The 1997 season was supposed to be a big one for the Chicago White Sox, who were coming off a second-place finish and only three years removed from a division championship. The 1996-97 offseason seemed to indicate that Chicago was in go-for-it mode: the Sox made free agent slugger Albert Belle the highest paid player in baseball, with a five-year, $55 million deal.
Adding him to a lineup featuring two-time MVP Frank Thomas (1.085 OPS in 1996), Harold Baines (.902) and Robin Ventura (.888) gave the South Siders a formidable offensive punch. Chicago also added pitching, signing free agent Jaime Navarro to a four-year, $20 million contract.
But the Sox didn’t even make it to Opening Day before suffering a huge blow: Ventura broke and dislocated his right ankle in a spring training game and would be miss the first 99 games of the season. When he returned to the lineup on July 24, the Sox beat the Rangers, 2-1 to move just 3.5 games back of Cleveland in the AL Central. But despite still appearing to be in contention, the team started selling off assets.
First, the Sox dealt Baines to the Orioles for a player to be named later on July 29. Though Baines was having another terrific year at the plate (.857 OPS), he was 38 years old and a free agent at the end of the year. The move allowed more lineup flexibility, and gave Belle and Thomas a chance to stay fresh by splitting DH duties.
Two days later came the stunner. On July 31, the team dealt its best starting pitcher, Wilson Alvarez, closer Roberto Hernandez and swingman Danny Darwin to the San Francisco Giants for six minor league prospects. Dubbed “The White Flag Trade,” it rocked the baseball world.
It turned out the team performed the same after the trade than it did before: The Sox were 52-53 before the trade, and went 28-28 afterward, finishing in second place, six games out first. Fans had to wonder if the Sox could have made a run for the division with the team fully intact.
White Sox management assessed that the 1997 team as constructed was not good enough to win, and management may have had a point. Cleveland was in the middle of its championship window — the team won five division titles from 1995-1999, taking the pennant in two of those years. The 1997 Indians were two outs away from winning the World Series with a team boasting 25-year-old Manny Ramirez, 26-year-old Jim Thome and yes, even 24-year-old Bartolo Colon. White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf was famously quoted as saying “Anyone who thinks we can catch Cleveland is crazy.”
Alvarez and Hernandez were not likely to be retained by the team (both signed lucrative long-term contracts with the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays after the 1997 season) and Darwin was 41 years old. “We did our homework with the contracts,” Sox general manager Ron Schueler told the Chicago Tribune in 1998. “Wilson didn’t buy a home in Sarasota just for the sake of it. And Roberto wanted a four-year contract, which, with his medical history (shoulder), we felt like it was too much.
“Still the reaction surprised me. But unless you were out there evaluating talent, you were probably going to think that way.”
In the immediate aftermath of any blockbuster trade, we always want to know: Who won the trade? As is often the case, it’s hard to say for sure, even 20 years later.
When they made the trade with the White Sox, the Giants were in a dead heat with the Dodgers atop the NL West with
a 59-49 record, and three games behind the Florida Marlins in the NL Wild Card race. After making the swap, the Giants went 31-23, finishing two games ahead of the Dodgers in the division. The Giants clinched on the next-to-last day of the season, getting seven innings of two-hit shutout work from Alvarez to advance to the playoffs under Dusty Baker for the first time.
The Giants’ postseason experience didn’t last long; they were swept 3-0 by the eventual World Series champion Marlins. Hernandez gave up walk-off singles in both Games One and Two; Alvarez started Game Three and was nursing a 1-0 lead until he gave up a grand slam to Devon White in the sixth. Hernandez was charged with the other two runs in the 6-2 Marlins clincher. Darwin did not make a postseason appearance.
As for the White Sox, only two of the six prospects became regular contributors to the big league club: Keith Foulke and Bob Howry. Foulke spent parts of six seasons in Chicago, saving 100 games. His best season came in 1999 when he had a 2.22 ERA in 105.1 innings pitched, finishing 10th in AL Cy Young Award voting. He would be traded to Oakland following the 2002 season in a deal that netted the White Sox Neal Cotts. Cotts would go on to be a key contributor out of the bullpen for the 2005 White Sox team that won the World Series. Foulke also would go on to World Series glory, saving Game Four of the 2004 World Series to help the Red Sox snap an 85-year World Series drought.
Howry pitched parts of five seasons with the South Siders, amassing a 3.74 ERA and 49 saves before being traded to the Red Sox (in another July 31 trade) in 2002. Howry would go on to pitch for five more teams over a 13-year career as a reliever.
Lorenzo Barcelo pitched in parts of three seasons for the Sox, compiling a 4.50 ERA in 43 appearances. Barcelo, Foulke and Howry all appeared in the Sox’s lone playoff appearance during their tenure with the team: the 2000 ALDS, where they were swept 3-0 by the Seattle Mariners.
The lone position player in the trade to make it to the big leagues, Mike Caruso, took over at shortstop when Ozzie Guillen left via free agency after the ’97 season. While Caruso would hit .306 in 133 games as a 21-year-old and finish third in Rookie of the Year voting in 1998, his success would be short-lived. He OPSed .577 in 136 games in 1999 and never played another game in a White Sox uniform. He appeared in 12 games for the Royals in 2002, but never played in organized baseball after that, his career over at the age of 25.
Ken Vining appeared in eight games for the White Sox in 2001, sporting a robust 17.55 ERA over 6.2 innings and never played another season in the bigs. Brian Manning never reached higher than Double-A, and was out of baseball by the end of 1999.
Howry recently told CSN Chicago he looked back fondly on the experience of coming to the White Sox as one of many new players:
It was great. You come in and you feel a lot more comfortable when you got a lot of young guys and you’re all coming up together and building together. It’s not like you’re walking into a primarily veteran clubhouse where you’re kind of having to duck and hide all the time. We had a great group of guys and we built together over a couple of years, and putting that together was a lot of fun.
The White Sox are undergoing a similar rebuild now, trading away more than a half-dozen major league assets over the last year for young talent; they now boast one of the top farm systems in the game. But anytime the trade deadline comes around, that infamous deal of ’97 isn’t too far from the minds of Sox faithful, who will always wonder if the white flag was raised prematurely for a team that was, for all intents and purposes, very much in the race in the American League Central.