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

The “White Flag Trade” revisited, 25 years and counting

Robert Hernandez rejected a short an insulting contract extension offer, which put him on the chopping block as a headliner of 1997’s White Flag Trade.

On the morning of Aug. 1, 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 almost unprecedented in the history of Major League Baseball: They traded away the guts of their pitching staff while only 3½ games out of first place in the Central Division.

Other teams, including the San Diego Padres, had “fire sales” in the past. In fact, San Diego got rid of players like Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Bruce Hurst and Tony Fernandez. Of course, at the time the Padres were 28-44, well out of contention in the National League West in 1993.

No, what the White Sox did had never happened before.

In general, Sox fans were divided into two camps … those who were outraged at the blatant surrender by owner Jerry Reinsdorf, and those who felt this was a wise move.

Those “wise move” fans argued that even though the Sox were only 3½ games off the lead and that first-place Cleveland had lost 10 of their previous 14 games, the Sox just 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 mantra.

This story is going to take a comprehensive look back at the “White Flag/Surrender” trade, looking at the players the Sox received and their impact, the players the Giants got, and what happened to those two franchises in the short term immediately after the deal.

We’re also going to look at something that has often been overlooked when discussing the trade: What impact it had on the Sox from both a local and national standpoint in terms of public relations, fan reaction/perception and media coverage.

The genesis of the deal actually took place the year before. As the 1996 season rolled along, the Sox started to lose their grip on the divisional lead and the wild-card chase. They started that year 40-21 and were giving fits to highly-touted Cleveland. They had one of the best four-man starting rotations in the league with Alex Fernandez, Kevin Tapani, Wilson Alvarez and James Baldwin. But the fifth starter sport was horrible, featuring the likes of Luis Andujar, Jason Bere, Mike Bertotti, Marvin Freeman, Joe Magrane, Kirk McCaskill, Scott Ruffcorn and a very young Mike Sirotka; those guys went 9-16 combined. The bullpen was even worse, setting a record for the time for most blown saves. That bullpen had players in it like Matt Karchner, Al Levine and Larry Thomas. Outside of Roberto Hernandez (38 saves in 1996), it was a mess.

The best the Sox could (or would) do that August was get Tony Castillo from the Blue Jays for Andujar. That didn’t sit well with the players, as both Hernandez and Tony Phillips vented their frustrations the following week to The Sporting News. Hernandez said that ever since he was with the club, the Sox never really did anything to 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 title as long as the park was full of fans.

The 1996 season ended with the Sox finishing in second place, out of the playoffs, with a record of 85-77.

During the offseason Reinsdorf shocked the baseball world by signing Albert Belle to the largest deal in history. Other owners and Chicago Sun-Times columnist Jay Mariotti felt Reinsdorf was deliberately sticking it to the owners for settling the 1994-95 labor impasse on terms he did not agree with. Reinsdorf himself was quoted as saying that if the owners weren’t going to look out for the sport, he was going to look out for his own team.

Sox fans, though, didn’t care about Reinsdorf’s reasons — they were just salivating over the prospect of having Belle in the same lineup as Frank Thomas, Robin Ventura and Harold Baines. It looked like a new “Murderers Row” was forming on the South Side.

The Sox didn’t have the strongest pitching staff, after losing both Fernandez and Tapani, but it was expected that the offense would be able to overcome that problem area.

Unfortunately, that plan blew apart on March 21 when Ventura’s spikes caught in the mud around home plate as he was sliding in a spring training game against the Red Sox. He fractured and dislocated his ankle in a grotesque injury so bad that a bone was sticking out through the skin; a woman in the first row of seats fainted, and Ventura’s wife became hysterical as she was led down to the field.

General Manager Ron Schueler was quoted in the newspapers the next day saying the Sox would be looking for a left-handed bat that could play third base, but for whatever reason the Sox did nothing to fill the void and the team opened the season sleepwalking. On May 3, they were 8-18. The fans were upset, not so much at the play as the lack of front office activity to try to solve the problem.

Meanwhile Ventura vowed to be back, and worked like a demon in his rehab in an effort to return to try to salvage something out of the year. On July 24, he came back and won the game against Texas with an RBI double in the eighth inning. Almost 26,000 fans went wild, and the new Comiskey Park was electric.

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

At the press conference announcing the signing of Belle the previous November Reinsdorf said he was going for it, meaning a championship. Only seven months later and four months into the season, though he had enough.

On July 31, according to Schueler, Reinsdorf called Scott Boras (Hernandez’s agent) to see one final time if a contract extension could be reached. Boras said it would have to be at least for four years. Schueler told the Chicago Tribune that at that point, he knew he’d have to make a trade because the Sox would not offer pitchers that long of a deal. (Ironically, after accusing Tapani of faking a hand injury and rebuffing the efforts of Roger Clemens’ agents to have him join the White Sox saying Clemens was “over the hill,” Schueler signed Jamie Navarro to a four-year $20 million deal.)

Navarro was an unmitigated disaster. At the time of the Giants trade, he was 8-9 with a high ERA and a disruptive clubhouse presence.

