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WSI News - News Watch

Picking up where he left off

By Jimmy Greenfield,

TUCSON, Ariz. -- If there was a singular image to bury -- and never unearth -- in a time capsule of the White Sox disappointing 2001 season, it was that of Royce Clayton getting a base hit to wild applause and chants of "MVP"!

Whoopee. A single.

The mocking cheers at Comiskey Park came from Sox fans who had already endured the loss of Frank Thomas, a plethora of pitching injuries and torn apart hopes

They were in no mood to give any leeway to a cocky newcomer of a shortstop, who was hitting .099, especially with their team off to a 14-29 start.

Then, things changed. Sort of. As mysteriously as Clayton's slump had begun, he broke out of it.

The base hits began to come, and by the time the season ended Clayton was hitting .263 with nine home runs and 60 RBIs. His final numbers were not only respectable, but good enough to place him among the top 10 in most offensive categories among shortstops.

Yet...Clayton might always be known in Chicago as the guy who was hitting .099 on May 29.

"That's just the way people chose to look at it," Clayton said. "I don't understand why. If you run a marathon it's not how you start. It's 162 games. It's how you finish in your overall stats. At the end of the day there's not too many shortstops that drove in 60 runs. Not too many shortstops hit nine home runs, but I'm still not considered an offensive guy."

Maybe in another era, but not this one. Not with Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra and Rich Aurilia putting up offensive numbers that have helped redefine what it means to be a great shortstop.

When Clayton was growing up in Southern California, he idolized St. Louis shortstop Ozzie Smith, who was elected to the Hall of Fame earlier this year. Smith only drove in more than 60 runs once and finished his career with 28 homers, about half a season's output for a guy like Rodriguez.

But boy could Smith play shortstop. After all, they didn't call him the "Wizard of Oz" because he played defense as if he was wearing red ruby slippers.

"When I first came into the National League, I had the opportunity to sit down with Ozzie Smith and talk with him," said Clayton, who replaced Smith in St. Louis in 1996. "He said, 'The most important thing is that you make that routine play, day in and day out. That makes you a great shortstop.' That is the best advice I ever got.

"The routine play is the play that you have to make. The plays that go on ESPN highlights, those are plays that if you dive and get it, great. If you don't, that's okay. But you have to make the routine plays."

Clayton reduced his errors from a career-high of 25 in 1999 to 16 in 2001 to a mere seven last season. His .988 fielding percentage broke a 38-year-old Sox record for shortstops set by Ron Hansen (.983) in 1963.

What may have been most amazing about Clayton's brilliant defensive season was that he was consistent throughout, even when he was deep in his offensive slump.

In a new town, with a new team and having replaced a popular player like Jose Valentin at shortstop, defense became Clayton's saving grace.

"That just showed I had taken my game to another level," Clayton said. "The fact that I had the mental capacity to put that other aspect out and say I'm going to go out there and definitely play good defense. Because that's my job, first and foremost.

"I take the utmost pride in my defense. Last year took me to another level and gave me a tremendous amount of confidence defensively to know that I can go out there focused and put the other part aside regardless of what was going on."

When Clayton arrived from Texas he was aware the Sox were coming off a great 2000 season. But he also knew the franchise had struggled for the previous half a decade.

"Coming over here, it was like this team had never struggled before," Clayton said. "That was the most baffling thing to me. It was like there was this big panic. 'Oh, we've never done this before.' You won a championship in 2000, what about all those other years where you're getting your (butt) kicked?

"We let outside influences control what happened in our clubhouse. What the media was thinking, what the people were thinking, what everybody else was saying. This, that and the other. It had nothing to do with what we were dealing with. It was other things that we allowed to be bigger than our task at hand."

And what makes him think the Sox can handle adversity this season?

"Because we went through it," he said. "The big picture was that we dealt with it in a positive way to where we turned things around. Last year could have been a lot worse."

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