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To almost everyone's surprise but the owner's, the Chicago White Sox are challenging for the lead in the American League West, and they are doing it with a cast composed almost exclusively of DHs and lhps—designated hitters and lefthanded pitchers—a collection of castoffs and the grateful waivered, players whose minor league way stations read like the bus itineraries for a country-and-western band. Yet this club of snips and snails and puppy dog tails (and one left-handed-throwing catcher) also has a handful of sugar-and-spice phenoms, who are the luckiest, most spoiled of players: so fortunate to have come straight from Nowhere without having had to waste summers riding buses.
This m�lange is presided over by a wounded—but not reformed—old rebel, the owner, and a well-chiseled young member of the Florida bar, the manager: two self-professed "scufflers" who are divided by age but united in spirit. Somewhere, too, there is a Wizard of Waxahachie. And so, considering the modest attributes of the rest of the AL West, there is no reason why the Chisox might not just as well win the thing.
Which would be fine with Bill Veeck, 66 now and resembling a wise old rabbit. "I can't see, I can't hear, and I can't walk, even on my good leg, but otherwise I'm fine," he said the other day, lobbing an empty beer mug to the bartender. "Sooner or later all the lame and the halt and the blind end up with us because they know they'll fit in."
The pale hose Some would say, do say, Pale Hose. Of all the sobriquets of the diamond, nothing approaches Pale Hose for its lyric honesty. Perennially lacking, the Pale Hose are always a team of thrift and reality, like the world about them on the South Side. Not for nothing is Comiskey Park known as "the biggest saloon in Chicago." Under the stands it is like a midway at a county fair.
Unlike Wrigley Field, where the wind wafts short fly balls over the ivied walls, there have never been any cheap home runs in Comiskey Park—or Kaminskey Park, as it is usually pronounced in the immediate area. The best Chisox teams were known as The Hitless Wonders, and the only pennant to fly on the South Side in the last 60 years was for the 1959 Go-Go Sox, when Veeck owned the team the first time, before he was supposed to go away and die.
The incumbent Sox, managed by Tony LaRussa, LL.B., 35, who recently dislocated his left shoulder in a donnybrook against Milwaukee, and led by downycheeked southpaws, have more hitting than usual, but there is a lot of grousing that they can't possibly win with their ragtag infield. At least at home, however, this is a tempest in a teapot. Like most young flamethrowers, the Chisox throw stuff that rises, and when hit, the ball goes well out over the infield toward the vast centerfield expanses, where Chet Lemon runs it down.
Neverthless, you have your nitpickers. On the air a few days ago, Sox TV-radio announcer Jim Piersall, who doubles as a coach (what the hell, the traveling secretary pitches BP and the media coordinator inspects the ladies' rooms), allowed that "we have the worst infield in baseball." Piersall unequivocally denies making this statement. He says his broadcast partner, the indefatigable Harry Caray, was the one who made that assessment. All he ever said, Piersall avers, is that "every ground ball is an adventure." Case dismissed.
The most famous member of the Pale Hose inner cordon is 5'5" Harry Chappas. But he is an irregular. The starting second baseman is Jim Morrison, a converted third baseman from the Phillies' chain. Greg Pryor, much maligned, the thinking man's Bucky Dent, is the shortstop. I Don't Know is on third. Lamar Johnson is the first baseman. Recently, he missed two games because of a chest rash, which is being treated with applications of Crisco.
Johnson is an aberration even on this odd team, a senior player who actually came up through the system. At 29, Johnson is something of an oldtimer; only Wayne Nordhagen, the hefty righthanded DH, is over 30, and he is only 31. "In the locker room I look around, and I still don't feel like it's the major leagues," says Richard Dotson, the lone righthanded starter, a 21-year-old rookie. "Then one day I had to face Tony Perez—I grew up in Cincinnati with Tony Perez!—and that's when I finally felt like I really was in the majors."
So Johnson, a large, gentle man, with the smoothest of swings—"I just lay back and use my hands"—has fallen into the leadership role that might normally be expected to go to Lemon, the team's most complete player. Lemon is only 25, though, and a withdrawn and sensitive soul. A Jehovah's Witness, he avoided taking part in the players' strike vote, and often he even goes to an early batting practice by himself so that he can return to a quiet clubhouse and study the Bible.