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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

There's a hole in the toe of my White Sox

The White Flag Trade–Five Years...And Counting

On the morning of August 1st, 1997, White Sox fans woke up to this headline in the Chicago Tribune:

SURRENDER! SOX DELIVER A SAN FRANCISCO TREAT:

HERNANDEZ, ALVAREZ AND DARWIN GO WEST

 AS SOX CHANCES GO SOUTH

The White Sox had done something unprecedented in the history of Major League Baseball. They traded away the guts of their pitching staff while only 3 ½ games out of first place with two months to go in the season, for minor league prospects. Other teams, including the San Diego Padres, had "fire sales" in the past. In fact, San Diego got rid of players of the caliber of Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Brust Hurst and Tony Fernandez. Of course at the time the Padres were in 6th place and had a record of 28-44 back in 1993.

No, what the Sox did had never happened before.

In general Sox fans were divided into two camps...those who were "outraged" at the blatant "giving up" by owner Jerry Reinsdorf and those who felt that this was a wise move. Those fans argued that even though the first place Cleveland Indians had lost 10 of their last 14 games leading up to August 1st, the Sox clearly weren’t going to catch them. It was better to rebuild and see the fruits of that in the future. "Give it some time" was their slogan.

Five years have now past and this column is going to take a comprehensive look back at the "White Flag / Surrender" trade. We’re going to look at the players the Sox received, the players the Giants got, and what has happened to those two franchises in the past five seasons. We’re also going to look at the impact the trade had on the Sox franchise from a local and national standpoint before coming to one man’s conclusion.

The genesis of the White Flag Deal actually took place the year before. As the 1996 season rolled along, the Sox started to lose their grip on the Wild Card. The Sox had one of the best starting pitching foursomes in the American League but simply could not find a 5th starter. In addition, the bullpen, led by guys like Matt Karchner, Al Levine and Larry Thomas was a disaster. The Sox would set a record (since broken) for the most blown save chances in a season.

The best the Sox could (or would) do at the trade deadline was to get Tony Castillo from the Blue Jays for Luis Andujar. Needless to say that lack of effort didn’t fare well with Sox fans or for that matter with the players. The following week both Tony Phillips and Roberto Hernandez vented to The Sporting News about Sox management. Hernandez was particularly upset saying that ever since he’d been with the team, they never did anything to really try to win at the trade deadline, and that the players were starting to get used to the idea that the Sox didn’t really care about winning a championship.

The Sox in fact finished the year with a record of 85-77 after being 40-21 on June 10th.

During the off season, owner Jerry Reinsdorf shocked the baseball world by signing free agent slugger Albert Belle away from the Cleveland Indians for what was, at that time, the largest deal in baseball. Other owners, and Chicago Sun Times columnist Jay Mariotti, felt Reinsdorf was deliberately sticking it to the "Lords Of Baseball" because they denied his wishes and ended the player strike in March 1995. Reinsdorf was the only owner to vote against settling the labor issue.

Sox fans though didn’t care about the reasons, they were just salivating at the prospect of Belle, Frank Thomas, Harold Baines and Robin Ventura in the middle of the lineup. Opposing teams, especially pitchers, were blanching white. The Sox didn’t have the strongest pitching staff around, especially after losing Alex Fernandez to free agency, but it was expected that the offense would be good enough to overcome those problems (sound familiar?)

Unfortunately that master plan blew apart, as on March 21st, Ventura fractured and dislocated his ankle in a slide at home plate in Florida. The injury was so gruesome that a woman sitting in the first row of seats passed out when she saw the bone sticking through the skin. Ventura’s wife was led down to the field in hysterics. General Manager Ron Schueler was quoted in the newspapers the next day as saying that the Sox would be on the lookout for a left handed bat and someone who could play 3rd base. For whatever reason, the Sox did nothing and the team, as could be expected, opened the season sleepwalking. On May 3rd the Sox record stood at 8-18. The fans were upset, not so much at the play on the field but at the lack of activity in the front office to try to solve the problems and by what they considered an "incompetent" manager in Terry Bevington.

