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Those Darned Sox! Two trades and the resurgence of two big sticks have finally given Chicago more than hope

Aug. 18, 2003
Aug. 18, 2003

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Aug. 18, 2003

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Those Darned Sox! Two trades and the resurgence of two big sticks have finally given Chicago more than hope

Jerry Manuel is an instinctual manager, given to playing hunches
as often as percentages. This is a big reason why second-guessing
the Chicago White Sox skipper is the South Side's midsummer
pastime, but it's also why, when Manuel has a gut feeling, he
merits attention. Twice in the last three weeks Manuel has made
predictions--that his club would take three straight from the
Tigers and two straight from the Royals--and both proved correct.
"Sometimes you get a feel, from being in it so much, when things
are getting ready to happen," says Manuel, who has preserved his
equanimity despite near-daily speculation about his job
security during the past three months. "You have to know that
these things can come to pass, and you have to have faith that
they will."

This is an article from the Aug. 18, 2003 issue Original Layout

Thanks to a power surge keyed by rightfielder Magglio Ordonez and
first baseman Paul Konerko, Chicago, which has always believed
it's the class of the AL Central, has justified its manager's
bottomless optimism. From the All-Star break through Sunday the
White Sox had hit .301 after batting .245 in the first half,
while improving their runs per game to 6.4 from 4.2 and their
home runs to 2.1 from 1.1, and they had gone 17-6, the best
record in the majors. Sunday's 5-1 home win over the Oakland A's,
coupled with the Kansas City Royals' 7-3 victory at Tampa Bay,
left Chicago a half-game back in the American League Central, a
dramatic reversal of fortune for a club that four weeks ago was
eight games out in baseball's weakest division.

By batting .389 with five home runs and 18 RBIs over the last 23
games through Sunday, Ordonez had taken off, and he believes he
hasn't peaked. Accustomed to leisurely winters dotted with trips
to his native Venezuela, where he has a cottage in the seaside
village of La Guaira, Ordonez instead chose to work out hard last
winter at the invitation of Texas Rangers shortstop and friend
Alex Rodriguez. For the two months before spring training Ordonez
remained in Miami, his off-season home, and reported at 8 a.m.
for daily workouts with Rodriguez on the University of Miami
campus. Assisted by a Hurricanes track coach, the pair focused on
sprints, long runs, agility drills and lifting, which chiseled
Ordonez's six-foot, 210-pound frame. "I've got more energy," says
the 29-year-old Ordonez. "My body changed, and I'm more cut,
quicker, more powerful. You're going to see me and A-Rod take off
in the next two months."

Although the dog days have not historically presaged a downturn
in Ordonez's production, they have been a period when he has
needed extra rest. "There were times in previous seasons when I
knew he would respond to a day off and be refreshed," Manuel
says, "but now he has matured with those workouts."

Ordonez has established an equally regular in-season routine. He
begins each game day by watching tape of that day's starter,
focusing on the pitch sequences and locations that the pitcher
has used against other righthanded power hitters, such as
Rodriguez, the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols and the Boston
Red Sox' Manny Ramirez. Ordonez, who has a compact stroke and
relies on quick wrists, uses indoor batting drills to remind
himself to keep his hands back, and during batting practice he
concentrates on driving balls up the middle and to the opposite
field. That's the signature approach of power hitters with high
batting averages.

"He plays the game so easily, it doesn't look like he's putting
in the same effort as everybody else," says Konerko. "It's
frustrating when you're a hack like me and you have to watch him
every day." Although Ordonez keeps lofty statistical
company--along with Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Vladimir Guerrero and
Todd Helton, he is one of only five major leaguers to have hit
.300 with 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs in each of
the last four seasons--he has not achieved widespread renown. A
modest man whose English is imperfect and whose public profile
cannot rival the colossal presence of his temperamental veteran
teammate, Frank Thomas, Ordonez has nonetheless carved out a
niche in the Chicago clubhouse. "It has to be based on his
performance, because there's a language barrier for him," Manuel
says, "but the way he plays speaks volumes. The good players
handle themselves well, but the great ones bring people along
with them. He's bringing a team along with him."

Along with Ordonez, Konerko has come on strong after a miserable
and perplexing first half in which he hit only .197 with 14
extra-base hits. In his four previous seasons, Konerko, 27, had
been a model of consistency, averaging 26 home runs, 95 RBIs and
hitting .294. "He'd never really failed at this level, or any
level," says hitting coach Greg Walker, "and he made it hard on
himself."

