Don't look now, but the south side has come down with pennant fever. God knows it hasn't happened quietly--the White Sox put 30,000 fans into the new Bill Veeck Stadium simply by opening the gates, and they routinely draw 40,000. But the mass joy of a new ballpark completely aside, there's a distinct feeling of excitement to the crowds at the Veeck these days. And away from the park in the last couple of weeks, at the office and out with friends, I've heard more and more people talking about the White Sox: how they did the night before, whether Melido Perez should be returned to the starting rotation, what a wonderful surprise Joey Cora has turned out to be, and how rewarding it is to see Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, and Frank Thomas mature before one's very eyes. Most of the people talking about the Sox are south-siders, while the rest of the city seems sort of puzzled about what that buzz is coming from the Bridgeport neighborhood. It's the sound of a team winning games it shouldn't win in ways no team should win them, of the baseball season flowing into August and still meaning something, in short, of a team fighting for first place and a divisional title.
The Sox have drawn 52 straight crowds in excess of 30,000 and 23 crowds in excess of 40,000--not counting the Windy City Classic--but you could still buy tickets on the day of the game for most dates, up to the last home stand anyway. That changed a great deal with Robin Ventura's game-winning grand slam with two out in the ninth against the Texas Rangers on the last day of July. If there was ever a wake-up call for a team about to enter the pennant race, that was it. During the ensuing home stand, the bull pen did not allow a run, the Sox won one game 14-5 after spotting the New York Yankees a five-run lead in the top of the first, and the Sox extended a second-half hot streak that saw them go to 19-8 since the All-Star game. They completed the home stand with their first three-game sweep at the Veeck (against, again, the Yanks), winning for the 14th time in 17 games. That left them 17 games above .500 and two games behind the first-place Minnesota Twins in the Western Division. By the beginning of this week--after Wilson Alvarez's no-hitter blew the cover off the Sox' pennant chase--they were 20 games over .500 and only a game behind the Twins.
Those are the sorts of numbers a baseball fan loves to rattle off when his or her team is going well, but what sold the team, for me, was not the numbers but the players themselves. The team's idiosyncrasies began to establish themselves in my mind in a way that should be familiar to any fan of the Bulls or the '89 Cubs or the '85 Bears. There is something about a team that is going well that radiates not only confidence but personality. It's not merely that the fan is more excited about the team and more attuned to what's going on, although that's certainly a part of it; it's that, when a team begins to go well, it's usually because each player is doing what he is supposed to do, fulfilling the role he's supposed to play, which gives each player a personality.
"The spark plug" and "the catalyst" and "the phenom from nowhere" are generic roles familiar to anyone who has ever watched a baseball movie. Yet it's rare that real-life players fit these roles as precisely as Joey Cora, Melido Perez, and Wilson Alvarez do. Cora is a mite of a middle infielder--he makes not only Ozzie Guillen but Craig Grebeck look big by comparison--but he is also very talented. He was rushed to the major leagues a year or so too soon by the San Diego Padres a couple of seasons ago and soon found his way back to the minors. After a couple of seasons starring in triple-A ball, however, he was all but handed the Padres' starting second-base job when they traded Roberto Alomar last December. Yet Cora promptly broke his ankle in winter league baseball; that injury has ended more than a few baseball careers, and the Sox picked him up off the Padres' scrap heap this spring for a pair of not-so-promising prospects.
Cora's rehabilitation ran into the season, and it's no mere coincidence that the Sox have gone wild since he laid full claim to second base about a month ago, replacing Scott Fletcher. In the Sox' lineup of Punch-and-Judy hitters, Cora has all but created a second leadoff position out of the eighth spot in the order, ahead of Ozzie Guillen. By the end of the home stand, he was hitting about .300 in his starts.
Perez, on the other hand, made his turnaround when he stopped starting. Inconsistent in his outings in the rotation, he was exiled to the bull pen. No one thought it would last for long; starting pitching is where the Sox are most shallow as a team, and everyone thought that if the Sox were to compete Perez would have to right himself and return to a starting role, but that hasn't been the case. A sportswriter might try to call Perez the catalyst in changing the pitching staff from iffy to strong, except that in a chemical equation the catalyst itself is not supposed to change, and Perez has changed a great deal. Not only has he returned to form, he's never before pitched so well so consistently. Meanwhile, the Sox discovered that having a dependable Perez available in the bull pen every other day or so was actually much to be preferred to having an inconsistent Perez going to the mound every fifth day. While the Sox' starters remained unsteady after McDowell, the bull pen was suddenly deep and able to help the starters along.
