Spring is a time of healing and rejuvenation, and for many of us baseball is its most soothing balm. Walking past Wrigley Field in the dead of winter can remind us that summer is inevitable, but too often the thought is lost because we're hustling past the park looking at our feet; for the moment, Wrigley becomes nothing but a giant wind shield. Spring training, arriving just as a few days are giving us a glimpse of the warming to come, involves us not only as a symbol of spring, but also as a prod to reawaken long-dormant thought processes we fear we might have lost. There is a skill to looking at box scores that involves knowledge and imagination; the same is doubly true for "pitching lines"--those simple lists telling who pitched, who hit home runs, and what the score was by innings, which replace boxes in the newspapers for the relatively inconsequential games of spring training. When the season starts, the game in the flesh involves us totally in an awareness of the healing process, even on the rawest evening. Once again there is the crack of bat on ball, the strategy of the count, the tactics of the bull pen and the bench. This year, after bouts with two different kinds of flu and a spell on the graveyard shift, which left us feeling like a zombie, a member of the walking dead, baseball returned once again to work its medical magic. It was a fresh and welcome reminder that we are human after all.
Unfortunately for the White Sox, the first few weeks of the season saw their hopes take a turn for the worse. Anyone watching the Sox on opening day, when they were on the road in California, must have been amazed at what a lineup they had suddenly managed to put together. Last year, everyone thought the Sox would have a potent offense, but the failure of rookie Lance Johnson, the poor season suffered by Dan Pasqua, the early loss of Carlton Fisk, and the later loss of Greg Walker left them struggling for runs as usual. This year, despite the continuing problems of Johnson (who returned to the minors), the Sox put together a lineup of fellows who could really bash the ball. The newly bespectacled Pasqua had had a terrific spring; Harold Baines was revitalized under the care of new hitting instructor Walt Hriniak; Walker--a very gloomy and speculative topic of conversation for most of the winter after he suffered a series of seizures last summer--was back and looked fully recovered; so was Fisk, and Ivan Calderon looked interested in playing. Ron Kittle was back home and on the bench. Steve Lyons, last year's number-two hitter--and a pretty good one at that--was now forced into the lower third of the batting order by necessity. Eddie Williams, a promising right-handed swinger obtained from Cleveland to play third base, was hitting ninth. This was very suddenly a team that could hurt the opposition at any spot in the order.
Yet before the Sox came east for their home opener, the roster was decimated by the long-term losses of Pasqua and Fisk; suddenly there were holes in the order, the bench was stretched thin, and the Sox' ability to score runs was diminished significantly. At this point, in the last week of the first month, the season appears to be over.
The Sox left town this week, after their longest home stand of the season, in last place, already six and a half games out of first. Mid-April is no time for the Sox to be playing at home. It's cold, rain is likely (if not snow), and the evening falls early and hard. There is no way to turn this sort of weather to a team's advantage. The fans won't come out, the players are stiff and sluggish, and the risk of injury is high. If the Bears played series after series day after day against teams coming in from warmer climes for just a few days of cold, no one would mention "Bear weather" except to say that the players and the fans could barely bear it. So once again the Sox are off to a poor start and trying not to blame the cold, an "alibi" consistent through the decade. Even the 1983 division champions got off to a mediocre start; one has to go back to 1982 to find otherwise.
This sort of weather also significantly weakens baseball's healing effects. One fights it the way one fights a cold, and if one is fighting a cold one loses.
Still, I did get out for a couple of games in the Sox' first home stand, and if they were bitter experiences they were bitter, in large part, because the team expresses in every mistake how good it could have been. The opening-day lineup consisted of Ozzie Guillen leading off and Dave Gallagher batting second--a solid combination if Guillen draws more than a few walks this year--and went through the heart of the order with Baines, Calderon, Walker, Kittle, and Lyons: a grouping of good hitters alternated lefty-righty in order to prevent late-inning percentage moves. Fisk's replacement, Matt Merullo, was the lone questionable spot, at number eight, and he had a single and a homer on the day. Williams followed in the ninth position. It looks like a good batting order--on this day it scored three runs, all of them earned, off the Oakland Athletics' ace Dave Stewart in just over six innings--until one recognizes that there is no one left on the bench. Merullo's homer in the ninth was the sole run scored by the Sox after the fifth.
