Jerry Manuel is an instinctual manager, given to playing hunches as often as percentages. This is a big reason why second-guessing the Chicago White Sox skipper is the South Side's midsummer pastime, but it's also why, when Manuel has a gut feeling, he merits attention. Twice in the last three weeks Manuel has made predictions—that his club would take three straight from the Tigers and two straight from the Royals—and both proved correct. "Sometimes you get a feel, from being in it so much, when things are getting ready to happen," says Manuel, who has preserved his equanimity despite near-daily speculation about his job security during the past three months. "You have to know that these things can come to pass, and you have to have faith that they will."
Thanks to a power surge keyed by rightfielder Magglio Ordo�ez and first baseman Paul Konerko, Chicago, which has always believed it's the class of the AL Central, has justified its manager's bottomless optimism. From the All-Star break through Sunday the White Sox had hit .301 after batting .245 in the first half, while improving their runs per game to 6.4 from 4.2 and their home runs to 2.1 from 1.1, and they had gone 17-6, the best record in the majors. Sunday's 5-1 home win over the Oakland A's, coupled with the Kansas City Royals' 7-3 victory at Tampa Bay, left Chicago a half-game back in the American League Central, a dramatic reversal of fortune for a club that four weeks ago was eight games out in baseball's weakest division.
By batting .389 with five home runs and 18 RBIs over the last 23 games through Sunday, Ordo�ez had taken off, and he believes he hasn't peaked. Accustomed to leisurely winters dotted with trips to his native Venezuela, where he has a cottage in the seaside village of La Guaira, Ordo�ez instead chose to work out hard last winter at the invitation of Texas Rangers shortstop and friend Alex Rodriguez. For the two months before spring training Ordo�ez remained in Miami, his off-season home, and reported at 8 a.m. for daily workouts with Rodriguez on the University of Miami campus. Assisted by a Hurricanes track coach, the pair focused on sprints, long runs, agility drills and lifting, which chiseled Ordo�ez's six-foot, 210-pound frame. "I've got more energy," says the 29-year-old Ordo�ez. "My body changed, and I'm more cut, quicker, more powerful. You're going to see me and A-Rod take off in the next two months."
Although the dog days have not historically presaged a downturn in Ordo�ez's production, they have been a period when he has needed extra rest. "There were times in previous seasons when I knew he would respond to a day off and be refreshed," Manuel says, "but now he has matured with those workouts."
Ordo�ez has established an equally regular in-season routine. He begins each game day by watching tape of that day's starter, focusing on the pitch sequences and locations that the pitcher has used against other righthanded power hitters, such as Rodriguez, the St. Louis Cardinals' Albert Pujols and the Boston Red Sox' Manny Ramirez. Ordo�ez, who has a compact stroke and relies on quick wrists, uses indoor batting drills to remind himself to keep his hands back, and during batting practice he concentrates on driving balls up the middle and to the opposite field. That's the signature approach of power hitters with high batting averages.
"He plays the game so easily, it doesn't look like he's putting in the same effort as everybody else," says Konerko. "It's frustrating when you're a hack like me and you have to watch him every day." Although Ordo�ez keeps lofty statistical company—along with Ramirez, Jason Giambi, Vladimir Guerrero and Todd Helton, he is one of only five major leaguers to have hit .300 with 30 or more home runs and 100 or more RBIs in each of the last four seasons—he has not achieved widespread renown. A modest man whose English is imperfect and whose public profile cannot rival the colossal presence of his temperamental veteran teammate, Frank Thomas, Ordo�ez has nonetheless carved out a niche in the Chicago clubhouse. "It has to be based on his performance, because there's a language barrier for him," Manuel says, "but the way he plays speaks volumes. The good players handle themselves well, but the great ones bring people along with them. He's bringing a team along with him."
Along with Ordo�ez, Konerko has come on strong after a miserable and perplexing first half in which he hit only .197 with 14 extra-base hits. In his four previous seasons, Konerko, 27, had been a model of consistency, averaging 26 home runs, 95 RBIs and hitting .294. "He'd never really failed at this level, or any level," says hitting coach Greg Walker, "and he made it hard on himself."
Although Konerko cannot identify the reason for his drought, Walker says he tried to pull the ball too much. Nine interleague games in National League parks during June cost Chicago its designated hitter, forcing Thomas to first base and limiting Konerko to pinch-hitting duty. Denied regular at bats, Konerko went 4 for 41 during the month. But Manuel, a student of Gandhi's writings, possesses boundless patience, and he kept Konerko in the lineup. In his last 23 games through Sunday, Konerko was batting .341 with seven homers, two more than he had in his first 76 games. "Paul, being a fighter, wasn't going to give up," Manuel says, "and things turned for him."
Manuel's faith in his veterans was shared by general manager Kenny Williams. In a move that surprised many executives in baseball, Williams jumped the midsummer swap season's opening bell on July 1 by acquiring second baseman Roberto Alomar from the New York Mets and centerfielder Carl Everett from the Rangers. "If you didn't believe you had the talent, and that the talent would start to produce, you don't make that move," says Williams, whose team was 41-42 and three games out on the day of the trades. "We didn't get out of the gate the way we expected, and for us to wait until the 31st of July might have been too late."
In Everett, Chicago obtained a serviceable defensive centerfielder and a middle-of-the-order lefty to complement righties Thomas, Ordo�ez and Carlos Lee. In last Friday's 3-2 home win over Oakland, Everett preserved a one-run lead in the top of the seventh by tracking Ramon Hernandez's drive to the right-centerfield wall and snagging the ball with the webbing of his glove draped over the fence. Alomar, struggling in New York, supplied an immediate and substantial defensive upgrade over D'Angelo Jimenez, who plays second base like Charlie Brown kicks field goals; Alomar has also had a .395 on-base percentage with Chicago. Only one of the six minor leaguers surrendered in those deals, Double A lefthanded reliever Royce Ring, is considered a top prospect nearly ready for the majors. Says Seattle Mariners DH Edgar Martinez, "With Everett and Alomar, they're much better, much deeper."