Whoever put the curse on the White Sox made sure it was a good one. For the first month of the season the Sox not only played poorly on the field but were beset by bad weather, which dragged down attendance and afflicted them at home and on the road. From the first Chicago baseball games of the year, the pair of Cubs-Sox exhibitions before the season began, when the Sox were at Comiskey Park dark clouds gathered over the franchise, and when the Cubs returned to Wrigley Field the clouds parted, the skies cleared, and all was well with the world.
Last Friday the Sox returned home from a seven-game road trip, so of course a series of bright, warm days came to an abrupt end. The skies darkened throughout the day, until by mid-afternoon there was a downpour. It was weather better suited to a funeral than to a ball game. In a way that was appropriate, because the Sox were in the process of firing manager Gene Lamont.
The Sox played poorly throughout the first month of the season, but by the time they traveled to Cleveland early last week, just before their return to Chicago, they appeared to have righted themselves. They had won half their previous ten games to stabilize at five games under .500, and both their pitching and their fielding had improved after an atrocious start. The four-game set with the American League Central Division-leading Indians offered the Sox a quick chance to get back in the race. If they could win three of four they would get back within five games of the lead and reestablish themselves as legitimate contenders, in spite of the loss of pitching ace Jack McDowell and designated hitter Julio Franco during the off-season.
Yet the Sox were swept in Cleveland, and the way they lost those four games was brutal. Wilson Alvarez and the bull pen blew a six-run lead in the opener. Then ace Alex Fernandez committed an eighth-inning error that gave the Tribe the game-winning run in a 2-1 pitchers' duel. Then three Chicago errors led to four unearned runs in a 6-3 loss. And finally the Indians just plain whipped the Sox 7-4, to put Chicago nine games under .500 at 11-20 and 11 games out of first place. The Sox returned home last in the league in fielding, with eight more errors than the next-worst team in three fewer games. The pitchers had allowed the most walks in the league and were next to last in earned run average. And, while their hitting was respectable overall, the Sox had amassed the second-highest number of runners left on base.
The worst thing about the four-game sweep was that owner Jerry Reinsdorf had made the trip to Cleveland. There is no darker omen for a baseball manager than when the owner or general manager travels with the team. Upon their return, general manager Ron Schueler summoned Lamont, pitching coach Jackie Brown, and bull pen coach Rick Peterson to his Comiskey Park office and fired them all, replacing Lamont with third-base coach Terry Bevington and adding AAA pitching coach Don Cooper.
Chemistry is an elusive, almost mystical thing in baseball. It's not like basketball, where when players are not playing together balls sail out of bounds with an obvious and distressing regularity. Baseball, while a team sport, is for the most part an individual game: pitcher versus hitter, base runner versus fielder. Yet chemistry is talked about in baseball just as it is in any other sport. The issue, however, is confined for the most part to the dugout, the clubhouse, and the places players gather (if they gather) after games and on the road. And these are circumstances not even sportswriters are privy to--especially if we make it clear that we're talking about the dugout during the game and the clubhouse immediately before and after. What's more, while a successful team usually gives off a pleasant and noticeable hum around the batting cage and in the clubhouse, there are bad teams loose to the point of being glib and good teams businesslike to the point of near silence. Win-loss record aside, things in general have to get almost poisonous in a clubhouse--as they were with the Cubs last season--before even a baseball beat writer can say with confidence that the chemistry is simply bad on a team. So there is a mystery behind baseball chemistry. Good chemistry is probably best described as the prevailing attitude that each player is secure in his role and confident that he can do his job from day to day. Bad chemistry is when a team is troubled by doubt, or worse yet, by apathy. And for better or worse, perhaps because his actual game duties are relatively set and straightforward compared with those of coaches in other sports, a baseball manager is considered, above all, the caretaker of team chemistry. When things go bad, he's the first to go.
Lamont was a manager who respected the players and their abilities and expected them to take care of themselves. When things were going well, as they were the last couple of years, the Sox first winning their division and then leading it going into last summer's strike, that was the best approach for the team. But when things went bad this season Lamont found himself powerless to change things. "Gene was the type of guy who expected to win and expected guys to play themselves," Frank Thomas said Friday after the announcement was made. "Bev's gonna be there to make sure you do things."
Thomas said, "There's a way of going about things that I think was slipping a little bit in the clubhouse. A lot of complacency. Guys, I think, had grown accustomed to losing." He described Bevington as "a hard-assed, fired-up guy" who "will definitely affect the preparation, because Bev expects a lot more," and added, "The day-to-day preparation will be monitored a little bit more for every player."
