INDIANAPOLIS — Pandemic. Wildfires. Floods. Pestilence. Violence. Gridlock. Coup d’etats, Political intrigue. We need a break. It’s time for this former sports writer to bring you some baseball.
Some five miles beyond Hammond on the Dan Ryan Expressway is the home of the Chicago White Sox, the closest Major League Baseball team to Indiana. Some 101 years after the World Series Black Sox scandal ended the careers of eight star players, the ChiSox find themselves eight games up in first place in the American League’s Central Division.
Back in 1919, the young White Sox were poised to become a dynasty in their series against the Cincinnati Reds (they had won the World Series in 1917). But legendary sportswriters Ring Lardner and Hugh Fullerton figured out the fix was in against the Cincinnati Reds, and the new Baseball Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis (who grew up in Indiana) forever banned Shoeless Joe Jackson, Ed Cicotte, Swede Risberg, Lefty Williams and others. The scandal inspired two movies — “Eight Men Out” in 1987 (starring John Cusack, Charlie Sheen, Chicago author Studs Terkel and a bit part by then-Goshen Mayor Max Chiddister) and was filmed at Bush Stadium in Indianapolis. Two years later came “Field of Dreams” starring Kevin Costner, James Earl Jones, Ray Liotta and Burt Lancaster.
Had the Black Sox scandal not happened, the New York Yankee “Murderers Row” dynasty of the 1920s might not have been as prolific. Instead, it cast the franchise into 90 years of funk until they finally ended the drought with the 2005 World Series title.
What makes the 2021 White Sox noteworthy is that its 54-35 record at the All-Star break comes with its starting outfield — Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert and Adam Engel (who were projected to hit some 90 home runs and, perhaps, 180 to 200 RBIs) — has been injured most of the season. Despite this loss of firepower, the Sox have scored 117 more runs than they have allowed, trailing only two other teams (L.A. Dodgers and Houston Astros). Stepping into their place have been an array of rookies from Yermin Mercedes, to Andrew Vaughn and now Jake Burger and Gavin Sheetz. There’s a “next man up” mentality that has taken hold on this very young team.
What White Sox have had all season is a World Series caliber starting pitching rotation, led by Lance Lynn, who told the Chicago Sun-Times, “It’s simple, I grew up in a trailer park in the cornfields of Avon, Indiana. So I’m not better than anyone. Everyone here is the same.” Of his bearded starting teammates — Lucas Giolito, Dylan Cease, Carlos Rodon and Dallas Keuchel — all but the latter have recorded at least 100 strikeouts thus far.
What makes this pitching staff so intriguing is that the two best young arms — Michael Kopech and Garrett Crochet — are awaiting their turn to star in the bullpen. While Lynn is 34 years old, the rest of the rotation is 28 and younger. They are joined by All-Star closer Liam Hendriks, the eccentric Aussie who wore a hot mic during last Tuesday’s All-Star game, dropping F-bombs during the broadcast. Hendriks said afterward, “I’m sure that made for some interesting TV. I hope the bleeper guy was on point” (he wasn’t).
The Sox have a core of Cuban players, led by 2020 American League MPV Jose Abreau and third baseman Yoan Moncada. Shortstop Tim Anderson, who won the 2019 American League batting title has become the heart and soul of this team. When Jimenez, Robert and catcher Yasmani Grandal return from the Injured List by some time in August, the offense is likely to be as dramatic as its young pitching staff.
The Sox are led by 76-year-old Hall of Fame Manager Tony La Russa. He began his managerial career with Chicago, was fired in 1987 and then went on to win three World Series titles with Oakland and St. Louis. When General Manager Hawk Harrelson fired La Russa, I correctly figured it was one of the worst dismissals in sports history (I put IU’s firing of head football coach Bill Mallory in the same category).
Throughout the first third of the season, both the White Sox and Chicago Cubs were in first place in their divisions, setting up the Windy City fantasy of an “Elevated” World Series. The Cubs faded with an 11-game losing streak prior to the break, which will be hard to overcome.
But there is a fantasy game in store next month. The White Sox and Yankees will travel to Dyersville, Iowa, on Aug. 12 for the “Field of Dreams” game on the site of the movie that will be broadcast on Fox, with IU grad Joe Buck calling the game. It’s where farmer Ray Kinsella (played by Costner) hears the spirit of Shoeless Joe Jackson (played by Liotta) telling him, “If you build it, he will come.” His wife Annie (played by Amy Madigan) lets him plow under their corn crop to build the ultimate sports fantasy, an 8,000-seat ballpark that still exists in real life today.
The coming White Sox dynasty now encompasses Southwestern Indiana, after the team drafted 19-year-old Southridge High School star shortstop Colson Montgomery out of Huntingburg earlier this week.
From La Russa to Montgomery, from Lance Lynn to Michael Kopech, from Abreu to Jimenez, there are fantasies brewing on Chicago’s South Side.
The columnist is publisher of Howey Politics Indiana at www.howeypolitics.com. Find Howey on Facebook and Twitter @hwypol.