In Chicago, early winds blowing ill

On Baseball

April 13, 1997|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

It took several months, but a legitimate argument finally has been developed to support the wisdom of interleague play.

When the Cubs and White Sox face each other this season, a Chicago team is certain to win.

No such guarantee exists at the moment. The Cubs have gotten off to the worst start in franchise history -- which is saying quite a lot -- and the White Sox have become the symbol of baseball's quixotic crusade for cost control.

White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf spent $75 million on two free agents last winter in an attempt to improve flagging attendance and overtake the Cleveland Indians in the American League Central.

The Cubs also did some modest free-agent spending during the off-season, hoping that a little fine-tuning would be enough to carry them back in contention in the soft National League Central.

Nice try. The two Chicago teams are a combined 2-15 after yesterday's Cubs loss, just the thing to further alienate frustrated fans in the Windy City, several hundred of whom showed up at Comiskey Park for a game the other day.

It's early, of course. The White Sox are only a couple of games out of first place and it is only a matter of time before Frank Thomas and Albert Belle start crushing the ball, but manager Terry Bevington has little margin for error. His job undoubtedly depends on the club remaining in contention and reaching the postseason, so patience won't be a virtue for long.

The Cubs are another story. They were a marginal team when the season began, and they don't have the talent to make up a big early-season deficit. If they don't make a dramatic turn soon, their postseason hopes may not last long enough for the ivy to sprout at Wrigley Field.

Northside fans weren't particularly happy with the club's management team to begin with, and their perception of the franchise's commitment to winning did not improve when Tribune Co. executive vice president/media operations Jim Dowdle outlined ownership's priorities in a story in the Chicago Tribune last week.

"We're a company that wants to win," Dowdle said. "You have to say that for us to go out and spend money sort of frivolously, as other teams have that don't stand a chance of winning on the bottom line, or even coming close on the bottom line, that's part of the whole [problem].

"We have stockholders, and there is the idea that we're up $8 million [in payroll] this year. Just because other teams have sort of lost economic sense doesn't mean we have to jump off the bridge, too. With the money that we're spending, we've got some attendance gains in there, but it's still going to be tough for us to make money. Beyond the $40 million [payroll], it'd be close to impossible to make money."

Loosely translated, the Cubs are willing to spend just enough money to keep the fans coming, even though they have the strongest corporate backing in baseball. In one respect, you have to give them credit for trying to maintain some sense of economic sanity, but this is a club that hasn't appeared in a World Series since 1945 and doesn't have much hope of getting there any time soon.

The White Sox were hit with some tough luck at the end of spring training, when Robin Ventura went down for most of the season with a frightening leg injury, but owner Jerry Reinsdorf doesn't figure to be in the mood for excuses after signing Belle to a record $55 million contract. The fans obviously aren't sold on the club, if the early attendance figures are any indication, but the real test will be when the White Sox and the weather warm up.

Right now, it's not a good time to be a baseball fan in the Second City. Not a good time to be a manager there, either. But it's early.

Insult to injury dept.

It was bad enough that the Cubs dropped to 0-8 on Thursday, but the manner in which they did it had to be even more painful for long-suffering Chicago fans. Former White Sox pitcher Alex Fernandez pitched the best game of his career, carrying a no-hit bid into the ninth inning, to lead the Florida Marlins to another victory.

Granted, Cubs fans don't usually care about the White Sox, but the loss of Fernandez was considered a major blow to the city's chances of being host to postseason play this year. The loss to Fernandez on Thursday just brought it all home again.

Duking Duquette

It remains open season on unpopular Boston Red Sox general manager Dan Duquette, who further inflamed passions in Beantown last week when he let beloved Red Sox instructor Johnny Pesky know that he no longer is welcome in the club's dugout during games.

That caused more consternation in the clubhouse and created another opportunity for former Red Sox slugger Jose Canseco to take some gratuitous rips at the organization and its hands-on GM while the Red Sox were visiting Oakland early in the week.

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