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6. Chicago Cubs
Team Page | Schedule | Roster

An anemic offense may get well if Rondell White can figure out how to stay well

By Jeff Pearlman

 

When the fragile White has been free of nagging injuries, he has demonstrated the capability to hit for both average and power.  Brett Coomer/AP
ENEMY LINES
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Cubs
"Good teams go into a season with one or two questions; the Cubs have them at first base, catcher, centerfield, closer and at two of the spots in their rotation. They finally got a real third baseman in Bill Mueller , a contact hitter who'll be on base when Sammy Sosa comes up. Mueller plays the hell out of third.... The Cubs complained that Mark Grace didn't have enough power, then replaced him at first with Matt Stairs and Ron Coomer , two guys who will have about the same power numbers without the on-base percentage, average, defense and leadership that Grace gave them.... Ricky Gutierrez isn't a frontline shortstop.... Second baseman Eric Young is as good offensively as almost anyone at that position. He's adequate defensively.... What can you say about Sosa, that he's not a good fielder? That's nitpicking. He'll hit 60 and drive in 140, so who cares?... Corey Patterson is a four-tool player, but he's not ready for big league pitching. Damon Buford is a good centerfielder and has some pop for a little guy.... Rondell White is a big bat. He can't throw, but he's fine for Wrigley's short leftfield.... Will Todd Hundley ever be able to throw runners out? His arm strength is coming back, but he just doesn't have the mechanics and footwork.... Kerry Wood still has velocity and the good curve and slider.... Jon Lieber has a good sinker and a hard slider.... Kevin Tapani knows how to pitch, but his stuff is getting a little short.... Tom Gordon has looked good in camp. If he's healthy, he'll be a 40-save guy."
At first, the worst slump of Rondell White's life didn't seem so terrible. After one game he was 0 for 4. After two he was 0 for 7. After three, 1 for 11. After four, 2 for 15.

Then, things really started to go downhill. A couple of hitless games. A few 1 for 5s. A bad swing here, a good catch by an opponent there. In no time White was in a 16-for-100 swoon. This was in 1993, when White was an up-and-coming prospect with the Double A Harrisburg (Pa.) Senators, who, to the dismay of the parent Expos, didn't seem to be coming. "It was the most frustrating time of my career," says White. "One night I got home from the park, got on my knees and started crying. I said, 'Lord, let me play the way I know I can. I will pray to you every day, whether things go good for me or not.'"

The following afternoon, White went 5 for 5. He hit .328 in 90 games with Harrisburg and got a late-season call-up to Montreal. Ever since, White, who's now the Cubs' leftfielder, has been praying before every game, but not for a screaming double, a home run or a date with Halle Berry. Simply for health, guidance and wisdom.

Pray was just what White, who underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in October, did on the morning of March 13, as he was about to play his first spring game with Chicago. He asked God to watch over him and give him strength. Who could blame him? Over the course of his career, White has been to health what Robert Downey Jr. is to the antidrug movement. In the past five years he has endured seven stints on the disabled list, for injuries ranging from a fractured right ring finger to a bruised spleen to a strained right hamstring. "Part of the reason Rondell gets injured is that he knows only one way to play," says manager Don Baylor. "He always goes hard."

When he arrived in Chicago from Montreal in exchange for pitcher Scott Downs last July, White was seen as the perfect addition to a team in dire need of offensive oomph. Then he 1) failed to drive in a run in his first 14 games and 2) ended his season on Aug. 26, when he dislocated his left shoulder while sliding headfirst into second base against the Dodgers. He played just 19 games for Chicago before suffering a typical ending to another typically tough year. Chicago, meanwhile, scored only 764 runs, 11th best in the National League.

White spent this past off-season fighting back. He reported to spring training the day after Thanksgiving -- nearly three months before pitchers and catchers were scheduled to show up. It was an exciting time to be in Arizona: There was ... uhhhm ... uhhh ... "nothing to do," he says, "except work." Five days a week White endured hours of lower-body weight training and outfield sprints. "I'm stronger than I've ever been," he says. "The Cubs traded for me because they wanted a good hitter who can play all the time. I need to deliver on that." The difference between the old White and the new one is already apparent. "I don't recognize Rondell this spring," says Baylor, "because it's the first time I have seen him not limping."

When healthy, White can bat anywhere from second to fifth in the lineup. His résumé: a .294 career average, 30-home-run power, speed to steal 15 to 20 bases and a selective eye that yielded a walk every 10.9 plate appearances last year. "He'll hit doubles off the wall all day," says Baylor. "He's a beautiful guy to watch with the bat."

White is worth rooting for because he is baseball's No. 1 ordinary guy. While many an athlete making $4 million lives large with six Audis, four pools and a 400-room mansion, White still lives in Gray, Ga., the Macon suburb where he grew up. Asked whether he's close with his parents, White smiles widely. "Close?" he says. "Heck, I live 200 yards away from them." White shares a modest home with his older brother, Floyd Jr., an aspiring computer programmer. The two spend much of their leisure time at the local bowling alley, where gentle Rondell becomes Mr. Competitive. He has a 155 average, with a 211 high game. "Nobody wants to lose, because then you've gotta do push-ups," he says. "Or sometimes you've gotta do a shot." He giggles innocently -- as if "shot" is a four-letter word. "Not too often, though," he adds. "Usually, just push-ups. Nobody wants to be hurting the next day."

Issue date: March 26, 2001


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