The White Sox finally caught the car.
The signing of Jose Abreu is unfamiliar territory for White Sox fans: that of landing a highly desirable free agent.
Normally, the Sox either swing and miss (Alex Rodriguez in 2001) or get stiffed (Torii Hunter in 2008). The team usually signs mid-tier free agents. Sometimes, the low-risk/low-reward moves become franchise cornerstones (Jermaine Dye and AJ Pierzynski come to mind).
Some Sox fans will approach the Abreu news with apprehension. Too much money + too much hype = disappointment. Let's look back on some of the "big fish" that were signed during the Jerry Reinsdorf era.
Signed: March 18, 1981
Circumstances: Carlton Fisk became a free agent ... because of a mailing error. Red Sox ownership mailed Fisk his new contract after the old one expired. Boston did make Fisk a new offer: $1.5 million dollars with an extra million's worth of incentives. Eddie Einhorn and Jerry Reinsdorf, newly minted White Sox owners, entered the Fisk sweepstakes and landed the catcher with a five year, $3.5 million contract. They beat five other teams and gained instant credibility with White Sox fans.
Result: Fisk is a legend. His number was retired by the White Sox. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2000. So it's pretty easy to say that this deal worked out and then some. Today, baseball pundits would rip a team that gave a big money deal to a 33-year-old catcher, but Fisk earned his money over the course of that initial contract. The best year of that deal was 1983, when he posted a slash line of .289/.355/.518
Signed: March 30, 1981
Circumstances: Here's something I didn't know: Greg Luzinski was acquired by the White Sox the same day as the assassination attempt on President Reagan.
The Bull wasn't a free agent, per se. The Sox simply purchased his contract. The Phillies tried to trade Luzinski during the 1980-81 offseason, but Philadelphia GM Paul Owens said the trade offers weren't to his liking. In the end, the Sox ended up buying the Chicago-area native for $150,000. He was happy to be playing for a likely contender in his home town. He ended up signing a three-year, $2.25 million deal in 1982.
Result: Great - for the most part. Luzinski posted an .800 OPS from 1981-83. In 1983, he hit 32 home runs and drove in 95. He went into a major slump in 1984, which prompted him to retire from baseball.
Signed: December 13, 1982
Circumstances: The AL strikeout leader in 1982, Bannister was at the top of that year's free agent pitching class. The White Sox outbid sixteen other clubs with a contract offer of five years and $4.5 million. Reinsdorf enlisted Carlton Fisk and Tom Paciorek in the recruiting effort. Wimpy told Bannister that Comiskey was a terrible hitters' park.
Bannister's signing also touched off a war of words between Reinsdorf and George Steinbrenner that would continue for several decades.
Reinsdorf went out of his way to mention that Bannister had picked Chicago despite the superior financial offer from the Yankees. The Sox ownership was angry at the Yankees for signing outfielder Steve Kemp to an expensive deal. Jerry saw the Bannister signing as revenge.
"I watched those two pumpkins on TV (Reinsdorf and Einhorn), and they can say all they want, but the fact that is that's going to prove to be the most lucrative contract ever given a pitcher," Steinbrenner said. The Yankee owner later called the Sox owners "The Katzenjammer Twins" and expressed regret for voting to approve their purchase of the White Sox.
For his remarks, MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn fined Steinbrenner $5,000.
Result: The move paid immediate dividends. Bannister was added to a home-grown pitching rotation that included LaMarr Hoyt, Britt Burns, and Richard Dotson. Bannister won every game in the second half of '83 (I know, wins are a misleading stat, but it was a big deal 30 years ago). He pitched 217 innings with 193 strikeouts and an ERA+ of 125. 1984 and '85 weren't nearly as kind. But he was able to return to his old self in '86 and '87.
Signed: November 19, 1996
Here's trivia question material - Belle's emergence in 1991 meant the end of Ron Kittle's tenure as a member of the Cleveland Indians. Kitty was released just before Opening Day.
Jerry Reinsdorf led the charge against excessive player salaries during the strike in 1994. So imagine everyone's surprise when that very same Jerry Reinsdorf decided to sign Albert Belle to the richest contract in baseball history - five years and $50 million, with a bizarre clause that Belle had to always be one of the three highest paid players in baseball.
Result: Disappointing. Belle delivered two seasons that, on the surface, looked great. He was an All-Star in 1997, and the set franchise records for home runs and RBI in 1998. He left the Sox following 1998, when the team refused to give him a raise that would allow him to remain one of the highest paid players in the game.
Signed: December 11, 1996
Circumstances: Alex Fernandez left to sign a free agent deal with the Florida Marlins. Roger Clemens, a free agent after 10 years in Boston, wanted to relocate to Chicago. GM Ron Schueler had his eye on Navarro, who was pitching for the Cubs. I'll let the Tribune tell the rest of the story:
But the general manager and his scouts had fixated on Navarro, who had gone 29-18 over the last two seasons with the Cubs. While Clemens is a three-time Cy Young Award winner, he hasn't won more than 11 games since 1992.
"We talked to our scouts about him," Schueler said of Clemens. "They did not want him for even a three-year deal. They felt like there is a danger he's going to have arm problems. The worst thing with a pitcher is if you have to pay him and he's not helping you at all. There were just too many mixed feelings for me to give him a three- or four-year deal."
Result: An unmitigated disaster. The Jaime Navarro experience was so bad, the White Sox franchise decided against signing pitchers for longer than three years. He was flipped to the Brewers in 2000 for Jose Valentin and Cal Eldred.
Signed: December 3, 2010
Circumstances: In August of 2009, Jim Thome was claimed on waivers by the Dodgers. For the non-contending White Sox, it gave Thome a chance to win a World Series with a very good Dodger team. Even though Thome wanted to return to the White Sox in 2010, the Sox decided to go in a different direction. Instead of a dedicated DH, the team would devote that spot in the batting order to players who needed a break from the field.
The decision would have far-reaching consequences. It cost the White Sox the chance to make the playoffs in 2010. It destroyed the relationship between Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams. It also led to the decision to sign Adam Dunn.
On the surface, the signing made a ton of sense. The Sox needed a DH, and Dunn was the best available by a country mile. The Sox won 88 games in 2010. With Dunn in the lineup, the Sox were a sure bet for 90 wins.
Result: Dunn's trials and tribulations in a White Sox uniform have been well-documented. It didn't work.
New broke of the Dunn signing on a Thursday. Ron Santo died early the next morning. Adam Dunn would have been the lead sports story. Instead, he was an afterthought as the media and Cub fans mourned the legendary player and broadcaster. Dunn's White Sox career started in a strange place and never left.
One common thread between all of the FA signings is the fact that they allowed White Sox fans to dream of the good things were sure to come. On Christmas Day, 1996, I would imagine more than a few White Sox fans were looking forward to Albert Belle and Jaime Navarro winning a World Series for Terry Bevington in 1997. When the Sox signed Adam Dunn, I told my fiancée to be ready for the possibility of a White Sox playoff game taking place on our wedding day in October of 2011.
By July, it was obvious that wasn't going to happen.
So, until reality intervenes, I'm going to spend the winter imagining Jose Abreu driving the baseball into the Miller Lite stand on the left field concourse.