1993 Chicago White Sox: An MVP, A Cy Young & A Division Title

The decade of the 1990s had seen some good baseball on Chicago’s South Side. The White Sox averaged nearly 90 wins a year in the decade’s first three seasons. But what the South Side had not seen since 1983 was playoff baseball. The old divisional alignment and playoff format, coupled with the excellence of the Oakland A’s and Minnesota Twins in their division, was a stumbling block. The 1993 Chicago White Sox broke through the barrier, won the old AL West and produced an MVP and Cy Young winner to go with it.

Frank Thomas was the focal point of the White Sox lineup and the first baseman was spectacular in 1993. Thomas hit 41 home runs and drove in 128 runs. His stat line was .426 on-base percentage/.607 slugging percentage. Thomas won the American League MVP award in a unanimous vote.

On the pitching side, Jack McDowell was dominant. The ace of the staff won 22 games with a 3.37 ERA. McDowell wasn’t unanimous for the American League Cy Young Award, but he was still a landslide winner.

And the two stars did not have to carry the load alone. Robin Ventura played third base, posted a .379 OBP and hit 22 home runs. Ellis Burks was in right field and his final stat line was a respectable .352/.441.

Manager Gene Lamont liked to run and he had three players who could do it. Lance Johnson played centerfield, had a .354 OBP and stole 35 bases. Joey Cora was at second base and swiped 20 bags. And veteran left fielder Tim Raines finished with a dazzling .401 OBP and stole 21 more bases.

There was another outfielder who didn’t have the numbers, but was a fantastic story. Three years earlier, Bo Jackson’s efforts to successfully play both major league baseball and pro football had taken a big step back with a serious hip injury in the NFL playoffs. Bo’s football career was done, but he was still giving baseball a go. And in 1993 he hit 16 home runs in part-time duty. The lineup was rounded out by feisty Ozzie Guillen at short and Ron Karkovice behind the plate.

Even with this talent, the White Sox still finished a mediocre seventh in the American League in runs scored. But the pitching was more than enough to make up for it.

Three young arms—Alex Fernandez, Wilson Alvarez and Jason Bere—held down the rotation behind McDowell. All of the three were 22-23 years old. And all three were terrific in 1993. Fernandez won 18 games with a 3.13 ERA. Alvarez posted 15 wins and a 2.95 ERA. Bere picked up 12 victories and his final ERA was 3.47.

This rotation led into a bullpen that had Roberto Hernandez at the back end. Hernandez closed out 38 saves with a 2.29 ERA. And the Chicago staff ERA was the best in the American League.

Major league baseball’s alignment, going back to 1969, was to split each league into just two divisions, an East and a West, with only the first-place team advancing to the postseason. That meant Chicago—along with Kansas City and Minnesota—took up residence in the AL West. They joined that division’s current teams in Oakland, Texas, Seattle and the California Angels.

Over the past six years, the division had been won by either the A’s or the Twins. In five of those cases, Oakland or Minnesota went on to the World Series and three times they won it all. But both teams were rebuilding, everyone in baseball knew it up front and the door was open for a new contender. Chicago, with its recent success and their big stars, was as good a choice as any.

Even though the White Sox set a good early tone by scoring 20 runs in a three-game series in Minnesota and picking up a couple wins, they were still 8-9 in late April. A stretch of games against the AL East proved to be a tonic. Chicago won 10 of 12, including a series victory over defending World Series champion Toronto. The White Sox nudged into first place by 2 ½ games in mid-May.

But losing two of three at home to the Angels, including a hard-luck 2-0 defeat where McDowell pitched exceptionally well, started a stretch that undid it all, with ten losses in twelve games. By Memorial Day, Chicago was 24-23. California had emerged as the leader and was three games up on the White Sox and Royals. The division’s top five teams were within four games—ironically the only two clubs not contending were the A’s and Twins.

The early part of the summer saw more of the same. Chicago lost a series in California, but turned around and swept Texas, won a series in Seattle and then delivered a sweep at Cleveland. It was enough to nudge the White Sox’ record to 45-41 by the All-Star break.

