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The Chicago baseball season didn't deserve to the way it did. By that I'm not referring to the third-place finish of the White Sox or the Cubs' fourth-place finish--no, those were both fully deserved--but to the last Chicago game of the year. Andre Dawson homered to give the Cubs a 3-2 victory over the Montreal Expos. It wasn't quite as dramatic as his home rim in his final Wrigley Field at-bat in 1987, when he earned the Most Valuable Player Award with 49 homers, 137 runs batted in, and a .287 average after joining the Cubs during spring training as a free agent, but it was almost as uplifting. Dawson, it should be remembered, signed with the Cubs for a paltry $600,000 during the owners' ill-fated collusion campaign, simply because he wanted so to play in Wrigley Field. This year he has had to go out of his way once again to convince the Cubs to sign him. Although management was coy about negotiating a new contract--his old one expired with the end of the season--Dawson was busy with 22 homers, a team-high 90 RBI, and a batting average of .277, and the front office began noises, at last, that they wouddn't mind having him back.

It's news to no one that Dawson is an immensely popular player--the right-field bleacher fans have never ceased to celebrate him. with salaams--and nothing was more pleasing than his homering off his old Montreal mates in the third inning to give the Cubs the three runs they'd need to defeat the Expos. We were all up on our feet cheering until he came back out of the dugout and tipped his batting helmet. As this game also gave us an excuse to miss the Bears' fourth-quarter cave-in in Minnesota, it couldn't have been better--except, of course, if Greg Maddux had been pitching. Had that been the case, the day might have redeemed the entire baseball season.

This very disappointing and apathy-inducing campaign was, indeed, much like 1987, a year marked by disappointment on both the north and south sides and redeemed by great individual performances. That was the year Bobby Thigpen emerged as the bullpen closer for the White Sox, and Jack McDowell debuted with three September victories; the Sox finished hot, rising from last place at the All-Star break to a semirespectable fourth with 77 victories. Dawson, meanwhile, won the MVP Award, and Rick Sutcliffe, who won 18 games, made a stab at the Cy Young Award, won by Philadelphia reliever Steve Bedrosian in what was clearly an off year for starting pitchers. Thus the Cubs almost pulled off both of the league's top individual awards while finishing last.

This year they finished fourth, 78-84, 18 games behind the Pittsburgh Pirates, but again they'll probably take a top award. Maddux, who had won his 20th game the previous Tuesday, probably captured the Cy Young Award in the process, as he caught Tom Glavine of the Atlanta Braves for the league lead in wins (Glavine failed to win his 21st the very same night). If Maddux had needed to pitch again Sunday to seal the award he would have, but it seemed he had already wrapped it up. His stats, in every category but wins, are superior to Glavine's, while he pitched, of course, for a much poorer team. Maddux's 1987 season was a major disappointment--a 6-14 record and an earned-run average over 5.00--but his 1992 stats are astonishing. 20-11, a 2.18 ERA, and 270 base runners allowed in (a league-leading) 268 innings. He too is a free agent, and while the Cubs have made ample noises about signing him, he has been nowhere near as eager as Dawson to get himself back in the fold. He probably earned himself an extra $1 million a year with his 20th victory, especially if it clinched the Cy Young Award, and he had already turned down an offer that would have made him the highest-paid pitcher in baseball history.

Otherwise, the year was fairly boring for the Cubs. Mark Grace had his best season--9 homers, 79 RBI, and .307--and Ryne Sandberg had another stellar campaign--26, 87, .304--while Mike Morgan won 16 games with a 2.55 ERA and Frank Castillo established himself in the rotation with 10 wins (he moved into double figures by earning the victory on that last afternoon) and a 3.46 ERA Derrick May emerged as the player we knew he'd be in left field, batting .274 with 8 homers and 45 RBI in part-time duty. Yet the team lacked a leadoff man and a bullpen closer throughout the season, and it cost them.

