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If there was a theme song to the White Sox' season, it was the old Prince B side "17 Days," a mournful yet percolating tune about unrequited love and the rain coming down. I don't know if it was in Nancy Faust's repertoire, but it should have been. During a 17-day stretch in August, the White Sox won 2 games and lost 15. The team, which pitched, fielded, and hit well through most of the season, saw all these talents disappear during the slump. It's testimony to how good a year they had that, while they then fell out of the pennant race, they nevertheless managed to hold on to second place without much difficulty. This is a solid young team that performed better than everyone but they themselves expected.

The reasons for the August swoon were mysterious--everyone on the team played poorly, no exceptions--but they became more apparent as I got reacquainted with my old friend Miles Harvey a week ago last Tuesday, during the Sox' last home stand. We met outside the ballpark and found some seats just as the top of the first inning was ending, and after a few minutes of small talk Miles related the following tale. It goes back to September 1983, when Miles moved away from Chicago. The White Sox went on to finish first that year. After moving back for a short time the following year, he left again in September 1984, and the Cubs finished first. After again returning, he moved away in September 1989, when the Cubs were on their way to another first place. He moved back to Chicago on August 11, the day Wilson Alvarez pitched his no-hitter, the high-water mark for the Sox season. The swoon began immediately afterward.

Alvarez arrived when the Sox were fighting the Minnesota Twins for first place. At the time, it was believed that the only thing the Sox needed to hold off the Twins was another quality starter, someone to step in behind Jack McDowell and give the team a good one-two punch. After throwing a no-hitter, Alvarez appeared to fit the bill, but he was inconsistent--as were his new teammates--afterward.

"Black-cloud" Harvey, as he is now known, and I met that Tuesday night in part because he had not yet seen Bill Veeck Stadium and I wanted to see the Sox one last time before the end of the season, in part because the Sox were playing the Twins, the team that had beaten them out, and in part because as it turned out Alvarez was pitching for the Sox. The game had all the aspects of an end-of-the-season wrap-up, and the weather was delightful as well. The crowd was just under 30,000, meaning it was pleasantly raucous; we didn't have much trouble finding a couple of unoccupied seats in the lower deck of the grandstand.

The night was the season in miniature. The Twins had the slightly better team--and, of course, Miles was present--so the Sox lost. Yet the Sox were only slightly less impressive in defeat than the Twins were in victory. The game was well played--if frayed around the edges, as befits late-September baseball--and entertaining.

Alvarez is going to be an outstanding pitcher. His motion is sound fundamentally, and his pitches move about a great deal. He resembles Sid Fernandez of the New York Mets in his high, held-back leg kick, but where Fernandez then lunges toward the plate with a sidearm delivery, Alvarez remains erect and delivers the ball smoothly. The ball seems to flutter from his hand when released. On this evening, he allowed only an unearned run in the second in his first six innings of work, then was charged with another run in the seventh, when he departed. In between, he retired ten straight batters at one point. He benefited from a crisp double play in the first and a misguided attempt by the Twins to pull a two-out double steal in the second--or something of the sort; Miles and I were forced to move to new seats at that moment. In any event, the Sox foiled it, catching the Twins' Shane Mack in a rundown between third and home.

Unfortunately, the Sox were prone to the same misguided attempts to catch the other guys napping, and there was only one guy hitting for them with any sort of consistency. It should come as no surprise to anyone who saw the Sox this season that it was Frank Thomas. He has had an astounding season: 32 homers, 109 runs batted in, and a .318 average. Those are most valuable player numbers, but they don't tell half of it. In his first full season in the majors, Thomas collected 178 hits and 138 walks, reaching base 316 times, a figure uncommon since the offense-crazed 30s. Never, in my lifetime, has a young player come along who is so menacing with the bat and yet so disciplined in what he swings at. He could be the dominant offensive player of the decade. He slashed a vicious single to left in the first, then doubled and scored the first Chicago run in the third.

