"Chewing up the scenery" is what they call it in theatrical circles—that is, the uncontrollable urge of ham actors to overplay their parts. In Cleveland last week, a couple of troupes of baseball performers showed how gloriously amusing such emoting can be when the hams have talent. For four days the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago White Sox played Division Showdown at Jacobs Field as farce, drama and burlesque, with numerous aerial bombs added for spectacle. Before it was over, even the prop men and carpenters had taken center stage, and if it isn't acclaimed as the season's best show so far, the critics are blind.
In pure baseball terms, of course, it was merely the two best teams in the American League Central Division winding up their season series in July instead of late September, when such showdowns are usually staged. By winning 4-2 on Sunday the White Sox gained a split of the four-game series, maintained a two-game lead over the Indians and left town with a tenuous advantage for a playoff spot, should a players' strike end the regular season (following story).
There were all the conventional baseball star turns—six Tribe homers on Friday night, including shots on three consecutive at bats by third baseman Jim Thome; a spirited slugging duel over the first three games between the teams' two big bangers, Frank Thomas of Chicago and Albert (Corky) Belle of Cleveland; a third-game pitching gem by the Indians' fifth starter, Jason Grimsley; a dazzling, series-long display of hitting and baserunning by Cleveland leadoff hitter Kenny Lofton; and a three-RBI performance by Julio Franco of the Sox in Sunday's finale.
But the performances beneath the bright lights were only half the show. There was also the offstage intrigue concerning Belle's bat that had begun a week earlier, during a series between the two teams in Chicago. In a game on July 15, Sox manager Gene Lamont accused Belle of using an illegal corked bat, and the umpires confiscated the bat. But before it could be examined, it was mysteriously pilfered from the umps' dressing room. Though the culprit has never been identified, the bat was produced later by the Indians and, indeed, found to be corked—an offense for which Belle will serve a 10-day suspension should he lose his appeal this week to American League president Bobby Brown.
Since last week's series in Cleveland started just four days after the one in Chicago, the Indians and the Sox were suddenly reputed to be bitter rivals. Chicago fans condemned Belle as an ethical pariah. Tribe loyalists ridiculed Lamont as a weasel. From the West came the call "Cheaters!" From the East, "Whiners!"
Professionals fanned the flames. "Two angry, venomous teams," wrote a fulminating Chicago columnist, were engaged in "baseball's meanest grudge match in years." Stirring the bubbling pot, the Cleveland Plain Dealer reminded its readers that 35 years ago—which was the last time the Indians hosted a meaningful series—it was the same dastardly White Sox who swept four games and condemned the Tribe to decades of despair.
The players, one has to report, took the imagined grudge match about as seriously as they take autograph requests. "Thirty-five years ago? I wasn't even born then," said a bewildered Jason Bere, the White Sox' starter in the second game. An expansive Thomas, holding court while cleaning his dinner plate after Chicago's 6-5 victory last Thursday night, was more blunt. "You can try to build a rivalry there," he challenged reporters, "but it's just not going to happen."
Ah, but what about the managers—Lamont and the Indians' Mike Hargrove? Before Thursday's game, the two skippers met in the tunnel behind home plate and had words.
"See you later, Grove," said Lamont.
"See ya, Gene-o," said Hargrove.