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The South Side Knights

The memory remains unmistakably clear of the final day of July 1977, the summer of the South Side Hitmen.

More than 50,000 energized - this was the first summer of Hey Hey Goodbye - Sox faithful jammed Comiskey Park to witness a doubleheader between the first place White Sox and the Kansas City Royals, who trailed the Sox by 5 1/2 games.

The picture is not so much the first game when the Sox scored three times in the bottom of the 10th - Chet Lemon slammed a two-run homer to tie the game - to eke out a 5-4 victory. What I see is the image of Hal McRae in the late innings of the nightcap circling the bases in more or less of a walk after hitting a round-tripper to extend the Royals' lead in what would be an 8-4 White Sox loss.

McCrae was a tough customer. He was famous for his competitive nature. He was a menace when he broke up double-plays by barreling into the pivot man with a ferocity not seen since. His infamous post-game 1993 phone-throwing, desk-clearing meltdown as manager of the Royals speaks to his - how shall I say? - less-than-benevolent demeanor.

So I suspect that McRae knew exactly what he was doing when he took an inordinate amount of time to round the bases that afternoon as an omen of what was to come.
What followed were 46 wins in the Royals' 63 remaining games while the Sox went 28-34. Whereas the magic of the Hitmen led a resurgence of interest in a team that had lost 97 games the year before, the likes of McRae, George Brett, Amos Otis, John Mayberry and Freddie Patek were far too talented not to win the division. In fact, the Royals, managed by Whitey Herzog, finished first four times between 1976 and 1980.

Nevertheless, Sox fans were thrilled with their team. They won 90 games, led the division until mid-August, and were excited to watch sluggers like Richie Zisk and Oscar Gamble. The concession stands still have South Side Hitmen T-shirts 34 years after the fact. Imagine that!

But the swagger of that Kansas City team is much the same attitude that we're now seeing with the Detroit Tigers. Let's be clear: The 2011 Tigers are no match for those Royals on talent. However, with a month left in the season and a six-game lead, the Tigers are tasting the post-season. Despite getting pounded on Sunday by the Twins, the Tigers have won 12 of their last 17. Anything close to that in September easily will propel them to the playoffs.

Perhaps the most compelling reason that Detroit will take the division is Justin Verlander, who won his 20th game on Saturday. Without Verlander, the Tigers are two games below .500. His 20-5 record is the difference between Detroit and the Sox.

Verlander will get six more starts. Could he win them all? Unfortunately for the Sox, the answer is, "Why not?" He's 18-2 in his last 20 decisions. The guy is overpowering, and he has loads of confidence. He tends to throw harder toward the end of games than in the early innings. Think the guy can taste victory?

Chances are the Sox won't see Verlander this weekend during their three-game series in Detroit. That's a good thing. Verlander is 3-1 against our guys this season, the one loss being an 8-2 pasting in Detroit on July 15 the day after the All-Star break. That's the last time Verlander lost.

When I suggested to my friend Patrick, a zealous Red Sox fan, that Verlander should not only win the Cy Young but also MVP, he bristled, "How can you give MVP to a guy who only plays once every five days? Got to give it to [Adrian] Gonzalez."

Arguing against someone who's leading the league in hits, RBI and batting average might be foolish, but Detroit would be, well, about like the White Sox without Verlander. The Red Sox would be diminished without A-Gon, but they'd still be a formidable ballclub.

The Sox lost a game in the standings to Detroit last week despite a three-game sweep of Seattle because Detroit won five of seven in Tampa and Minnesota. Last Tuesday's 5-4 loss in Anaheim was especially damaging for our athletes. A first-inning error by Alexi Ramirez on a throw that Adam Dunn certainly should have handled and Alex Rios' misplayed deep fly ball in centerfield turned a Sox win into a defeat.

At least we finally were treated to the long-anticipated arrival of our Savior, Dayan Viciedo. All he did was lash a three-run homer on Sunday to get the Sox rolling to a 9-3 victory. Couple that with Tyler Flowers' grand slam, and the recent Charlotte Knights accounted for seven RBI.

Thanks to long-term contracts and Kenny Williams' desire to develop him at Triple-A, there apparently hasn't been a place for the 22-year-old Viciedo. I suppose the wisdom of that decision remains up for argument.

However, Dayan looks imposing and competent when he steps to the plate, and he also made a couple of nice catches in right field. Ozzie used Rios in the cleanup spot four times last week. Eight homers and a .214 average, and the guy's batting fourth?

And another 2011 Knight, Alejandro De Aza, homered on Saturday and is hitting .309 since being called up. Ozzie won't play him against left-handers, but I'm not alone in wondering how he would do on an everyday basis.

The beleaguered Twins invade the Cell tonight for the first of three games before the Sox visit the Motor City beginning on Friday.

Meanwhile, the Tigers warm up for the weekend with four home games with the last-place Royals. Gee, wouldn't it be nice if Kansas City could trot out the likes of Hal McRae before the Sox arrive in town?


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