I know that many of you are engaged in the final push toward the primary run-off elections for your chosen candidates, the end-of-school activities with your children, or the preparation for summer vacations. But for me, Spring also inevitably turns my mind to Baseball; and this Spring there is a very interesting story developing with my favorite team since childhood—the White Sox.
It seems as though a special edition of perennial hope has filled the air around U.S. Cellular Field this year: the hope fueled by a sensational rookie performance. For those of you who have not been following Baseball to closely yet, Jose Abreu, the new first baseman for the Chisox, is simply tearing-up the American League with ridiculous numbers through the end of April on his way to being named both the American League’s Rookie and Player of the Month: In the first 29 games, he led the majors in home runs, (10), RBIs (32), total bases (32), and extra-base hits (19); he scored 20 runs, hit 8 doubles, 1 triple; and his slugging percentage is .617. Of course there are a lot more games to play this season, and—God willing—over many more seasons to come, but this is a very special start that has made my mind wander back over many years to remember some really special rookies and to dream about what may be in the Sox’s future if Abreu is the “real thing.”
As I have written here before, I grew-up a White Sox fan. Though I have some memories of the ’63 season, my first vivid memories of following Baseball start with the 1964 season, when my brother and I both were collecting baseball cards, and the Sox finished a close second to the last Yankee squad of the great teams that won all but three of the AL pennants from 1947-1964. The next season—1965—was the first season that I remember watching games on WGN and listening to games over transistor radios. Again, the Sox were in the thick of the pennant race with the Twins, and the subsequent World Series between the Twins and the Dodgers was the first one I remember watching and listening to—one teacher brought a small TV for us to watch the first few innings before school ended (in those days, the games were during the day); and then, during our walk home from school, one of the guys had a transistor radio and we’d listen to the games until we got home and could turn the TV on. Koufax, Drysdale, Grant, Kaat, Killebrew and Oliva—that was a great Series (mostly because it was the first I remember).
The point of this background is to say that with the coming of the 1966 Season, I was fully engaged in following my team, and there was a lot of buzz around the Sox that Spring. First, after two brushes with the pennant, and virtually everybody returning for the 1966 Season—including, Pete Ward, “Moose” Skowron, Floyd Robinson, Gary Peters, Joel Horlen, Tommy John, Hoyt Wilhelm, Ken Berry, John Romano, Tommy McCraw (and maybe the greatest pinch-hitter of the era, “Smokey” Burgess)—the early season predictions were for the Sox to win the AL. Second, the predictions were being supported by the arrival of a rookie who many people were expecting to be great: Tommy Agee. It’s hard to explain the excitement around Agee’s arrival, and I remember standing in a line to get his autograph on a baseball—one that sadly didn’t survive my many moves over the years. He quickly replaced Moose and Smokey to become my favorite Sox player.
And Agee didn’t disappoint, as he had a great first season, winning Rookie of the Year honors.
But, alas, as so often happens in Chicago, the fates of the sports world did not bestow their favors on that team. Although the pitching was still spectacular, the 1966 team (and the ’67 and ’68 versions) became known as the second-coming of the old “hitless wonders” because they couldn’t generate any offense due, mostly, to injuries. Incredibly, the pitching would carry the team to a winning record and 4th Place finish, but the fates would shine on a new, young Oriole squad that had acquired Frank Robinson, who would win his second Triple Crown that year—and go on to be one of the best teams of the 20th Century in ’69-‘71.
Agee would play another full season in Chicago before being traded to the Mets, where he is best known for being a starter for the “Amazing Mets” of 1969. As Agee left, Aparicio returned and new young pitcher, Wilbur Wood, arrived to salve the wound. But it was a long-time before I saw another rookie that created such a buzz on the South Side—and that was the way things worked for the Sox.
If you’re of a certain age and are a lonely Sox fan, you remember, or heard stories about, some of the great players that passed through Comisky Park on their way to great careers on some other team. When I was growing up, every time the Sox narrowly lost a game because they couldn’t score, or narrowly lost another pennant race, someone would remind us of what could’ve been, had we not traded a tremendous crop of rookies that emerged in the late 50s from the Sox organization, including Norm Cash and Denny McLain (eventual stars with the Detroit Tigers), Johnny Callison (an eventual star with the Phillies), and Earl Battey (a mainstay of the Twin teams of the early to mid-60s). Add to those trades the famous fumbles by the Cubs—like trading away Lou Brock—and losing Agee just seemed like another inevitable mistake that would deprive Chicago fans of any hope of a pennant.
