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The Curse of the White Flag

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White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf would like to rewrite history. On July 31, 1997, he gave up three of his best pitchers for six prospects, even though the White Sox were just 3 1/2 games out of first place. At the time he was reviled for calling it quits with more than two months left to go in the season. In his famous insult to fans, he said, "Anyone who thinks this White Sox team will catch Cleveland is crazy."

This August Reinsdorf contended the white-flag trade has made the team what it is today. "The guys that we traded have done very little since we traded them," he told the Sun-Times, "and the young players that we acquired have become the backbone of this team."

He's not the only one promoting the white-flag trade. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel published a story with the headline "Road to success starts with '97 trades." The Dallas Morning News said the white-flag trade was "providing a red carpet to this year's playoffs." USA Today recently named the Sox the Organization of the Year: "The White Sox started it all in July 1997 with the so-called white-flag trade."

While the Sox acquired Keith Foulke, Bob Howry, and Lorenzo Barcelo--who have a combined nine wins and 40 saves this season--the players received in the white-flag trade certainly don't comprise the "backbone of this team."

Brian Manning has been released, Ken Vining is 1-5 in AA ball, and Mike Caruso has been banished to the minors. The traded Roberto Hernandez is now playing for the horrid Tampa Bay Devil Rays, where he nevertheless has four wins and 31 saves all by himself, with a 2.82 ERA. He's racked up 105 saves since the deal.

If you consider that Harold Baines was hitting .305 with 12 home runs and 52 RBIs when the Sox traded him just before waving the white flag (in return the team got Juan Bautista, who's now out of baseball), you'd have to be crazy to think they didn't have a chance at catching Cleveland.

The white-flag trade simply doesn't account for the the Sox turnaround. It hasn't been responsible for the success of Magglio Ordonez, Carlos Lee, Paul Konerko, Ray Durham, and Mike Sirotka, who has the third best ERA in the American League. And it hasn't contributed to the revival of Frank Thomas. If the trade hadn't happened--and the Sox had kept Hernandez--who's to say the team wouldn't be in the same place?

Giving up is always a bad idea--the white flag demoralized both the fans and the players. Maybe that accounts for the empty seats at Comiskey Park.

The other side of the white-flag trade hasn't exactly suffered. The San Franscisco Giants have been in the running every year and this season are the champs of the National League West. Though the Sox have clinched their division with the best record in the American League, they won't win a pennant because of the white flag. Their problem? Turns out they're short of pitching.

--Steve Rhodes

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Carl Kock.

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