By Ted Cox
The dark clouds that hung over the White Sox for most of last season gathered again, right on cue, for this year's opening day. The Sox were already expecting a modest crowd in the low 30,000s, though they hoped a forecast of clearing weather would encourage fans hungry for spring and baseball to come out at the last minute and raise attendance above that. It wasn't to be. When we left the house a week ago Tuesday morning the weather was cold and threatening. As we got off the train at 35th and the Dan Ryan, dark and apparently bottom-heavy clouds were roiling in from the southwest. One colleague from the southwest suburbs, bastion of Sox fans, later told us he saw snowflakes as he drove in on the Stevenson.
The announced attendance was 34,750, but that was tickets sold, not fans in the stands. The actual attendance was more like 25,000, and that was counting the people hidden, as we happened to be, in one of the warm enclosed suites. There weren't 20,000 fans in the actual seats. Later, when the clouds actually did clear away, those fans had no trouble moving down the third-base line, in both the grandstand and the upper deck, to find unoccupied seats in the sun. Taken in time-lapse photography, the stadium would have suggested a huge sundial. But here the time that counts is long past the witching hour of midnight--about a year and a half past, to be exact.
The Sox remain one of the teams that have been most hurt by the 1994 baseball strike, one of the teams most in need of a public-relations boost and a new compact with the fans. Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf seems to recognize this; after the team's woeful opening day performance at the turnstiles he staged a personal PR blitz, turning up everywhere on the radio dial from the Score, the all-sports station, with midday hosts Mike North and Dan Jiggetts, to the Sunday-morning discussion program At Issue with John Madigan on WBBM AM. Unfortunately for Reinsdorf, a higher public profile wasn't likely to help anything. He is still widely blamed for the strike as one of the hawks among the owners, and quite frankly nothing he might say at this point will remove that impression.
Baseball fans are not stupid. They are also not the gullible, inattentive consumers Reinsdorf seems to think they are. For baseball fans, actions--on and off the field--will always speak louder than words; and the actions of Sox management continue to show a contempt for the fan base. At the new Comiskey Park there is now a revolving sign behind home plate--an ever-present reminder, both at the game and on television, that the team will stoop to almost anything to bring in a few extra dollars. Where the team on the field is concerned, the off-season saw ownership take a patchwork approach to mending a roster with gaping holes. General manager Ron Schueler did a generally savvy job of putting together a presentable squad, given the budget constraints forced on him by Reinsdorf. Yet that did nothing to alter the public perception that Schueler is little more than a bitter little shopkeeper and bean counter assigned to run the store while Reinsdorf is away. His act of firing manager Gene Lamont a year ago and then blaming it on excessive player salaries still sticks in the craw--of both fans and, we imagine, players.
Actions speak louder than words, huh? To that cliche let us add "You've got to spend money to make money." Rarely has that business adage been as applicable as it is in baseball in the poststrike era. The fans want to be assured that their team is doing its utmost to win. Give them that assurance first and they'll come out. Look at Cleveland, where the Indians spent money a year ago on free agents like Eddie Murray and Orel Hershiser. When the Indians went to the World Series last year--in the process leaving the Sox 32 games back in the regular-season standings--the stir they created led them to sell out the entire 1996 season before opening day, a feat unprecedented in baseball history. This in turn gave the team the money to spend on additional free agents like former Sox Jack McDowell and Julio Franco. In the National League the Colorado Rockies spent money on free agents who put the team in the playoffs in only its third season of existence--another unprecedented accomplishment. In response the Denver fans--already delighted simply to have major-league baseball in their midst--turned out in droves. While we've heard a few rumblings about the team not doing a better job of acquiring pitching help during the off-season, the Rockies did sign the popular Dante Bichette to a long-term contract, assuring fan loyalty.
By contrast, what did the Sox do during the off-season? They rehired budget-priced Terry Bevington as manager, even though Tony LaRussa was available and reportedly willing to return to Chicago. (He eventually signed with the Saint Louis Cardinals--at over $1 million a year.) They maintained the pitching staff that struggled last year, spackling with budget-priced Kevin Tapani and untested minor-leaguers in the bull pen. They signed the aging, reasonably priced Tony Phillips, Harold Baines, and Danny Tartabull to fill out the lineup, with the young, cheap, and available Darren Lewis replacing Lance Johnson. Yet the Sox' miserly approach almost cost them Phillips, as a few days into spring training he retired, reportedly bitter at how little he'd been able to command. Phillips turns 37 later this month, but he remains one of the best leadoff men in baseball. If he hadn't changed his mind and returned to the team, the season would have come crashing down before it started.
In short, Schueler and Reinsdorf could have begun rebuilding fan trust with a relatively small investment. The Sox merely needed to make at least one move during the winter that would get people excited again about going out to the ballpark. A good-faith gesture like rehiring LaRussa would have been enough. And they didn't do it.
The Baines signing wasn't necessarily exciting, but it did produce goodwill. On opening day Baines got a warm welcome home during introductions, then a standing ovation when he came to the plate in the first inning after a walk to Frank Thomas. Yet even Baines's return offered a reminder of the team's shabby PR. Back in 1989 they traded Baines and then retired his number. Baines has always been one of our favorite players, and his 301 lifetime homers going into this season do put him in the category of someone who deserves to have his number retired. Yet a team shouldn't retire a player's number in the middle of a season and in the middle of his career just to calm outraged fans. In the end the trade either justifies itself or not, and the retired number serves only to remind fans of what has been lost. (By the by, the Sox got Wilson Alvarez and Sammy Sosa in the deal, so it was a terrific trade by then general manager Larry Himes.) On opening day Baines was back, and his number 3--like Michael Jordan's revived 23 at the United Center--had been taken down from its hallowed spot in the grandstand behind home plate.
Another new member of the Sox, pitcher Tapani, wasn't able to make his expected start on opening day. He was a late scratch, and reliever Kirk McCaskill was assigned to replace him. McCaskill looked great for four innings but tired in the fifth, hitting the leadoff man and then allowing two hits and two runs. The Sox got them back in the bottom of the frame, when the first two men reached base with hits and Thomas lashed a great pitch, low and on the outside corner, down the first-base line for a two-run double. That was all the scoring the Sox would do, however, and one of their new generation of middle relievers, lefty Larry Thomas, gave up what turned out to be the winning run in the seventh.
The one-run loss put another potential Sox PR fiasco in the spotlight. Bevington was his usual irascible self afterward. When one reporter commented that it must be frustrating to suffer so many one-run losses, Bevington turned and said, "Is that a question? That's not a question." He'd barely kept himself under control after the one-run loss on the opening night of the season in Seattle. When asked then if he was frustrated he'd snapped "I'm not frustrated." We weren't in the locker room for the home opener but the scene was shown on every TV news program that night, and Tribune beat man Paul Sullivan, a measured writer and responsible reporter, asked outright the following day, "Will the increasingly impatient Terry Bevington go off like former manager Hal McRae once did if the Sox continue to find ways to lose?" That put into words what everyone else left unsaid.
Almost everyone around the Sox agrees that the mood of the team is much improved from a year ago, but almost everyone also agrees that Bevington is a ticking bomb. One has to think that he'll be on a much shorter leash than even Lamont was a year ago, as Lamont at least was coming off a division championship. Bevington has to win to keep his job; the team has to win to overcome fan apathy. (After opening day, attendance the rest of the week never got close to 20,000.) Baines hit a game-tying three-run homer in the ninth Saturday and the Sox won in extra innings, but the bull pen blew a 4-2 lead in the late innings Sunday and the Sox lost 10-5. Going into this week they were 4-7. Don't ask if they found it frustrating.