Even though that was just the 11th-best record in the major leagues, it was enough to lead the AL West. Chicago was plus-one game on Texas and Kansas City and two up on Seattle and California. This race would go to anyone who could catch fire in the second half.

The White Sox made their case to be that team when they went north on I-94 to mediocre Milwaukee (an American League city until 1998) and won four straight games to start the second half. After losing a series to AL East frontrunner Toronto, Chicago promptly ripped off six straight wins. The burst got them a five-game lead in the division.

Then, to the White Sox’ great credit, they settled into playing baseball with grinding consistency in the heat of August. Two out of three here, two out of three there. That set up another burst, nine wins in eleven games going into Labor Day. Chicago reached the stretch drive in firm command—the record was 78-58 and the lead was 6 ½ games on Kansas City, 7 games on Texas.

But the White Sox would let this race get interesting. Facing mediocre teams in Boston and fading Detroit, Chicago dropped four of six. Texas heated up and in the span of a week, sliced the lead to 3 ½ games.

The Royals were also lurking, still six back and Chicago visited Kansas City to open the week of September 12. Tim Belcher, a veteran of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ 1988 World Series champion, had been acquired in July. Belcher didn’t add a lot to the White Sox and he lost the opener of this key series in KC by a 9-0 count. Texas won and cut the lead to 2 ½ games. Then Chicago trailed on Tuesday, 3-2 going into the seventh inning.

With tensions rising, the White Sox’ bats stepped up. A three-run double by Ivan Calderon keyed a big rally that led to an 8-3 win. Wednesday night’s finale was an offensive display that was tied 6-6 and went into extra innings. Chicago got clutch relief work from Hernandez, who pitched 2 2/3 innings. In a 6-6 tie, Lance Johnson and Raines each had two-RBI hits in the 11th inning. A 10-6 win effectively knocked out KC and nudged the lead over Texas back to 4 ½ games.

There were still two and a half weeks to go and the Rangers would visit Comiskey Park for three games on the season’s penultimate weekend. Chicago had to go west, but they finished the road trip strong, winning five of seven in Oakland and Anaheim. The lead was back to six games when the Texas series began. As long as Chicago didn’t get swept, they were probably home free.

Belcher pitched Friday night’s opener and redeemed himself by handing a 4-2 lead over to the bullpen. But Hernandez coughed up a couple runs and the Rangers tied it up. Lance Johnson responded by leading off the ninth with a bunt single. Karkovice sacrificed him up. And reserve Warren Newson was the hero, driving in Johnson with a base hit. The lead was seven games and there were just nine days left.

Rain came on Saturday and set up a doubleheader on Sunday. If the White Sox swept, they would clinch. Bere took the ball in the opener and tossed six good innings. Bo homered and Chicago led 2-1 in the seventh. Three more runs provided insurance for the 5-3 win. Even though the White Sox lost the nightcap 3-2, they had at least a tie clinched and needed just one more win in the final week.

Seattle came to town on Monday. Alvarez was on the mound and pitching well, in a scoreless duel in the sixth inning. Enter Bo—in a magical moment, the fallen star ripped a three-run homer. Alvarez worked into the eighth inning. The final was 4-2. Chicago was the champion of the AL West.

This was the final year of the old alignment—the major leagues would shift to the current three-divisional format for the 1994 season and move the White Sox into the Central. But for now, this division title meant Chicago would go directly into the American League Championship Series where Toronto was waiting.

Going further just wasn’t meant to be. The White Sox matched up well with the Blue Jays and had more than their share of opportunities. But Toronto was battle-tested and didn’t make mistakes. That was the ultimate difference in a series that Chicago dropped in six games, losing all three times they played at home.

What’s more disappointing in retrospect is that this was the only time this cast of White Sox players reached the postseason. In fairness, they were leading the AL Central at the time of the strike in 1994, an August work stoppage that canceled the season. But the franchise faded at the end of the 1990s. They won a division title again in 2000, but faded back to irrelevance quickly. The real revival didn’t come until Guillen was the manager and led Chicago to their long-sought World Series title in 2005.