Although Konerko cannot identify the reason for his drought,
Walker says he tried to pull the ball too much. Nine interleague
games in National League parks during June cost Chicago its
designated hitter, forcing Thomas to first base and limiting
Konerko to pinch-hitting duty. Denied regular at bats, Konerko
went 4 for 41 during the month. But Manuel, a student of Gandhi's
writings, possesses boundless patience, and he kept Konerko in
the lineup. In his last 23 games through Sunday, Konerko was
batting .341 with seven homers, two more than he had in his first
76 games. "Paul, being a fighter, wasn't going to give up,"
Manuel says, "and things turned for him."

Manuel's faith in his veterans was shared by general manager
Kenny Williams. In a move that surprised many executives in
baseball, Williams jumped the midsummer swap season's opening
bell on July 1 by acquiring second baseman Roberto Alomar from
the New York Mets and centerfielder Carl Everett from the
Rangers. "If you didn't believe you had the talent, and that the
talent would start to produce, you don't make that move," says
Williams, whose team was 41-42 and three games out on the day of
the trades. "We didn't get out of the gate the way we expected,
and for us to wait until the 31st of July might have been too
late."

In Everett, Chicago obtained a serviceable defensive
centerfielder and a middle-of-the-order lefty to complement
righties Thomas, Ordonez and Carlos Lee. In last Friday's 3-2
home win over Oakland, Everett preserved a one-run lead in the
top of the seventh by tracking Ramon Hernandez's drive to the
right-centerfield wall and snagging the ball with the webbing of
his glove draped over the fence. Alomar, struggling in New York,
supplied an immediate and substantial defensive upgrade over
D'Angelo Jimenez, who plays second base like Charlie Brown kicks
field goals; Alomar has also had a .395 on-base percentage with
Chicago. Only one of the six minor leaguers surrendered in those
deals, Double A lefthanded reliever Royce Ring, is considered a
top prospect nearly ready for the majors. Says Seattle Mariners
DH Edgar Martinez, "With Everett and Alomar, they're much better,
much deeper."

Williams handled the swaps delicately, twice consulting with a
corps of veterans to ensure that the moves would not disrupt
clubhouse chemistry, and wound up making moves that did much to
restore the confidence of fans, many of whom thought the team was
getting ready to dump salaries. "We were buyers the entire
season," Williams says. "I'd go online and I'd read the message
boards, and sometimes it gets a little agitating when you see
something about your club that gives people the wrong impression.
No matter what I said, people thought we were going to be
selling."

As they closed in on Kansas City atop the Central, the White Sox
flitted between self-confidence and arrogance. "We knew that we
belonged here," third baseman Joe Crede said last Friday night
after the White Sox had jumped into first place for the first
time. "We knew the ability we had and the players we had. It's
not like we were a long shot coming out of spring training."

With the toughest remaining schedule of the three division
contenders--the White Sox' opponents had a winning percentage of
.494, compared with .462 for the Royals and .439 for the
Twins--Chicago is realistic, but hopeful. "We acknowledge that
Kansas City is a good ball club, but we feel like we're better
than them," says utility infielder Tony Graffanino. "We feel
like, when it's all over and done with, we'll be in first place."

COLOR PHOTO: RON SCHWANE/AP [T OF C] DOWN BUT NOT OUT Caught in a rundown, the Indians' Coco Crisp evades the tag of White Sox catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. (page 48).COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY V.J. LOVERO PLATE COVERAGE Since the All-Star break, Miguel Olivo and the White Sox have averaged 6.4 runs per game.COLOR PHOTO: STEPHEN GREEN SHAPING UP After a rigorous off-season workout regimen, Ordonez expects to finish the season with a flourish.COLOR PHOTO: MICHAEL ZITO/SPORTSCHROME USA (INSET) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER (INSET) IN THE GROOVE Konerko had a frustrating first half, but he's had seven homers and 21 RBIs in the last 23 games.COLOR PHOTO: RON VESLEY [See caption above]
"We acknowledge that Kansas City is a good ball club," says
Chicago's Graffanino, "but WE FEEL LIKE WE'RE BETTER THAN THEM."