James Baldwin, a 24-year-old rookie righthanded pitcher for the
Chicago White Sox, took a deep breath to calm himself before his
first pitch last Saturday afternoon. Here he was at a sold-out
Camden Yards, starting against a loaded Baltimore Orioles lineup
with his mother, Lucille, and about 30 friends and relatives in
the stands after they drove six hours from Southern Pines, N.C.
"It's the first time my mom has ever seen me pitch in the big
leagues," Baldwin said later. "A sellout crowd, the Orioles,
Camden Yards. I was pumped."
Good thing Lucille caught up with her son in Baltimore and not
another of the stops Chicago had made during the previous three
weeks. Given the level of competition the White Sox faced during
that time, it might have been difficult for her to fathom that
James actually had left Triple A Nashville, where he most often
pitched the past three seasons, for the Show. Until last Friday,
Chicago had not faced a team with a winning record for 25 days.
The White Sox tore through that stretch with a 16-5 record
against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Detroit Tigers, the Toronto
Blue Jays and the Boston Red Sox, including seven wins without a
loss against the Tigers, an achievement one Chicago player
dismissed as "beating a Triple A team." That's life in the
bottom-heavy American League this season, where at week's end
only six teams were on track to fight it out for the four
The big question in the Central Division is this: Is Chicago a
real threat to the powerful Cleveland Indians? Based on the
White Sox's weekend work in Baltimore, where they swept the
Orioles, the answer is an emphatic yes.
After riding a pair of solid pitching performances by Alex
Fernandez and Baldwin to victories last Friday and Saturday,
Chicago outslugged Baltimore 12-9 on Sunday. Those wins, coupled
with Cleveland's 8-6 loss to the California Angels on Sunday,
moved the White Sox (39-21) into a first-place tie with the
Indians, the defending American League champions.
"Last year we couldn't catch a cab or a plane to catch the
Indians," says Chicago closer Roberto Hernandez, of the Sox's
third-place finish last season, 30 games back of the first-place
Tribe. "When this year started, nobody even gave us a chance
against Cleveland, which I understood. It was supposed to be a
runaway. But right now we're in the back of the Indians' minds.
They're hearing footsteps."
The White Sox prefer to limit their public discussions about the
Indians. Says first baseman Frank Thomas, who is having a
monster year even by his tyrannosaurus standards, "My take on
Cleveland? I have none. Sure, they're still the team to beat.
But we're not worried about those guys. We're worried only about
us, about taking care of ourselves."
Still, the Central is a two-team race involving the clubs with
the two best records in the league. Chicago knows that
Cleveland's pitching has been unreliable enough for the Indians
to consider signing lefthander Greg Swindell, whom the Houston
Astros released last week and whom the White Sox ignored because
they deemed his fastball lifeless. They also know that
combustible Cleveland slugger Albert Belle, who has been
disciplined three times in the past four months by the league
and the commissioner's office, is only one flare-up away from a
severe suspension. Belle is currently appealing a five-game
suspension for his role in inciting a bench-clearing brawl in a
game against the Brewers two weeks ago. "We know when he's out,
that's a chance to get ahead of them," says Chicago lefthander
The White Sox are so focused on Cleveland that Terry Bevington,
Chicago's cautious manager, let it slip that he tweaked his
rotation nearly a month in advance so he will have his best
pitchers throwing against the Indians when the two teams play
eight games in 11 days in late June and early July. After the
White Sox's ace, righthander Fernandez, threw 2 1/3 innings in a
game against the Tigers that was rained out on June 1, Bevington
didn't pitch him again until six days later in Baltimore so that
Fernandez would be on track to pitch twice against Cleveland
before the All-Star break.
Says Chicago pitcher Kevin Tapani, who signed with the Sox as a
free agent last winter and had a 6-3 record with a 3.10 ERA, the
third best in the American League at week's end, "The reason I
signed with the White Sox is that they flat-out told me they
were competing against Cleveland," he says. "The other teams in
the division I talked to told me, 'If everything falls in place,
we can make a run at the wild card.' Chicago was the only team
not conceding anything to Cleveland."
Given the White Sox's 1993 West Division title and their
first-place standing in the Central in '94 when the strike shut
down that season, its 68-76 record last year qualified as a
collapse. In '95, Chicago committed 25 errors in losing eight of
its first 10 games. "It was so contagious, you began to think,
Is it my turn next to make an error?" says third baseman Robin
Ventura. Alvarez, Fernandez and Jason Bere, who is currently on
the disabled list with an elbow injury, weren't ready to pitch
after the strike-shortened spring training. And the idea that
Chris Sabo, the White Sox's cleanup hitter behind Thomas on
Opening Day, or John Kruk could replace the bat of Julio Franco,
a mainstay of '94 who had left for Japan, was preposterous.
"There was no fun last year--none," Hernandez says. "And if
anybody tells you any different, they're lying to you."
