As the rumors continue to swirl surrounding the pursuit of free agent superstars Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, it’s worthwhile to pause…take a moment…and reflect on a game from the annals of White Sox history.
Today, we’re traveling back to Opening Day, 1997. This season-opening series featured arguably the two biggest names in free agency from the previous offseason — Roger Clemens and Albert Belle — squaring off against one another, not to mention a reigning Cy Young winner against a two-time MVP. Who would prove victorious, and take the first step(s) towards fulfilling their fans’ lofty expectations of October baseball?
Cultural trivia and baseball miscellany
In the wide world of music and film, two very different works were currently atop the charts. Over the airwaves, the number one spot was Can’t Nobody Hold Me Down, Puff Daddy’s debut album: it would spend six weeks in the one position before it was overtaken by Notorious B.I.G.’s Hypnotize. On the big screen, it was Jim Carrey starring in Liar, Liar which sat in the top slot: ultimately the movie would gross $181 million, finishing in fourth for the year (behind The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Men in Black, and Titanic).
In baseball the big news of the day, of course, was that it was Opening Day. 1996 had just seen the Yankees win the first of their Core Four World Series, and the Bronx Bombers were well on their way to another dynasty. Unique to the 1997 season was the introduction of interleague play (the Sox went 8-7 that year, winning series against the Cubs, Reds, and Astros while losing series to the Cardinals and Pirates).
And lastly, looking ahead a few months to the June draft, the Sox took Jason Dellaero at 15th overall (one ahead of Lance Berkman). A few other Sox-centric names you might remember from that draft: Aaron Myette, Jim Parque, and Rocky Biddle.
Umpires for this game
- HP: Jim McKean
McKean had an outstanding career as an umpire, working from 1973 until 2001, with three World Series and three All-Star games. Uniquely, he oversaw ten no-hitters.
- 1B: Tim Hendry
Tim Hendry had a 23-year career as an umpire, from 1977-1999. Hendry saw action in the 1990 World Series as well as the 1983 and 1995 All-Star games.
- 2B: John Hirschbeck
Hirschbeck was an umpire from 1984, only recently retiring following the 2016 season. Hirschbeck appeared in five World Series and three All-Star games but is perhaps more remembered (okay, maybe just by me) for a dispute with Roberto Alomar during the 1996 season over a third strike call, which eventually led to a confrontation between the two the next day in the Orioles’ clubhouse.
- 3B: Jim Joyce
Joyce umpired from 1987-2016, also retiring after that season. Joyce worked three All-Star games and three World Series, but is notorious for a wrong call at first base that cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game:
|Chicago White Sox||Toronto Blue Jays|
|Tony Phillips, RF||Otis Nixon, CF|
|Dave Martinez, CF||Carlos Garcia, 2B|
|Frank Thomas, 1B||Orlando Merced, RF|
|Albert Belle, LF||Joe Carter, 1B|
|Harold Baines, DH||Ed Sprague, 3B|
|Chris Snopek, 3B||Carlos Delgado, DH|
|Ray Durham, 2B||Benito Santiago, C|
|Ron Karkovice, C||Shawn Green, LF|
|Ozzie Guillen, SS||Alex Gonzalez, SS|
|Jaime Navarro, SP||Pat Hentgen, SP|
Play by Play
Taking the mound for the Blue Jays was the reigning American League Cy Young winner, Pat Hentgen. Hentgen was coming off a terrific 1996 campaign which saw him go 20-10 with 3.22 ERA (8.6 bWAR, though he would also be worth almost six wins during the 1997 season, too), but the Sox were able to get things going early. Tony Phillips led off the season with a single, and after Dave Martinez flew out to center, Frank Thomas smacked a single to right to give the Sox runners at first and second for prized-acquisition Albert Belle. Belle didn’t disappoint, doubling down the right field line to score Phillips and give the Sox a quick lead. Harold Baines then continued the hit parade, singling in Thomas, and it was 2-0 quicker than you could say “Harold Baines is a Hall of Famer”.