Meanwhile Ventura vowed to be back and worked like a demon in his rehabilitation, in an effort to return in time to salvage something out of the season. On July 24th Ventura returned to the Sox and won the game against Texas with an RBI double in the 8th inning. Almost 26,000 fans were on hand to see it and Comiskey Park was electric.

What may have been the final straw in the minds of Sox ownership then took place, as the Sox dropped the next four games.

At the press conference announcing the signing of Belle in November 1996, Reinsdorf said he was "going for it,"meaning taking a shot for the World Series... only four months into the season he had enough.

On July 31st , according to Schueler, he called Hernandez’s agent Scott Boras, to try one final time on a contract extension. Boras told him it would have to be a minimum of four years. Schueler told the Chicago Tribune, at that point, he knew he’d have to make a trade since the Sox would not offer pitchers that long of a deal. (They did make an exception with disastrous results, when they signed Jaime Navarro, to a four year, 20 million dollar deal, after losing Fernandez. At the time of the trading deadline Navarro was 8-9) Schueler said the deal started with just Hernandez but soon included another Boras client, and soon to be free agent Wilson Alvarez along with veteran Danny Darwin.

When the deal was finalized, Schueler said he was "sad" for a moment because of the guys who were leaving but thought he got a lot of quality in return. Reinsdorf had this to say to the Chicago Tribune,

"It's obvious we're disappointed with the way our ballclub has played this year, with our record... no question about it. We were faced with losing Alvarez and Roberto and getting nothing, as we did with Alex (Fernandez). Now we’ve added a half dozen talented young players. Two or three have a chance of being stars, according to our scouts. . . . If they're half right, we're in great shape."

The "keys" to the trade according to Schueler, were shortstop Mike Caruso, hitting .333 at Class A San Jose, and right-hander Lorenzo Barcelo, who was 7-4 at Double-A Shreveport. The Sox also received Double-A closer Bob Howry, Class A left-hander Ken Vining , Class A outfielder Brian Manning and Keith Foulke who split time as a starter between the Triple A club in Phoenix and the Giants, where he was 1-5.. Other than Barcelo, signed as a free agent from the Dominican Republic, they all were picked in the first nine rounds of drafts between 1994-96.

For the Sox, especially Ventura, it was extremely disappointing. Asked if a "white flag" should be flying in front of the Sox dugout, Ventura said to the Chicago Tribune, "Any flag would basically mean the same thing. It's just disappointing, I guess, to think you have a team where everybody in here thinks you can still do it and you can't," Ventura said. "You'll never know what could have happened." Later in the week Ventura would also be quoted as saying, "I didn’t know the season ended in August."

Reinsdorf looked at it differently, telling Phil Rogers of the Chicago Tribune, "this team had a chance, and it didn't seize it. It was hard to look at this team and feel very confident. I wasn't interested in finishing second in a poker hand. Yesterday I said we had no chance of catching Cleveland, today I'm not so sure." Reinsdorf overlooked of course, the devastating effect Ventura’s injury had on team morale and his front offices inability to compensate for it via trade.

The Sox ended the season with a record of 80-81. They went 27-28 after the trade

As far as the players the Sox got, here’s how they performed...

Mike Caruso- Had a brilliant 1998 season finishing 3rd in the Rookie Of The Year voting. He batted .306 with 22 stolen bases and 55 RBI’s. Legged out numerous infield hits. Defensively, he made 35 errors, which led the league, and raised some questions about his ability to do the small things correctly on a baseball field.

1999 was a mixed year. Caruso’s batting average dropped to .250 but he recorded 35 infield hits and was the hardest player to strike out in the A.L. His errors dropped to 24 and he hit a game winning two run homer to beat the Cubs on June 13th, but his "attitude" was becoming a problem. Manager Jerry Manuel felt he was out of shape, and even questioned his thinking ability out on the field. By 2000 Caruso was out of the starting lineup and off the team, losing his job to Jose Valentin. The Sox would first try to trade him to Seattle (a deal that was overturned because Caruso was injured at the time) and then released him. IMPACT YEARS: 2

Lorenzo Barcelo- Suffered extensive injuries to his pitching arm which caused him to miss most of both the 1998 and 1999 minor league seasons. Called up to the Sox in July 2000, going 4-2 with a 3.69 ERA in 22 games.

