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The year of the White Sox: ten reasons why the Chicago White Sox is the team to watch in 1991.

THE YEAR OF THE WHITE SOX

I will begin by telling you that the Chicago White Sox have not won the World Series since 1917.

Times since have been, well, interesting. There was the Black Sox scandal in 1919 that saw eight players, including "Shoeless" Joe Jackson, expelled from baseball. There was flamboyant owner Bill Veeck, who may be best remembered for inserting midget Eddie Gaedel, all three-foot-seven inches and 65 pounds of him, into his batting order. And don't forget 1979's "Disco Demolition Night," which made such a mess of Comiskey Park by blowing up disco albums on the field that Chicago had to forfeit that evening's game to the Detroit Tigers.

Two years ago, the White Sox had sunk to among the worst teams in baseball. At last year's spring training, everyone predicted another last-place finish.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the cellar. In a single season, the Sox shed their unproductive veterans, replaced them with rookies and transformed the new configuration into one of the best teams in the majors.

In 1990, they nearly doubled their attendance, attracting 2,002,359 fans. They went from 92 losses in '89 to 94 wins in '90, racking up the third-best record in all of baseball for the year.

This month, when they take the field at Ed Smith Stadium to begin their 32nd spring-training season in Sarasota, the White Sox will be the team to watch in 1991. Here are 10 reasons why.

1. THE A'S LOOK MORE LIKE A B-PLUS

We all know the story about how David slew Goliath, but the next-biggest upset in history had to be last fall, when the Cincinnati Reds swept the mighty Oakland Athletics in the World Series. The lesson from those four days of infamy: Oakland's report card isn't straight A's.

The White Sox matched the A's inning-for-inning for the better part of 1990 and were just three games back in late July, when they lost five straight and were never heard from again. In the end, the A's won the division by nine games.

Forgotten from Chicago's late summer fall from grace is the fact that it beat Oakland in eight of 13 meetings. Now that they've been punched in the nose, don't expect the A's to win 100 games again.

2. IF YOU CAN'T JOIN 'EM, BEAT 'EM

Even beer-drinking bums from the upper deck knew last year that what the White Sox needed was some of what the A's had. So Chicago owner Jerry Reinsdorf did an incredibly logical thing when he hired Ron Schueler, the A's special assignment scout, as the White Sox's general manager.

Never mind that Schueler lacks experience as a general manager. Or that the White Sox fired him eight years ago when he was the team's pitching coach. More important is his intimate knowledge of the A's.

Schueler didn't waste any time putting his stamp on his new team, trading for leadoff hitter Tim Raines and signing veteran knuckleballer Charlie Hough. But his formula for success is one part White Sox improvement and an equal part A's slump.

"They are catchable," Schueler promises of the A's. "The pack is gradually going to come towards Oakland."

3. A MANAGER'S MANAGER

It is a time-honored tradition that the manager's biggest job is to stay out of the way. Let your players play. But when Jeff Torborg, in just his second season on the job, assembled his team last spring, he realized he must take a different tack with the youngest team in the major leagues.

He spent more time with his players in the clubhouse than on the field.

"It was kind of a standing joke," said Torborg, who was named American League Manager of the Year. "We lead the nation - the universe, really - in meetings. We used those as platforms for telling our guys not to worry about the distractions that can arise over a long season."

Torborg wouldn't go so far as to say his style resembles a babysitting service, but ... by the way, curfew's at 11.

4. A GOOD START

When Schueler sat down during the offseason and dissected the A's for his new employers, he couldn't get past the first man in their lineup, leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson.

He went out and got the closest thing to Henderson he could find: switch-hitting Tim Raines, from the Montreal Expos. Comparisons to Henderson are nothing new to Raines, a seven-time All-Star who says without hesitation: "I always thought that I was better."

Raines, 31, is a career .301 hitter with proven base-stealing ability, something the Sox haven't had since Rudy Lew stole a team record of 77 bases in 1983, the last time the Sox won the division.

"Check the World Series the last three or four years and you'll see every team had a good leadoff hitter," Schueler said. "We needed a leadoff man and Tim Raines is one of the best ever."

5. AN EVEN BETTER FINISH

Forget Dennis Eckersley. Bobby Thigpen is baseball's great relief pitcher. His 57 saves last season set a record that may never be broken. Factor in his four wins and he figured in on 64.9 percent of the Sox's victories. That's the most for a reliever since baseball started that statistic in 1969.

