1991 Chicago White Sox: Not Quite Over The Hump

The 1991 Chicago White Sox came into the season looking to build off what had been a strong breakout year in 1990. The White Sox made some moves. But though those moves would ultimately bear fruit, and though this ’91 edition was pretty good, it wasn’t enough to get over the hump and back into the playoffs.

Chicago made a big trade with the Montreal Expos (today’s Washington Nationals) prior to the season. The White Sox moved Ivan Calderon, one of the game’s better outfielders, along with a good middle reliever in Barry Jones. The package they got back was keyed by Tim Raines, a future Hall of Fame leftfielder.

At the end of spring training, Chicago made a couple of signings that would also bear long-term fruit. Joey Cora was added. In the short-term, he was a nice defensive addition at second base in part-time duty. Eventually, he became the full-time starter.

More noteworthy from the perspective of headlines, is that the White Sox signed a guy by the name of Bo Jackson. The football end of Bo’s two-sport days had come to an end in January when he suffered a serious hip injury. But he could still play baseball and while ’91 was a recovery year, Bo eventually became a contributor on the South Side of Chicago.

The big name in the White Sox lineup was 23-year-old designated hitter Frank Thomas. The future Hall of Famer and current Fox Sports studio commentator was coming into his own. In 1991, Thomas’ stat line was a dazzling .453 on-base percentage/.553 slugging percentage. He hit 32 homers, drove in 109 runs and finished third in the American League MVP voting.

Robin Ventura had a big year at third base, with 23 home runs, 100 RBIs and a stat line of .367/.442. On the opposite side of the infield, Dan Pasqua posted a solid .358/.465 stat line. Raines first year on the South Side was a success, with a .359 OBP and 51 stolen bases. Lance Johnson added to the running game, swiping 26 bags and playing a good centerfield.  Craig Grebeck was a valuable contributor off the bench in the infield and his final stat line read .386/.460.

But there were holes in the lineup elsewhere. In rightfield, 22-year-old Sammy Sosa was still going through growing pains. The 43-year-old catcher, Carlton Fisk, was finally beginning his career descent. Ozzie Guillen, a future World Series-winning manager with this franchise, played a good defensive shortstop, but didn’t hit. Neither did Cora or Scott Fletcher at second base.

Consequently, the Chicago lineup ranked sixth in the 14-team American League for runs scored. Certainly not bad, but not at a championship level.

Jack McDowell anchored the starting pitching. The rotation ace went to the post 35 times and delivered 17 wins with a 3.41 ERA. The problem is that the arms behind him went through mostly so-so years. Alex Fernandez would eventually become a really good #2, but this season he was 9-13 with a 4.51 ERA. Charlie Hough, the 43-year-old knuckleballer, and Greg Hibbard had ERAs on the high side of 4.

That might have spelled trouble, but the White Sox bullpen was deep. Even with Jones gone, manager Jeff Torborg could still trot out anyone from Wilson Alvarez, Ken Patterson, Donn Pall, Scott Radinsky and Melido Perez to do middle relief and setup work. All had ERAs in the 2s or 3s. It was exceptional depth for an era when starting pitchers were expected to work much deeper into games than they are today.

And if you got to the late innings, Bobby Thigpen was one of baseball’s reliable closers. In 1991, Thigpen saved 30 games with a 3.49 ERA. All told, between the depth of the bullpen and the quality of McDowell, Chicago ranked fourth in the American League for staff ERA.

The early schedule was soft. The White Sox spent April playing mediocre teams in the Orioles, Tigers and Yankees and got off to an 11-5 start. Then a stretch of games against better teams that included AL East contenders in Toronto and Boston brought Chicago down to 17-16.

Deep into May, the White Sox had not yet played a game against an AL West rival. And when they did, it didn’t go well. Five losses in seven games to the A’s and Angels leading up to Memorial Day left Chicago with a record of 19-21. They were six games out of first and in fifth place.

Here’s a good place to remind younger readers that prior to 1994, each league had just two divisions, an East and a West. So centrally-located teams in the White Sox, Royals and Twins were aligned in the West, along with that division’s current members in the A’s, Angels, Mariners and Rangers.

