2000 Chicago White Sox: A Division Title That Came From Nowhere

The South Side of Chicago had seen mostly mediocre baseball since winning a division title in 1993 and then being a contender in 1994 at the time the players union went on a season-ending strike. The White Sox weren’t awful, but they were rarely relevant and the one time they were—in 1997 when a mediocre division kept them in contention—ownership cut the legs out from under them with a fire sale. So there was no reason to expect anything special from the 2000 Chicago White Sox. But the ’00 Sox surprised everyone with an AL Central title.

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The most prolific offense in the American League was the reason and the great DH, Frank Thomas, was the heart and soul of the lineup. Thomas put up another dazzling season in his Hall of Fame career. His stat line was an out-of-this world .436 on-base percentage/.625 slugging percentage. He hit 43 home runs, drove in 143 runs and finished second in the AL MVP voting.

Magglio Ordonez, the up-and-coming rightfielder wasn’t far behind. Ordonez’s stat line was .371/.546. He homered 32 times and finished with 126 RBI.

And the White Sox didn’t stop there. Paul Konerko, a 24-year-old first baseman with a bright future put up a .363/.481 stat line and drove in 97 runs. Ray Durham sparked the lineup with a line of .361/.450 and the second baseman stole 25 bases. Carlos Lee in left field hit 24 homers and slugged .484.

An offseason trade with the Milwaukee Brewers was a huge success. The White Sox gave up two pitchers—the washed up Jamie Navarro and young John Snyder, who never panned out. In return, they got veteran starter Cal Eldred. And the offense got a further boost with shortstop Jose Valentin who slugged .491 and matched Lee’s 24 homers and 107 RBI.

And any surprise turnaround story needs a nice out-of-nowhere individual story as a part of it. The White Sox got that from third baseman Herbert Perry. In mid-April, having been waived by lowly Tampa Bay, Perry came to the South Side and put up a .356/.483 stat line.

The pitching numbers of this era don’t look great, with offenses driven by PED use. But in context, the White Sox staff was good. Mike Sirotka was the ace, winning 15 games with a 3.79 ERA. Jim Parque and James Baldwin combined to win 27 more games and each had ERAs in the 4s. So did Eldred, who made 20 starts and went 10-2.

That was manageable in the baseball world of 2000 and the Chicago bullpen was even better. Keith Foulke was the closer and saved 34 games. Bob Howry, Bill Simas and Kelly Wunsch were all steady relievers in front of him. Their ERAs ranged from the high 2s to the low 3s and was key to making the White Sox fourth-best in the American League for staff ERA.

Chicago got out fast and won 17 of 25 games in April. May was a little rougher. A road trip to Kansas City and Boston saw the White Sox lose five of six. They stabilized the balance of the month and heading into Memorial Day weekend were a half-game up on the Cleveland Indians.

The Indians were the pre-eminent power of the AL Central, having won five straight division titles and two American League pennants since 1995. And they came to the South Side for the holiday weekend.

On Friday night, Thomas got the party started with a two-run shot in the first. Eldred pitched well and into the seventh. Foulke cleaned up the last two innings of a 5-3 win without incident. When the two teams traded blowouts on Saturday and Sunday, Chicago had hit the season’s first turn with a 1 ½ game lead.

Seven wins in nine games during early June’s run of interleague games nudged the lead out to two games. June 12 would begin a critical two-week stretch. The White Sox would first go to Cleveland and then on to New York, where the Yankees were merely the two-time defending World Series champs. The Indians and Yanks would then make return trips to the South Side. This two-week schedule stretch against the American League’s most accomplished teams of the late 1990s had the potential to make or break the entire season…and a White Sox pessimist could be forgiven if they thought “break” was more likely.

On Monday night in Cleveland, Thomas and Durham each homered and drove in three runs. Chicago took an 8-3 lead into the seventh and then held off a late Indians rally to win 8-7. Parque pitched well on Tuesday and handed a 3-1 lead over to the bullpen in the eighth. The Tribe again rallied, this time tying the game. Durham bailed out the pen in the 10th with a solo blast that won it 4-3.

On Wednesday, the White Sox came out and scored five times in the top of the first. When the Indians answered with four in the bottom half, there was no problem—Chicago just added five more runs in the top of the second. And they got some relief pitching, as Kevin Beirne worked 3.2 IP of shutout ball and the Sox cruised home to an 11-4 win and a series sweep.

There was no time to celebrate with the first of four games in the Bronx on deck for Thursday night. Konerko and Ordonez each had three hits and a home run to key a 12-3 rout. Baldwin was brilliant on Friday night, getting his 10th win in a 3-1 decision.

On Saturday, Ordonez’ early three-run blast jumpstarted a late afternoon where he drove in four runs and Chicago took an 8-0 lead by the third. New York came roaring back, but Durham also had three hits and the White Sox won 10-9. And this offense wasn’t done. On Sunday, Valentin’s first-inning grand slam keyed a 12-0 lead by the second inning. There was no comeback this time and Chicago won 17-4.

It was an astonishing 7-0 road run through two excellent teams. And Chicago made it stand up the following week, splitting four with Cleveland and then taking a weekend series with New York. The latter included a Friday night rally off Mariano Rivera. Trailing 3-2 in the ninth against the greatest closer in history, Lee homered to tie the game. Perry singled, was bunted up and then scored the winning run on a two-out hit from Valentin.

By the time it was all over, Chicago was eight games ahead of Cleveland and had the American League’s best record. And this race would never get tight. Even though the Indians stayed in the wild-card race until the final day of the season, the AL Central was never close. Chicago coasted home and clinched both the division and their playoff spot with eight days to go. Their final 95-67 record was the AL’s best.

With the Yankees coming into the playoffs on a slump and the Indians narrowly missing, the American League pennant was seen as up for grabs. Chicago, as the top seed, certainly had more reason than anyone else to be excited. But the Division Series against Seattle just didn’t go well.

Was it that Chicago hadn’t played hair-on-fire baseball for a few months and couldn’t snap into playoff mode? Was it that a magic run had just taken its course? Or was it just the vagaries of baseball in a short series? Probably the latter—a Game 1 loss was in 10 innings and a Game 3 defeat was in the bottom of the ninth. The White Sox were swept out in three straight.

The 2000 Chicago White Sox were a rare historical anomaly. They weren’t at the beginning, middle or end of any kind of run. It was just a magical season that sort of jumped out of nowhere and they went back to mediocrity until a run to the World Series title in 2005.

But here’s the thing about magical seasons—they might not last, but they’re fun and they produce some great storylines. The excellence of Thomas and Ordonez, the surprise year of Perry and, most especially, those incredible two weeks in June, deserve to be  a part of the lore of this franchise.