In 2001, Barcelo tore his rotator cuff and again missed most of the season He started the 2002 campaign with the Sox but was sent back to Triple A Charlotte where he suffered still another arm injury. Most people feel his career is over. IMPACT YEARS: 1

Bob Howry- In 1998 Howry led all A.L. rookies with nine saves. Had a 3.15 ERA in 44 games. In 1999 he appeared in 69 games saving 28, winning five, and posted a 3.59 ERA. He appeared on his way to becoming an elite closer.

2000 saw his role change to that of a setup man, and he was effective again, with seven saves, two wins and a 3.17 ERA. 2001 saw a high ERA of 4.69, with four wins and five saves. Howry also suffered a disquieting drop in velocity, which led to off season arm surgery. Howry was hammered in Spring training 2002, but stayed on the big league roster, where he is starting to regain his speed. IMPACT YEARS: 4

Keith Foulke- Foulke turned out to be the "key" to the deal after the collapse of Caruso and the injuries to Barcelo. Foulke turned into one of the best closers in the game with 42 saves in 2001, and 34 saves in 2000.

However he is having a terrible 2002, leading some to speculate that the league has caught up with his change up, which he uses as his "out" pitch. He also never possessed a blazing fastball which is usually associated with his role. Also even during his two tremendous seasons, Foulke had a habit of blowing games are the worst possible times. Signed only a two year extension which makes him a free agent after the 2003 season and he could be dealt because of his salary and now inconsistency. IMPACT YEARS: 4

Brian Manning- Never played in the Major Leagues. IMPACT YEARS: 0

Ken Vining- Was invited to Spring training in 2000 as a member of the 40 man roster but was never in the Major Leagues. IMPACT YEARS: 0

Overall the players the Sox got had some impact, but not at all close to what Reinsdorf thought might happen upon the advice of his scouts. Remember his quote..."Now we’ve added a half dozen talented young players. Two or three have a chance of being stars, according to our reports. . . . If they're half right, we're in great shape."

For various reasons... injuries, bad luck, bad attitudes, this never happened. In fact none of the players received in the trade ever made the All Star team. NOT ONCE!

As far as the Giants are concerned, what some Sox fans have said in the ensuing years is true.

San Francisco never did re-sign Alvarez or Hernandez and Darwin retired. Alvarez and Hernandez went to Tampa Bay after testing the free agent market. The Giants got additional draft picks from baseball because of not signing them, but more importantly, the Giants showed their fans and their own players, that they were serious about becoming contenders and that San Francisco looked like an up and coming situation. Giants 2nd baseman Jeff Kent was quoted as saying as much.

San Francisco made the playoffs in 1997, losing to the eventual World Champion Florida Marlins, the Giants just missed making the post season when they lost to the Cubs in a one game playoff for the Wild Card in 1998. San Francisco made the playoffs a second time since the trade, losing to the Mets in 1999. This year they again have an excellent record in the ultra competitive N.L. West.

Also having to be factored in, is the positive publicity the trade generated and the impact that had in finally getting a new stadium approved by the voters. For over ten years, the Giants tried to get a new ballpark in San Francisco. Every time that effort failed. Under a new owner, Peter McGowan, who proposed to use his own funds to build a new stadium, it finally became a reality.

Money aside, voters certainly didn’t mind the fact that the Giants looked like they were actually going to try to win. The result is the beautiful Pac Bell Park, a organization with a payroll in the top half of baseball, the top slugger in the game in Barry Bonds, and a field manager in "Dusty" Baker, regarded as one of the best in his profession.

The Sox meanwhile had a losing record in both 1998 and 1999, rode an unexpected opportunity to a 95 win and playoff appearance season in 2000 and had a disappointing 2001 campaign with 83 wins. In fairness they suffered numerous severe injuries and had to battle back from fifteen games under .500 at one point.