When the White Flag trade was finalized, Schueler said he was sad for a moment because of the players he traded — but he also thought he got a lot of quality back in return.

Reinsdorf then had this to say to the Tribune:

It’s obvious we’re disappointed with the way our ballclub played this year, with our record … no question about it. We were faced with losing Hernandez and Alvarez 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 SIngle-A San Jose, and righthander Lorenzo Barcelo, who was 7-4 at Double-A Shreveport. The Sox also got Double-A closer Bob Howry, Single-A lefty Ken Vining, Single-A outfielder Brian Manning and righthander Keith Foulke (who split time as a starter between Triple-A Phoenix and the Giants, where he was 1-5). Other than Barcelo, signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic, they were all picked in the first nine rounds of the draft, between 1994 and 1996.

For the Sox, especially Ventura, the treade was extremely disappointing. Asked if a white flag should be flying over the Sox dugout, Ventura said to the 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 now you can’t.” Ventura added, “You’ll never know what could have happened.” Later in the week he said, “I didn’t know the season ended in August.”

Reinsdorf looked at it differently, telling Phil Rogers of the 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 was overlooking the devastating Ventura injury and how it impacted the team on the field and in the clubhouse, and his own front office’s inability to compensate for the injury via trade.

The Sox ended 1997 with a record of 80-81. They went 27-28 after the trade.

As far as the players received, here’s how they fared with the Sox:

Mike Caruso had a brilliant 1998, finishing third in the Rookie of the Year voting. He hit .306 with 22 stolen bases and 55 RBIs, legging out numerous infield hits. Defensively he made 35 errors, which led the league, and raised some questions about his ability to do small things correctly on the field.

The 1999 season was a mixed bag. Caruso’s batting average dropped to .250, but he recorded 35 infield hits and was the hardest player to strike out in the league. His errors dropped to 24, and he hit a game-winning, two-run home run to beat the Cubs on June 13. But his attitude was becoming an issue. Manager Jerry Manuel felt Caruso was out of shape, and even questioned his thinking ability in the field.

By 2000, Caruso was out of the starting lineup in favor of Jose Valentin. The Sox tried trading him to Seattle (the deal was nullified because Caruso was injured at the time) before releasing him.

Lorenzo Barcelo suffered extensive injuries to his pitching arm, which caused him to miss most of the 1998 and 1999 minor league seasons. He was 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 2002 with the Sox but was soon sent back to Triple-A where he suffered yet another arm injury and ended his career.

Bob Howry in 1998 led all AL rookies with nine saves, along with a 3.15 ERA, in 44 games. In 1999 he appeared in 69 games, saving 28, winning five and posting a 3.59 ERA. The 2000 season saw his role change to setup man, and he was effective again with seven saves, two wins and a 3.17 ERA. His 2001, though, saw a drop in velocity, and his ERA shot up to 4.69. In 2002 he was hammered in spring training, and was traded to Boston at the deadline. Howry pitched for another nine years, with four other teams. As the years went by, Howry was often a vocal critic of the Sox organization and their fan base.

Keith Foulke turned out to be the savior of the deal after the collapse of Caruso and injuries to Barcelo. Foulke had 34 saves in 2000 and 42 in 2001. He possessed a changeup that was almost unhittable when he was going well.

In 2002, however, manager Jerry Manuel seemed to lose faith in him after a series of blown saves. Because he would become a free agent after the 2003 season GM Ken Williams traded him to Oakland in the ill-fated Billy Koch deal. Foulke immediately regained his old form in 2003, leading the AL with 43 saves and a 2.03 ERA, and was signed by the Red Sox as a free agent to lead them to a World Series title in 2004.

Ken Vining got into eight games for the Sox in 2001, pitching six-plus innings with an ERA of almost 18.00, while Brian Manning never appeared in the majors.

Overall, the players the Sox got back had some impact, particularly in the 2000 season when they won the Central Division, but none of them reached the ceiling that Reinsdorf dreamed on — at least not when they were in the organization.

For various reasons (injuries, bad luck, bad attitudes), none of the players acquired in the deal even made the All-Star team while in a Sox uniform.

Looking at the Giants; while they didn’t re-sign Alvarez or Hernandez and Darwin retired, they did get additional draft picks when the first two signed with Tampa Bay. More importantly, though, the Giants organization showed their players and fans they were serious about contending and winning, regardless of risk. In second baseman Jeff Kent’s eyes, it made San Francisco look like an up-and-coming organization.

San Francisco did make the playoffs in 1997 (losing to the eventual World Series champion Marlins), just missed the postseason in 1998 (losing to the Cubs in a one-game playoff), made the playoffs again in 1999 (losing to the Mets) and then made it to the World Series in 2002 (losing in seven games to the Angels). Then, of course, San Francisco went on their historic run in the 2010s, winning the World Series three times.

Also having to be factored in was the positive publicity the trade generated in 1997, and the subsequent success of the franchise finally got the city and the state to give the go-ahead on a new stadium to replace Candlestick Park. Then-owner Peter McGowan pledged his own money to help get the stadium built, and it became one of the showcase ballparks in baseball. This, after years of failed attempts by multiple Giants owners to get a new stadium built.

