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SYRACUSE SKIPPER TAKES DIFFERENT OUTLOOK INTO IL PENNANT RACE

Big series? Grudge match? You wouldn't have guessed it from talking to Syracuse manager Terry Bevington before Thursday's big doubleheader at North AmeriCare Park.

Bevington didn't seem at all concerned that his SkyChiefs had squandered an eight-game lead in a mere fortnight, or that Buffalo had humiliated them in a four-game sweep in Syracuse early this month.

Look on the bright side. The purpose of the minor leagues is developing players. Blowing a big lead in the International League's North Division will allow his players to experience a tense three-way race.

"It's excellent for them to play in games like this," Bevington said. "It's very meaningful to them. I was in the American League for the last nine years, so it's a little anticlimactic for me, to be honest with you."

A year ago, he was managing the Chicago White Sox, writing names like Belle, Thomas and Ventura onto his lineup card. He had a big-league job, in a great city, and the headaches that went along with it.

Before the '97 season, the White Sox signed Belle for $11 million a season and Jaime Navarro for $5 million. He had a $55 million payroll. The Sox got off to a bad start and finished 80-81. When Bevington was fired after the season, critics didn't ask why, but why it took so long.

He was an easy target. Blunt and irascible, he had a strained relationship with the Chicago media. Players said they'd felt uncomfortable with him. Frank Thomas said they second-guessed him, though Bevington doesn't believe Thomas really felt that way.

So it's understandable if a Triple-A pennant race seems mild by comparison.

"I'm very proud that I got the blame for everything in Chicago," he said. "That's a pretty large man who does that."

He was 222-214 in two-plus seasons in Chicago. That must look pretty good to Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, whose team was fourth in the AL Central with a 58-73 record as of Thursday.

"I really don't follow them closely," Bevington said. "I know the job I did, the obstacles I had to overcome. I keep that to myself."

Reinsdorf certainly didn't help him last summer, announcing that the Sox weren't a championship team and trading away some of his best players when they were a few games out of a playoff spot.

He might have survived if he'd been more engaging with the press. The manager is the organization's chief spokesman. Modern sports teams like to put a charming, happy face in front of the public -- even if it's phony.

Bevington can be surly, brutally frank at times. (He was ejected for arguing with the home plate umpire in the second game Thursday.) Once, he berated a TV reporter in a live shot for asking what he considered a stupid question. A week ago, he briefly stopped talking to the Syracuse paper after a columnist wrote a fairly innocuous piece about the SkyChiefs' 11-game losing streak.

"No wonder he had such a hard time in Chicago," said Bud Poliquin, the offending writer.

And to think, Bevington was once regarded as the top young managing prospect in baseball. He got his first minor-league managing job at 24. By 1989, when he was only 32, he was a candidate for the Blue Jays' job that went to Cito Gaston.

He was a coach for Chicago from 1989 to '95. He was 38 when he took over for Gene Lamont early in '95. Three years later, he's in the minors. If Bevington was stung by his Chicago experience, he's not letting on. If he covets another shot at the majors, to prove people wrong, he's keeping it to himself.

"I don't think you were there, so I don't think you know about anything," he said. "I had a great time in Chicago. I was there nine years. They treated me great. Things, uh, didn't go as well as we'd like, but I look at it as a very successful operation.

"I'm not into proving myself. I'm into trying to help others. I'm a baseball man. The only reason I ever managed at any level was to help people."

He said that he's a nice guy, and that he doesn't need to prove that, either. That might explain how he could sit through a 20-minute chat without breaking a smile.