The ledger book though, shows that the Sox didn’t even come close to the success some in their organization were saying was going to happen. This year the organization has slipped considerably both on and off the field. STILL ANOTHER "rebuilding" effort looks like a reality for the third time since the 1994 strike. Coupled with an almost certain payroll slash to the area of about 45 million dollars, and you have a more Eastern version of the Kansas City Royals for 2003 and beyond.

One final area needs to be examined when evaluating this trade and that’s the impact it had on the Sox organization, the city, Sox fans and baseball in general.

The afternoon of the trade, I got a call from a friend of mine who was an executive producer at what was then One On One Sports, (now The Sporting News Radio Network), asking if I could join host Peter Brown discussing the deal from the point of view of a Sox fan.

When I went on the air, the first thing Brown said to me was... "Mark, I feel your pain!" The point that I made during the interview was that the deal set a bad example and would be catastrophic to the team from a public relations standpoint. The only thing that would make fans forget, I said, was if the Sox won the World Series in the next few years.

I also used an example that many found very trite but that I considered legitimate. "What do parents say to their kids now about "giving up?" I explained how parents always tell their kids that you can do anything if you set your mind to it, work hard, and "don’t give up.." Now you’ve got a baseball owner saying the exact opposite with his team only 3 ½ games out of first! How was that going to look?

The night of the trade, ESPN’s "Baseball Tonight" had an extra long edition. It wasn’t because of the Sox / Giants trade, it was because it was the trade deadlineitself. But after the Sox deal, they spent the majority of the first hour on it.

Among the contributors and commentators were host Karl Ravech, Hall Of Fame infielder Joe Morgan and former big league infielder and then Colorado Rockies TV analyst Dave Campbell.

Morgan in particular was angry at what the Sox had done. In the strongest possible terms he condemned what the Sox did as setting a bad example. Among his comments that night was this quote...

"I really feel sorry for Sox fans and especially the season ticket holders. They paid money to see a major league caliber team on the field."

Campbell agreed and asked what type of example this sets to fans of all teams.

Later that week, Sports Illustrated came out with their issue with the featured article on the "Sox Surrender." The story quoted both Alvarez and Hernandez as saying that when Manager Terry Bevington came to tell them about the deal in the hotel in Anaheim, "he was laughing about it."

The Sox would take an unprecedented publicity hit nationally.

Locally, the media was absolutely brutal, and with good reason. 

Even "mild mannered" columnists like Bob Verdi had comments like these in the August 5th edition of the Chicago Tribune..."Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the White Towels, committed an unpardonable public relations blunder by declaring his squad incapable of upward mobility. He will have to live with that infamous burst of candor until he wins a pennant at Comiskey Park or sells his franchise, probably the latter.

"In a year when Reinsdorf has paid $56 million for nothing, he clings to a pay-for-performance ideal that makes him envy the Pittsburgh Pirates. But if they could cope, they wouldn't have lost so many quality players. And all the Pirates do now is run a farm club, polishing names to be paid later by Rupert Murdoch's Dodgers or the Arizona Diamondbacks."

Bernie Lincicome chipped in with this in his August 3rd column in the Chicago Tribune...

"How refreshing, if true, that the surrender of the White Sox was in response to White Sox fans.

It was, of course, for money and for spite, and for the unvarnished hell of it. Nothing noble there, nothing honorable. The last time the fans filled up Comiskey Park, that bunch was much more gloomy and unlikable than this one, from Jack McDowell to Bo Jackson to George Bell. And their manager, while not as outright absurd as this one, was about as warm as unthawed fish sticks.

Is Albert Belle still on this team? Of course, he is. If hostility is in the equation, Belle is on a bus back to Shreveport or wherever he may still have a friend.

Does Terry Bevington still manage? Funny, he never did before.

Had Reinsdorf listened to the fans, Bevington would be a blip on the radar, headed off to whatever weird world exported him.

No, Bevington instead was retained and reassured, in defiance of common knowledge and common sense, handed a $54 million enterprise to guide to glory, which is the kind of judgment that would give Ralph Kramden the space shuttle.

There have been lovable Sox teams, the last one with Ron Kittle and Greg Luzinski and LaMarr Hoyt and the young Mr. Baines. But try to get next to Carlton Fisk or Tom Seaver and you would be treated like a stalker.

