A story of unrealized potential... - Paul Reda
The rise and fall of one of the most talented Sox teams of all time.
The history of the White Sox is one long list of "What if?" questions.
"What if they didn't throw the 1919 World Series?"
"What if they didn't trade Norm Cash in 1960?"
"What if the Sox moved to Addison/the South Loop/Tampa?"
Today, we'll answer the question that's been bothering me for 15 years:
"What if the 1990s White Sox lived up to their potential?"
The late 1980s White Sox were terrible. But they did a great job in the draft. From 1987 to 1990, the Sox drafted Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, Frank Thomas, and Alex Fernandez. The Harold Baines trade in 1989 brought back Wilson Alvarez and Sammy Sosa. That is a core of young talent that is worthy of the Tampa Bay Rays.
That group of young players immediately pulled the Sox out of the late '80s doldrums and into the running for the title of team of the '90s. The Sox were going to dominate the decade.
For a couple of years, it looked like that prediction was about to come true. The Sox came out of nowhere to win 94 games in 1990. They won the AL West in 1993, and were on the verge of a second consecutive post-season appearance when the players went on strike on Aug. 12, 1994. When a judge ended the strike in 1995, the Sox were expected to pick up where they left off.
It didn't happen.
The Sox showed flashes of potential in 1996, but .500 records in 1997 and 1998 led to the youth movement of 1999. By that time, the Cleveland Indians were the "team of the decade."
....at least in the AL Central.
I want to know what happened.
Jack McDowell was the anchor of the White Sox pitching staff from 1990 through 1994. He won the AL Cy Young award in 1993. Black Jack was not as good in '94, but it didn't matter. Fernandez, Alvarez, and Jason Bere were as good, if not better.
McDowell was a great pitcher, but he had a terrible relationship with the Sox brass. Salary negotiations always resulted in hurt feelings, and he had a tendency to hold a grudge. Plus, the team was concerned about his off-field exploits. While hanging out with Pearl Jam in New Orleans, he got into a fight with a bar bouncer. His band played a gig on the north side one afternoon, and hours later he was lit up at Comiskey Park.
But, he didn't allow the bad feelings to linger into the clubhouse. He was the leader of a young pitching staff.
Once the 1994 season was canceled in September, it was obvious that McDowell was not going to be re-signed for 1995. On Dec. 15, 1994, McDowell was traded to the Yankees. As the Tribune reported at the time:
"Giving up on the possibility of signing the free-agent pitcher, the Sox traded McDowell for left-hander Keith Heberling, 22, who spent last season at Class A Tampa and Double-A Albany. There were no clues as to the identity of the third player in the deal, although a report out of New York mentioned Yankee slugger Danny Tartabull. Tartabull, however, carries a $5-million annual salary, a price the Sox likely would find unattractive."
The PTBNL was Lyle Mouton.
GM Ron Schueler also said he didn't talk to McDowell for weeks before the trade.
"Schueler said he hadn't had any recent talks with McDowell but was convinced from past experience that nothing could be done to bring a mutually happy ending to what long has been a rocky relationship. McDowell went through three consecutive bitter arbitration hearings with the Sox after the two sides failed twice to reach agreement on the long-term contract McDowell had sought."
The Sox pitching staff faltered without a leader and a clear Number One starter. The pitching fell apart in '95. Alvarez and Bere fell off the table that year. Only Fernandez and Jim Abbott showed flashes of the pitching staff of old.
Lack of Supporting Cast
Name the best right-handed hitters of the past 20 years: Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Frank Thomas. All five have World Series rings. Two have multiple World Series rings. Four have played in the World Series.
Frank Thomas should have multiple World Series rings. At the very least, he should have multiple World Series appearances. His lone WS ring comes from 2005, a year that ended with an injury in July.
Manny had Jim Thome in Cleveland, and David Ortiz on Boston. In Seattle, Alex Rodriguez had Ken Griffey, Jr. and Edgar Martinez. In New York, A-Rod had Derek Jeter, Jason Giambi, and Mark Teixeria. Miguel Cabrera had Derrek Lee, Pudge Rodriquez, and Prince Fielder.
The White Sox were best when Frank Thomas and Robin Ventura had complementary players. In 1993, the Sox lineup included Tim Raines, Ellis Burks, and Bo Jackson. Thomas had one of the finest seasons of his career in 1994, thanks to the lineup protection provided by DH Julio Franco.
The Sox could not afford to bring back Franco and Right Fielder Darrin Jackson in 1995 (they lost money because of the strike, you see). Instead, the Sox rummaged through the bargain bin and found Chris Sabo and John Kruk. Sabo was released from the team on June 5. Kruk retired in July.
