They are the hardest-working men in throw business. The Chicago White Sox pitching rotation is fronted by Jack McDowell, a Cy Young-winning superstar and alternative musician. But you already knew that. If you don't know Black Jack, then you don't know Jack Squat.
It is the three pitchers backing up McDowell who make Chicago's starting quartet the next Big Thing in pitching. Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere averaged 15 wins apiece last season for the White Sox, whose starters had the lowest earned run average (3.72) and most victories (76) of any rotation in the American League. None of the three has yet turned 25. (McDowell is a grizzled 28.) Hot new records played over and over on the radio are said to be in "heavy rotation." Well, this is a heavy rotation.
"Hopefully, by next year our staff will be what the Atlanta staff is now," says White Sox pitching coach Jackie Brown, alluding to the Braves' rotation, one of the best ever assembled. "That is every staff's goal: to be as good or better than Atlanta's. Our guys know they have something going on here."
Meet the Beatles, then. Or at least, meet Jason, Wilson and Alex. One is from suburban Boston. One is from Venezuela. And one is a native of Miami, a bridge of sorts between Massachusetts and Maracaibo....
How to describe Alex Fernandez? He is a car radio stuck on SCAN, his voice drifting from English to Spanish to English, filling the air with conversation and Latin salsa. He is equal parts Larry King and Mambo King, a chatty Cuban-American who is comfortable on either side of the hyphen. "Alex is...different," says Alvarez. "He's Latin, but he's American, you know? He's a Latin guy who's living the American life."
"I'm a Cuban at heart," says Fernandez, the American-born son of Cuban immigrants. "I like to eat Cuban food, and you can eat Cuban food on any corner in Miami. You can eat American food on any corner too, but I like rice and beans. Breaded steak. I like paella...."
"Fattening," tsk-tsks reliever Roberto Hernandez, who has been eavesdropping. "All fattening stuff, man." While Fernandez and Hernandez slag each other in Spanish for a full minute, we should point out that there was a time when Alex Fernandez was in danger of becoming Sid Fernandez: As a high school sophomore, Alex was 5'9" and weighed 240 pounds.
But he grew to 6'1". And he shrank to 215 pounds. He did it through old-fashioned exercise and dieting, without the aid of Cuba's most famous appetite suppressant. (The cigar, not Desi Arnaz.) "No cigars," says Fernandez. "My dad used to smoke those." He crinkles his nose.
That the AL West-winning White Sox were close-but-no-cigar last season was no fault of this 24-year-old righthander's. Fernandez went 18-9 with a 3.13 ERA and a team-high 169 strikeouts while throwing 247 innings. Last season was, in short, the fulfillment of the enormous expectations that came with being the fourth pick overall in the 1990 draft. "We were in the same draft," Bere, a 36th-round pick, notes dryly—like Walter Mondale noting that he and Reagan were in the same election. "We all went to Florida for rookie league, and you could just see it: Alex was better than everyone else."
He was so much the best that the White Sox gave him $350,000 to sign, concluding an absurdly American success story that began in 1960 when Angel and Nelly Fernandez escaped from Cuba to Miami via Spain, where they stayed briefly with relatives. While Nelly worked in a medical laboratory, Angel held down two jobs—in a hospital accounting department by day, in a T-shirt factory by night—to support the couple's two children. For the last 15 years Angel has worked a single gig, for the Hialeah Housing Authority.