Complicating everything is the fact that as good as the Sox are on paper--and they clearly ought to be one of the best teams in baseball--they are not the team they were a year ago, thanks to the losses of McDowell, Franco, and right fielder Darrin Jackson. Bevington, in his first managerial media conference, struck a humble, no-nonsense pose, but also confronted this issue directly by making a distinction between talent and ability.
"You want to ask, do we have as much ability as last year?" he said. "I don't know. But I know this. Last year we played with more talent. When you utilize your ability, that's now talent. I think right now we have enough ability to win but we haven't played with enough talent.
"I make up my own definitions," he later explained. "Talent to me is used ability."
This distinction was lost on most reporters (as it was on some of the players: after Bevington held a pregame clubhouse meeting, Fernandez said, "Bev said something interesting. He said everybody has the talent. You've got to have the ability to use your talent"). But it's fair to assume that Bevington's ability as a rhetorician will have little effect on his talent as a manager.
After all, a manager can only do so much. For his first game, Bevington moved rookie Ray Durham back down in the lineup, after Lamont had recently tried to reinsert him in the pressure-packed spot at the top of the order. Bevington also flip-flopped Lance Johnson and Tim Raines, putting Raines in the leadoff spot and batting Johnson second. He also sat left-handed-hitting third baseman Robin Ventura against David Wells, the left-handed starter for the Detroit Tigers last Friday, but that's a move anyone might have made. What was more important was the mood Bevington created. And by beating a path to the mound, where pitcher Brian Keyser was making his major-league debut, he immediately established himself as a hands-on manager.
Thomas homered in the bottom of the first off a hellacious pitch, a low, slow-speed curve on the outside corner. Wells, having pitched as carefully as he could, looked off into the distance in disbelief. But then the Tigers put together three straight hits off Keyser to score twice in the second. The Sox tied it in the fourth, and then both teams scored in the sixth when each was incapable of turning an inning-ending double play with a runner on third. From there, Bevington went to the bull pen, and he matched Detroit manager Sparky Anderson pitching change for pitching change into extra innings. In his debut, Bevington also established himself as a patient, cautious offensive manager, with a fondness for the sacrifice bunt in a close game and a reluctance to put on plays like the hit-and-run. In the 9th the Sox loaded the bases with one out, but Raines was thrown out at home on a short fly to center. The Sox put two on in the 12th and 13th, but in both cases they failed to get the big hit Bevington was waiting for. In the 15th Raines dropped a pop fly, and the Tigers loaded the bases with one out. Bevington played the infield back, and the Tigers scored the go-ahead run on a ground out. In the bottom of the inning, against Detroit closer Mike Henneman, Durham led off with an infield single and stole second. Mike LaValliere drove him in with a single to right. And then Ozzie Guillen slapped his third double of the game down the left-field line, and LaValliere came huffing and puffing all the way around to win the game.
"Good game, I'll never forget it," Bevington said in his office, after taking care to hide a big bottle of beer behind his desk, out of the view of TV cameras. "I'll remember a lot of things about that game." He sounded like a kid in the backseat of a car as it crawls out of the stadium lot on the ride home.
If nothing else, that enthusiasm should be just what the Sox need in the short term. The following night the starting pitching failed again, but the Sox ralled from a 6-1 deficit to win 10-6 on a grand-slam homer by Dave Martinez in the bottom of the ninth. And on Sunday the Sox rallied from a 3-1 deficit to score four in the bottom of the eighth and claim a 5-3 lead. However, the Tigers scored five in the ninth and won 8-5.
Improved outlook notwithstanding, a curse hovers over the White Sox. If "curse" seems too strong or ridiculous a word, call it karma or the chickens coming home to roost, because the Sox seem the agents of their own undoing. Specifically, Reinsdorf at this point seems cursed the way Thomas Sutpen was in William Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom! "I had a design," Sutpen says, but by that time the Civil War is over, his land is lost, his plantation is in ruins, and his family is destroying itself from within. As one of the instigators of baseball's labor strife, Reinsdorf helped end a season in which his team had as good a chance as any to emerge as champions. The loss of Franco and the trade of McDowell were both direct fallout from the strike (the McDowell move particularly can be attributed to Reinsdorf and Schueler misjudging how the strike would end). Now not only the fans but also, it appears, his players hold a grudge, and Reinsdorf's overseer, Schueler, did nothing to heal these wounds when he said last Friday, "A lot of the blame lies over there in the clubhouse with the players," and went on to cite high salaries as a cause of complacency.
"It's easier to fire one guy than 25 guys" is a baseball cliche that was repeated numerous times last weekend. "Winning changes everything" is another handy phrase. But at this point it will take an awful lot of winning to take the curse off the White Sox.