The White Sox aren’t the easiest team to market, and more than anything, their lack of anything resembling a true heyday looms largest. They have never made the postseason in consecutive years during their 116-year history, which makes momentum fleeting.
The 1984 season was one of many missed opportunities. The White Sox weren’t able to capitalize on their “Winning Ugly” success from the previous season. The following September, they were playing out the string, with a record of 67-81 by the time they took on the Twins in a mid-September series at the Metrodome.
The games were far from meaningless, though. Minnesota entered the series tied with the Kansas City Royals atop the American League West at 76-72, but the White Sox knocked them down two pegs by taking the first two games of a four-game series.
The Twins could’ve used a win when the teams met for a third time on Sept. 19, 1984, and although they fell behind early, they erased two deficits. Tom Laudner took Floyd Bannister deep for a game-tying two-run homer in the fifth inning, and when Rudy Law hit a solo shot off Mike Smithson in the top of the sixth, Tom Brunansky answered with one of his own to tie the game at 3.
(Smithson and Bannister were 1-2 in the American League in home runs allowed at the time, so everything followed the plan.)
Smithson could’ve used a zero in the top of the seventh. Greg Walker put him in a tough spot with a leadoff single, but Smithson came back to strike out Ron Kittle and Vance Law to get toward the bottom of the order.
This prompted Tony La Russa to go into overdrive. First, he pinch-hit switch-hitting Roy Smalley for the right-handed Scott Fletcher. The splits show no apparent reason for this change, but Fletcher had struck out in each of his first two at-bats against the righty Smithson.
Secondly, he gave Walker the green light. The first baseman wasn’t much of a stolen-base threat, with only 19 steals in 31 attempts over his nine-year career. Yet 1984 represented his high-water mark, and he stole his eighth and final base of the season on a 1-0 count with two outs.
The pitch missed, and with a 2-0 count to Smalley, first base open and glove-first catcher Marc Hill on deck, Minnesota manager Billy Gardner called for the intentional walk.
That inspired La Russa to make two more moves. First, he quit while he was ahead with Walker’s wheels, sending in the faster Jerry Dybzinski to pinch-run for the first baseman, stigma and all.
Secondly, La Russa recalled Hill for a pinch hitter.
Enter Steve Christmas.
Christmas, then 26, appeared in only 12 games for White Sox in 1984. It was the only year he surfaced with the big club, and it represented half of his major league career. Before the White Sox, he appeared in nine games with the Reds; afterward, three games with the Cubs.
He started with the Reds organization as an amateur free agent out of Southwestern Oklahoma State University in 1977, so the fact that he even made it to the majors for a few cups of coffee represented an (over)achievement. He performed well at Triple-A for a catcher — .291/.360/.429 over five seasons, albeit two at hitter-friendly affiliates in Tucson and Denver — but he couldn’t make much of his limited playing time.
While Christmas only played half his games for the Sox, he gave them the lion’s share of his career production.
- With White Sox: .364/.364/.727 (4-for-11) over 11 PA
- With Reds/Cubs: .077/.107/115 (2-for-26) over 28 PA
But it still wasn’t enough to make a dent in their plans. The White Sox called up Christmas as a third catcher and extra left-handed bat on Sept. 4. He didn’t start any of the 12 games he played for the White Sox. He mostly appeared in the late innings of losses, all but once as a pinch hitter. Also all but once, Christmas’ appearances came in games the White Sox lost.
On Sept. 19, 1984, though, Christmas came to the plate with the Sox ... well, not leading, but not trailing for the first time in six chances. He had Dybzinski on second and Smalley on first. He had Smithson on the mound -- a 15-game winner, but one who had already been taken deep twice.
Christmas made it three, hitting a three-run shot out to right to give the White Sox a 6-3 lead. His first career homer didn’t impress the guys on the other side, according to the Chicago Tribune.
Gardner said: “We gave Christmas a present, didn’t we? When the ball went in the air, I thought it was a pop fly. Unbelievable.”
“I was walking off the mound because I thought the inning was over,” Smithson said. “But it was a dome home run. You live and die by the dome.”
The White Sox went on to win by a score of 7-3. Whether the dome aided the blast or the Twins were just sore losers, Christmas was the driving factor behind the only game the White Sox won with him involved. He delivered a pinch-hit single in the 13th inning the next day to start a threat, but the Sox couldn’t capitalize on the rally and lost via a wild pitch in the bottom of the inning. He then finished the season going hitless in four pinch-hit appearances, all losses to seal the 1-11 record.
Yet that one victory was sweet — not just because he homered, but because he foiled the team that originally drafted him in 1975. Two years before the Reds signed him as an undrafted free agent, the Twins took him in the 33rd round. According to the Tribune story, getting drafted wasn’t much of a thrill.
Christmas’ homer settled an old score for him. The Twins drafted him out of high school in Orlando, Fla., on the 33rd round in 1975, but then offered him so little to sign that he refused. Christmas preferred instead to attend junior college in Oklahoma.
“I later signed with Cincinnati for nothing, picked up out of a tryout camp,” the left-handed hitting catcher said. “And I was happier signing for no money with them than taking the very tiny amount the Twins offered.”
Three straight losses to a second-division team was more than the Twins could absorb down the stretch, as they ended up losing the West to the Royals by three games.
And if that wasn’t enough, Hawk Harrelson piled on in that day’s paper. Despite being in the thick of a penannt race, the Twins only averaged 16,824 fans during the midweek four-game series, prompting Harrelson, then in his third season with the Sox, to castigate Minnesota fans.
Sox television broadcaster Ken Harrelson gave Minneapolis the cold shoulder in a local newspaper story about the minimal local interest in the Twins. “These fans don’t deserve the Twins,” Harrelson said. “They need their butts kicked.”
Merry Christmas, everybody.