The Blue Jays would get on the board off of Sox starter Jamie Navarro in the second. Navarro (whose disappointing tenure with the Sox at least ultimately netted them Cal Eldred and Jose Valentin) was able to work around a wild first when he walked two, but gave up a dinger to Carlos Delgado the next inning which cut the lead in half, 2-1. Then, in the third the Blue Jays took the lead after Navarro exhibited yet more problems with his control. Otis Nixon led off with a single, but Navarro then issued back-to-back wild pitches to advance the Jays’ speedy center fielder to third. After Carlos Garcia struck out, Orlando Garcia singled through the right side to knot the game at 2. World Series hero Joe Carter reached on an E5, and after Ed Sprague flew out to center, Carlos Delgado got his second RBI of the day with a single that he dumped into left.
While Hentgen continued to suppress the Sox’ offense, the Blue Jays continued to pound Navarro. In the fourth, Alex Gonzalez hit a dinger out to left to make it 4-2 in favor of Toronto, then the Jays tacked on another in the sixth. Shawn Green singled to start the inning, and moved to second on a passed ball. A productive groundout by Alex Gonzalez advanced Green to third and after Otis Nixon walked, the Sox weren’t able to turn two on a ground ball to second by Carlos Garcia. 5-2, Blue Jays.
The seventh was quiet for both teams (Navarro was replaced by Al Levine), but the Sox were finally able to tag Hentgen for two more runs in the eighth. Frank Thomas singled to begin the inning, and Albert Belle once again came through, blasting a homer out to left and getting the Sox within a run, 5-4.
While the Sox couldn’t muster additional runs in the eighth, they were able to tie it up in the ninth. Mike Timlin replaced Pat Hentgen and promptly hung a slider to Norberto Martin (on in replacement of Ron Karkovice): Martin took it over the left-field wall to make it 5-5. Tony Castillo pitched a 1-2-3 ninth for the Sox, and so the crowd of 40, 299 was treated to some free baseball.
After two quick outs, Ray Durham worked a walk against Dan Plesac. Durham was a favorite of mine for his speed, and the next play is a good example of why. With Durham running on the next pitch, Tony Pena hit a ground ball that barely trickled through the infield: the team’s second baseman was able to score on this grounder all the way from first and it put the Sox in front, 6-5. While the Sox weren’t able to add an insurance run, closer Roberto Hernandez made sure they wouldn’t need it: a quick 1-2-3 bottom of the 10th sealed the first victory of the season for the White Sox.
All in all, the 1997 season was a disappointment (at least on the team level) for both the White Sox and the Blue Jays. The Jays’ big offseason acquisition in Roger Clemens worked to perfection as The Rocket had one of the finest seasons of his career: the first of back-to-back Cy Youngs, a 21-7 record, to the tune of a 2.05 ERA. The Blue Jays finished 76-86, though, fifth in the AL East. Manager Cito Gaston was fired near the end of the season and replaced by Tim Johnson. Johnson was then replaced by Jim Fregosi (after the weird Vietnam War story thing), then Buck Martinez…then Carlos Tosca…it was the beginning of the team’s descent into playoff-less wilderness.
Unlike Clemens for the Jays, Albert Belle was a bit of a disappointment in 1997. A down (for him) year saw him hit .274/.332/.491 with *just* 30 dingers. Obviously, for White Sox fans, the biggest disappointment was the White Flag trade over the summer. Just 3.5 games back of the Indians, Wilson Alvarez, Roberto Hernandez, and Danny Darwin were shipped off to the Giants for minor leaguers, including Keith Foulke and Bob Howry. Ultimately, this didn’t hurt the Sox all that much as they made it back to the playoffs in 2000, and the rest is history (including a run of fun teams that I’d pretty much kill for, these days).
Random Box Score White Sox record: 8-4
- Baseball Reference
- Billboard Hot 100
- Chicago Tribune
- New York Times
- Sports Illustrated