Robin Ventura invested four months of sweat equity recovering from an ankle broken so grotesquely in the spring that the sight of it made one of his teammates vomit. Then last Thursday, only six games into his astounding ahead-of-schedule comeback, the Chicago White Sox third baseman walked into the visitors' clubhouse of Anaheim Stadium and knew something was terribly wrong. "Guys were sitting around on couches," Ventura said, "looking like their dog had just been run over."
The news spread quickly. Righthander Jaime Navarro blurted out, "Nice team. Nice f——— team! What the heck is going on around here?" Eight months after signing Albert Belle to the biggest contract in major league history and with his ball club only 3½ games behind the first-place Cleveland Indians with more than a third of the season left to play. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf committed one of the most egregious breaches of honor in the arena of competition—he quit. Reinsdorf conceded the American League Central title to the Indians, the juggernaut that had just completed a 4-10 home stand, and then cleared general manager Ron Schueler to trade his closer, righthander Roberto Hernandez; his best starting pitcher, southpaw Wilson Alvarez; and one of his most consistent pitchers, righty Danny Darwin. The San Francisco Giants benefited from Reinsdorf's flop upon his sword by getting all three pitchers in a trade for six minor leaguers, only one of whom is considered a top-flight prospect.
Chicago's Men in Black? Don't bother watching, was Reinsdorf's review. Lamar Alexander will go down as having lasted longer in his race than the White Sox owner. Not even Jack Kevorkian pulls the plug this quickly. "Anyone who thinks this White Sox team will catch Cleveland is crazy," Reinsdorf said last week. He apparently forgot that in each of the past two seasons teams that were in worse shape than his club on July 31 still reached the playoffs—the 1995 Seattle Mariners, who were 11 games out of a postseason berth, and the '96 Baltimore Orioles, who were 10 games back. Reinsdorf took his place in sports infamy among boxer Roberto Duran (No más), his Chicago Bulls forward Scottie Pippen (No shot) and boxer-turned-Marine-for-a-minute Riddick Bowe (No, sir).
"This is tough to take." Ventura said. "I've never heard of a contender giving up before August. If I had known it was going to be like this, I would have taken my time and gotten ready for next year. I still can't figure out why it happened. And you know what? I don't think I ever will understand, and I don't think I want to know."
First baseman Frank Thomas, the White Sox's best player, who is signed through 1998 with two option years for the club, reacted to questions from Chicago reporters about the trade with detached understanding. He declined to be interviewed for this article.
The White Sox quickly took on a hangdog look, losing a weekend series to the Anaheim Angels. On Friday and Saturday they played poorly behind a pair of rookies, lefthander Scott Eyre (called up from Double A Birmingham after the trade) and righthander Chris Clemons, who were making their first major league starts. Clemons and Eyre—who upon his arrival waited nearly three hours at Orange County's John Wayne Airport on the incorrect assumption that the White Sox would send a car to pick him up—yielded 11 runs in seven innings combined. They are two of seven rookies now on the roster, including Nelson Cruz, a righthanded reliever who was out of baseball from 1992 through '94, when he worked as a car salesman's aide and played sandlot ball in South Florida.
What gives, other than Reinsdorf's resolve? The spin from Reinsdorf and Schueler was that dumping the 32-year-old Hernandez (5-1 with 27 saves and a 2.44 ERA at the time of the trade) and the 27-year-old Alvarez (9-8, 3.03) was a preemptive strike against losing them as free agents following the season and getting nothing in return. (In fact, the White Sox would have obtained two additional high draft picks for each departure, as they did after righthander Alex Fernandez left following last season.) The two best prospects they received from the Giants, 20-year-old shortstop Mike Caruso and 19-year-old righthander Lorenzo Barcelo, are thought to be at least two years from the majors. The other prospects are considered more marginal: pitchers Keith Foulke, Bobby Howry and Ken Vining and outfielder Brian Manning.
So hard did Reinsdorf strain to sell the deal to the astonished Chicago fans and media that he gushed he had not been "this pumped" since his Bulls obtained Pippen and Horace Grant in 1987 to complement Michael Jordan. Of course. Winning five NBA titles and one American League West title and signing Belle can't possibly match the rush of getting Bobby Howry.
Left unsaid by Reinsdorf was his culpability in two colossal mistakes that contributed to this surrender: investments in the new Comiskey Park and in Belle, one as charmless as the other. Reinsdorf was a pioneer in demanding public money to finance a stadium. But he didn't see the coming craze for immensely profitable retro-styled, quaint urban ballparks. He wound up with a Betamax ballpark, a monstrous symmetrical bowl in an undesirable neighborhood, that was dated almost as soon as it opened. On the same night that Reinsdorf cited a lack of fan support as contributing to his unloading of players, the last-place Cubs drew 39,145 across town at cozy Wrigley Field, or 15,549 more than the White Sox's season average, which ranks eighth in the American League.
"Comiskey Park is too big for baseball," shortstop Ozzie Guillen says. "What they should do is give it to the Chicago Bears instead of building a new stadium for them, and build a new ballpark for us. [But] I understand Jerry made a business decision. The fans in Cleveland could be mad if this happened to them, because they support their team. In Chicago, if you don't support the team, why should you be mad? The fans have to look in the mirror."