Then came 1983.
During the season of 1983, I finished law school in Dallas and moved to Houston. As I took the bar exam and started working as a young associate/clerk over that Summer and Fall, something special was happening on the South Side of Chicago. For a few seasons, those few people that followed minor league development knew that Chicago had a couple of special prospects coming along who were hitting the cover off the ball in the Pacific Coast League, and when the 1983 Spring Training ended it was clear that Ron Kittle and Greg Walker would join the team. Add to these two rookies the re-building that the new owners had started under a new manager—Tony LaRussa—that brought Lamar Hoyt, Greg Luzinski and Carlton Fisk to the Sox to join Harold Baines, and hope again flourished on the South Side. And, after a mediocre Spring, the Sox started a remarkable run, going 70-30 over their last 100 games. They ended the season with the best record in Baseball, winning their division by over 20 games; Kittle would finish the season as Rookie of the Year, and Hoyt won the Cy Young Award.
But, again, the fates turned their back on this team, too. The Sox bats went cold, and, after winning the opener, they lost the play-off series to the eventual World Champion Orioles. Kittle would suffer from recurring back problems and never again reach the same performance level. Hoyt would take advantage of free-agency to go to San Diego, only to succumb to addiction and leave Baseball. LaRussa and the ownership parted ways a few years later, and he left to build championship teams in Oakland and St. Louis, and reach the Hall of Fame. So, the Sox fell on hard times again, until …
The “Big Hurt” arrived.
By 1990, the Sox were building a new park next door to retire the original Comisky Park, and during the season they brought-up a rookie who had played both football and baseball at Auburn. He was a mountain of a young man. I had heard a lot about him when an old friend invited me to come up to Chicago and join him at the old Comisky for the one of the last games against the Mariners (in which both Griffeys played in the outfield for Seattle).
We used my friend’s company’s tickets, which were in the first row behind the visiting dugout, from which could see the batter’s box very well. When this young player came to the plate, he seemed to have the bearing of a much older, mature player. He also had an “eye” for the ball—that is, he was patient and waited for the right pitch. His size, coupled with his patience and his apparent confidence was obvious and arresting. Then, he hit a pitch and the stadium collectively gasped. You see, the dimensions of the old Comisky were so big that centerfield seemed to be in another zip code—and he hit a line drive like a shot from a cannon on a trajectory that just kept rising as it left the field straight over the centerfield numbers—and over Ken Griffey’s head (though I can’t now remember which Griffey that was). In fact the ball left his bat so fast and hard that I fully expected the bleachers in centerfield to explode.
My buddies and I were so astounded—especially after having consumed several stadium-sized beers—that we were certain that we had just witnessed the next great Chicago player to be traded away to a Hall-of-Fame career in another city. But this time we were wrong, though we would be left unfulfilled nonetheless. Though Frank Thomas would go on to be the greatest hitter in Sox history—arguably as good or better than Shoeless Joe—and will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer, most long-suffering fans will remember the three seasons that “could’ve been” (1993, 1994, and 2000), and the final, heartbreaking season when the Sox finally won it all, but he was injured and couldn’t play in the post season.
All of these memories lead me to the inevitable question: is Jose Abreu an Agee, a Kittle, or a Thomas? Who knows. A lot of people were scratching their heads at the $68 million contract that the Sox signed last year for a 26-year old Cuban ball player, when the team already was carrying two veteran first basemen and designated hitters on the roster: Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko. But the only reason people are scratching their heads now is over whether his phenomenal start is indicative of what will be a bright future, or just another tease.
For me, it doesn’t really matter because, however the future unfolds, Abreu already has given me and other Sox fans something special—reason to remember all the other summers and great rookies from Norm Cash and Johnny Callison, to Floyd Robinson, Pete Ward and Gary Peters, to Tommy Agee, to Wilbur Wood and Goose Gossage, to Kittle and Walker, to Frank Thomas—and reason to hope again. For me, that’s part of the fun of Spring.