His sidekick Robin Ventura had an off night and still managed to get on base twice with walks. Ventura batted .284 this season, which is about what the most optimistic scouts had predicted of him, but with 23 homers and 100 RBI. His unexpected power and, as with Thomas, his ability to draw walks (80 on the season) made him a potent force. With Tim Raines leading off and drawing 83 walks of his own, that meant the Sox had a lineup in which the first three hitters all had on-base percentages above .350, reaching base almost 800 times between them. If the Sox had had any kind of consistent clean-up hitter--say, a healthy Bo Jackson for the entire season--they might have won the pennant even with their inexperienced pitching staff.

McDowell finished 17-10 with a 3.41 earned-run average; he threw 253 innings and led the majors in complete games with 15. Yet after him, the team couldn't find a dependable starter. Greg Hibbard was the only other ten-game winner, but with a 4.19 ERA and a short banishment to the minors, he was hardly the epitome of the number-two starter. The Sox bolstered their bull pen by moving Melido Perez out there, and for a while it helped--Perez was better off coming out of the pen every second or third day than he had been starting every fifth day--but the weakness in the rotation eventually manifested itself in the long losing streak, which not even McDowell, the stopper, could stop. The rotation was McDowell and then four days to howl.

All this aside, on this night the Twins reminded everyone that the reason they won this year--even though they finished in last place last year--is that they were the best team. The 1987 Twins were among my favorite baseball champions of the last decade, because they had a few very talented pitchers, a top-notch bull pen, power in the lineup, and the outstanding defense to make the formula work. This year's Twins have about the same amount of pitching--three solid starters in Scott Erickson, Jack Morris, and Kevin Tapani, and a great bull pen stopper in Rick Aguilera--a little less power, but again that trademark Twins' defense. The Sox had four straight hits in the fourth inning, but scored only once because the Twins were alert enough to catch the Sox attempt at a double steal with men on first and third. Their infield defense is sharp, and their outfielders hit the cutoff men and keep the opponents from taking the extra base. They are a very heady team, and although I'm rooting for the Toronto Blue Jays to win it all I'm looking forward to seeing the Twins in the playoffs.

I touched on the topic of Bo Jackson before, and now it's time perhaps to try to do him justice. He rejoined the team in September and helped pull the Sox out of the doldrums to finish second. Yet he couldn't make a believer out of the Tribune's Alan Solomon, no matter what he did. Solomon is a journalist I respect; he is probably the best baseball beat writer in a city full of good baseball beat writers. Yet for some reason he had an ax to grind against Jackson, and he was grinding away on it regardless of his own intelligence. First, he said Jackson had never been much of a player. Well, I'd be hard-pressed to find a team in either league that couldn't use a guy who hit 32 homers and drove in 100 RBI. Second, he couldn't get over Jackson's $700,000 salary. He pointed out that over the last month of the season Jackson would make more than several Sox stars--including McDowell--combined. Well, if there's something to that, and there is, then it's for Jackson to work out with his teammates. Solomon's complaint on general principles over the salary was more ludicrous. Sure, Jackson was paid $700,000 this year for a season in which he didn't even play a full month, but the Sox made money on him: they made money on the tickets Jackson sold in September, and they made money on the Sox jackets, caps, etc, he sold during his well-publicized convalescence. The worst, however, was when Solomon wrote a lead saying, "Bo Jackson homered, but he didn't hit enough of them as the Sox lost 4-3." That is the work of a man who deserves to be moved to another beat.

With Thomas, Ventura, McDowell, and Bobby Thigpen (Remember him? He quietly saved another 30 games this year), the Sox have a very young and very solid nucleus. They are a player or two away from having a dominant team in an era when the majors are so balanced that last-place teams routinely move into first the following year. Jackson could be one of the players the Sox need. Any number of free-agent starting pitchers-- say, a Scott Sanderson or Bill Gullickson type--could be the other. The Sox lost 3-2 to the Twins last Tuesday on an eighth-inning homer by Kirby Puckett. The Twins were the better team this year. They probably won't be next season.

We just have to arrange airfare to Europe for Miles next September.


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