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Deep in the winter that preceded the 1999 season, his second as White Sox manager, Jerry Manuel was plotting his pitching strategy for the midseason series against the Cubs. The Sox won the series, and the Cubs, who'd reached the playoffs the previous year, began tumbling, while the Sox began their rise toward the division championship of 2000. The series showed that Manuel, who had gained a reputation as a calm, considered philosopher-manager, had a competitive edge, an edge that rubbed off on his players.

The Sox came out of this summer's All-Star break four games under .500 and seven and a half games behind AL Central leader Minnesota, but the Sox and Twins would face off a week and a half later in Comiskey Park, and Manuel again had an opportunity to arrange his pitching rotation for maximum efficiency. The series would dictate whether the Sox competed for first or played out the year as also-rans, yet Manuel sent Todd Ritchie against the Twins in the opener. Ritchie, the veteran acquired last winter from the Pittsburgh Pirates at the cost of three promising pitchers, had opened his second half by pitching well but losing to the Detroit Tigers, falling to 5-12 on the season and squelching whatever momentum the Sox had created the day before when Dan Wright won the first game after the break. Five days later Ritchie pitched poorly and lost in Kansas City. Five days after that he pitched even worse, and the Sox lost the critical opener against the Twins. They were now 9 games under .500 and 14 behind the Twins.

Sure, ace Mark Buehrle took the mound the following night and won. (Buehrle had been pushed back behind Ritchie in the rotation because he'd pitched in the All-Star game.) But even he staggered under the weight of an 8-1 lead, and new closer Antonio Osuna had to come on in the ninth to shut the game down at 8-7. The Twins pounded Jon Garland 8-1 the next night and left town again up by 14 games, and the Sox season was certainly over. The fans knew it: 32,353 had rallied behind the Sox in the series opener, but only 23,000 turned out each of the next two days.

General manager Kenny Williams had already come under plenty of criticism for moves that almost all turned out poorly. He traded for David Wells before last season, and while I--and many baseball fans--liked that move (even at his worst he was better than the damaged goods the Sox dealt away, Mike Sirotka), Wells was ineffective overall, sowed dissension in the clubhouse, got hurt, and was headed back to the New York Yankees before this season began. Williams also signed Royce Clayton, and in spite of his generally fine fielding he was a hole in the lineup most of last season and contributed greatly to the team's slow start and offensive sputtering last year and this. Williams then traded Kip Wells, Josh Fogg, and Sean Lowe to the Pirates over the winter for Ritchie, and while Ritchie was 5-14 with a 6.12 ERA when he came up lame after losing to the Twins, both Wells and Fogg had won ten games for the woeful Bucs. Williams covered his tracks by axing pitching coach Nardi Contreras before the Twins series, in effect blaming him for failing to develop Wells and Fogg last year and Garland and Jon Rauch this year, and for Ritchie's decline.

I mentioned the pitching rotation above to illustrate that it wasn't just Williams running this team into the ground (though I'll add that Chris Kahrl wrote on the Baseball Prospectus Web site that Williams had done as fine a job in that regard as Ken "Hawk" Harrelson did during his brief tenure as GM in the 80s). Manuel aided and abetted Williams at every turn. He announced early and often his faith in his veterans--for instance, he stuck with Ritchie to the bitter end--but his faith produced complacency in the clubhouse, and as the season went up in smoke the Sox seemed to be roasting wienies and toasting smores. Even with Kenny Lofton at the top of the lineup, the Sox didn't seem to run or hit-and-run as much as in the past. Manuel's most aggressive move had to be the three-day benching of slumping Frank Thomas, but this was simply a return to his inspiration-through-bashing-in-the-media ways that had been so damaging to the development of Mike Caruso. The only difference was that Caruso was and is a no-talent, while Thomas was and is a veteran deserving of better treatment. Maybe Manuel thought he would improve the spirits of the younger players by picking on Thomas--Paul Konerko, for one, sided against the Big Hurt in the press. But even though a revived Thomas provided some of the few highlights of the Twins series, including a 500-foot homer to the concourse at the back of the left-field seats, the results weren't enough to make the move worthwhile. Probably Manuel was just being a company man, planting seeds that will allow Williams to exercise a performance clause at the end of the season that dramatically trims Thomas's contract. This will remind those younger players that they're working for a franchise that cuts corners and contracts wherever possible.

