White Sox Arrive Early


Monday, September 25th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6


CHICAGO (AP) — Jerry Manuel's eyes and instincts told him a year ago what others could not see. The Chicago White Sox were not far from being a contender.

At a meeting with general manager Ron Schueler and owner Jerry Reinsdorf following two losing seasons, Manuel sought an opinion on where his team was. Then he gave one of his own.

``I asked them, 'How close do you think we are?' They said, `Well, I think we are about 2001 or 2002 All-Star break.' I said, `OK,' '' Manuel recalled.

``They said, `Well, What do you think?' and I said, `I think we are closer than that. I think we are one or two pieces from being a very good team. I saw us as being competitive.''

Maybe it's the wisdom Manuel has garnered from his years as a coach under Felipe Alou in Montreal or his experience as a bench coach with the 1997 World Series champion Florida Marlins: The White Sox were ready to go to the next level.

Quickly.

They played well from the outset, took the AL Central lead in mid-April and clinched the division title with a week remaining.

The White Sox left spring training with a payroll of about $32 million and were tied with the Twins for the youngest team in the AL.

They made their marketing slogan of ``The Kids Can Play'' come true, although it took a great comeback season from Frank Thomas and the addition of experienced players such as Cal Eldred, Jose Valentin and Herbert Perry.

``Those players didn't just drop out of the sky. Schueler did a good job of putting it together,'' Reinsdorf said.

It's been just more than three years since their highly criticized ``White Flag'' trade, in which the White Sox sent three of their best pitchers to San Francisco for six prospects — even though there were still in a pennant race, just 3 1/2 games out. Now, the White Sox are back in the playoffs for the first time since 1993.

``I didn't boo Schu, I cheered him when he made that trade,'' Reinsdorf said. ``The people who criticized that trade were White Sox fans who just thought we were doing the wrong thing. Now, they can all realize that trade started us on the way.''

Chicago moved into first place on April 19, several days before a bloody brawl with the Detroit Tigers.

The White Sox scored the most runs in the majors and have been baseball's best road team. In June, they went to Cleveland and swept a three-game series from the five-time AL Central champions, then went to New York and won four straight over the Yankees, the two-time defending World Series champions.

``That was probably our best stretch of baseball. We didn't just beat them, we basically dominated them at that time,'' Manuel said, noting that both the Indians and Yankees were slowed by injuries.

Pitching is a question mark for the White Sox now.

Eldred and James Baldwin reached double figures in victories before getting hurt, and rookies Kip Wells and Jon Garland have pitched inconsistently.

Veteran Mike Sirotka has been the anchor of the staff and will start the playoff opener, probably Oct. 3. Jim Parque has shaken off a slump that saw him go a month between wins, and reliever Sean Lowe has been a dependable spot starter.

Bobby Howry and Keith Foulke, acquired in the ``White Flag'' trade, have emerged as a strong setup-closer presence in the bullpen.

Valentin has 35 errors at shortstop. But he and third baseman Perry, an April waiver wire pickup from Tampa Bay, have stabilized a defense that was shaky in Manuel's first two seasons.

Thomas, a two-time American League MVP, followed two subpar seasons and a spring training screaming match with Manuel to produce his best power year. . All-Star Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, Ray Durham, Valentin, Perry and trade deadline acquisition Charles Johnson all hit for a decent averages while supplying power.

``When I got traded, I didn't think we'd be this good,'' Valentin said. ``But in spring training, I saw all the young faces, guys who wanted to play. And now every time we take the field, we think we can beat anybody. You think that way and good things happen.''