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Robin Lives

Amid Brexit, a Civil Rights era style sit-in in Congress, the end of a proposed Star Wars museum on the shores of Lake Michigan, and the very, very historic unveiling of luxury suites at The Donald's Turnberry golf resort in Scotland, our White Sox tip-toed back to respectability.

Don't be mistaken. The Cubs' six losses in seven games last week will attract far more attention. However, the athletes at 35th Street displayed their most resilient persona in the past six weeks as they took three of four in Boston before returning home to master the Toronto Blue Jays on Friday and Sunday, sandwiched around a puzzling loss Saturday when they hit a franchise-tying record seven home runs. All of which left the White Sox even at 38 up and 38 down.

Consider that with the 5-2 victory Sunday, left-hander Chris Sale ran his record to 13-2. Even without Jose Bautista, the Blue Jays pose a potent lineup. Yet Sale had a shutout going into the eighth when Troy Tulowitzki's drive barely cleared the left-field fence before ex-Cub Junior Lake, of all people, took a Sale delivery and deposited it into the right-center field seats.

But that was it. After closer David Robertson recorded a 1-2-3 ninth, Sale equaled his 2015 wins for the entire season and appears poised to scoot past his career-best of 17 before the end of July.

Against the East Division's top three teams, the Sox are 11-6 after taking five of six from the Blue Jays, whom they will face no more. Furthermore, the one loss - the 10-8 setback Saturday when six players accounted for seven round-trippers - defies explanation. It takes cunning, creativity and downright ineptitude to account for seven home runs and come up a loser. But more on that later.

The Sox even were on the verge of sweeping Boston on Thursday when they loaded the bases with no outs in the eighth and tenth innings but came up empty. The game was there for the taking before Xander Bogaerts, the league's leading hitter, rifled a base hit through the right side in the bottom of the tenth, letting the Red Sox escape with an 8-7 victory.

With last week's binge, Sox fans now have to deal with the prospect of having manager Robin Ventura around for the remainder of the season. That's another result of this recent resurgence. While the White Sox trail division leader Cleveland - winners of nine in a row and 18-6 in the month of June - by seven games, they still have the wild card within sight, trailing by a mere 2 1/2 games.

But this hubbub about firing Ventura mid-season is ill-conceived, not so much because Ventura doesn't remind anyone of John J. McGraw, but because changing the skipper 70-plus games into the season rarely produces improved performance.

In Robin's defense, you have to consider that he is guiding a flawed group, one with holes in its starting rotation, a questionable bullpen, a lack of clutch hitting, and about as much depth as a blow-up kiddie pool.

The last time the Sox made a switch in the middle of the year was 1995, when Terry Bevington replaced Gene Lamont. That team was 11-20 under Lamont, who continues to be active as the bench coach for the Pirates. Under Bevington's guidance, the boys went 57-56 for a final mark of 68-76 in the strike-shortened season. Bevington lasted two additional campaigns with a record of 165-158 before Jerry Manuel was summoned. Bevington never managed again in the major leagues.

The scenario of making a mid-season change is predictable. Assuming that the man in charge is a decent human being, as Ventura clearly is, the players say things like, "Robin doesn't swing the bats for us. He doesn't catch and throw the ball. We have to do it ourselves."

All of which is absolutely the case. What often happens when the manager is replaced is that the team has a short-term spike and then reverts back to its previous form. Like when Bevington took over and the Sox won four of five and then dropped their next seven of eight. End of story.

Perhaps the most memorable White Sox mid-season firing was that of Tony LaRussa who was let go in 1986. Then-general manager Hawk Harrelson wanted his own man to lead the team, which was 26-38 when Hawk's buddy Jim Fregosi took over. (Hawk actually wanted Billy Martin, who turned him down.)

The Sox responded by going 12-5, climbing within five games of .500. However, predictably, an eight-game July losing streak led to a final record of 72-90. That team, which included Ozzie Guillen, Carlton Fisk, Greg Walker, Ron Kittle and Harold Baines, performed about the same under Fregosi as it did under LaRussa. You'll notice that none of the players I mentioned were pitchers. Need I say more?

