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Whose Laughing Now? Rapped for "giving up" after a housecleaning in midseason 1997, the White Sox have showed up their critics by putting together the best record in the American League

Three years ago Chicago White Sox senior vice president and
general manager Ron Schueler had a nasty epiphany: He didn't like
the players on his team. Oh, there were nice enough guys here and
there--Ozzie Guillen had a smile for everybody, and Robin Ventura
was always good for a laugh--but certain things grated on Schueler
as though he were a wedge of parmesan regianno. He hated that
many of his players didn't acknowledge the fans. He hated that
they didn't sign autographs. He hated the sounds of silence
prevalent in the clubhouse. Above all he hated that baseball, the
love of his life, didn't seem so lovely to the men he was paying
millions of dollars to play it. "To tell you the truth," Schueler
says, "our fans didn't like those guys either."

Those guys included outfielder Albert Belle and righthander Jaime
Navarro, surly veterans who, while often productive, exhibited
all the effervescence of Kenneth Starr. The White Sox' slogan was
GOOD GUYS WEAR BLACK! but it should have been GET OUTTA MY FACE,
CHUMP! "So we made a decision," says Schueler. "The toughest
decision I've ever made: Scrap the whole thing and build around
our kids."

On July 31, 1997, with Chicago trailing the first-place Cleveland
Indians by three games in the American League Central, Schueler
finalized a trade that instantly altered his Windy City
reputation from shrewd personnel man to 100% moron. The White Sox
sent lefthander Wilson Alvarez, their No. 1 starter; righthander
Roberto Hernandez, one of the league's top closers; and steady
long man Danny Darwin to the San Francisco Giants for five minor
leaguers and a struggling rookie righthander named Keith Foulke,
who was 1-5 with an 8.26 ERA. Sports talk radio callers had a
field day. Columnists ripped the organization for weeks. Opposing
players thought it was a joke. Chicago, the team that quit the
pennant race, was the laughingstock of sports, and with good
reason: The White Sox finished the season six games behind the
division champion Indians. "It wasn't about the players we were
discarding, and it wasn't about the players we were receiving,"
says Schueler. "It was about putting a product on the field that
people would enjoy and relate to."

Because Schueler and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf took such
an extraordinary amount of abuse over the dismantling, it is only
fair to concede the following: They were right. Any nonbelievers
need only look at what first-place Chicago has done over the past
two weeks, during which it took two of three from Cleveland, then
took two of three from the American League West-leading Seattle
Mariners and two more from the Houston Astros. There was
centerfielder Chris Singleton, 27, acquired from the New York
Yankees for minor league lefthander Rich Pratt before the 1999
season, delivering an RBI single against Cleveland. There was
leftfielder Carlos Lee, 23, a lightly regarded free-agent signee
in '94, blasting a seventh-inning two-run homer to left in
Cleveland. There was first baseman Paul Konerko, batting .279
with nine homers and 32 RBIs through Sunday. Discarded by the
Cincinnati Reds, Konerko, 24, is the poster child for the new
White Sox: thrilled to be there.

Never did Schueler look smarter than during a 4-1 win over
Cleveland on May 27, when 30,250 boisterous Chicago fans watched
lefthander Jim Parque, drafted by the White Sox in 1997, toss
7 1/3 innings of two-run, six-hit ball to catcher Brook Fordyce,
30, who was acquired from Cincinnati before last season for a
low-level minor league pitcher. Three of Chicago's 16 hits came
off the powerful bat of rightfielder Magglio Ordonez, 26, an
undrafted free-agent signee in '91. Three more--a homer, a triple
and a double--came from shortstop Jose Valentin, 30, who, along
with 32-year-old pitcher Cal Eldred (5-2 with a 4.15 ERA through
Sunday), came from the Milwaukee Brewers last January for the
since-released Navarro and injury-prone righthander John Snyder.
Hard-throwing reliever Bob Howry, 26, one of the six Giants
acquired three years back, closed the game with a two-strikeout
ninth inning. He and Foulke look more and more like the deadly
Mariano Rivera-John Wetteland late-game combo that helped carry
the Yankees to the 1996 World Series championship. Alvarez, who
will likely miss the rest of this season with tendinitis in his
left shoulder, and Hernandez, who has a 5.40 ERA, weren't helping
the floundering Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Darwin is retired.