On the south side, McDowell also won 20 games, but his Cy Young hopes were eclipsed by both Jack Morris and Keith Brown, who won 21 apiece to lead the league, and foremost by Dennis Eckersley, the Cubs castoff, who saved 51 games for the Oakland Athletics and was being championed as that rare thing--a dual Cy Young and MVP winner--as the season came to an end. McDowell finished with a respectable 3.18 ERA, but he got little pitching support. Kirk McCaskill. won 12 and Greg Hibbard 10, but both had ERAs above 4.00, and the bullpen was in disarray for most of the season. Thigpen staggered to a 4.75 ERA and 22 saves--most earned early in the season, before he fell from favor with both the Bill Veeck Stadium faithful and Gene Lamont. Cracks surfaced in Scott Radinsky; his 15 saves and 2.73 ERA were weighed against seven losses. Roberto Hernandez emerged as the new closer, and Thigpen--Sports Illustrated speculates--may depart in the expansion draft, his stock has fallen so low.

George Bell gave the Sox everything they wanted when they obtained him from the Cubs in the spring, he hit 25 homers, drove in 112 runs, and protected Frank Thomas in the batting order. After a rough start, Tim Raines rose to .294 on the season, with a .380 on base percentage and 102 runs scored; the brief second-half surge of the Sox was in large part tied to his recovery. Robin Ventura had another fine season--16, 93, .282, and a shot at the Gold Glove. Steve Sax, however, was a washout, hitting just .236, with an on-base percentage under .300, and he must be blamed for a large portion of the team's early inability to score; he was a hole in the second spot in the order. And Carlton Fisk's near-decent main stats--3 homers, 21 RBI, .229 in 188 at-bats--failed to cover his rapid decline; he had only eight extra-base hits all season.

The Sox finished 86-76, ten games behind the A's, but they looked very lethargic attaining even that mediocre level. This was simply not a very interesting team. Again, however, they were salvaged by an individual performance.

This summer, I devoted much of my attention to Maddux and McDowell, but I never overlooked Frank Thomas. His at-bats, especially when the game was on the line, were always tension-filled and awesome. I remember one night, with the Texas Rangers in town, when he drilled one off the right-center-field wall in the bottom of the eighth to score two runs and single-handedly alter what had been a very somnolent game, which the Sox won, 3-2. At just 24 years old, he already has the feared field presence of a great slugger: his wave of the bat as he awaits the pitcher's delivery is almost as menacing as Willie Stargell's propeller motion. Really, in just two full seasons, he has put up the numbers of an eventual member of the Hall of Fame. Last year: 32 homers, 109 RBI, a .318 batting average, and a league-leading .453 on-base percentage, based on a league-leading 138 walks. This year, a measly 24 homers, but 115 RBI and a .323 batting average and a league-leading .439 on-base percentage, based on a league-leading 122 walks.

Let's make this clear. A number of Chicago baseball ignoramuses have criticized Thomas for taking too many pitches, for being too disciplined at the plate, for leaving Bell the dirty work of driving in runs. Nothing could be stupider. Walks are important; not only has Thomas driven in 100 runs in both full major-league seasons, he has scored 100 runs in both. The numbers he is putting up at the age of 24 place him in the baseball pantheon. If he gets much better--and next year, with a diluted talent pool brought on by expansion, he won't have to get much better to get a whole lot better--he'll be frightening. With warmer weather and weaker pitching next season, Thom could begin to put up some monster numbers. He is already the best ball player to come to Chicago in at least 30 years, the sort of player a team builds around.

He knows it too, which, again, some fans consider a problem. Thomas didn't actively campaign for the MVP Award this season--he seems resigned to the talk of an Eckersley sweep--but he has said that he deserves the award and that his stats are superior to anyone else's in the majors. That's bold talk for a 24-year-old error-prone first baseman--Joe Carter, for one, compares well with 34 homers and 119 RBI for the first-place Toronto Blue Jays, although his all-around numbers don't approach Thomas's. Yet, whether he knows how good he is or not--and with baseball's owners behaving the way they are, who's to say that's a point against him?--Thomas is the single best baseball player in Chicago. He probably will be for a long time. just watch.

That final Sunday it was chilly in the shade of the upper deck, and Dawson's home run was thrill enough for the day--if not for the season. Yet, sentimentalists that we are, we decided to wait around to sing with Harry Caray at the seventh-inning stretch. He was completely attuned to our mood, and gushed about what a fine, exciting season it's been, even as it's been disappointing, and he finished, with perfect intonation, "Wait until 1993." God, baseball, how does it do that, year after year, revive itself with its own instant nostalgia? For however long it's gone this time we'll miss it, and we'll have the images of Frank Thomas and Andre Dawson, awaiting the pitch, to help us occupy the time.

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