Monday, September 6, 2010

Coasting to the Wire

     This year’s White Sox swept a three-game series at Boston on the weekend before Labor Day to remain within striking distance of the Minnesota Twins in the American League Central Division race. The Sox are three and a half games out, and they seem to have plenty of fight left in them.
     Twenty-seven years ago, in 1983, the Sox also visited Boston on the weekend before Labor Day. They lost two out of three, but nonetheless found themselves 12 games in front of their nearest pursuer in the A.L. West (the division in which they resided from 1969 through 1993). They were well on their way to the first championship of any kind for a Chicago baseball club since 1959.

     September 1 is the traditional date on which pennant races are supposed to enter the stretch drive. On that date in 1983, the “race” in the American League West was over. White Sox ace LaMarr Hoyt twirled a complete-game four-hitter and, as usual, walked none as the Sox blanked the second-place Kansas City Royals 12-0 at Comiskey Park. (For the year, Hoyt would average just over one walk per nine innings and rack up almost five times as many strikeouts as walks.)
     “He has courage, heart, guts,” Sox skipper Tony LaRussa said of the burly, bearded righthander who’d overcome a 2-6 start, now led both leagues with 18 victories, and was soon to receive the Cy Young Award.
     Several days earlier, Texas had come calling, and Rangers manager Doug Rader tried, somewhat clumsily, to clarify his earlier comments about the White Sox “winning ugly.” He was well aware that he had created a catch phrase, for it was staring back at him from T-shirts and handmade signs at the ballpark and around town. “Look, I didn’t mean anything bad by that,” Rader said. “I mean, nothing’s really bad about winning no matter how it’s done.”
     The White Sox had swept a two-game series from Texas and then had done the same to Kansas City. The Royals left town 11 games behind the White Sox, and they were not going to get any closer.
     Such was their situation at this heady time that the White Sox dropped two of three at Boston and still gained ground in the standings! They came home on Labor Day 12 games in front. After they swept three from Oakland and four from California, the margin was 16 and a half, and the champagne was on ice.
     A split of two games at Minnesota set up a four-game series at home against Seattle. On September 15, Hoyt blanked the Mariners 12-0 for his 10th consecutive win and 21st of the year. Greg Luzinski, Ron Kittle, and Vance Law each knocked in two runs, and Harold Baines accounted for four with a grand slam. The next night, Baines broke a scoreless tie with a solo home run in the seventh inning, and the Sox added six runs in the eighth for good measure. Floyd Bannister struck out 12 in pitching a two-hitter, and no Mariner reached second base. The Sox won 7-0 to reduce their “magic number” to one. One more White Sox win or Kansas City loss would clinch the division title.
     On Saturday night, September 17, 45,646 passed through the turnstiles to push the White Sox’ season total over two million (it was the first time that either the Sox or Cubs had achieved that figure). Jerry Koosman gave up an unearned run in the first, then settled down and pitched seven scoreless innings. The Sox scored single runs in the third and fourth, and when Baines cracked a home run in the bottom of the eighth to give them a 3-1 lead, the fans were beside themselves. But Seattle scored twice in the top of the ninth to put the party on hold.
     In the bottom of the ninth, Jerry Hairston led off by lining out to pitcher Bill Caudill. Then Caudill walked the bases full—first Julio Cruz, then Rudy Law, then Carlton Fisk. The ballpark, of course, was in an uproar. The unflappable Baines moseyed up to the plate; he was perhaps the only person involved who was unimpressed by the electricity in the park or the gravity of the moment. Lefty Ed VandeBerg replaced Caudill, and Baines lofted his first offering to medium-deep center field. It was deep enough to score Cruz standing up. The White Sox were division champions.
     Winning, ugly or otherwise, had become the White Sox’ habit. They suffered no letdown after clinching the title. Although it wasn’t strictly necessary, they beat Seattle again the next day for their 17th straight win at home. They went on to win 10 of the remaining 13 games to close the season at 99-63, an even 20 games ahead of the Royals.
     Here’s how the West was won. The White Sox lost 32 of their first 59 games, then lost only 31 more for the rest of the season. Against their division foes, the Sox were 55-23 for the season and 31-6 in the second half. After the All-Star break, their top starting pitchers (Hoyt, Richard Dotson, and Bannister) were a combined 42-5. After July 31, the Sox were 46-15. After August 26, they were 29-6 and never lost as many as two in a row. In their last 20 home games, they were 19-1.

Adapted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert

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