An influx of veterans has enabled the retooled White Sox to bond
as quickly as cement. In the off-season Chicago added pitchers
Tapani and Joe Magrane, DH Harold Baines and leftfielder Tony
Phillips, all of whom brought World Series experience. In
addition, Darren Lewis, a centerfielder who made such
spectacular catches last week that he was cheered on the road in
Boston and in Baltimore, played on the Cincinnati Reds'
division-winning club last year.
"I didn't get excited when we added those guys," Hernandez says.
"I wanted to see the way they interacted on the field and in the
clubhouse first. Then from the first day of camp I said, 'I feel
good about it.' It's a good mix."
Says Phillips, "When we won those games against the teams with
losing records, we started to jell. Nothing brings a team
together like winning, no matter who you play. Now the next
month will tell us what kind of team we have, in terms of being
measured against some of the best teams."
A welcome calm has finally come to an organization that over the
previous three years has endured the distractions caused by
employing a football player (Bo Jackson), a basketball player
(Michael Jordan) and a rock musician (Jack McDowell), to say
nothing of the volatile George Bell and the comedic Kruk, who
hit a single one day last year, took himself out of the game and
Last week Jordan was still casting a long shadow over the White
Sox, this time as the leader of the winningest pro basketball
team of all time. These Sox, though, hardly mind Chicago's
preoccupation with the Bulls, even if it partly explained a 13%
drop in attendance from last year. "I'd love to see the Bulls
play for the next two months," said shortstop Ozzie Guillen last
week. "We'll just keep winning and sneaking up on people."
The whisper-quiet Baines and the talkative Phillips are the ying
and the yap of this coagulating team. They were born 40 days
apart in 1959, the year the White Sox last played in the World
Series, and they both start their swings with an exaggerated
pumping action of their hands, as if churning butter. In the
lineup they also provide support in front of and behind Thomas,
the superlative slugger who remains the foundation of the Sox.
Phillips, the leadoff hitter, reached base 125 times in the
first 60 games; Baines was hitting .313 at week's end with 48
RBIs, while often hitting fourth behind Thomas. Baines, who
played in Chicago from 1980 through '89, returned to the White
Sox as a free agent after Baltimore showed no interest in
retaining him despite a typically underappreciated season in
'95. He hit .299 last season, the fifth time in his major league
career that he has missed hitting .300 by seven points or less.
"No doubt he's right up there with the best, and he helps me get
better pitches," says Thomas, who nonetheless on June 4 at
Fenway Park joined Tony Muser (1973) as the only White Sox
players to draw five walks in a game. "It was ridiculous. As
long as we make them pay, though, I don't care."
Thomas drew 51 walks in the first 60 games, tying him with
Phillips for the league lead, but he still provided heavy-duty
offense: a .348 average, 18 dingers and a major-league-best 66
RBIs. At week's end Thomas had reached base in every game but
one this year and all but 10 of 205 games over the past two
years. He was on pace to reach base 354 times, a total exceeded
only by Babe Ruth (379 in 1923) and Ted Williams (358 in '49).
"This team is going to score runs," Hernandez says. "The one
thing that will determine how far we go is the 11 or 12 guys
throwing the baseball."
Hernandez, who blew 10 saves last season, is now the most
reliable pitcher on the Chicago staff. He finished strongly last
year after teammate Craig Grebeck noticed he was tipping his
pitches. Hernandez kept his left index finger on the back of his
glove when throwing a fastball and lifted it when throwing a
breaking ball. He solved the problem by attaching a narrow
leather sleeve on the back of his glove in which to slip the
finger. Presto. Hernandez got two more saves last weekend and
had converted 29 of his last 30 save opportunities through
Sunday, including a club-record 19 straight. He had permitted
only two runs in 29 1/3 innings (0.61 ERA) with a fastball that
had been clocked at 100.5 mph, about 5 mph faster than last
year. "I'm 31 years old," he says, "but my arm feels like it's
25 or 26."
Baldwin is younger still, but he proved last week that he can be
a major contributor too. It wasn't just beating Baltimore in the
charged atmosphere of Camden Yards and running his record to
6-1. Three days before, Baldwin gave Ventura a splendid haircut
in the shower room of the visitors' clubhouse in Fenway Park.
Baldwin is such an avid stylist that he travels with his own
grooming equipment. "He's branching out now to do the white
guys," Tapani says. "Robin was the guinea pig, and James did a
great job. My hair is getting a little shaggy, so I'm thinking
about having him cut it."
Naturally, given the unity in the Chicago clubhouse these days,
Baldwin wouldn't think of charging his clients a fee. "These are
my teammates, these are my guys," he says. That's the sort of
harmonious season it has been for the White Sox. So far, they've
been even better than their clippings.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Phillips's aggressive play has rubbed off on his teammates, who had won 18 of 21 at week's end. [Tony Phillips in game]
COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANSGuillen and the Sox are ripping the ball, but Chicago's pitching should ultimately determine its fate. [Ozzie Guillen batting in game]
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER After a bad start in the field in '95, second baseman Ray Durham and Co. have tightened up defensively.