I'll admit that I might have made the same mistakes as Williams early in the season. I particularly remember seeing the Sox in early May and thinking what fine veteran chemistry they had. Thomas, Lofton, Carlos Lee, Jose Valentin, and Sandy Alomar Jr. were all sitting in front of the big clubhouse TV watching the Kentucky Derby before the game, Alomar joking about how horse number 15--his number--also seemed to have a gimpy leg. As much as I wanted to see phenoms Joe Crede and Joe Borchard promoted, I had to allow the Sox seemed to have something going with these veterans. The Sox won that day to go eight games over .500 at 19-11, only a half game behind the Cleveland Indians. They would very briefly occupy first place between the Indians' collapse and the Twins' ascension, but they'd never again be eight games over. Though a four-game winning streak got them back to 28-21 toward the end of May, from that point to the end of last week's Twins series they went 19-35. I blame Manuel, who seemed as passive in accepting losing as Don Baylor was at the end with the Cubs.

It was Williams who finally made a move. Having passed on any chance of dealing Valentin or Lee for a pitcher when there was still a season to be salvaged, and having watched Manuel fail to rouse any passion in his underachieving players, Williams finally conceded, firing Contreras, dealing Ray Durham, Lofton, and Alomar, and bringing up second baseman Willie Harris and, finally, third baseman Crede. If you ask me, the team should have retained Durham (even if he leaves at the end of the season as a free agent, they'd be better off with an auxiliary draft pick), stuck Valentin at short and Crede at third, and dealt Clayton and Lee for whatever they could bring in the way of pitching.

Crede has won the most valuable player award almost everywhere he's gone in the minors, and he put up more MVP numbers this year in his second season at Triple-A Charlotte: 24 homers, tied for second in the league, 65 runs batted in, and a .312 batting average. Is he ready? Manuel could have found that out last September, when rosters expanded. But he played Crede in only seven games, giving him only 20 at bats (which produced six hits for a .300 average). And all through this season, Manuel seemed more interested in protecting Valentin's ego--and Williams's, for the big contract he'd given Clayton.

All this mismanagement brought tears of rage from Sox fans. Even Harrelson (long ago returned to the broadcast booth) told WSCR host Mike North that this was the most talented team he had ever seen play so poorly--in other words, the biggest waste of talent in his 40 years watching the majors. Through it all, Magglio Ordonez has kept quietly putting up huge numbers, and Konerko's had the best year of his career. But they, along with Buehrle, have been the exceptions, the bourbon mixed with the bilge water.

I went out to see the Sox last Saturday, eschewing Venetian Night for the promise of postgame fireworks and perhaps more during the game. Someone had thrown himself on the third rail at the Grand stop--a Sox fan, no doubt--paralyzing the Red Line, and I had to get off at Clark and Division, hop a Clark Street bus into the Loop, and take the Green Line el to 35th Street, arriving at the park just ahead of the first pitch. The lineup told a fan the Sox weren't playing for anything but pride. Lofton and Valentin were benched, apparently on the auction block awaiting the highest bidder. Young Gary Glover was throwing strikes, working ahead in the count and letting his fielders make the outs, and he looked good from the get-go. The Sox started clubbing Kansas City starter Darrell May. Tony Graffanino, playing for Valentin, homered, as did Lofton's replacement, Aaron Rowand. (He turned on a pitch and made it look as easy to hit a homer as Glover made it look to retire big-league hitters.) Ordonez added two homers, his 21st and 22nd of the season, and they weren't even the high point of his day. He scored the first run of the night by hustling all the way home from second when a whirling May pickoff went astray. Someone obviously forgot to tell him the season was over.

So the Sox won, and they completed a sweep of the Royals the following day to climb back to six games under .500. It all just made me mad--mad that they'd squandered such talent, mad that Williams and Manuel hadn't done more to alter their fortunes, mad that they'd stuck with the same losing roster so long. After Manuel gave his usual calm, considered remarks in the interview room after Saturday night's game, I ditched--hey, if the players wanted to get out ahead of the fans sitting through the fireworks, why should I keep them?--and got outside just as the grand finale raged overhead. As I crossed over the Dan Ryan to the Red Line station (thinking the despondent Sox fan's remains must have been scraped off the tracks downtown by then) the smell of gunpowder wafted in the air, smoke from combustibles burned off to no good purpose. While I waited on the platform, four young Sox fans came up behind me and started lighting matches one by one and watching them burn out in the breeze. I thought to tell them not to play with fire, but what would have been the point?


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