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For a few giddy moments last Friday night it seemed the Chicago White Sox were Cameroon, Buster Douglas and Cinderella all rolled into one and multiplied by the 40,417 people rocking old Comiskey Park. Just a few more outs, and the Pale Hose would assume sole possession of first place in the American League West from the defending world champion Oakland Athletics. Up on the scoreboard in centerfield the message read: DO WE BLOW THE BOARD? As the new legion of White Sox fans murmured yes, the scoreboard exploded in the pyrotechnics usually reserved for home-team home runs.
Then everything misfired. The coach turned into a pumpkin, the footmen into mice, and the White Sox into the team that finished last in the division last year. It was as if the Sox had seen a message that read: DO WE BLOW THE GAME? The A's scored four runs, just like that, in the eighth to take a 5-4 lead and remind everyone that they are, after all, the world champs. So instead of being in first place, Chicago remained in second, two games behind Oakland.
The next night the White Sox slipped another game back as the A's rode a first-inning TD and PAT to a 12-3 victory. Then on Sunday, the Sox were left drooping around the ankles, four games back, when the Athletics came from behind again to beat them 5-2. The four-game series, which had begun with such high hopes and a 3-2 Chicago win, was history; and so, at least temporarily, are the Sox. Well, Chicago, it was great fun. But it was just one of those things.
"They win round one," said Chicago coach Joe Nossek. "We'll just have to find some smoother stones to put in the slingshot next time." (See David vs. Goliath, 1 Samuel 17:49.)
Though the baseball season is only in its fourth inning, so to speak, this promised to be a fascinating series, and not just because the division lead was at stake. The Athletics and White Sox were, after all, the two best teams in the majors—or at least the teams with the two best records (Oakland's 39-19, Chicago's 36-20). They boasted two of the top three hitters in the American League: A's leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson, at .335, and Sox ninth-place batter Ozzie Guillen, at .342. They had the two best and deepest bull-pens in the league, and their ace relievers, Dennis Eckersley of Oakland and Bobby Thigpen of Chicago, shared the league lead (with Cleveland's Doug Jones) in saves, with 20 each. Their managers, Tony La Russa of the A's and Jeff Torborg of the White Sox, are both cut from the same high-quality cloth; shoot, they're probably one-two in the league in vocabulary.
There was, of course, a great underdog angle to the showdown: the world champs versus the team that finished seventh, a mere 29½ games back, in 1989. The White Sox have been so astounding (SI, May 28) that if their losing streak grows to 17 games, they could still be considered a pleasant surprise at .500. And there isn't one Sox who's ahead of an Athletic in the All-Star balloting. But here Chicago was, in mid-June, keeping pace with what many baseball people consider the best team of this generation.
If the A's are the Bash Brothers, then the White Sox are, well, a team in search of an identity. Over the years the Chisox have had some catchy nicknames: the Hit-less Wonders of 1906, the Black Sox of '19, the Go-Go Sox of '59, the South Side Hit Men of 77, the Winnin' Ugly team of '83. But there's no nickname for the '90 Sox just yet, though Bernie Lincicome, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, offered a couple of suggestions last week: the Young and the Faceless, and Mutts and Jeff.
Even without a nickname, the Sox have captured the attention of a city starving for a winner. Actually, starving is too weak a description, considering that Chicago hasn't had a World Series winner since 1917, even though it fields two teams. Not too long ago the Comiskey Park ticket office was so idle that it had a sign in front of its one open advance-sale window that read: RING BELL FOR SERVICE. Last week, four windows were available to handle advances, and the lines sometimes stretched out to 35th Street. The four-game series against Oakland drew 146,952, or almost 15% of last season's attendance of 1,045,651. This season has been a nice going-away present for 80-year-old Comiskey, which next year will be replaced by the ballpark under construction across the street.
Another intriguing aspect of the series was the return to Chicago of La Russa, the third-winningest manager in White Sox history (522 wins from 1979 to '86) and a man who still maintains great affection for Comiskey and its fans. "I'm a little sad coming in here for the second-to-last time," he said. "I'll miss this park." As for the fans, La Russa said, "The last few years we'd come in here, and they'd be sitting with their heads down. Now they're sitting straight up. I feel great for them." La Russa paused and, not wishing to appear too sentimental, added, "When these games are over, though, I want them to feel like——."
Oddly enough, Chicago was the hot team coming into the series, having just concluded a 5-1 road trip, while Oakland came to Comiskey as the A minuses—minus Jose Canseco, who's on the 15-day disabled list with a bad back. "We're not exactly awesome right now, so I don't think we're in any position to teach the White Sox a lesson this weekend," said Eckersley. "We're just trying to keep our heads above water."