Imagine if the Sox paid the $550,000 necessary to sign Mickey Tettleton. Instead, he hit 32 homers and drove in 78 runs for the Texas Rangers.
The relationship between Gene Lamont and Ron Schueler was a strange one. Lamont made the playoffs in his second year on the job, and he was on the cusp of doing it again. Despite that clear record of success, Schueler was hesitant to re-sign Lamont once his contract expired on November 1, 1994.
Schueler did offer Lamont a one year deal, which he signed on Sept. 28. But the Tribune did note that the short contract was "hardly a strong vote of confidence for a manager who made the playoffs in 1993 and finished first in the American League Central Division again this season."
Lamont took the fall for the slow start in 1995. He was fired in June, following an 11-20 start. His replacement was Terry Bevington, the third base coach who spent years in the White Sox system.
Bevington posted a .500 record the rest of the way, and Schueler rewarded Bevington by giving him the job in 1996. Despite an 85-77 record, Jerry Reinsdorf wanted Jim Leyland to take over the club in 1997. Despite a "blockbuster" offer (per the Sun-Times), Leyland went to the Marlins. Bevington got a two-year deal.
The White Sox opened up the checkbook in the 1996 offseason, signing Albert Belle and Jaime Navarro.
A funny thing happened on the way to signing Navarro. Roger Clemens expressed interest in playing for the White Sox. But Schueler had concerns about Clemens' durability - the scouts thought he would have arm problems. Clemens went on to win the Cy Young award the next two years ... for the Toronto Blue Jays.
Given the expectations, the 1997 season was a disaster. Robin Ventura destroyed his ankle in Spring Training. Jaime Navarro and Albert Belle started off the season in tremendous slumps. By May 19, the Sox were 10-19 and Bevington's job was on the line. The 1997 season ended with the White Flag trade and Bevington out of a job.
Tribune columnist Gene Wojciechowski's obituary of the Bevington era was brutal:
Bevington was a loyal company man with an impressive minor-league managing record. That's fine for Triple A, but it wasn't enough to hide his flaws on the major-league level.
Bevington couldn't have inspired a pig to roll in slop. He was a company man, but also a yes man for Schueler. That's partly why he lost coaches (Doug Rader), lost respect (players wouldn't share the team bus with him), lost games and eventually lost his job...
Bevington had zero communications skills--with the media, his coaches, his players. He allowed Albert Belle to have a traveling entourage but then kicked Ozzie Guillen's kids out of the clubhouse. He made pitching changes without having a pitcher warming up in the bullpen. He argued calls that favored the White Sox. He was as cuddly as a cactus.
His mistakes were the talk of opposing clubhouses. Texas Rangers coaches still can't believe he issued the first-ever intentional walk to Tom Goodwin, whose free pass meant later having to pitch to Rusty Greer, who hit a grand slam.
For a moment, imagine what Jim Leyland could have done with Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura, and Albert Belle.
...and maybe Roger Clemens.
Larry Himes created the building blocks of the 1990's White Sox. But he was not around to take the team to the next level. He was fired after the 1990 season and replaced by Ron Schueler.
Nearly all of the previous mistakes can be traced to Schueler. He was the one who didn't find the right free agents to complement his home-grown stars. He was the one who contributed to the poisonous atmosphere around Jack McDowell. He was the one who stuck with Terry Bevington. He was the one who signed Jaime Navarro over Roger Clemens (who WANTED TO PLAY IN CHICAGO!!!!!) He was the one who drove Jim Leyland to the Marlins, despite the superior financial offer from the White Sox (the treatment of Leyland's friend Gene Lamont played a big role in Leyland passing on the White Sox). After Ventura was hurt in 1997, he went with Chris Snopek instead of trading for an experienced infielder.
To top it all off, the White Sox had years of bad drafts. No one can be expected to come up with the draft winning streak of 1987-1990. But after that, the minor league system didn't offer much help. There was no in-house talent to replace Jack McDowell, Alex Fernandez, and the players dealt in August of 1997.
The White Sox had the talent to be Atlanta Braves ... or the Cleveland Indians. Instead, they were the White Sox.
Yes, he did build the team that won the AL Central in 2000, but the road to that championship was long, painful, and unnecessary.
The missteps had far reaching implications. For example, Comiskey Park was one of the hottest tickets in the American League from 1991-1994. The Sox were near the top of the American League in attendance. The strike, combined with the bad year of 1995 kicked off an attendance drought that wouldn't be fixed until 2006.
By then, the ballpark had a new name and a new look. The team spent millions trying to chase fans that had simply disappeared.