Those Sagging Sox
Chicago's lifeless South Siders are dropping fast in the American League Central
A certain former White Sox farmhand appeared on the television inside Chicago's clubhouse late last Friday night at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Michael Jordan's visage loomed there for all to see as he stood on the brink of leading the Bulls to their sixth championship in the past eight years. By contrast, Jordan's former parent club had just lost for the 38th time in its first 64 games this season. The players were pulling off the uniforms of a franchise that hadn't won a championship in 80 years—and was well on its way to 81.
Jerry Reinsdorf, who owns the Bulls and the White Sox, can thank his NBA team for gobbling up most of Chicago's attention in recent months, but it won't be much longer before the White Sox will begin enduring direct and humiliating comparisons with the rejuvenated Cubs, who swept their crosstown rivals in inter-league play two weeks ago. Soon it will become sport in Chicago to crack wise about that awful smell emanating from the South Side, from those malodorous Sox. "We stink," said righthander Jaime Navarro after a recent shutout loss against the Tigers. "You call this a team? Bull. It's like a cemetery, a bunch of dead dogs. It's not fun anymore. We've looked like a Triple A team out there."
To locate one of the team's main weaknesses, Navarro need look no further than the mirror. Masquerading as the ace of the White Sox, Navarro had a 5-8 record with a 5.28 ERA at week's end. No White Sox starter had an ERA below 4.77, and the 5.67 team mark was the worst in the league. Meanwhile, the team was 12th in the league in fielding percentage, thanks largely to rookie shortstop Mike Caruso and second baseman Ray Durham, who have combined for 24 errors. And on offense, Frank Thomas has often griped that the umps have unfairly enlarged his strike zone and that he's seen few good pitches. Also outfielder Mike Cameron, the team's top prospect, was hitting .207 and nearly got sent to the minors last week. "If games are won with pitching and defense, then it doesn't take a genius to add up why we're losing," third baseman Robin Ventura says. "Bad defense can make pitchers throw bad pitches, which puts extra pressure on the offense. The problems tend to snowball." After 67 games the Sox hadn't had a winning streak longer than two games and were 11½ games behind the Indians in the Central Division and 12½ behind the Red Sox in the wild-card race.
With a mid-range $36.8 million payroll, the White Sox are receiving precious little bang for the buck. Reinsdorf has admitted it was a mistake to commit $75 million before last season to free agents Albert Belle and Navarro, two players the team would love to be rid of if anybody would take them. What's worse, those inflated contracts may force general manager Ron Schueler to trade Ventura, the team's most popular player, rather than watch him leave as a free agent after the season.
For all of Reinsdorf's rhetoric last year about having a more fan-friendly team, he still signed Wil Cordero, an admitted wife beater, and is stuck with Belle, who isn't exactly lovable. "We're being told to be more fan friendly, but what good does all that do when you're not winning?" Belle says. "What is there to be happy about? It's difficult for me; it should be difficult for all of us."
It's not surprising that the White Sox attendance, which averages 15,829, ranks 26th in the majors, but it is a little shocking that the team is being outdrawn by the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer. Then again, who wants to watch miserable men play ugly baseball?
Meanwhile, rookie manager Jerry Manuel, an admirer of Gandhi, is trying desperately to remain patient, the calm eye in a surly storm. "We have a lot of young players, and growth is painful," Manuel says. "As a tooth grows into a baby's mouth, that can hurt. We're teething now, and I sure hope that means that we're growing, because we're in a lot of pain."
Paradise in Pittsburgh
John, Paul, George and Ringo never took on a fifth Beatle, but if they had, chances are they would have picked another mop-topped Liverpudlian. Perhaps that's why Jason Schmidt never panned out as the Braves' fifth starter in 1996. Atlanta's Fab Four—Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, John Smoltz and the since-departed Steve Avery—were a homogenous group of experienced vets, family men who played golf together. Schmidt was a single rookie who, when making one of his rare ventures onto the links, would, in his words, "just get out there and hack."