Considering the Sox's love affair with close ballgames - they won 30 games by one run last year, 22 more by two runs - Thigpen is without question their most valuable player.

The Sox traded his set-up man, Barry Jones, to the Expos in the deal for Raines. Jones preceded 28 of Thigpen's saves. Replacing him will be paramount. Watch Wayne Edwards, Donn Pall, Ken Patterson and Jeff Carter battle for that job this spring.

6. THE METHUSELAH FACTOR

Who's that masked man? You wouldn't know number 72 is 43 years old by the way he gets around the field. But take off that catcher's mask and you can see the maturity and love for a boy's game in Carlton Fisk's eyes.

He is the heart and soul of the Sox, and a big reason the team's neophytes didn't fold in the clutch last year. And what fan didn't applaud the time he chastised Yankee hotdog Deion Sanders for not running a ball out to first base?

Fisk is playing better than ever. He had a banner year in 1990, leading the Sox in hitting (.285) and home runs (18) and finishing second in RBIs (65). He replaced Johnny Bench atop the list for most home runs by a catcher, but most amazing is that he is still playing a position where the major-league life expectancy is about that of an NFL running back.

Schueler added another old-timer who's still got it to the Sox roster when he signed 43-year-old knuckleball pitcher Charlie Hough in the offseason. Hough pitched 218 2/3 innings for Texas last year, more than any Chicago pitcher. He will be the Sox's No. 5 starter.

By the way, both are older than general manager Schueler, a mere baby at age 42.

7. SWEET YOUTH

Last season was proof positive that the Sox haven't slept through the last few free-agent drafts. Their No. 1 picks over the last four years became fixtures with the team in '90.

Jack McDowell, a right-handed pitcher drafted in 1987, was 14-9 with a 3.82 ERA. Robin Ventura, a third baseman drafted in 1988, jumped from Class AA and hit .249 with five home runs and 54 RBIs just 13 months after making his debut in Sarasota in the Gulf Coast Rookie League. Alex Fernandez, a hard-throwing right-handed pitcher drafted in 1990, joined the team straight out of junior college and was 5-5 with a 3.80 ERA.

8. A NEW HOME

There's something sentimental about an organization that tears down the oldest ballpark in the majors and replaces it with a near replica right across the street. That's what the Sox did with 80-year-old Comiskey Park, which played host to its last game last season.

In its place, on the other side of 35th Street, stands the new Comiskey Park, a 43,000-seat open-air stadium that retains much of the look and charm of the old stadium. And all for a mere $120 million. Still under construction, it's set to be ready by Opening Day, April 18, when the Sox play the Detroit Tigers.

9. FANCY SPRING DIGS

In 1989, the Sox replaced 65-year-old Payne Park with Ed Smith Stadium, which opened at 12th Street and Tuttle in Sarasota at a cost of $7.5 million.

You won't find a better ballpark in Florida. There isn't a bad seat in the house, ticket prices are reasonable and you'll like what you see, since the Sox play one of the more attractive spring-training schedules. Best bets for fans are the March 15 and 16 games vs. the Yankees and the March 23 and 25 games vs. the Red Sox.

10. THE BANDWAGON EFFECT

You can't have young, talented players, a new stadium and the expectation of a pennant race without creating excitement in the marketing department.

In a business suddenly pinched by rising player salaries, the White Sox's bottom line never looked better. The team has for years played in the shadow of the Cubs, who slumped badly last year and still outdrew the South Siders by almost 700,000 fans.

That may be ready to change, if only slightly. The Sox hope to triple last year's base of 7,000 season tickets, lowest in the American League. And Rob Gallas, a former sports writer who is now senior vice president of marketing says, "With all the factors we have, if we're ever going to draw three million fans, this is the year."

Then comes that long-awaited TV exposure. T-shirts. Carlton Fisk dolls.

Some day, it might even be cool to be a White Sox fan. Imagine that.

PHOTO : Strong cards: Looking good for the Sox are, from left, third-baseman Robin Ventura, manager Jeff Torborg, pitcher Jack McDowell and the ace himself, venerable catcher Carlton Fisk.
COPYRIGHT 1991 Clubhouse Publishing, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1991 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Reeve, Tad
Publication:Sarasota Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1991
Words:1677
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