The motto of the Chicago White Sox, who've spent several fortunes on free agents and new stars, but who can't field a routine ground ball to shortstop, should be, "Millions for tribute, but not one cent for defense."

Jimmy Piersall, who once broadcast the team's games, says of the White Sox defenders, "They're amazing. I'm surprised they don't miss the dugout when they run in."

Managers endure the jeers of fans, like one who yelled, "Hey, LaRussa, it's 10 o'clock. Do you know where your outfielders are tonight?"

In the last three seasons, the White Sox have offered almost documentary proof that defense is the most underrated, understudied aspect of baseball, especially important to a contending team.

In 1981, '82, and now again in '83, the White Sox have had quality pitching aplenty; last year, only one American League team allowed fewer earned runs than they did. They also have hitters, sluggers and slappers; Chicago was third in baseball in runs last season. They even have considerable speed; their 136 stolen bases last season were third best in the league.

And the White Sox have progressive owners with an open wallet, plus the brightest coaching staff money can buy and a lawyer-manager named Tony LaRussa whom many franchises would love to steal.

In fact, the only thing the White Sox don't have is a defense.

And that alone has forced them into back-to-back third-place finishes.

"Last year, we were ridiculous," said Coach Charlie Lau, thinking of 154 errors that led to a league-leading 92 unearned runs. "I looked around and said, 'What the hell is going on here.' When you start giving four or five outs in an inning, there's no club in baseball bad enough not to take advantage of you."

"If we'd had any defense last year, just mediocre, if we'd only made the routine plays, I'm certain we'd have won the division," said Coach Dave Nelson. "Our defense has just killed us over the last three years."

"I would place defense considerably higher on the list of things that a team needs than I probably would have when I began managing (in 1979)," said LaRussa. "Your confidence as a club gets sapped most quickly by defensive mistakes. If the out is there to be taken, and you don't get it, that can make your club droop . . . Then the mistakes multiply.

"If you analyzed 10 big innings, in eight of them you could pick apart the inning and see where the defense could have done some simple fundamental thing to limit the damage or end the inning."

When your shortstops make 44 errors and your center fielders 18, as the White Sox's did in '82, it makes a weary manager fall asleep chanting that ancient baseball mantra, "Champions are strong up the middle."

Some culprits, like Ron LeFlore, who played a fly ball off the top of his head for a four-base error, are gone. But, last week, the White Sox were back at their dastardly deeds, amassing six errors and four wild pitches in one game. The next night they made three errors. So far, they have 36 in 30 games, a record pace even for them, and a 13-17 record. After the White Sox caught two foul pops in an inning recently, their radio announcer said with a sigh, "Well, at least we can catch the foul balls."

LaRussa last week introduced a new left side for his infield: Lorenzo Gray at third and Jerry Dybzinski at short.

In a 16-game trial last September, Gray fielded .864. True White Sox potential.

Dybzinski, who has one major league homer in 242 games, is an even odder case.

Of the 30 big league shortstops who played in at least 75 games last year, the two with the worst fielding percentages were, naturally, the White Sox's incumbents: Bill Almon and Vance Law. So, who did the Sox get to replace them? The guy who was third-worst in the league, Dybzinski.

It's particularly annoying to the White Sox to play Baltimore because they're so similar to the Orioles; that is, until they have to catch the ball and throw it. Last year, the White Sox allowed 53 more unearned runs than the Orioles.

Baltimore has won seven of the last nine AL fielding percentage titles. The 1980 Orioles set the major league record for fielding percentage. Since the Gold Glove Awards began in 1957, Baltimore has won 46 of the trophies; no other AL team has 30. To what degree is it a coincidence that the Orioles have led the majors in victories in the 1960s, the '70s and, so far, the '80s, too?

"The Orioles make the routine plays that kill us," said Nelson. "I saw Mark Belanger the other day and I told him, 'The last time you made an error, gas was 40 cents a gallon. You can come out of retirement and help us right now."

Even as devoted a disciple of offense as Lau has begun to believe that defense is the thread that binds, or unravels, many teams. "I was spoiled," he said. "I'd coached for Baltimore, Kansas City and the Yankees before I came to Chicago and I didn't know what we had. You take (Luis) Aparicio, Belanger, (Freddy) Patek and (Bucky) Dent for granted until you get to a team that can't catch the ball."

The White Sox have been willing to pay highly for expensive players like Carlton Fisk, Tom Paciorek, Greg Luzinski, Steve Kemp, LeFlore and Floyd Bannister. Yet Fisk is the only excellent fielder on the club. A Chicago lineup that properly blends hitting and fielding may not be possible.

"When was the last time the White Sox were in the World Series? In '59, right," said Nelson. "Who'd they have then?"

Aparicio at short, Nellie Fox at second, Jim Landis in center and Sherm Lollar catching.

"Hmmmm, they must have had a real good defense."