Yet public scorn is not reason enough for Reinsdorf to fire himself.

Why is Tony Phillips gone? Because he was a clubhouse annoyance. Why is Harold Baines gone? Because he was easy to kiss off.

Why say goodbye to Wilson Alvarez and Roberto Hernandez? Better to slap the hand that feeds you now than have it bitten off next season.

There is no reason to have a flawed Jaime Navarro if some consideration had been given to a perfectly fine Alex Fernandez, as likable a player as there is this side of Ozzie Guillen.

Why fire Gene Lamont? He may be a bit of a chalk outline, but he was always baseball sound and reliably responsible. Lance Johnson. Joey Cora. Warren Newson. Scott Radinsky. Tim Raines. All pleasant enough. All gone.

Do Sox fans not like this team?

I have to agree that Sox fans like the one that is no longer here much better"

Alvarez had some particularly telling comments to then Cubs beat writer Paul Sullivan in the August 8th issue of the Chicago Tribune. "As far as I know, they never try to sign anyone (from the organization). They did it to Jack (McDowell). They did it to Alex (Fernandez). I have nothing against my ex-teammates. I miss those guys. But it's different. This team (the Giants) wants to win, wants to play, wants to give 100 percent. I know there's a few guys on the Sox who aren't happy."

Sullivan then concluded his story with this... "Whatever Reinsdorf thinks about Alvarez is fine by the pitcher. He said he believes Sox management gave up on the team, and that's all anyone will remember."

Alvarez proved to be right in his last statement.

While you may not think much of these individuals or even agree that they are worth anything in the jobs that the do, the fact is that they INFLUENCE and SHAPE public opinion

The Sox were getting roasted on all sides, locally and nationally. Attendance which almost hit 1.9 million in 1997 dropped down to 1.4 million after the 1999 season. Even a spectacular 2000 season couldn’t remove the stigma from many fans minds, that this organization wouldn’t pay the price for success and that the 2000 team, as good as they were, was a fluke. Both assessments proved to be correct, when the Sox refused to spend money to get the pitching they so badly needed at the trade deadline in 2000 and when the 2001 team fell apart.

From the players standpoint, what the Sox did was unforgivable and still remembered today. Cliff Floyd, a very good player in his career, recently was traded to the soon to be contracted Montreal Expos. Floyd is from Chicago and in a 2001 feature on him in Sports Illustrated said he grew up a Sox fan and his favorite player was Harold Baines. Yet the Associated Press story that came out when the trade rumors started, said Floyd listed the Sox as one of six teams he could NOT be dealt to.

A hometown kid, refusing to play for his hometown team. Think he doesn’t remember the "White Flag" situation?

Paul Konerko had this quote in the Chicago Sun Times during the All Star Break. He certainly is aware of the unpredictability of Sox ownership and management. When he was asked if he felt that the Sox had to start winning or else, this was his reply. ''You are conscious of it because [in 1997] they did it when they were less games out. If they did something like that then, then there is no question about it." You wonder if that memory will have an effect when the time comes to talk about a contract extension with him and his agent, ditto Magglio Ordonez and Mark Buehrle.

And how about all the talent that the Sox were supposedly getting?

The Sporting News recently ranked the top 50 players in baseball as listed by major league general managers and player personnel directors. The Sox had ONE PLAYER listed, Ordonez at #42. None of the players received in the White Flag Deal, even came close to making that list. By comparison, and to add insult to injury, the Expos, placed four.

So should the Sox have made the deal? Just one man’s opinion, but when you look at the fan backlash, the negative publicity that the deal generated (the effects of which are still being felt today) and the fact that the Sox are no closer to winning a World Series now, then they were five seasons ago, the answer is NO. Opportunities for the Sox to win a championship or get to the playoffs are about as rare as a Republican candidate winning the Chicago mayoral election.

When those chances come along, you don’t just flush then down the toilet. The Sox in this case did, and then tossed in a urinal cake so it wouldn't smell as bad.

As always, all questions, comments, thoughts or insults are welcome. Contact me at mliptak1@ida.net


Editor's Note:  Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work.  He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana) and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years.  "Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population.

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