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I went to a fireworks display and a baseball game broke out.

The postgame Comiskey Park fireworks, normally on Saturday night, have got to be one of the best bargains going in the city. If one rejects the pandemonium of the city's July 3 display (especially easy to do this summer, when it rained), then only the Venetian Night fireworks at Monroe Harbor, which are free, can beat the White Sox deal, and I'd rather pay to watch the worst game of baseball than sit through that boat parade again. Besides, the worse the view of the game in the upper reaches of the new Comiskey, the better the view of the fireworks afterward.

So I packed up the family and took them out to see the Sox last Friday--which was a fireworks night because Saturday's game would be played in the afternoon for the sake of Fox TV. Ken Griffey Jr. and the Seattle Mariners were in town, so there figured to be some real baseball played maybe half the time, and we could at least see Griffey get back on pace in the Roger Maris chase by feasting on Sox pitching. There were, in fact, any number of reasons to come out. Still, we were 4 of only 22,713 fans in attendance, and as pleasant as it was not to have to endure a raucous crowd, it was a pity to recall that only a few years ago the weekend fireworks would typically draw 40,000 to the new Comiskey.

As the night began, pity was the prevailing emotion, though I'd prefer to label it pathos. There's a bit of superiority of subject to object in pity; pathos involves a stronger empathy, an identification with the object, and I felt that every time Frank Thomas came to the plate. Thomas began the season coming off his first batting title, and he was in the midst of a career that not only destined him for the Hall of Fame but that compared favorably with those of the greatest players ever. He'd completed seven seasons in the majors, and in each had registered at least 20 home runs and 100 runs batted in, while scoring 100, drawing 100 walks, and hitting .300. When he began putting up those numbers he earned comparisons with Babe Ruth and Ted Williams, the two greatest hitters in baseball history, yet not even they managed what he'd done for seven straight years, much less their first seven seasons in the bigs. Thomas, with his evocative nickname the "Big Hurt," was the best Chicago baseball player I'd ever seen--by a large margin. Yet he opened the Mariners game mired in a season-long slump, hitting just .251 with 19 homers, 73 RBIs, 71 runs scored, and 79 walks. Home runs were a given, and he still had a shot at reaching the basic figure of 100 in those last three categories, but raising his batting average 50 points in the final quarter of the season seemed a near-impossible task.

To see such a great player struggle over a season has been agony for Sox fans. Thomas's famed batting eye has grown suspect, as he has argued regularly with the umpires over their clearly expanded strike zone, and his quick-trigger swoop of a swing has had a loop in it, resulting in pop-ups that poke holes in the clouds before plopping into some infielder's mitt. Yet the most aggravating thing about Thomas's woes has been that there is no obvious physical reason for them. Those who point at his weight are off the mark; last season he became the biggest man ever to win a batting title, at 280 pounds. This has been his first full season as a designated hitter, and maybe he needs the involvement of playing in the field to stay in the game. I've always said Thomas's bat was worth any amount of butchery in the field. Replacing his glove clearly hasn't helped the team; the Sox entered the game at 53-65, 10 1/2 games behind the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central, with a homer-prone pitching staff that would make a Gold Glove defense inconsequential. Thomas's recent public admission that his marriage is in trouble, with three kids involved, probably comes closest to explaining his struggles. The pursuit of excellence in sports is, first and foremost, mental, and sometimes things seem to go bad for no reason at all. Then a player like Thomas becomes a tragic figure, no less compelling to a fan than Michael Jordan is in victory.

Thomas's agony has been topped this season by one player, the Atlanta Braves' relief ace Mark Wohlers. Wohlers's woes began with a physical problem, a strained muscle in his side that threw off his motion, but since his recovery other troubles have plagued him. He has what is commonly called "Steve Blass disease," the utter and sudden inability to throw strikes named for the Pittsburgh Pirates' 1971 World Series hero. After winning 19 games the following year, Blass developed a mental block, lost his pinpoint control, and spiraled out of baseball. Wohlers, after a rehab stint in the low minors, returned to Atlanta and looked like the same pitcher on the mound--looked the same, that is, until the ball left his hand and headed wildly in the general direction of home plate. Seeing Wohlers on TV this season, on cable superstation WTBS, has been like watching the travails of the antihero of some absurdist tragedy. He is now back in the minors. Wohlers too is suffering from marital troubles; his wife recently filed for divorce.