The White Sox, 32-23 through Sunday, aren't the best team in
baseball. They probably won't even finish in the top eight. Their
pitching staff is third in the league with a 4.34 ERA, but
Chicago makes too many errors (a major-league-high 54) and, as
evidenced in two losses by scores of 12-4 and 7-0 to the Yankees
in late May, can endure prolonged stretches of offensive
ineptitude. Yet if the two wins over Cleveland showed anything,
it was that the Indians aren't about to steamroll the heretofore
weak Central again. From the 1995 season through the '99 season
the Indians spent 62 days out of first place, none after June 5.
Through Sunday, Cleveland hasn't been in sole possession of first
place since April 18--a run of 47 days.

"The guys on Chicago know they're not legitimate contenders
unless they beat us," says Indians third baseman Travis Fryman,
"and they beat us good. We're seeing a club that has a chance to
be an exceptional team in a short period of time. I'm not sure
they can play any better than they played against us, but if they
can, that's alarming."

The 1999 White Sox are a likable, modestly paid ($31.2 million
payroll compared to $54.4 million before the '97 purge began)
group. Before their flight from Seattle to Houston last week,
reserve catcher Mark Johnson was getting dressed when he
discovered a dead lobster in his shoe. No one claimed
responsibility for the crustacean, but pitching ace James
Baldwin, wearing a lobster bib, was a prime suspect.

In Chicago, where fan loyalty still runs toward the North Side,
the White Sox are remarkably anonymous. Aside from first baseman
Frank Thomas and maybe second baseman Ray Durham, Sox players
could stroll the streets of Chicago carrying flashing neon signs
reading I PLAY IN THE BIG LEAGUES! and go unnoticed. In his four
years with the White Sox, Foulke (1-0, 0.76 ERA, 11 saves this
season through Sunday), who has used a 95-mph fastball to become
one of the game's better closers, says that he has been
recognized on the streets of Chicago twice. "Neither time did the
person ask for an autograph," he says.

Even the righthanded Baldwin, who opened the season with eight
victories in nine decisions, gets the Rodney Dangerfield
treatment. On the afternoon of May 23, Steve Rosenbloom, a writer
for the Chicago Tribune, carried a picture of Baldwin up and down
Michigan Avenue and asked passersby to ID the man in the photo.
Only six of 50 persons knew he was Baldwin. That evening, manager
Joe Torre, whose Yankees would face Baldwin two nights later, was
given the same test. "He looks familiar," Torre said. "Is he an
old Yankee?"

Baldwin never played for New York, but in a rocky five-year
career he has served up five home runs to the Bombers. That was
Baldwin's legacy--great stuff, nice guy, more bombs than Demi
Moore. Last year, while going 12-13 with a 5.10 ERA, Baldwin
allowed 34. Although he has given up 12 this season, there has
been a difference, Chicago manager Jerry Manuel insists. "Now
when he gives them up, it's not in key situations," says Manuel.
"He isn't walking guys like he used to, so a terrible three-run
homer is just a solo shot. Our offense can overcome that."

From home runs hit (52 through 55 games in 1999, 76 over the same
number of games in 2000) to runs scored (263-312), the White Sox
are a far more dangerous club than they were a year ago. Much of
that has to do with the revival of Thomas, a two-time MVP who,
distracted last year by a divorce, a sore right ankle and nonstop
bickering with the Chicago press, had career lows with 15 home
runs and 77 RBIs. Through Sunday he was tied for 14th in the
league with a .328 average. More important, says Durham, "the big
guy's got a smile back on his face."

