White Sox didn't spend winter playing safe 1990's surprise club hopes to avoid slump

April 08, 1991|By Alan Solomon | Alan Solomon,Chicago Tribune

SARASOTA, Fla. -- Let's flash back now to 1989. No, not to the Chicago White Sox. We'll get to them in a couple of paragraphs.

The Baltimore Orioles. Everybody's darlings. A year after starting the season 0-21 and becoming a negative sensation, they were contenders, right down to the final weekend.

They did it with speed and defense. They did it with fundamentals. They did it with youth. They did it with people nobody had heard of.

They did it cheaply.

Now, finally, let's go to the White Sox.

The 1990 Chicago White Sox. Everybody's darlings. A year after stinking up the American League West for half a season, they were contenders. Well, if not contenders, the closest thing to contenders behind those success-bloated (but so, so good) Oakland Athletics.

They did it with speed and defense. They did it with fundamentals. They did it with youth. They did it with people nobody had heard of.

For sure, they did it cheaply.

But they also did it with their eyes open. And those eyes were squarely on the Orioles. A year after being sensations -- with the same players, in a division that, overall, was no stronger than it was in 1989 -- the Orioles were foundering. They would finish fifth, nine games below .500, 11 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox.

"A lot of young teams," White Sox manager Jeff Torborg would say later, "that get successful all of a sudden stand pat.

"We didn't stand pat."

Truth is, the White Sox didn't stand pat even when all those good things were happening. The club was evolving and winning at the same time.

Weeks into the season, outfielder Daryl Boston was released. First baseman Greg Walker was released. Pitcher Bill Long was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Later, designated hitter Ron Kittle was dealt to Baltimore. Outfielder Dave Gallagher was waived.

Two-thirds into a season that was building into something special, first baseman Frank Thomas was called up, essentially taking the place of Carlos Martinez. Pitcher Alex Fernandez was called up, replacing disabled Eric King.

That's a lot of voluntary transacting for a club in the process of playing .600 baseball.

But you know what? It worked.

And the greatest irony? The guy who worked it, Larry Himes, wound up gone, too.

No, the White Sox didn't stand pat. If the 1990 White Sox were the Orioles of '89, the 1991 White Sox won't be the Orioles of '90. This looks like a pretty good ballclub, and not just because "the kids are a year older" and all that blather.

The kids appear to be talented. The veterans seem to mix in just right.

This is a club that could win the American League West.

On some clubs, the veterans weigh down the kids, isolate themselves from them, resent them a little. Apparently not on this club.

The joy of Ozzie Guillen, so evident on the field, is even more evident in the clubhouse. He's everywhere. Carlton Fisk -- nicknamed by one media person "His Royal Pudgeness" -- can be as playful as anyone, if the time is right.

Tim "Make It Rock" Raines got into a two-on-two clubhouse basketball game one day with Jack McDowell, Scott Radinsky and Robin Ventura that somehow was both intense and hilarious. Charlie Hough can just say hello and make everyone in the vicinity feel better about things.

And the kids? A lot of them grew up in the business together, for teams like the Class AA Birmingham Barons and Class AAA Vancouver Canadians. They've been rooting for each other for years. That's what you get when an organization grows so many of its own.

"The part I like," Torborg said, "is we've got a blend of personalities that will not get real low or real high -- and they won't let anybody else get that way."

So it's a nice team, a good bunch. There's quality, too.

The most pleasant reality about Frank Thomas (.330 as a rookie) isn't his potential. There's a lot of overpaid potential in the big leagues. What's nice is that Thomas is a very good baseball player. Now. What he can be -- what he will be -- is beside the point.

Scott Fletcher (.242, .323 with runners on base). Does anyone even remember the guy was a shortstop all those years? Guillen has finally been discovered by people who thought only of the other Ozzie when ranking the game's premier shortstops.

Not quite sure what Ventura (.249, 25 errors, many of them throwing errors) is yet. Same goes for Sammy Sosa (.233, .201 in the second half), who, at 22, is blessed with a great arm, great speed and a great tendency to swing and miss (150 strikeouts).

The rest of the outfield is as solid as it is deep. It was only a matter of time before Lance Johnson (.285) hit in the big leagues. He hit everywhere else.

There were whispers last year that Raines had lost his zest for thievery.

"I don't think he lost it," Torborg said. "His 49 [steals] last year led us [Johnson had 36] by a lot. And he was in the third spot. Now, he's up front. And he's on his own."

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