An inability to bring home runs has its effects on a ball team. The Sox were outscored 90-68 in their first 18 games--an average of more than one run fewer than the opposition every time out. In addition, 28 of those 90 runs were unearned, or almost a full third. (The Sox' discrepancy in earned runs was a more respectable 62-52.) The fielding, in other words, has been miserable. The pitching, at times, has been overly fine. Eric King, the pitcher brought over from the Detroit Tigers for Kenny Williams, in a deal of dissatisfied players, ended a five-game losing streak with a victory last Saturday, but he had to pitch a shutout to get it, winning 1-0. Others haven't fared as well. Shawn Hillegas was winless as the team went back on the road, and he was coming off an outing last Sunday in which he failed to get out of the first inning. Melido Perez, meanwhile, was still trying to find the form of last season.
Perez started the home opener for the White Sox. His motion appears smoother than it was last season, but he also appears to have lost a little movement on his pitches along the way. His brother, Pascual Perez, has been an effective pitcher for years in the National League--when he hasn't been suspended for one reason or another--and the two have very similar bodies and appearances, but Pascual slings the ball toward home, giving his pitches an erratic bent, whereas Melido has a much more erect delivery. His fine point is control, and so far it's been a bit too fine. He didn't pitch poorly against the A's, but he lacked an out pitch--the one overpowering delivery of the day a pitcher knows he can go to--which made for a remarkably long five-inning stint on the mound. In the second inning, he faced only five batters, but he threw 36 pitches, including 9 to Billy Beene before getting him to ground to third, and 10 to the last man in the order, Mike Gallego, before walking him. It was like watching someone try to push a car out of a snowbank all by himself.
Perez departed in the sixth inning after throwing 104 pitches. It was the inning in which the Sox fell from a 3-3 tie by surrendering four runs, and they never recovered. Still, in spite of the loss, it was a satisfying opening day. The rain had cleared as if to allow the game by special arrangement. (It was blamed for a 30-minute delay at the start, but it appeared to some that the delay had actually been caused by some simple dilly-dallying as we waited for Rich Daley to throw out the first ball.) There was a harried, claustrophobic feel to sitting in the grandstand, under the upper deck. The field was cluttered with media and other nabobs in the foreground, with no fewer than three color guards on the infield grass, children holding balloons ringing the infield dirt, and a band waiting in the background in the outfield. It had the suddenly crowded appearance of a garden when everything begins to sprout.
Comiskey Park was not so festive last Friday night, when, semirecovered from a stomach virus, we returned to the south side. The healing continued, however--for a moment, anyway. Jerry Reuss, the aged, crafty left-hander, was slated to pitch for the Sox, so Ken Griffey Jr., the Seattle Mariners' phenom, was dropped from the starting lineup. We got a chance to see him at batting practice, however. He was all smiles and simple quips, a puppy with fully developed musculature. He complained about the cold, in a high-pitched voice, saying he wanted to make his stay in the cage "short and quick." Manager Jim Lefebvre turned the phrase toward instruction--like an old college professor--saying, "Let's see if you can be short and quick to the ball. Short and quick means waiting." Griffey, however, jumped at everything, popped three straight pitches into the netting above, and Lefebvre began to chide him. "Hit the top of the cage. I can do that. That's why I'm fucking managing. See if you can hit a ground ball. You know what a ground ball is?" He may not. Griffey skied everything, then ended his stay in the cage by lining a curve crisply into right field.
The cold only got worse after the sun went down. Reuss pitched two perfect innings, got a one-run lead in the bottom of the second, then fell apart. The last three men in the Mariners' order all lined sharp hits off him on the way to a four-run frame. They batted around and then batted around again in the sixth, amassing a 9-1 lead. Not even hot chocolate stemmed the chill, and after the sixth--feeling twinges of our weakened state--we went home. Sometimes, one recovers what one can and tries to retain the new strength until another day.