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New Division, Same Result

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QUESTION: What rightfielder whose last name begins with a J and ends with an n was the most intriguing story in White Sox camp this spring?

Answer: Darrin Jackson.

On Dec. 28, about a month before whatshisname decided he wanted to try his hand at baseball. Chicago signed Jackson with the express purpose of having him replace Ellis Burks, who had left the Sox to sign with the Rockies.

Not that Jackson stepped in as a prized performer: he'd actually had some Jordanesque stats in 1993: .216 in 46 games with the Blue Jays, .195 in 31 games for the Mets. But he had a good excuse. For most of the season he was suffering from Graves' disease, a hyperthyroid condition that sapped his strength.

Jackson's nightmare season began on March 30, 1993, the very day he was traded from the moribund Padres to the world champion Jays. At the time, Jackson was heading into his last year before free agency and coming off a season in which he had 17 homers and 70 RBIs and led major league outfielders in assists (18). The trade looked to be a godsend. "Darrin and his wife went out to celebrate in an Italian restaurant in Yuma," says his agent, Alan Meersand. "Don't ever eat in an Italian restaurant in Yuma."

Jackson got food poisoning. He reported to Toronto in a weakened condition a few days later, ultimately dropping 15 pounds below his normal playing weight. He was unable to gain the weight back or hit the ball with any authority, and he feared he might be having a recurrence of the testicular cancer he had been treated for in 1987. "This was the year I'd been waiting for my entire career," says Jackson. "So I didn't want to stop. My attitude was, nothing could slow me down."

It wasn't until after Jackson was traded in June to the Mets for shortstop Tony Fernandez that doctors discovered hyperthyroidism was causing him to sweat so profusely and shake uncontrollably. He spent nearly two months on the DL while undergoing radioactive-iodine treatment and ingesting 10 pills a day. "I was relieved it wasn't cancer," says Jackson, "but it was an extremely disappointing set-back. I'd had good years and was about to get to the top and—boom—this hits. Suddenly I had to prove myself all over again." So instead of reaping a free-agent bonanza this winter, Jackson signed a one-year, $750,000 contract with Chicago.

This spring he has been hitting the ball well and giving the White Sox every indication that he will be the equal of Burks. But Jackson wasn't the only player lost in the showering of attention on that big rookie rightfielder. Did anybody notice that these White Sox are a pretty good team? They have the best rotation in the league and one of the more dominant closers in Roberto Hernandez. With another free agent, Julio Franco, in the DH spot formerly occupied by George Bell and Bo Jackson, American League MVP Frank Thomas should have a better offensive cast surrounding him. And after Gene Lamont's stoic performance amid the hoopla of spring training, it's clear that he's a manager of infinite patience.

So there's no good reason why the last AL West champ shall not be the first winner of the AL Central. And if the White Sox haven't locked it up by Sept. 1, they can always call up a certain 6'6", 31-year-old farmhand.

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PHOTO

JOHN IACONO

Franco brings his dangerous bat to the DH slot, giving the Sox yet another offensive weapon.