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Short People

I can't get the image out of my mind. Almost like a stupid song or jingle that finds a place somewhere in one's gray matter and refuses to be expunged.

That's where the March 1979 Sports Illustrated cover featuring Harry Chappas has resided for the past few days. Harry, you see, was the center of attention as the White Sox broke camp for the '79 campaign. The year before the team had lost 90 games, and the prospects didn't look much better for the upcoming season.

But Harry was unique, and the team needed a hook to create some buzz as Opening Day approached. He was listed anywhere from 5-foot-5 to a maximum of 5-foot-7, and the 21-year-old was going to be the Sox' new shortstop. Harry Caray, who was in the booth for the South Siders that season, publicly measured Chappas and found him to be a mere 63 inches!

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Owner Bill Veeck had a soft spot for short guys. Please keep in mind that Bill was the gentleman who sent Eddie Gaedel, all 3-foot-7 of him, to the plate for the St. Louis Browns in 1951. And some of his promotions - like Martians landing at second base - also featured short people.

So Harry was poised to bring some excitement to the team, and, in fact, the kid could hit a little bit and had some speed. You better be able to run if you're 5-foot-3!

But after 26 games, a bunch of errors, and a .288 average, player-manager Don Kessinger, the former Cub fixture at shortstop, had seen enough, and Harry departed for the minors. Kessinger also was the backup shortstop, and he quickly realized that he could play better than Harry. Plus, watching from the dugout wasn't much fun. As things turned out, Kessinger didn't last the season, the Sox dropped 87 games, and Harry Chappas' big league career was finished a year later.

Chappas made a much more favorable impression at Miller's Pub where owners Jimmy and Vannie Gallios celebrated his Greek heritage. An 8-by-10 black-and-white glossy of Chappas and Jimmy occupies a place in the bar to this day.

When I read that Jake Peavy says no way will this season's Sox edition lose 95 games - as predicted by Sports Illustrated - I feel about as optimistic and buoyant as I did when Harry Chappas opened the season at shortstop.

But after visiting spring training, I was surely as impressed as Peavy about what I saw. The Sox won a couple of games with timely hitting and solid pitching. In addition, the atmosphere where fans can mingle with players in a relaxed setting appeals to the many tourists who make the trip to Arizona.

Not the least of whom was a middle-aged guy named Michael (he was reluctant to give me his last name) from Grand Junction, Colorado. Sitting along the fence where the players passed on their way to the clubhouse, I noticed Michael with two boxes of baseball cards, each with about 300 cards.

"I used to do this [get autographs] in the 60s when I was a kid," Michael said. "I'm just reliving my childhood."

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Most kids focus on known people like Paulie and A.J., but Michael was interested in just about every player, even those with numbers like 89 or 93 and those without names on their uniforms.

"I read Baseball America so I follow a lot of minor league guys," he said. "I started doing this with my son when he was 13. Now he's 23."

Michael engaged minor league pitcher Henry Mabee, a big right-hander who has bounced around the Sox system since 2007. The two chatted for a bit as Mabee signed his card. During his two-week visit to Arizona, Michael got a few hundred autographed cards.

So what's the deal? Wait until some of these guys become major league stars and then cash in on their autographed baseball cards from when they were a nobody?

"I'm a doctor, a chiropractor," Michael said. "I could stay home and work and make a whole lot more money than getting a few autographs."

Michael and another collector from Tucson were more or less working together - "If you didn't have people to hang out with, it wouldn't be as pleasurable an experience" - and many players easily mix with folks like Michael, who mentioned A.J. Pierzynski as being "really nice" since he talks to fans and readily signs autographs.

On this particular day, Michael was intent on getting Kosuke Fukudome's signature because "I didn't know if he was going to stay with the team." Working through a translator, Kosuke cooperated like a true champ.

According to Michael, not everyone is so friendly. "A lot of the Giants used to be nice before they won [the World Series in 2010]," he offered. "Then they changed. That happens a lot. When people get very successful, sometimes they become very arrogant."

Visions of the T-shirt "Baseball Is Life" danced in my head.

Perhaps Michael's favorite player is Texas' Josh Hamilton, who battled chemical dependency to become the 2010 American League MVP. Of course, the Sox will face Hamilton and the Rangers in Friday's season opener.

"He's probably the nicest of any big-league star," claimed my new acquaintance. "I'm a part-time pastor, and I asked him about using him as a model of repentance in a sermon I was going to do. He was really in favor of that."

While that makes me think nice thoughts about Hamilton, I still hope he goes 0-for-4 on Friday.

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

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