Here it is June and the usually placid Chicago White Sox are challenging for first place in the American League West. That's not the only thing different about this year's Windy City entry either, as a look at the starting lineup quickly shows.
The names are familiar enough, but many of the best-known ones -- such as Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski, Ron LeFlore, and Bill Almon -- were with other teams a year ago. People just haven't gotten used to the fact that they are now wearing White Sox uniforms with Fisk, from his catching position, having become a kind of commanding general.
The former Boston Red Sox All-Star is a combat zone all by himself. Carlton has often been known to assault members of his own pitching staff verbally when he didn't think they were trying hard enough; opposing pitchers with his solid hitting; and the entire game with his enthusiasm.
When Boston lost Fisk to free agency during the off-season, Carlton still wasn't sure he wanted to leave. After all, he had been born in Bellows Falls, Vt.; grown up in New Hampshire; and been the regular Red Sox catcher since 1972.
"When the White Sox offered me a seven-year contract for a lot more money than the Red Sox were willing to pay, I had to sign for the wife and kids," Fisk explained. "To me the Red Sox are like home, and I'll always have a good feeling about them. In fact, I still call the White Sox trainer by the Red Sox trainer's first name."
The success of his new team has made the transition easier, of course, and Fisk said he quickly realized that this White Sox club had a chance to be a lot better than the one that finished 26 games out of first place with a 70-90 record a year ago.
"I found something in spring training that I like -- a winning attitude," he said. "There's pretty good pitching here; pretty good defense most of the time; and pretty good overall balance. This is a team deep enough to hold up over a full season, and around here, they tell me, that is a relatively new situation."
Asked if, as a right-handed power hitter, he sometimes yearns for Boston's short left field wall, Fisk replied:
"Although a lot of people apparently felt that I pulled a lot of balls over that wall, most of them got there by mistake. I'm not really a pull hitter who gets the ball up into the air.
"Mostly I'm a line-drive hitter who tries to drive the ball either through the infield or between the outfielders," he added. "Early in the season I hit two low- trajectory balls for home runs at Comiskey Park that would merely have been long singles off the wall in Boston. I really expect to hit better in Chicago than I did at Fenway Park."
The seven-year multimillion dollar contract that Fisk signed with Chicago could keep him in the big leagues until he is 40, which would be considered ancient for a catcher.
"I'm committed as a player for five more years," Carlton said. "If I want to do something else during the final two years of my contract, there will be other options. But that doesn't mean that I'll catch for all those five years, either.
"Catching is such a physically demanding position that after two or three more years I might want to become the first baseman or designated hitter," he added. "I feel I can still help this club as a hitter long after my catching days are over."
The thing that has White Sox fans buzzing pennant (aside from a fine pitching staff and Fisk's aggressiveness) has been the additional aquisition of Luzinski, LeFlore, and Almon.
Luzinski, partly due to turbulence between himself and Phillies' Manager Dallas Green and partly because his fielding range is about the same as that of an oversized turtle, became expendable in Philadelphia.
But in the American League, which uses a designated hitter, Luzinski and his home run power are considered a luxury.
LeFlore, who wore out both the basepaths and Manager Dick Williams' patience in Montreal, is an exellent leadoff hitter. When he's on base, Ron often forces opposing catchers and infielders to hurry their throws into costly errors.
Almon, released by the New York Mets after hitting .170 during the second half of 1980, has become the White Sox' best shortstop since Bucky Dent. Bill has also surprised everyone by continuing to hit well over .300. Another newcomer who has helped is second baseman Tony Bernazard, a wide-ranging infielder the Expos now probably wish they had kept.
All this adds up to more runs and better defense to support an already solid fourman pitching rotation of Britt Burns, Ross Baumgarten, Dick Dotson, and Steve Trout, plus spot-starter Lamarr Hoyt.
The manager of this sprightly group is 36-year-old Tony LaRussa, who appeared in exactly 132 big league games with the old Kansas City Athletics, Atlanta Braves, and Chicago Cubs.