There was no batting practice before last Friday night's White Sox game. Instead, there was a softball-hitting contest. So while the softball players gathered in the outfield in their patchwork uniforms, before the doors were opened to the small crowd gathering outside, an occasional member or two of the White Sox strolled out onto the field. Donnie Hill--looking like some new creature out of Greek myth, half normal human/half ball player, wearing only a freebie shoe-company T-shirt from the waist-up, his uniform perfect from the waist down--played catch with pitcher Steve Rosenberg. Ozzie Guillen strolled out onto the field, also in T-shirt and uniform pants, but wearing thongs on his feet, Dave LaPoint, wearing his full uniform and warm-up jersey but augmenting the ensemble with running shoes, came up into the stands to talk to a few people apparently down from the White Sox offices above.
Deep in the outfield, near the bull pen, one of the California Angels' pitchers--I believe it was Mike Witt--did some strange, Eastern-looking stretching exercises, extending his arms and pulling them back, halting along the way in three set positions, and then slowly kicking out his legs to the left and right. He came in toward the dugout and was met by the White Sox' Jerry Reuss, who strolled out in the obligatory T-shirt but with a cutoff pair of uniform pants. Guillen and Reuss joined a few other members, of the Angels for some chitchat behind home plate. The scene was as if the Angels had just dropped in on the White Sox for a barbecue, with the Sox still half-dressed and with the softball players acting as entertainment by sending long, soaring flies into the seats front their makeshift home plate beyond second base.
I re-create this scene not to make the Sox look bad or negligent in fulfilling their duties, but to convey the calm, relaxed atmosphere at at Comiskey Park these days. Compared with the night-game turmoil at Wrigley Field--and compared with the Sox' own comings and goings of earlier this season--the atmosphere at Comiskey is now relatively placid (a sweep at home at the hands of these same Angels notwithstanding). The team is playing good if not winning baseball, their hitting renaissance is in full flower with the return of Carlton Fisk (who homered in his first game back, last Thursday night), the fielding is alert and adept--especially up the middle--and the frontline pitching retains the promise that makes the Sox interesting for this season and possible contenders in years hence.
In fact, we got out for our first good, hard look at Melido Perez last Wednesday aftenoon, and we were impressed. Perez is the younger brother of Pascual Perez, who came up with the division-winning Atlanta Braves of earlier this decade and who now works for the Montreal Expos after an interim in which he battled his own temper along with cocaine abuse. Melido is a tall, thin pitcher (six-foot-four, 180 pounds in the program), but he seems shorter and wider when compared in the mind's eye with his brother. Pascual was and is pencil thin, and he slings the ball toward home loaded with spin and action. Melido is more erect in his pitching style--and, the White Sox hope, in his behavior--and in the movement he puts on the ball. He begins from the old set position: bent over, gloved left hand resting on his left knee, ball hidden in his right hand behind his back. He swings his hands up and over his head, then kicks himself into motion, striding downhill. His feet are the most distinguishing part of his motion; with his thin legs, they seem almost too big for his body, so that they are what appears to give his pitching motion its momentum. Once the left foot gets started in the proper direction, it seems to pull the entire body behind it, giving one the odd impression of watching a marionette pitch in the majors. His pitches have big-league stuff, however. He has good control over his sharp breaking pitches and a fastball good enough to get past a big-league batter at letter height. He's walked a few more men than the Sox expected this year--he came out of the minors in the Royals' system with a reputation for having pinpoint control--but on the whole he has given the Sox everything they could have hoped for in his rookie season. He became the Sox' first ten-game winner by allowing only two runs over seven innings on the afternoon. In fact, his first time through the batting order, he had the opposition Seattle Mariners befuddled. In the fourth, he made a simple mistake against their miserable excuse for a major league first baseman, Steve Balboni, who hit a bases-empty home run. Perez tired later, but Ricky Horton came on to hold the line for an easy Sox win, 6-1 going away after scoring three in the first.