Fregosi stuck around for two more sub-.500 seasons, and he was gone along with Hawk, who moved into the broadcast booth. Unlike Bevington, Fregosi went on to manage the Phillies, who won the 1993 National League pennant with him at the reins. And LaRussa? Two weeks after getting canned, the A's hired him, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Baseball theory says that a manager might account for three or four wins a season, but he also can bungle at least as many losses. It's impossible to measure even though many folks in the stands are confident they know more about the game than the guy in the dugout.

An argument can be made that a gifted manager is one who has a working knowledge of the game, something that Ventura no doubt has after playing 16 seasons while soaking up the styles of managers like Joe Torre, Manuel, Lamont and Bobby Valentine, adopting what he likes and discarding what he doesn't.

Beyond being a student of the game, the manager's responsibility focuses on getting the most out of his players' potential. Like a classroom teacher whom we fondly remember years later, the manager knows when to be demanding and when to be sympathetic. Ventura's critics voice the opinion that Robin is too nice and not tough enough. In his defense, this year's team runs hard on every ground ball and pop up, in contrast to past seasons when Alex Rios and a few others picked their spots for all-out hustle.

When you look back at very successful managers such as LaRussa, Bobby Cox and Earl Weaver, they put their players in positions where they and the ballclub can succeed. LaRussa converted Dennis Eckersley from starter to reliever and Eck became one of the greatest relief pitchers ever. Cox did the same thing in Atlanta with John Smoltz. LaRussa "invented" the modern-day bullpen, with late-inning specialists and set-up men.

During the winter at a baseball luncheon I attend in California, I enjoy listening to former big league pitcher Pete Richert talk about the days in the late '60s and early '70s when he pitched for Weaver's Baltimore club. The Orioles had a substitute outfielder-pinch hitter named Curt Motton, and Weaver primed him to pinch hit in very specific situations. So Motton, a right-handed hitter, would only face left-handers in batting practice, where he'd see breaking pitches in addition to fastballs. Richert's point was that Motton was always ready in a situation where he knew Weaver would call on him. Motton was prepared to succeed.

So in lieu of having a LaRussa, Cox or Weaver waiting in the wings to assume Ventura's job, replacing him during the season with someone like Sox coaches Rick Renteria or Joe McEwing would have little impact in the win-loss column. This is Ventura's team with all of its warts and blemishes, of which there are quite a few, and at this juncture they're .500, which might be as good as it gets.

Harshman's Homer
Before leaving last week's roundup, let's look back to the last time the White Sox hit seven home runs in one game. Last Saturday, the seven blasts weren't enough to beat Toronto because all occurred with the bases empty, and our fellows couldn't put together enough offense without the homers in the 10-8 loss.

The Sox hadn't hit that many homers in a game since April 23, 1955, but that day the South Siders scored a lot more than eight runs. How's 29 sound? That's correct. The Sox embarrassed the Kansas City A's that spring Saturday by a 29-6 count, the most runs in one game in franchise history. Bob Nieman and Sherm Lollar each hit a couple of four-baggers while Minnie Minoso, Walt Dropo and pitcher Jack Harshman hit the other three.

Unlike last Saturday when the Sox collected just five hits other than home runs, the Sox of yesteryear accounted for 29 hits. While the A's were not a good ballclub - they would finish 63-91 that season - their starting pitcher that day was Bobby Shantz, a 5-foot-6 left-hander and the 1952 MVP when he won 24 games for the old Philadelphia A's. Needless to say, Shantz didn't have one of his best days as he departed in the second inning.

Sox pitcher Harshman won 40 games over three consecutive seasons (1954-56), but he could hit as well, having originally been signed as a first baseman. While Harshman was a fixture in the team's rotation in the mid-'50s, he also made 22 pinch-hitting appearances in his career. Harshman's home run that April day was just one of 21 he hit in eight big league seasons. In 10 minor league seasons, he smashed 192 homers and had four years of 36 or more home runs. Definitely not Ruthian in stature, but Jack Harshman just might have been the best hitting pitcher in team history.


Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.


1. From Chuck Hempfling:

Jack Harshman was one of my favorite pitchers of the '50s. Can you write sometime in the future about the 17-inning game that he pitched; I was at the game, as I recall it was a Sunday doubleheader. Might be interesting to remember how he, Billy Pierce and many others had no clue about pitch count and still had great and long careers!

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