1990 Chicago White Sox: A Contender Emerges

It had been six mostly dry years for baseball on the South Side of Chicago. After reaching the ALCS in 1983, the White Sox had not been a serious contender since, and only in 1985 were they even above .500. Jeff Torborg’s arrival as manager in 1989 resulted in a 92-loss season. There was no reason to expect the 1990 Chicago White Sox to be different. But they were. Only a powerhouse within their division kept Chicago out of the playoffs. What’s more, some great young talent was introduced and this ’90 campaign set the stage for future success.

The White Sox found their way with excellent pitching. Jack McDowell was an emerging star and the 24-year-old won 14 games with a 3.82 ERA. Greg Hibbard won 14 more and his ERA was 3.16. Melido Perez’s performance was mediocre—a 4.61 ERA. But his reliability in making 35 starts was valuable to the staff over a long season. Eric King went to the post 25 times and posted a solid 3.28 ERA. And a 20-year-old rookie in Alex Fernandez also had a sub-4.00 ERA.

It made for a consistent rotation and Torborg’s bullpen was even better. Donn Pall, Barry Jones, Ken Patterson and Wayne Edwards were all good arms for middle and setup work. They passed the baton to Bobby Thigpen. The closer merely slammed the door a then-record 57 times, posted a 1.83 ERA and finished fifth in the Cy Young voting. Chicago’s staff ERA was the second-best in the American League.

What the White Sox didn’t have was a good offense. The entire infield—Carlos Martinez at first base, Scott Fletcher at second, Robin Ventura at third and a future franchise manager in Ozzie Guillen at short—had poor years with the bat. No one in the outfield—from Ivan Calderon to Lance Johnson to a 21-year-old Sammy Sosa were productive.

What the White Sox did have was the great Carlton Fisk behind the plate. He might have been 42-years-old by 1990, but Fisk could still hit. His stat line ended up at .378 on-base percentage/.451 slugging percentage in the last really good season of a Hall of Fame career. Fisk got help from designated hitter Dan Pasqua, whose stat line was .347/.495.

And the White Sox could also run. Calderon, Johnson and Sosa combined to steal 100 bases. The running game was the one area where Chicago excelled. It wasn’t enough to make the offense good. But at ninth in a 14-team American League for runs scored, it was enough to help the pitching staff be competitive.

Have we forgotten anyone? Well, there was a 22-year-old first baseman who started to get playing time in 1990. Frank Thomas only played 60 games, but his stat line was a dazzling .454/.528. It was a needed spark off the bench in the short term and set the stage for another Hall of Fame career in the long term.

The White Sox got off to a strong start. A home sweep of defending AL East champ Toronto was the highlight of an early sequence that saw Chicago start 25-15. But the divisional alignment of the era worked against them.

Prior to 1994, each league had just two divisions, an East and a West. With no Central Division, the White Sox, Minnesota Twins and Kansas City Royals were situated in the AL West with that division’s current members in the Oakland A’s, California Angels, Seattle Mariners and Texas Rangers.

As (bad) luck would have it, the A’s just happened to be the defending World Series champion, the two-time defending American League pennant winner and the focal point for all of baseball. Furthermore, there was no wild-card in existence. You either won the division and went straight to the ALCS or you went home.

Consequently, Chicago’s strong start still had them four games back of Oakland. But for context, the White Sox would have been 3 ½ games up in the weaker AL East.

The first big head-to-head chance with the A’s in mid-June came up flat, with three losses in four games at home. On June 22, Chicago headed west and a rematch with Oakland kicked off the road trip.

King took the ball on Friday night and was brilliant, tossing a complete-game six-hitter. Pasqua’s two-run blast was the key to a four-run sixth and the White Sox won 5-0. In a late Saturday afternoon start, McDowell worked six solid innings before handing it over to the bullpen. The lineup was keyed by unlikely heroes—backup catcher Ron Karkovice had two hits, including a home run. Guillen had a three-hit game in the 9-spot. It was enough to get a 5-3 lead and let Barry Jones and Thigpen close it out.

Perez was sharp in Sunday’s finale, working eight innings and handing a 2-0 lead over to Thigpen. With the sweep nearly in hand, Thigpen had a rare lapse and gave up a game-tying home run. Not to worry—Pasqua answered with a home run of his own in the 10th inning. The White Sox won 3-2 and were back in the thick of the AL West race.

By the All-Star break, Chicago was 48-30. They were just a game back of Oakland and had the third-best record in all of baseball. Then the White Sox came firing out of the break, scoring 27 runs in a four-game sweep of a bad New York Yankees team.

But the bats cooled just as quickly. They scored just six runs in losing four straight to the mediocre Baltimore Orioles. Chicago lost three straight in Fenway to the contending Boston Red Sox. Flailing, and with no margin of error in the race with Oakland, the White Sox had to get back on track fast. They went north on the I-94 interstate to face the Milwaukee Brewers—an American League team prior to 1998—for a five-game set starting on August 2.

A doubleheader on Thursday opened the series. As was normative for the time, the first game would start early evening at 5:30 and there would only be a twenty-minute break between games. One ticket got you into both games. The opener was tied 3-3 in the ninth. Calderon singled and moved up on a wild pitch. Good situational hitting from Fisk and Thomas brought the run in with productive outs and Chicago won 4-3. Then they took the nightcap 4-2 behind Perez and two RBIs from Ventura.

Trailing 1-0 in the seventh inning on Friday, Calderon unloaded with a three-run jack. Hibbard went the distance for a 6-2 win. Chicago had the series win in the bag. But facing a bad team, this was an opportunity to get more. On Saturday night, a 2-2 tie in the sixth was broken up by a six-run outburst, highlighted by Sosa’s three-run homer. Chicago won 9-6.

They turned Sunday’s finale over to McDowell and the young pitcher delivered a complete-game five-hitter. Lance Johnson’s two hits and three RBIs provided the offense and a five-game sweep was put in the books with the 6-1 win. Chicago was back and within 2 ½ games of Oakland when the series ended.

But with the A’s just relentlessly churning out wins, there was never room to breathe. Over the next 14 games, Chicago went 6-8. That’s normal for most teams, even contending ones. But there was no room for normal. By Labor Day, their overall record was still 76-56, good enough to be in a virtual dead heat at the top of any other divisions in baseball. Except the one with Oakland in it, where the White Sox stared at a 6 ½ game deficit.

Facing that steep of a climb and only three games left with the A’s, there was no expectation of a stirring pennant race. Losing six times in seven games in September ended whatever hope might have lingered. But the White Sox quickly rebounded and closed the season on a nice 14-7 kick. They won five times in seven games against the Red Sox. Even though Boston won the AL East, Chicago gave everyone in New England heart failure first and also clearly established who the second-best team in the American League was.

By season’s end, the White Sox were sitting on a sparkling 94-68 record. It was the third-best mark in baseball. This started a run of five straight winning seasons in the South Side. McDowell would become a Cy Young Award winner and Thomas an MVP. And by 1993, the Chicago White Sox would be in the World Series.