In '97, Thomas was devastated by the demolition of the Sox. He
wasn't thrilled after the '98 season either, when Belle was
allowed to leave for the Baltimore Orioles and Ventura signed on
with the New York Mets. Slowly but surely, however, Thomas has
embraced Schueler's plan. Was that the Big Hurt, of all people,
bobbing and grooving in the clubhouse, waving his arms in the air
to a Mystikal CD before a recent Baldwin start? Was that Thomas
wearing a poofy black wig that mimicked Baldwin's mini-'fro?
"Frank sees he can be the leader on this team," says Schueler,
"and I think he likes that."

A second leader is Valentin. Last season Chicago pitchers did
everything in their power to avoid giving up grounders to short,
where Mike Caruso--another of the six players in the trade with
the Giants--fielded balls with the dexterity of a one-armed
waitress. It wasn't just that Caruso was error-prone (35 miscues
in 1998 and 24 in '99). He also tended to err in crucial
situations. With 13 errors at week's end, tied for the league
high for shortstops, Valentin is no Omar Vizquel, but he has
above-average range, a strong arm and a quiet confidence. Plus,
he has seven home runs and 29 RBIs. "There's nothing better than
knowing you have a guy behind you who can take care of things,"
says lefthander Mike Sirotka. "Jose makes some errors, but when
we need a big stop or a clutch play, he's there."

The injury-prone Valentin spent the first six years of his career
with Milwaukee, which offered him a $100,000 bonus to stay home
and avoid getting hurt instead of playing winter ball in Puerto
Rico. For two years the Brewers requested that Valentin take the
off-season off; for two years Valentin played. "I saw it this
way," says Valentin, a soon-to-be free agent. "I could make
$100,000, a nice amount of money. Or I could play in my home,
have fun, be with my friends and, most important, become a better
player. My highest value comes if I'm a very good player. That's
how I'll be happy and make more money."

Valentin says he wants to be happy and make more money--as a
member of the White Sox. "This is the place to play," he says.
"The team is being built the right way. We're on the rise."

Three years after his purge began, Schueler can amble through the
clubhouse with a smile on his face. It's nice to be right.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY OTTO GREULE SOMETHING IN RESERVE Backup catcher Johnson is one of the many eager young players who have changed the mood in Chicago.

COLOR PHOTO: RONALD C. MODRA THE GREAT UNKNOWN Despite an 8-1 record, Baldwin can still walk the streets of downtown Chicago without being recognized.

COLOR PHOTO: JONATHAN DANIEL Shortcomings Valentin has 13 errors, but only two since May 3.

Errors Of Their Ways

The White Sox were the worst fielding team in the American League
through Sunday, ranking 29th in the majors in fielding percentage
and second in errors committed. (Only the Padres were worse in
each category.) Yet Chicago was still leading the American League
Central and could become only the sixth team since 1900 to finish
in first place while placing last in its league in
fielding. --David Sabino


2000 White Sox 54 2,063 .974 Led AL Central by
1 1/2 games

Shortstop Jose Valentin was tied for league lead at his position
with 13 errors, while second baseman Ray Durham was second among
the league's second basemen with seven.

1995 Dodgers 130 5,505 .976 Lost NL Division Series

Lopsided left side: Third baseman Tim Wallach led the league in
fielding, but Jose Offerman committed 35 errors--15 more than any
other shortstop in the majors.

1995 Red Sox 120 5,579 .978 Lost AL Division Series

Mike Greenwell, Troy O'Leary and Lee Tinsley were responsible
for 16 of Boston's league-high 23 errors in the outfield.

1971 Giants 179 4,364 .972 Lost NL Championship

At first they didn't succeed: Willie Mays committed 11 errors in
48 games at first base while Dave Kingman and Willie McCovey
botched another 18 chances.

1965 Twins 172 6,308 .973 Lost World Series

Shortstop Zoilo Versalles made a career-high 39 errors; the
first of three straight seasons in which he led American League shortstops in bobbles.

1925 Pirates 224 6,170 .964 Won World Series

Weak up the middle: Centerfielder Max Carey (20), second baseman
Eddie Moore (36) and shortstop Glenn Wright (56) combined for
half of Pittsburgh's miscues.

"This is the place to play," says Valentin. "The team is being
built the right way. We're on the rise."