Lefthander Mark Buehrle caused a bit of concern in the White Sox organization during the off-season when he turned to Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty at a banquet and told him that he would love St. Louis to acquire him. When the comment made it into the Chicago newspapers, White Sox general manager Kenny Williams expressed disappointment in Buehrle, whose 3.29 ERA was the lowest among American League lefties last year. That in turn prompted the 22-year-old Buehrle to quickly make it clear that he wasn't looking to leave. "C'mon, I was kidding," he said. "I grew up a Cards fan, but I love Chicago. It was a joke."
On the first day of spring training Buehrle arrived at his locker and found a Cardinals cap waiting for him. That too was a gag, by his teammates, which is a positive sign for the White Sox. Their clubhouse wasn't exactly Comedy Central last season, with finger-pointing among the players and an alarming number of injuries, including Frank Thomas's torn right triceps. The big injury ended the Big Hurt's season after just 20 games and effectively ended Chicago's too.
The dark mood has been lifted, at least temporarily. Thomas has declared himself to be healthy and capable of putting up the kind of numbers to which the Sox have become accustomed, something along the lines of his 43 homers, 143 RBIs and .328 batting average of 2000. It also helps that David Wells, the outspoken pitcher who accused Thomas of being unwilling to play in pain (before it was discovered that the pain was from the torn triceps), is gone. Wells accomplished the nearly impossible, making the often surly Thomas seem like a sympathetic figure.
Thomas will never lead the league in smiles, but he understands the importance of making sure that the Sox clubhouse is as cheerful a place as it was when Chicago won the American League Central two years ago. "I'm going to do what I can to be a much happier person," he says. "In this clubhouse we can't have any nagging or complaining."
If Thomas is back to his old, slugging self, he will combine with first baseman Paul Konerko and underrated rightfielder Magglio Ordo�ez to give the White Sox a potent middle of the batting order. Manager Jerry Manuel believes that the free-agent signing of centerfielder Kenny Lofton, 34, will create even more RBI opportunities, though Williams hedged his bet by signing Lofton to a one-year, incentive-laden contract.
Lofton is clearly no longer the player who set an Indians team record with 75 steals in 1998. Age and injuries slowed him down to 16 thefts in 24 attempts last year, but he can still run down balls in the gaps. Along with second baseman Ray Durham, the No. 2 hitter, he will help energize the offense. "I've never been on a team with this much speed," says the 6'5", 270-pound Thomas. "I told Konerko we're the only two guys on the team who won't have a green light to run."
The run production should be high enough to ensure that Chicago's young, promising pitching staff doesn't feel too much of a burden. Buehrle won 16 games in his first full year, and righthander Jon Garland, 22, is a candidate for that kind of breakthrough season this year. Righthander Todd Ritchie, 30, won 11 games for the Pirates last year, and with the better run support he can expect from the White Sox, he should add several more wins to that total. With Keith Foulke, who saved 42 games last season, settled into the closer's role, Chicago has good reason to feel that it can reclaim the division title from Cleveland. To do so, it will have to keep Thomas healthy—and the clubhouse happy—all year.
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