"Right now I steal a lot of bases," says Calderon, polishing off a pregame chicken breast before breaching a frightening confidence. "[Manager] Jeff Torborg gives me the green light to run whenever I want."
Calderon, who after Sunday's 3-2 loss to the red-hot Detroit Tigers was hitting .308 with four homers and 23 RBIs, will tell you that his transformation came in the off-season, when he shed 12 pounds on a daily diet of basketball and sprinting on the beach near his home in Luiza, Puerto Rico. Never mind that he could have gotten similar results by forswearing his jewelry—it's the effort that's important here.
"Even when we were losing last year we had a hell of an attitude," says the bubbling Torborg, in his second season managing the White Sox. "The guys never thought about our record. They didn't think about the standings." After last year's All-Star break, Chicago played one game over .500, giving rise to hopeful speculation over the winter. "We knew we'd be much better because of improved team speed and defense," Torborg says. "Those are constants. They'll be there every night."
In '89, the White Sox had the second-worst defense in the league, committing 151 errors—nearly one a game. As of Sunday, they had just 21 in 1990. Vanna White turns more E's on a slow night. "We're better man-by-man defensively than we've been the last three years," says Himes, who set his mind to finding better gloves to flank the brilliant Guillen.
The Sox now vote on a defensive play of the week, and Guillen won in a landslide in the most recent tally. In a 4-2 win over Baltimore on May 16, the Orioles' Randy Milligan hit a shot off Fletcher's collarbone; Guillen barehanded the ball and, in a single motion, touched second and submarined the ball to first to complete the double play.
Fletcher, who was a shortstop with the Sox from 1983 to '85, before he was traded to Texas, snugly fits the team's new profile too. He is batting .167, but because he wields a heat-seeking glove, he has started every game. Rodney McCray was batting .180 for the Double A Birmingham Barons when he was promoted to the Sox on April 30 as a late-inning, stopgap centerfielder. That night, with two men on in the 12th inning against the Rangers, McCray made a game-saving grab, bolting crosstown to catch a Ruben Sierra drive in deep left center. Chicago went on to win 5-4 in the 13th.
Like McCray, third basemen Robin Ventura and Craig Grebeck also spent 1989 in Chicago's suddenly stellar farm system. The organization won championships in three minor leagues last season—a feat matched in the last 20 years only by the farm systems of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1970 and the New York Yankees in '80 and '82. "I won't tell you we'll be in the pennant race," says Guillen. "But in the next five years...."
The average age on the Sox is 26 years, six months, nearly a year younger than the Seattle Mariners, baseball's next-youngest team. "One reason the guys play so hard here," says Kittle, "is so they can make it home before curfew." Of course, if the American League allows Chicago to suit up 67-year-old Minnie Minoso at Comiskey later this summer, that average age will make a hefty leap. The idea is to give Minoso the opportunity to play in his sixth decade, but the league appears to be balking.
The Sox trot out Minoso, a star turned goodwill ambassador, and are accused of exploiting him and the game. The Cubs, meanwhile, constantly invoke the name of Ernie Banks, a star turned goodwill ambassador, and the fans go bonkers. The Cubs play in regal Wrigley; the Sox play in dilapidated Comiskey. The Cubs, 18-19 in the National League East through Sunday, are averaging nearly 23,000 fans—8,000 more than the Sox. On May 15, White Sox reliever Bobby Thigpen reached 100 saves at an earlier age, 26, than anyone except Bruce Sutter. Still, Thigpen walks the streets undisturbed. Last season Mitch Williams saved 36 games for the Cubs, and the Wild Thing joined Air and Sweetness as household nicknames. "No one ever talks about the White Sox," says Guillen, "and I don't blame 'em. This has been a last-place team. Who cares about the White Sox?"
"It's brought up all the time here that the Cubs are more popular," says Thigpen, who with 10 saves anchors the league's best bullpen. "But it's up to us to get people to watch."