While Walker now says that he understands Kelly's motives, he
still bristles when he sits against tough lefties. Even though
he had missed a quarter of the Twins' games, through Sunday he
still led the team in batting average and doubles, and was
second in stolen bases and runs scored. He was also the
ninth-toughest hitter to strike out in the league. Equally
important to Kelly, he had committed just three errors and was
second in fielding percentage (.987) among American League
second basemen.

"After going through what I'd call a career tragedy last season,
this season is proof that all my hard work paid off," said
Walker, moments after his pinch-hit RBI double in the ninth
inning beat Chicago 8-7 last Friday night. "I finally feel
comfortable in the major leagues."

Burning Atlanta
How Does Cox Spell Relief?

While the Braves appear to be cruising toward yet another
National League East division title with the best record in the
league, the team's early success might be diverting attention
from what could be a familiar and fatal weakness in the bullpen.
Since his return from the disabled list (pulled muscle in his
side) on May 25, closer Mark Wohlers has struggled with his
control, walking nine while allowing seven runs in only 6 2/3
innings at week's end. Wohlers no longer appears to have
confidence in his fastball, and on June 7 manager Bobby Cox
removed him from the closer's role against his wishes.

"I think anybody can relate to this," Wohlers told reporters
that day. "You walk into your office, you see someone sitting at
your desk, taking your job, do you run to the editor and say,
'Oh, boy! Now we're going to have a stronger newspaper'? I still
consider myself a closer, and I want the ball in the ninth
inning."

Five days after making that statement, Wohlers walked the only
batter he faced in the ninth inning of a game against the Expos,
in the process throwing one pitch over the catcher's head to the
backstop. Cox replaced Wohlers with Mike Cather, who then hit a
batter, walked another and then gave up a game-winning grand
slam to Expos rookie Darond Stovall as a 5-2 Braves lead became
an eventual 7-5 loss. Through Sunday the bullpen had blown 7 of
24 save opportunities this year, and its ERA was 4.41. "We might
be putting pressure on ourselves to get out of this funk we're
in," says Kerry Ligtenberg, who had seven saves in Wohlers's
absence but has a 7.20 ERA in his last 10 games.

Uncertainty has been an unwanted hallmark of the Braves bullpen
for years, with closers like Jeff Reardon, Alejandro Pena and
Greg McMichael having been tried and found wanting. Now Cox has
turned to 43-year-old starter Dennis Martinez as his latest
closer, even though before this season Martinez had just six
saves in his 22-year major league career. While Martinez may be
the club's best relief option now, everybody in the Atlanta
organization knows that if the Braves are to win the World
Series this year, they will most likely need a rehabilitated and
confident Wohlers to throw the final strike.

For complete scores and stats, plus more news from Tom Verducci
and Tim Crothers, go to www.cnnsi.com.

COLOR PHOTO: RON VESELY Not quite there Cameron, expected to be a bright spot, hasn't lived up to expectations. [Mike Cameron]

The Buzz

The perpetually payroll-slashing Reds are shopping their most
expensive and valuable asset, shortstop Barry Larkin, though
neither Larkin nor Reds management is taking responsibility for
that decision. Larkin, who has spent his entire 13-year career
in Cincinnati, claims that he has not asked to be traded. But
Reds general manager Jim Bowden insists that he received a call
two weeks ago during which Larkin's agent, Eric Goldschmidt,
submitted a list of four teams--Los Angeles, St. Louis, San
Diego and San Francisco--for whom Larkin would waive his
no-trade rights as a 10-and-5 player. Larkin will admit that
he's frustrated by the Reds' penny-pinching style and fears that
the team won't get back to a World Series during his career.
However, because he will earn $5.3 million in each of the next
two seasons and is off to a slower-than-usual start (five homers
and 29 RBIs at week's end) following surgery in March to correct
a bulging disk in his neck, it may be difficult for the Reds to
get fair value for him in a trade.

What were they thinking?

Only 12 players born in North Dakota have ever played major
league baseball, which is what made the opening at bat of the
Angels-Rangers game in Arlington on Sunday night such a historic
occasion, at least for the hearty citizens of the Peace Garden
State. Anaheim leadoff hitter Darin Erstad, born in Jamestown,
N.Dak., faced Texas pitcher Rick Helling, born in Devils Lake,
N.Dak., marking the first time one North Dakotan had ever thrown
a big league pitch to another.

The friendly rivalry between the two dates to a legendary
American Legion game in Fargo in '89. That day an 18-year-old
Helling struck out 18 batters, including everybody in the
opposing lineup except the puny 15-year-old number-nine hitter,
Erstad, who went 0 for 4 without a K.

On Sunday, in front of 36,647 fans and one reporter from a Fargo
newspaper, Helling once again got the better of his fellow
Dakotan, inducing him to pop to the catcher, strike out twice
and fly to right.

"He won this battle, but I've got a feeling I'll see him a lot
in the next few years," says Erstad, who had dinner with Helling
after the series opener last Friday night. "I happily await that
challenge."

Says Helling, "There's no doubt about it, tonight was a big deal
for us and our state. I'm proud to be from North Dakota. In
California, I'd be one in a million. In North Dakota, I'm one of
two."

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)