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Fight Club

The White Sox needed something to jump start what heretofore had been a sputtering beginning of the season. Was last Thursday night's brawl or fracas or what Bob Elson used to call a "donnybrook" the catalyst they were seeking?

General manager Rick Hahn saw possibilities:

"From a team unity standpoint, there are some positives to take away from it. There are real negative repercussions of this [such as suspensions handed down to top-of-the-rotation starters Jeff Samardzija and Chris Sale and a broken finger suffered by reliever Matt Albers], but hopefully from the standpoint of in that clubhouse and the guys knowing that they will fight for each other, there is at least some positive to take away."

Despite the fact that the Sox grabbed two victories over Kansas City on Sunday - winning 3-2 in the suspended game from Friday night prior to a 5-3 triumph in the regularly-schedule game - history says that White Sox teams that fight together don't always win together.

Looking back on some of the more memorable encounters, Michael Barrett's right cross to the jaw of A.J. Pierzynski that May afternoon at the Cell in 2006 has become an icon in Sox annals.

Barrett was ejected to the delight of the Sox faithful, and the South Siders won 7-0. But the Cubs bounced back the next day with a 7-4 win. Even though the Sox were 28-14 at the time of Barrett's silliness, they played just four games over .500 the rest of the season, finishing third in the AL Central, six games behind the Twins.

The fight didn't help the Cubs much either. They lost 96 times in 2006.

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I was at Comiskey Park in 1971 for a Memorial Day doubleheader with the Orioles, who advanced to the World Series that season before succumbing to the Pirates. Oriole second baseman Don Buford, who had previously played five seasons for the Sox, homered twice in the nightcap, a game Baltimore won 11-3. When Sox pitcher Bart Johnson plunked Buford - the second time he had been hit - Johnson and Buford engaged in some pretty rough fisticuffs on the mound before order was restored. Being a different era, neither player was ejected and play resumed.

That is, until the top of the ninth when a fan sitting behind home plate - no doubt well-lubricated after six hours of baseball and beer - decided to jump the wall and go after Buford, who was in the on-deck circle. Dumb idea. Teammates - I recall Frank Robinson, a tough customer, leading the charge - came to Buford's defense. The guy left the premises with a bloody lip accompanied by a couple of cops.

That talented Oriole team didn't need much encouragement. They won their division by 12 games. Meanwhile, the White Sox under manager Chuck Tanner were experiencing a rebirth after losing 106 games the season before. The Sox went 61-57 after Memorial Day. Maybe the fight helped.

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The afternoon of June 13, 1957, at Comiskey Park was the scene of a brawl that lasted 30 minutes in the first inning of a game that saw the Yankees eventually beat the Sox 4-3. At the time, the White Sox were in first place, four games ahead of New York.

Sox centerfielder Larry Doby was at the plate with men on first and second when Yankee pitcher Art Ditmar fired a fastball behind Doby's head. The ball went to the screen, and Ditmar rushed in to cover the plate. Doby exchanged words with the Yankee hurler, and it might have ended at that if not for the combative Billy Martin. The Yankee second baseman suckered punched Doby, and the battle was on.

In the middle of the scrum was Enos (Country) Slaughter, who at the age of 41 was in the twilight of a Hall of Fame career that began in St. Louis with the Gashouse Gang. Allegedly Slaughter, a North Carolinian who later was the baseball coach at Duke, was part of a potential strike by players who didn't like the idea of Jackie Robinson breaking the color line. Slaughter once spiked Robinson on a routine out at first base - although Jackie was just one of a number of players whose skin was split by Slaugher's spikes.

Maybe Slaughter was sensitive to Doby, the second African American to play in the majors, confronting a teammate. At one point in the fight, his thumb was halfway up the nose of Sox first baseman Walt Dropo, and when it was over, Slaughter was bare-chested, his shirt being torn in the melee.

If there was any long-lasting benefit, it went to the Yankees, who then reeled off 10 straight wins en route to a torrid 68-34 the remainder of the season. The Sox, meanwhile, lost three of four to the Yanks the next time they met in New York and finished a respectable 90-64, still eight games behind the pennant-winning Yankees.

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If there was one fight that might have ignited the White Sox, it was instigated by present Sox manager Robin Ventura in 1993 when he charged the mound after 46-year-old Nolan Ryan hit him with one of his 90-plus fastballs. The image of Ryan holding Robin, 20 years Ryan's junior, in a headlock and applying a half-dozen noogies has more than 650,000 views on the official MLB channel on YouTube alone.

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It's one of the more famous fights in baseball history, begetting this classic piece of memorabilia:

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The White Sox had a wonderful season in '93. They were leading the AL West when Ventura started the ruckus, and they kept on rolling to 94 wins before the eventual World Series champion Blue Jays beat them in the ALCS in six games.

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Whether last week's mayhem with Kansas City will propel our White Sox to new heights is anyone's guess although backing up teammates in a fight - while laudable in the clubhouse - is no substitute for a clutch hit, good pitching, and solid defense.

Perhaps an equally uplifting moment occurred earlier in the week on Monday when the offensively-challenged Sox staged a totally unexpected and surprising four-run ninth inning rally to beat Cleveland 4-3.

Shut out over eight innings on just four hits, Adam LaRoche was called out on strikes against Indian closer Cody Allen to lead off the ninth. Allen failed to retire another hitter as the next seven batters reached. Melky Cabrera won it with a single to drive in Tyler Flowers. This from a team that hadn't scored more than two runs in six of its first 11 games.

After a typical 6-2 loss to Cleveland on Tuesday, the Sox played their best game of the year Wednesday in blanking the Tribe 6-0. Samardzija (six innings) and three relievers allowed eight hits while the Sox collected an astonishing 14, and the defense was flawless.

Sunday's win was similar to the comeback on Monday in that the Sox scored in just one inning, the sixth. Until that time, Jose Abreu's soft single was the only hit Edinson Volquez had given up. And he should have been out of the sixth when Abreu hit a double-play grounder to third baseman's Mike Moustakas' left. Moustakas usually is a sure-handed defender, but the ball glanced off his glove. This is the kind of stuff the White Sox usually do.

From there Volquez pretty much fell apart as singles by LaRoche, Avisail Garcia, Conor Gillaspie and Tyler Flowers (off reliever Jason Frasor) accounted for all five runs.

The difference between this and recent seasons is a bullpen which actually gets guys out. Jake Petricka, Zach Duke and closer David Robertson blanked the Royals over the last three innings to preserve the victory, the team's ninth in 19 games. Robertson now has pitched eight innings with two wins and three saves while striking out 17 and walking only one. He was the winner Sunday in the completion of the suspended game from Friday.

If the Sox start winning, we may look back on last week as the turning point. But was it the ninth-inning heroics on Monday or the macho face-off on Thursday that shook the team out of its doldrums? If the Sox keep bunching together hits and Robertson keeps throwing blanks, no one will care.

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Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Jul 24, 2017

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