The Sox' other rookie hurler is Jack McDowell, who seems to be that pitcher (there's one every year) who, whenever I turn on the Sox on television, is on the mound. Which turns out well, I think, because McDowell has a classically stylized motion that requires a bit of distance to be believed. McDowell is even thinner than Perez, taller too, and with his thin, fragile forearms and calves he seems almost unnaturally limber, In the exact middle of his motion, while his left leg is lifted and poised to stride down the mound, he strikes a pose that is almost impossible to believe; he seems bend his back a bit, right in the middle. It defies logic. It is that same awkward, graceful, complicated, corkscrew windup reflected in cartoon drawings of, say, Hobbes the stuffed tiger or Albert the alligator in mid-delivery, or the same pose struck by awkwardly graceful figures on the covers of cheap paperbacks entitled Freshman Fireballer or Southpaw Smoke. Of course, the plot behind such cheap books is always that of a wild but talented youth trying to harness his abilities, which is exactly the story of Jack McDowell this year. Because out of that winding, complicated delivery (almost stiff, sometimes, in his effort to keep it together) comes a wicked fastball, faster than Perez's and with much more movement. His breaking stuff can be equally sharp. Yet while he can sometimes be in utter command out there (beating Roger Clemens earlier this year in Boston, or shutting out the Mariners earlier that same Seattle series only to leave the game and watch the Sox win in extra innings), he can also go to pieces in the blink of an eye. (He failed to get out of the fourth inning against the Angels last Sunday.) He has also pitched in tough luck, which is in itself almost a redundancy for a White Sox pitcher, because no one on the staff--with the possible exception of Perez--has been well supported this year. McDowell's earned run average is almost exactly that of Perez, just under 4.00, yet he has only four wins to Perez's ten. Meanwhile, LaPoint, the team's most consistent starter, has an ERA a half run below theirs, while his record is only 7-11.
There have been signs that the Sox are beginning to develop a hitting attack, but those signs were missing after the first inning last Friday night. Gary Redus led off with a walk, then went to third as Steve Lyons doubled to right. Both runners advanced, the Sox scoring a run, as California's Willie Fraser delivered a pitch that got away from the catcher. Harold Baines walked, and Greg Walker brought Lyons home with a flare to left, but that was where things came to a halt for the night, as the next eight Sox made outs and Fraser scattered a mere three hits the rest of the way.
Bill Long was our designated tough-luck pitcher this evening. He had a good curve early on; even from our seats in the left-field bleachers we could see it breaking. Yet in the fourth he allowed the Angels to tie the game on a single and back-to-back doubles, and in the sixth another double and two long flies put the Angels in front. They added a grace run off Long in the ninth.
Along the way, though, there was good baseball, good company, and a good view--basically the Sox' season in miniature, a losing transition toward some greater future, a future we now know is set in Chicago. Fred Manrique continues to play an extraordinary second base, and he is beginning to hit the ball. (He also stole a base in the fifth.) He and Guillen work almost like left and right hands in the middle of the infield, so much so that I would say Manrique is now possibly the best second baseman in baseball at turning the double play. They turned one effortlessly in the second. There was also a wonderful play at the far corners of the field to end the fifth, when the score was still tied. Long got the first two men, but Johnny Ray then reached base on an error. Wally Joyner--who was impossible to stop all through this series, going three for five Thursday, three for four Friday, and hitting the game-winning homer on Sunday--smashed one into right field. Dan Pasqua got to it on the run and then threw a bullet to third base. Lyons stood there passively, playing dead, luring Ray into a false sense of security as he seemingly watched the ball bounce around in the corner; then, suddenly, Lyons picked the ball out of the air--on the fly--as if by magic and tagged Ray out.
A full moon rose over the right-field bleachers, triggering a moon medley from Nancy Faust, and we watched the Sox go down. As we filed out of the ballpark and toward the el stop I was reminded of the previous Wednesday's game, when I had to leave early. Pasqua hit a home run just as I was going out the far left-field gate. The scoreboard launched a booming series of fireworks, which in turn set off several noise-activated car alarms in parking lots all around the stadium. They blared on and on as I walked to the el, in their own way trumpeting the big-city quaintness of baseball this year on the south side.