As a kid born into the Bridgeport neighborhood of Chicago, there were two baseball teams in this great city: the White Sox, and that other team.
I can remember watching White Sox baseball as far back as I can trace my childhood, but I really started to get into watching games when I was about six or seven years old. I was a baseball nut. My parents were divorced, and my Dad was a huge White Sox fan, so I guess my passion for baseball started as a way for me to stay connected with my Father when I wasn’t with him.
These were the beginnings of the Jerry Manuel years on the Southside, and the team wasn’t bad. They weren’t great, but they were good. My hatred for the Cleveland Indians was born very early on. From 1996-1999 the Sox finished second to the Tribe in the American League Central.
That Cleveland squad was absolutely loaded, man. Kenny Lofton, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, David Justice, Bartolo Colon, and the list goes on. The only team that could defeat the Indians was the only team I hated more, the New York Yankees.
Hell, I vividly remember leaving a Sox game against the Indians one night with my Uncle Rick and as we were boarding a CTA bus on 35th outside of the stadium, a drunken Sox fan with a home run ball souvenir yelled out that f I screamed to the bus, “Cleveland sucks!”, the ball would be mine.
I looked at my Uncle for approval, and of course, I received it. I looked to the bus driver, who must have been as much of a South-sider as us because he shot me a look of gleaming affirmation. The next thing you know, I’m not only proclaiming, “Cleveland sucks!”, I’m chanting it at the top of my lungs!
Ah, the good ol’ days.
Cleveland wasn’t the only team without stars, however. The White Sox boasted the likes of Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura, and eventually Magglio Ordonez, but this story is about my favorite player who I thought was always underrated: Ray Durham.
Drafted out of high school by the White Sox in the fifth-round of the 1990 MLB Ameteur Draft, Durham didn’t make his way to Chicago until the 1995 season. In 1995 — a season under which Gene Lamont, and eventually Terry Bevington led the Sox to an ugly 68-76 record, finishing 32 games behind the 100-win Indians — Durham played in 125 games and finished sixth in American League Rookie of the Year voting.
From there, Durham would turn into a stalwart at second base, playing in at least 150 or more games for the Sox from 1996 until he was traded during the 2002 season.
By 1998, Durham had earned his first American League All-Star nod and slashed .285/.363/.455/.818 with 19 home runs, 35 doubles, 36 stolen bases, and 126 runs scored. According to Baseball-Reference, Durham’s 1998 season was good for 5.5 WAR, ninth-best that season.
It was Durham’s speed that immersed me in his game the most. He was always a threat to take that extra base on a single, and he stole over 200 bases in a White Sox uniform. It just seemed like he was always on base, and always creating runs. Between 1998-2000 Durham didn’t walk less than 70 times in a season.
Durham earned his second all-star selection during the 2000 season, the season in which my White Sox finally dethroned the hated Indians.
During the 2000 season, Durham slashed .280/.361/.450/.810, reached base safely 247 times, hit 17 home runs, drove-in 75, and collected 35 doubles, 25 stolen bases, and 121 runs.
My favorite Ray Durham moment during that 2000 season, was his walk-off double in the bottom of the 14th inning against Sammy Sosa and the Cubs.
It was a Friday night game under the lights in early June, with no bedtime for 10 year-old Patrick, who consumed all 14 innings in his Mother’s Bridgeport apartment.
The Sox took a 5-3 lead into the ninth inning — and remember that this was only a couple of years after interleague play started, so these games were supercharged. There were 44,000-plus at Comiskey that night, and the game turned over to closer Keith Foulke. Foulke promptly forked up the lead, surrendering a two-run homer to Sosa to even it up.
The game pressed-on into the night, before Herbert “The Milkman” Perry singled off of Cubs reliever Todd Van Poppel. Perry stole second base, and Ray Durham smoked a line-drive to the left-side past the diving Willie Greene. The ball danced down the left-field line as Hawk Harrelson’s signature call cued-up the celebratory fireworks. Fireworks that I often listened to from my childhood bedroom, including on that night.
Durham would play a key supporting role to the likes of Frank Thomas, Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, and his defensive partner up the middle, Jose Valentin. The White Sox would win 95 games during that dream season for a 10-year old Sox fan who’d endured years of finishing behind the stinkin’ Indians.
Of course, the White Sox topped the Indians in the A.L. Central, only to get shellacked by another juggernaut of that era, the Seattle Mariners.
Talk about another absolutely friggin’ loaded squad, man. That 2000 Seattle team featured Alex Rodriguez, Edgar Martinez, John Olerud, Mike Cameron, Jamie Moyer, Aaron Sele, and of course, a young “Sweaty” Freddy Garcia.
In July of 2002, the White Sox broke my heart and traded Durham to the Oakland Athletics along with cash, in exchange for Jon Adkins. Durham would go on to make stops in San Francisco and Milwaukee before retiring. Durham made an appearance on the 2014 BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot before dropping off that same year.
When all said and done, the former first-rounder collected 2,054 hits, 440 doubles, 79 triples, 192 home runs, 875 RBI, 1,249 runs, and 273 stolen bases, good for a lifetime bWAR of 33.8.
Durham was a household name during that era, but it’s often forgotten here today, some two-decades later, just how important Durham was to those late-nineties, early 2000’s Sox teams.