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AL CENTRAL: Chicago White Sox
Tim Crothers
March 23, 1998
FLYING ON MANUEL PILOT
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March 23, 1998

Al Central: Chicago White Sox

FLYING ON MANUEL PILOT

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By The numbers

1997 Team Statistics (AL rank)

BATTING AVERAGE

.273 (6)

RUNS SCORED

740 (8)

HOME RUNS

158 (10)

1997 record: 80-81 (second in AL Central)

OPP. BATTING AVG.

.271 (8)

ERA

4.73 (10)

FIELDING PCT.

.978 (13)

Ten minutes before his first full-squad spring workout as the White Sox manager, Jerry Manuel thumbed through a dog-eared paperback copy of The Essential Gandhi, found a passage to share with a visitor and then placed the book atop a stack of tomes on his desk that included the Bible and a text about the power of Dr. Martin Luther King's speeches. Call those books Manuel's manuals. In those pages he says he finds inner strength and humility, which naturally elicits a question about Albert Belle. Not surprisingly, Manuel's responses tend to sound a little like prophecies.

"If you institute rules without having relationships, that equals rebellion," said Manuel, sipping from his Isaiah 40:31 coffee mug. "I'm here to change these players' hearts to the commitment it takes to win a world championship, and that might be uncomfortable for a while. I've never had to push my teams through a wall. I want my teams to run through a wall wideout being pushed."

Talk about the irresistible force and the immovable object. Jerry Manuel, meet the White Sox. This serene man who has never managed a full season above Double A has been handed the reins of baseball's most churlish team of recent years. Despite having the majors' second-best record in the '90s—behind only Atlanta—Chicago has produced only one division title and four second-place finishes in the decade. (They were also in first place when the strike-shortened '94 season ended prematurely.) "In recent seasons this team just hasn't played as well as it is capable of playing," White Sox general manager Ron Schueler admits. "I question at times the intensity we've taken out on the field. It's as if our club has thought it was good enough to turn it on and off."

Management's lack of faith in its players was never so clear as it was on last July 31. After an off-season of trying to purchase a pennant by signing free agents Belle ($55 million) and pitcher Jaime Navarro ($20 million), the White Sox suddenly gave up on the American League Central race, trading the guts of their pitching staff—closer Roberto Hernandez, ace lefthander Wilson Alvarez and sometime-starter Danny Darwin—to the Giants for six undistinguished minor leaguers. Explaining the controversial deal, owner Jerry Reinsdorf said, "Anyone who thinks this club can catch Cleveland is crazy." At the time Chicago was just 3½ games behind the Indians with 57 games remaining, which prompted third baseman Robin Ventura to say, "I thought the season ended in October."

Reinsdorf considered his club's poor attendance—eighth in the league—and surmised correctly that the fans despised their own team. So after the season, Chicago also dumped veterans Ron Karkovice and Ozzie Guillen. The '98 White Sox are rebuilding with a lineup that will be younger than last year's by about two years per man and will also be $20 million cheaper. Apparently, the franchise is adopting the philosophy that if you're going to lose, you might as well do it economically.

"We have more unknowns on this team, but I don't think we're underdogs," first baseman Frank Thomas says. "I think we're still a force to be reckoned with, but I'm happy if everybody else believes differently."

The White Sox should have no trouble scoring runs with Belle, Thomas and a full season out of Ventura, who missed 99 games at the start of the '97 campaign with a broken right ankle. But the pitching is shaky at best. The top two returning starters are Navarro and James Baldwin, who combined for a 21-29 record and a 5.54 ERA in '97 Unless new catcher Charlie O'Brien, who has caught Cy Young winners in each of the past four seasons, can work some magic on Chicago's young pitchers, things could quickly go south on the South Side. "I know there will be tough times as we develop this team," Manuel says. "But I believe it is my time to go through the fire. That's part of the process that makes gold."

Speaking of which, Manuel is pleased to report that just as he pondered his initial approach to Belle, the mercurial left-fielder showed up unannounced at the manager's office and expressed a burning desire "to play more than 162 games." One morning early in training camp Belle was even spotted smiling. Twice. Belle was wearing a faded T-shirt issued after the infamous trade last season, a garment bearing a message that assumes even greater import in '98. On the front it says, CHICAGO LEFTOVERS. And on the back it reads, WE MIGHT JUST BE DUMB ENOUGH TO WIN THIS.

It ain't Gandhi, but it's a start.

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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