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The standings Sunday morning said that the Chicago White Sox had arrived in first place in the American League's Western Division, percentage points ahead of the Oakland Aprils. Their stay was only momentary—they were out of first again by Sunday night—but no matter. What the standings don't reveal is that there's a comic opera being staged in Comiskey Park this spring, with a cast of characters that includes two owners reliving their adolescence, a rock 'n' roll manager, a 24-year-old farm director, an organist with a degree in psychology, an Ivy Leaguer, a pitcher who's a Cub fan, another who thinks he's Judge Roy Bean and a third who's Mexican and doesn't throws screwball but is one. That's not all. The three leading men are Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski and Ron LeFlore.
The White Sox also got off to a running start in 1980. In fact, they led the division at the end of April. But that was strictly an illusion conjured up by that latter-day Merlin, Bill Veeck, who owned the team then. This season the general impression on the South Side is that the Sox are for real. "Last year we had more ways to lose than we had to win," says Manager Tony LaRussa. "This year it's just the reverse."
Those new ways were apparent the last few weeks when the Sox made up 6½ games on the A's by winning five straight series against the Angels (twice), A's, Blue Jays and Rangers. Luzinski, who had only seven RBIs batting cleanup in his first 28 games, had hit six home runs and driven in 16 runs since. Last Saturday, in a game rather typical of the way things have been going for the White Sox, Luzinski hit a two-run homer, Fisk drove in another two runs and Richard Dotson pitched a three-hitter. On Sunday, Fisk gave the White Sox a split in a doubleheader by driving in the winning run in the 10th inning.
If and when LeFlore, who had a mere 97 stolen bases for Montreal last year, starts hitting and stealing, the White Sox offense will be complete, although any offense that had outscored its opponents 94-42 in its last 14 games through Sunday would seem to be pretty complete. The defense has already been helped up the middle by two of the club's quieter acquisitions, Second Baseman Tony Bernazard and Shortstop Bill Almon, both of whom were with the Expos this time last year. Dotson, once the token righty on the White Sox staff, has emerged as the pitcher most likely to succeed, and recently lefties Britt Burns, Ross Baumgarten and Steve (Rainbow) Trout have all pitched impressively. Perhaps the best news of all is that Reliever Ed Farmer, who was rocked badly in April, says he feels like Eliot Ness again. "You know—untouchable," he says.
While all this stuff is going on down on the field, Chairman of the Board Jerry Reinsdorf and President Eddie Einhorn are upstairs in their private boxes, screaming like kids and superstitiously playing musical chairs to find the right combination to ensure victory. Reinsdorf and Einhorn bought the White Sox from a tapped-out Veeck in January, after the American League owners decided they didn't want another prospective buyer, Edward DeBartolo, to join their ranks.
Einhorn and Reinsdorf are New York guys, New York guys being guys from Paterson, N.J. (Einhorn) and Brooklyn (Reinsdorf). They met while attending Northwestern Law School, although neither made law a career. Einhorn went on to form the TVS television network, which made him a millionaire, and to produce the CBS Sports Spectacular, which gave us fat men with refrigerators on their backs. Reinsdorf made his fortune in real estate. He tried to buy into the Mets last year, but his group lost out to Nelson Doubleday's. What he really wanted to do, he says, "was buy the Dodgers from Peter O'Malley and move them back to Brooklyn."
"Before we bought the team," says Einhorn, "I didn't really know what one Chicago White Sox player looked like." The new proprietors weren't immediately embraced by Chicago, even when they pledged to infuse money into the White Sox. "Of course, everybody said, 'Ho-hum, another five-year plan,' " says Reinsdorf. But then, on March 10, the White Sox signed Fisk to a five-year, $2.9 million contract, and Chicagoans started taking the new guys seriously. Fisk, some may recall, used to play for Boston. But because the Red Sox failed to follow proper procedures in tendering him a contract, he was declared a free agent. "Money being equal, we had to sell Carlton on the city, on the challenge, on the media market," says Einhorn. "Hell, it was like stealing Acapulco cliff-diving from ABC."
Einhorn, whose bio says he sold hot dogs at Comiskey Park in the Sox' last pennant-winning year of 1959, has brought in an army of marketing, public-relations and promotion people. His vice-president for special projects is Laureen Ong Fadil, one of the few women executives in baseball. His VP for marketing is Russ Potts, formerly a promotional whiz at Southern Methodist, where he was the athletic director. Potts' love of the game, however, didn't stop him from dropping the SMU baseball program.
A uniform contest (see box, page 24) was the first major project for the promotions people. A second undertaking was the selection of a new White Sox mascot. Make that mascots. The same company that created the Phillie Phanatic and Montreal's Youppi presented Einhorn and Fadil with two different Muppet-like creatures, and they liked them so much that...." It's the Saks Fifth Avenue Theory," says Einhorn. "If you can't make up your mind, buy them both." To fill one of the costumes, the White Sox tried to pirate the backup to the Pittsburgh Parrot, but the deal fell through at the last minute. It's true.
Reinsdorf concerns himself with the day-to-day operation of the club and plans to computerize the ticket sales and bookkeeping, which had been operated like something out of Dickens. He has already given Comiskey a face-lift. A new drainage system was installed in the outfield, so that the turf, once the most feared in the majors, is now passable. To give the exploding scoreboard more chances to explode—it goes off to celebrate Sox home runs—the centerfield fence was moved in from 445 feet to 402 feet. To date, opponents have hit four homers over the new wall, the White Sox have hit zero. Seats have been painted, leaks repaired and washrooms cleaned. "Washrooms are my big thing," says Reinsdorf. "I wondered why the ones in Disneyland are always so clean, and I found out it was because they are constantly being cleaned. That's what I decided to do here. A lady came up to me the other day and said the one thing I've been longing to hear: Thank you for cleaning the bathrooms.' " A new scoreboard is also planned.