And, of course, Alvarez made his dramatic debut with the White Sox on Sunday, hurling a no-hitter against the Baltimore Orioles. I came to it relatively late (after prematurely finishing this column), but early enough to see both the controversial squib play in the seventh and Lance Johnson's amazing catch in the eighth. Alvarez has a simple motion, with a high knee kick moving down into a low stride down the mound. He faintly resembles Sid Fernandez of the New York Mets, except that he throws overhand as opposed to sidearm, and, of course, he is nowhere near as fat. He has a good fastball and, judging from this game, a tremendous curve, tantalizing and sharp-breaking. The Orioles were utterly cowed. Johnson made a great diving catch on Chris Hoiles leading off the eighth to preserve the no-hitter, and aside from that the closest they came to a hit was a squibber by Cal Ripken Jr. in the seventh. He nubbed one about halfway between the plate and the pitcher's mound. Chicago catcher Ron Karkovice called Alvarez off the ball and fielded it, but then threw too close to the line, and Ripken was safe at first as the throw glanced off Dan Pasqua's glove into short right field. A delayed error call preserved the no-hitter, however, and I got a taste of high-pressure baseball as Alvarez went all the way, preserving his own no-hitter, no relief necessary, although to be honest, if the game had been closer than 7-0 I think Chicago manager Jeff Torborg would have gone to the bull pen in the ninth, when two men reached base before Alvarez closed them down.
The Sox had given their most convincing display of how the bull pen has changed the team the week before, in the aforementioned comeback against the Yankees. I watched the game at home, but tuned it in ever so slightly late to find the Sox already down 5-0. The Yankees scored all their runs in the first. Turning away for a time to the Cubs, who were playing in Philadelphia, I returned in the middle of the Sox' five-run, game-tying rally in the fourth. Suddenly, it was a ball game again--but not for long. Cora drove in the lead run in the fifth on a squeeze bunt, then added an RBI single as the Sox scored two insurance runs in the seventh. In the eighth, the Sox gave the Yanks a drubbing with six runs. Meanwhile, Ken Patterson, Donn Pall, Perez, Scott Radinsky, and Bobby Thigpen paraded to the mound, allowing only four hits and one walk in the last eight and two-thirds innings in relief of Ramon Garcia.
The following night, I had to get out to the Veeck to see McDowell take his turn in the rotation. The one glitch in the home stand up to then had been McDowell's previous outing, in which he got almost no one out, lasting only two innings and allowing six runs on ten hits. That outing came only hours after he had played at an outdoor concert at Oz Park; McDowell is a would-be Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, as anyone who has heard his record, "Review," or seen him in his sunglasses could explain. General manager Ron Schueler berated McDowell's priorities after that game, but McDowell shrugged it off and came back even more determined on this evening. He threw first-ball fastball strikes to each of the first three Yankees, and in general went straight at the hitters all night, especially after the Sox picked up where they had left off the night before with three runs in the first. That was all the support he'd need, as he went the distance on 110 pitches.
The Sox have put together a very strong batting order day in, day out, from top to bottom. Thomas aside, there isn't a player with consistent home-run power, but each player can slap the ball in the alleys, and the first three hitters--Tim Raines, Ventura, and Thomas--are all skilled at drawing walks, meaning those drives in the alleys are frequently as productive as a home run. It's a testimony to the influence of hitting instructor Walt Hriniak. The Sox didn't hit a homer in this game, which they won 10-2, but they had four doubles and two triples. Every time I looked up, somebody was smacking the ball down the line or into one of the power alleys. Ventura had hits in three straight innings, including mirror-image doubles to the wall in left center in the third and fourth.
McDowell dismissed talk of pennant jitters afterward. "There's so much baseball to play," he said. "Tomorrow's a new day and something else could happen." Yet the excitement of the fans as they filed from the stadium could be felt in the locker room, along with the anticipation of the reporters. And the pressure was plainly greater than it had been only a few weeks before. Already the greater attention a winning team receives was taking its toll. Ventura was busy denying rumors of a rift between himself and Hriniak. ESPN had reported that Ventura began to smack the ball (he was named American League player of the month for July, when he hit .357 with 12 homers and 33 RBI) only after disregarding Hriniak's hitting methods. Ventura said that was rubbish, as anyone studying his hitting style can plainly see.
And McDowell was busy controlling damage from his run-in with Schueler. He waved away Schueler's comments by saying, "Controversy from a single mouth really isn't controversy," and called the whole incident "a comical event."
When one press-box friend of mine asked McDowell if he would tell how he'd spent the afternoon before this start, another reporter quickly salivated, "Playing the guitar?" And McDowell answered, "Yeah, down in my basement, jumping around like a banshee, trying to convince myself that wasn't it"--the reason for his last bad outing.
He smiled as the reporters laughed. "I don't even know what a banshee is," he said, "but that's a great word, isn't it?" Talking word choice with reporters--that's one way of diffusing the media pressure. McDowell, Ventura, Thomas, and even the newly rearrived Bo Jackson have all proved to be young players skillful at handling it in the early moments of the 1991 pennant race. The way they're playing, and with Wilson Alvarez arrived to fill a spot in the rotation, they'll need those media skills just as much as they need their skills on the field.