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WSI News - WSI Spotlight

WSI's FLYINGSOCK.COM.  Chicago White Sox coverage with totally biased attitude!

The Sorry Story of
Slappy Caruso!

by George Bova

The sorry story of Mike Caruso might finally be coming to a close.  The White Sox designated for assignment their starting shortstop of 1998 and 1999.  The Sox must trade him, option him to the minor leagues, or give him his release outright.   

Thus all but ends one of the strangest and tragic soap operas of the modern White Sox.  In 1998 he batted .306, the highest average for a rookie Sox ballplayer since Minnie Minoso in 1951.  His was also the highest average for a Sox shortstop since Luis Aparicio in 1970.  He received votes for American League Rookie of the Year and was named the 1998 White Sox Player of the Year at the March of Dimes Dinner.

"The Kids Can Play" was the marketing theme for the 1999 season.  As the greatest Sox rookie since Minnie Minoso, Mike Caruso was one of several young Sox featured in his own Sox television commercial.  He was also the guy who hit the eighth inning two-run homerun to complete The Glorious Sweep of the Cubs at Wrigley Field in June, 1999.  It's one of Sox fans' favorite memories and led to a wonderfully poignant photograph of Cubs and Sox fans.   Slappy had his moments.

Eighteen months later he is all but gone.  What happened?

Caruso earned his nickname from Sox thirdbasemen and unofficial clubhouse leader Robin Ventura.  Ventura noted that Caruso simply slapped at the ball and often managed to beat out infield grounders for singles.  Slappy was shortened from Ventura's original quip, "Slappy the Inning-Maker" following yet another timely if improbable infield single by the rookie.

Unfortunately, opposing teams got wise to Slappy's routine too.  Opposing corner infielders began creeping up onto the infield grass anticipating Caruso's weak dribblers.  What were bang-bang singles in 1998 turned into pathetic outs in 1999.  Worse, Caruso's infield defense degenerated.  Never blessed with a strong throwing arm, Caruso's range shrank and his errors increased.  As Caruso himself admitted late in 1999, his problems were due at least in part from missing the guidance veteran Robin Ventura provided.  Ventura had left via free agency following the 1998 season.

Caruso's average fell to .250.  He managed just 17 extra-base hits in 529 at-bats!  Manager Jerry Manuel was disappointed with Caruso's work ethic (he failed to workout following the '98 season) and his lack of power.  Opposing teams were daring Slappy to drive the ball through the infield--but he wasn't physically capable of doing it.

There were also whispers about Caruso's lack of baseball smarts--or perhaps any smarts at all.  One nasty joke started when a member of the Sox clubhouse was told Caruso had used an off-day to get his wisdom teeth removed.  "Oh no, those were the good ones," was his amused response.

By the end of the 1999 season, Manuel was experimenting with minor league call up Jason Dellaero and utility fielder Craig Wilson at Caruso's shortstop position.  Manuel challenged Caruso to improve this conditioning at the conclusion of the 1999 season.  He and Sox GM Ron Schueler went out of their way to place numerous quotes with the media making clear their expectation Caruso use the off-season to improve his game.

Then came the bombshell.  In mid-January the Sox traded Jaime Navarro to the Milwaukee Brewers.  The long overdue trade (which also included starter John Snyder) brought Cal Eldred to the Sox rotation and, most significantly, veteran shortstop Jose Valentin.  Finally, Mike Caruso would have true competition for his starting shortstop's position on the Sox roster.  Manuel immediately named Valentin the favorite to be opening day shortstop.  Not surprisingly, the manager was right.

Caruso was sent to Triple-A Charlotte, presumably to develop some power in his bat and throwing arm, and cut down on his defensive errors.  Instead the whole season was a disaster.

His average dropped even lower, now just .246 facing minor league pitchers.  In 309 at-bats he managed just 16 extra-base hits.  For a hitter with no power, he still managed just a .301 OBP.  He committed 16 errors in 88 games which included a failed experiment playing secondbase.  The Sox were tacitly admitting Caruso would never have the arm strength to be a major league shortstop.

Perhaps mercifully, Caruso's season ended with him on the DL and back home in Florida.  Meanwhile Jose Valentin was making everyone forget who last year's Sox shortstop was.  Pitcher Jim Parque was the most vocal, likening the shortstop situation this year versus last year as "the difference between a boy and a man."

Jerry Reinsdorf took his best shot at revising history last September when he stood inside the Sox' 2000 division-clinching clubhouse and proclaimed the 1997 White Flag trade a success proving his critics wrong.  He failed to note that it was Mike Caruso who was supposedly the centerpiece to this trade.  He was the first of the six minor leaguers acquired from San Francisco to make an appearance with the Sox.  Ron Schueler shrugged off the salary demands of incumbent Ozzie Guillen to make room on the roster for the expected long-term future shortstop.  Caruso beat Benji Gil for the 1998 opening day shortstop position.  This presumably proved what a great trade the Sox had made the previous July, flushing away the last hope at a playoff run.

Caruso was being promoted straight from A-ball to the Sox starting shortstop position.  But after one season of success, this "centerpiece" to the White Flag trade was being pushed to the margins.  Today Keith Foulke, Bob Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo, and Ken Vining are that controversial trade's "centerpieces".  Perhaps so, but that's not what angry Sox fans were told in 1997 or 1998.

Mike Caruso is a victim of front office politics and wrong-headed thinking.  Now he faces an uncertain future.  We Sox fans never thought too much of him, but certainly he deserved a better fate.  


George Bova is editor and founder of White Sox Interactive.  You can write George at george@whitesoxinteractive.com

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