"There was no fun last year—none," Hernandez says. "And if anybody tells you any different, they're lying to you."
An influx of veterans has enabled the retooled White Sox to bond as quickly as cement. In the off-season Chicago added pitchers Tapani and Joe Magrane, DH Harold Baines and leftfielder Tony Phillips, all of whom brought World Series experience. In addition, Darren Lewis, a centerfielder who made such spectacular catches last week that he was cheered on the road in Boston and in Baltimore, played on the Cincinnati Reds' division-winning club last year.
"I didn't get excited when we added those guys," Hernandez says. "I wanted to see the way they interacted on the field and in the clubhouse first. Then from the first day of camp I said, 'I feel good about it.' It's a good mix."
Says Phillips, "When we won those games against the teams with losing records, we started to jell. Nothing brings a team together like winning, no matter who you play. Now the next month will tell us what kind of team we have, in terms of being measured against some of the best teams."
A welcome calm has finally come to an organization that over the previous three years has endured the distractions caused by employing a football player (Bo Jackson), a basketball player (Michael Jordan) and a rock musician (Jack McDowell), to say nothing of the volatile George Bell and the comedic Kruk, who hit a single one day last year, took himself out of the game and retired.
Last week Jordan was still casting a long shadow over the White Sox, this time as the leader of the winningest pro basketball team of all time. These Sox, though, hardly mind Chicago's preoccupation with the Bulls, even if it partly explained a 13% drop in attendance from last year. "I'd love to see the Bulls play for the next two months," said shortstop Ozzie Guillen last week. "We'll just keep winning and sneaking up on people."
The whisper-quiet Baines and the talkative Phillips are the ying and the yap of this coagulating team. They were born 40 days apart in 1959, the year the White Sox last played in the World Series, and they both start their swings with an exaggerated pumping action of their hands, as if churning butter. In the lineup they also provide support in front of and behind Thomas, the superlative slugger who remains the foundation of the Sox. Phillips, the leadoff hitter, reached base 125 times in the first 60 games; Baines was hitting .313 at week's end with 48 RBIs, while often hitting fourth behind Thomas. Baines, who played in Chicago from 1980 through '89, returned to the White Sox as a free agent after Baltimore showed no interest in retaining him despite a typically underappreciated season in '95. He hit .299 last season, the fifth time in his major league career that he has missed hitting .300 by seven points or less. "No doubt he's right up there with the best, and he helps me get better pitches," says Thomas, who nonetheless on June 4 at Fenway Park joined Tony Muser (1973) as the only White Sox players to draw five walks in a game. "It was ridiculous. As long as we make them pay, though, I don't care."
Thomas drew 51 walks in the first 60 games, tying him with Phillips for the league lead, but he still provided heavy-duty offense: a .348 average, 18 dingers and a major-league-best 66 RBIs. At week's end Thomas had reached base in every game but one this year and all but 10 of 205 games over the past two years. He was on pace to reach base 354 times, a total exceeded only by Babe Ruth (379 in 1923) and Ted Williams (358 in '49).
"This team is going to score runs," Hernandez says. "The one thing that will determine how far we go is the 11 or 12 guys throwing the baseball."
Hernandez, who blew 10 saves last season, is now the most reliable pitcher on the Chicago staff. He finished strongly last year after teammate Craig Grebeck noticed he was tipping his pitches. Hernandez kept his left index finger on the back of his glove when throwing a fastball and lifted it when throwing a breaking ball. He solved the problem by attaching a narrow leather sleeve on the back of his glove in which to slip the finger. Presto. Hernandez got two more saves last weekend and had converted 29 of his last 30 save opportunities through Sunday, including a club-record 19 straight. He had permitted only two runs in 29⅓ innings (0.61 ERA) with a fastball that had been clocked at 100.5 mph, about 5 mph faster than last year. "I'm 31 years old," he says, "but my arm feels like it's 25 or 26."