One final area needs to be examined when evaluating the deal, and that’s the impact it had on the organization, Sox fans, and the media — both locally and nationally.

The afternoon of the deal I got a call from a friend who was an executive producer at the One-On-One Sports radio network, which eventually became The Sporting News radio network. He asked if I’d go on with the host Peter Brown to talk about the deal from a Sox fan’s point of view.

The first words out of Peter’s mouth were, “Mark, I feel your pain.”

The points I tried to make during the interview were that the deal set a bad example and would be catastrophic to the team from a public relations standpoint. I also talked about how parents always told their kids not to give up, you can do anything if you set your mind to it. Now you’ve got a baseball owner saying just the opposite with his team only 3½ games off the lead.

The night of the deal, ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” had an expanded trade deadline edition. They spent a lot of that time talking about the trade.

Among the contributors were host Karl Ravech, Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan and former MLB infielder Dave Campbell, who also was part of the Colorado Rockies broadcasting crew at that time.

Morgan in particular was angry at what the Sox had done. He condemned in the strongest possible terms what the Sox did as setting a bad example: “I really feel sorry for Sox fans, and especially the season ticket holders. They paid money to see a major league-caliber team out on the field.”

Campbell agreed, and asked what type of example this set for fans of all teams.

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

The Sox would take an unprecedented hit nationally, and locally the media was absolutely brutal — with good reason.

Even mild-mannered columnists like Bob Verdi wrote in the August 5 edition of the 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 II or sells the franchise, probably the later.

In a year when Reinsdorf paid $56 million for nothing, he clings to a pay-for- performance ideal that makes him the envy of 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 the Dodgers or the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Bernie Lincicome chipped in with this in his August 3 column in the Tribune:

How refreshing if true, that the surrender of the 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 fans filled up Comiskey Park II that bunch was much more gloomy and unlikeable 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 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, 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 then have it bitten off next offseason. There is no reason to have a flawed Jaime Navarro if some consideration had been given to a perfectly fine Alex Fernandez, as likable as player as there is this side of Ozzie Guillén.

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 Sox fans like the one that is no longer here much better.”

Alvarez had some particularly telling comments to Paul Sullivan of the Tribune in the August 8 issue of the newspaper: “As far as I know, they never did try to sign anyone from the organization. They did it to Jack [McDowell]. The did it to Alex [Fernandez]. I have nothing against my ex-teammates. I miss those guys. But it’s different. This team [San Francisco] wants to win, wants to play, wants to give one hundred per cent. I know there’s a few guys on the Sox who aren’t happy.

I had a long interview with Jack McDowell, and he confirmed Alvarez’s assumptions about him:

“Fans don’t know this, but not only was I never offered a multi-year contract, I was never even offered a one-year deal! The Sox just automatically took me right to arbitration three years in a row; they just didn’t negotiate with me. Did that piss me off? Yes. Should I have said some of the things that I did to the media? Probably not. I didn’t play the game as far as the team image was concerned, but I was just telling the truth about what was going on.”

Sullivan then ended 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.

The Sox were getting roasted on all sides, locally and nationally. Attendance was almost 1.9 million in 1997; it dropped down to 1.4 million by the end of the 1999 season. Even a spectacular 2000 season couldn’t remove the stigma from many fans’ minds, that the 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 weren’t able to help a beat-up pitching staff at the trade deadline in 2000 and because of all the offseason surgeries they were barely better than .500 in 2001.

From a players’ standpoint, what the Sox did was unforgivable, and reverberated across the landscape. Cliff Floyd for example, a good player in his career was traded in 2001 to the soon-to-be-moved Montreal Expos. Floyd is from Chicago, and a feature on him in The Sporting News said he grew up a Sox fan and his favorite player was Harold Baines. Yet an Associated Press story during his trade rumors said Floyd listed the White Sox as one of six teams he would not approve a deal to.

Paul Konerko had a quote in the Tribune during the All-Star break in 2002 that also gave pause for thought. When he was asked if the Sox had to start winning that season or else, he said, “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’s no question about it.” The Sox in 2002 finished exactly at .500, with a record of 81-81.

And how about all the talent that Reinsdorf said the Sox were getting?

The Sporting News in July 2002 ranked the Top 50 players in baseball based on comments from GMs around the league; this was five years after the deal. The Sox then had one player listed, Magglio Ordoñez at No. 42, and he of course was a homegrown talent. By comparison the Expos, soon to be relocated, had four players in the Top 50.

So, should the Sox have made the deal? Given that history showed the trade only helped lead to one division title (2000) and an early playoff exit as opposed to the financial and attendance hit the team took over the next few years, to say nothing of the intense media backlash, the answer is no. Opportunities for the White Sox to even get to the postseason are rare enough, at the time of the deal the Sox were only 3½ games back.

You don’t take a chance like that and flush it right down the toilet, which is exactly what the White Sox did.

The White Flag Trade wasn’t as bad as the Black Sox or Disco Demolition … but it was close.


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