I leaned forward in my seat when Thomas came to bat in the first inning. "Come on, Hurt," I murmured, but he missed a fat pitch and hit one of those big-league pop-ups, this one carrying all the way out to center field. Mike Caruso and Albert Belle sandwiched a single, a stolen base, and a double around Thomas's out to produce the game's first run, but it was small consolation. Thomas came up in the third with one out and Ray Durham on third. This time he caught the pitch flush and drove it deep to center to score the run and put the Sox back in front 2-1. From such small triumphs are hitting streaks begun. Thomas came up again in the sixth with Caruso on and no outs and hit a rope into the left-center gap for a double. That got the Chicago inning off to a roaring start, and the Sox batted around. On his next at-bat, he smashed a long, arcing homer to straightaway center. Griffey, who routinely takes home runs away with highlight-reel acrobatics, timed his leap perfectly, vaulting up by planting his lead foot halfway up the wall, but he couldn't catch up to the ball and was left hanging over the fence at the waist like a forgotten sheet on a laundry line. Thomas hit a sharp single to left in the eighth to finish his night, and followed with three crisp singles the next afternoon, each one seeming like a game-winning hit. That put him at .260 heading into the week, 9 points down and 40 to go to get to .300.

One could only hope that Thomas's turnaround would soon be mimicked by Mike Cameron, the team's promising center fielder. Cameron hit 14 homers, drove in 55 runs, stole 23 bases, and batted a respectable .259 after joining the team early last season. He's a fleet and agile center fielder with a bull neck and Popeye forearms, and what's more he has a sharp batting eye--an underrated quality that distinguishes him from most other phenoms who "look good in a uniform," for instance former Sox outfielder Daryl Boston. Yet this season has been a washout for Cameron. I saw him taking batting practice during the Sox' trip to Wrigley Field, and he looked totally messed up. His swing seemed a cubist painting, all awkward angles and gestures barely related to each other, his arms and legs out of sync. He was the image of a pressing player who is thinking too much about everything he does. Most slumps end when hits start dropping in, but Cameron--like Thomas--was stuck in a season-long funk. He went into Friday's game hitting an abysmal .210. Like Thomas, he threatened to get things going with a line drive to deep center field, but unlike Thomas he found himself robbed by Griffey, who pulled off one of the greatest catches I've ever seen. He raced back at full speed toward the center-field wall, watching the ball over his left shoulder, then ran under the ball without taking his eyes off it, his head tilted straight back, and reined it in effortlessly with a back-to-the-infield basket catch, pulling up on the warning track just short of the fence.

That's the sort of season it's been for Cameron.

It's been that sort of year for the Sox pitchers, too, but the staff has shown signs of coming around under the tutelage of coach Nardi Contreras, longtime colleague of first-season manager Jerry Manuel. In May Contreras replaced Mike Pazik, a crony of general manager Ron Schueler, when the pitching couldn't get any worse. He hasn't produced any miracles, but earlier in the week he had seen freshly promoted starter Scott Eyre and middle reliever Keith Foulke combine for seven no-hit innings against the Oakland Athletics. The Sox went on to win that one. Starter Mike Sirotka, too, has thrown very well of late, and Friday he looked like a real pitcher, changing speeds and working the corners while cruising to a 14-2 victory, his team-leading 12th of the season against 10 losses, and keeping Griffey in the park to boot, no mean feat.

Unfortunately, the worthless Jaime Navarro pitched the next day, and in the first inning gave up Griffey's 42nd homer of the season. Navarro got pasted, as he has been so often this season, and the Sox lost by the football score of 13-7. Navarro, 8-14 with a 6.24 earned run average, had given up more than a run an inning over his last five starts. A surly player in the best of times, Navarro, who has asked to be traded (to whom?), aroused no pity in the fans, who booed him mercilessly.

The suffering figure who has elicited the most sympathy over the year is Manuel. He is clearly a decent man, and his placid manner might work wonders with a self-motivated team. He may yet preside over a south-side revival, based on comebacks by Thomas and Cameron and a renewed pitching staff guided by Contreras. Amid all the bitter feelings and general depression on the south side, the way Manuel has handled himself is inspiring.

So, after a startling and almost completely satisfying win, I put my scorecard down and sat back with the family to watch the fireworks, which on this occasion seemed to suggest a new spin for a hackneyed metaphor. A great athlete's career traces a glowing arc, but one never knows when it is going to flame out, which makes it all the more precious and exhilarating to watch. Wouldn't it be something if it just went up and up and up and never popped, leaving all of us sitting there with an "ooh" stuck in our throats? o

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