What’s more, only the first-place finisher could qualify for the postseason, going directly into the League Championship Series. And with Oakland having won three straight American League pennants, and this division in general emerging as baseball’s best, the bar was high.

Chicago still futzed around for the first part of June and remained two games under .500, at 30-32 when first-place Texas came to the South Side. In a big series, McDowell took the ball for Thursday night’s opener and pitched well, handing a 3-2 lead over to Thigpen in the ninth. But the closer didn’t have it, failing to get even an out and losing 7-3.

The White Sox were in trouble and they continued to lag into the seventh inning on Friday, trailing 3-0. Then Grebeck had a two-run homer to give them some life. Fisk hit a two-run blast in the eighth.  Chicago was up 4-3.

Then the normally reliable bullpen stumbled again in the ninth, giving up two runs. In a game that had to be played with some urgency, even allowing it was only June, Chicago got one-out singles from Cora and Guillen in the bottom of the ninth, setting up the tying run to score. The night went extra innings. In the 11th, Guillen delivered again. Following a Fletcher walk, Ozzie singled and put runners on the corners. Lance Johnson’s base hit gave the White Sox the 6-5 win.

The weekend of late-inning dramatics was just beginning. On Saturday, Fernandez was brilliant, but was trailing 1-0 in the bottom of the eighth. Then a single, a flubbed bunt and infield hit triggered a three-run rally and Chicago won 3-1.

Sunday was more of the same. A 3-3 game went to the 10th inning. Texas got two runs and looked ready to salvage a split. Chicago got one run back and had the tying run on second base with two outs. Backup infielder Warren Newsome singled to tie up the game. A wild pitch moved him up to second, allowing Fisk’s ground-rule double to win the game.

Chicago had a dramatic series win, taking three of four from the division leader. The following weekend they were in Minnesota, for a four-game set with a Twins team that was also emerging as a contender. And the White Sox kept their momentum going.

Sosa ripped a three-run blast in the second inning on Friday night, giving Hough all he needed to deliver a 4-2 win. On Saturday, trailing 3-2 in the seventh, Chicago erupted for five runs. Pasqua’s two-run triple, capping a four-hit night, was the big blow.

Sunday slowed the momentum when McDowell lost a 3-0 decision to Minnesota’s Jack Morris in a battle of aces.  The White Sox trailed 3-1 in the eighth inning of Monday’s wraparound finale. With two runners on base, Fisk and Johnson each doubled. Chicago had a 4-3 lead. Even though Minnesota tied it back up, Fisk won the game with a home run in the 10th.

It had been constant drama and for White Sox fans, it was fun drama, where they were winning and getting back on the race. By the All-Star break, they were up to 43-37 and only 2 ½ games off the pace. Texas and Minnesota were tied for first. Chicago, along with California and Oakland were bunched up in hot pursuit.

The schedule was difficult out of the break, with games against the Blue Jays, Red Sox and Rangers. But the White Sox responded and won nine of ten. Texas was fading. Oakland clearly wasn’t what they had been the previous three years. Chicago moved to within two games of Minnesota when August began and nudged that margin down to a game and a half by August 15.

A sizzling pennant race was anticipated, but against what should have been a soft schedule, the White Sox suddenly went belly-up. They lost a series in Yankee Stadium. They were swept at home by Detroit. They lost three straight in Cleveland, and then lost three more in Kansas City. Not only was it a complete collapse, but it happened at a time when the Twins were surging. By August 28, Chicago was nine games out.

Minnesota never stopped and went all the way to win the World Series. To the credit of the White Sox, they didn’t mail in September. They recovered and played winning baseball. The final record was 87-75. It was eight games off the pace set by the Twins. But it was the third-best in the American League and the seventh-best record in baseball overall.

For the second straight year, Chicago had played playoff-caliber baseball by the more lenient standards of today. Even by the standards of their own era, they had played well enough to contend in, if not win the AL East for two straight years. But in the AL West of the early 1990s, it was leaving then home for October.

The good news is that playoff baseball wasn’t long in coming—by 1993, Thomas and McDowell would win the MVP and Cy Young. The new acquisitions of 1991 would be important contributors. And the White Sox would get to the top of the AL West.