These days, Gene Lamont is known, if at all, as one of the holdover members of Jim Leyland’s merry band of ice-cream-nibbling baseball veterans, now filling the role of bench coach for rookie Tigers manager Brad Ausmus. Attentive fans might know that he, along with former first base coach Andy Van Slyke, were together with Leyland in Pittsburgh when the skipper managed the Pirates, and even that Lamont himself managed those Pirates when Leyland left Pittsburgh to manage the Marlins and Rockies. If the Tigers fan we’re describing is me, then that’s pretty much the extent of common Gene Lamont knowledge.
As I wrote last month, if baseball fans think of one thing when they think of 1994, they think of the Montreal Expos. Everyone agrees they had the best team in baseball during that shortened season and would’ve won the franchise’s only World Series had it not been cancelled due to a labor dispute, potentially changing the course of baseball history in the process. Everyone, that is, except for Gene Lamont.
On Sunday, FanGraphs posted an interview with Lamont, who was the manager of the Chicago White Sox from 1992-95. Excerpts from that post follow:
In 1992, Gene Lamont took over as manager of the Chicago White Sox. The following season he led them to 94 wins and a playoff berth. In 1994, his team was on pace to win close to 100 games when a players’ strike ended the season in August.
Why were the 1993 and 1994 White Sox serious title contenders?
“We had really good players,” said Lamont, now the bench coach for the Detroit Tigers. “Once Jason Bere and Wilson Alvarez came in, we had five good starting pitchers. We had a good offense, but if you look at most teams that are really good, they have good pitching. We had Jack McDowell, who won a Cy Young one year.Alex Fernandez was awful good. Scott Sanderson was good. Tim Belcher was our fifth starter the year we got in the playoffs.
His teams also had hitting. The lineup was strong from top to bottom, and no one was stronger than Frank Thomas. The Big Hurt was American League MVP in both 1993 and 1994. His OPS in the latter of those two seasons was 1.217. Is he the best hitter Lamont has seen?
“If you’re going to look at the best, you probably have to look at Bonds,” said Lamont. “I had Barry as a coach [in Pittsburgh] and they were different guys. But Frank, right then, was the best offensively. He got big hits and could hit the ball out anywhere – right field, left field, center field. A guy who can do that today is Miguel [Cabrera]. Frank obviously also drew a lot of walks.”
The Big Hurt wasn’t the only disciplined hitter on the team. In 1993, he was one of five players in the starting lineup with more walks than strikeouts. Joey Cora, Lance Johnson, Tim Raines and Robin Ventura were the others.
Another thing that stands out about the 1993-1994 White Sox is their brainpower. Close to a dozen players from those teams went on to become managers or coaches. Bere and Ellis Burks worked in front offices, Darrin Jackson is a broadcaster. The smartest team Lamont has been associated with?
“It would have to be one of them,” said Lamont. “Robin is managing. Ozzie [Guillen] managed. Rad is a good pitching coach. There are others, as well. We had a lot of guys with high baseball IQs. Jack McDowell was a really smart pitcher. Robin and Ozzie were extremely smart players. So was Joey Cora.”
Raines is among those in the coaching ranks. When he played under Lamont he was in the decline phase of his career but still an asset. In 1993, he had an .880 OPS and 21 steals in 115 games.
“Raines was good for us, but he was at his best when he was in Montreal,” agreed Lamont. “When I was in Pittsburgh as a coach [1986-1991] we could hardly get him out. He had great speed and was a true base stealer. When I had him in Chicago he picked his spots a little more. If you look at what he did in his career, especially in Montreal, he should get strong consideration for the Hall of Fame.”
The Montreal connection is notable. When the 1994 season ended prematurely, many thought the Expos were the best team in baseball. Lamont isn’t so sure.
“For my first managerial job I had a team that was close to ready to win,” said Lamont. “In 1992, what happened is Ozzie got hurt [in a collision with Raines] and we still weren’t quite ready. The next year we made the playoffs. In 1994, before the strike, I thought we had the best team. Montreal was good, but I liked our chances.”
This has been another episode of “Gene Lamont: Who Knew?”