July 29, 1989: The Rangers trade Sammy Sosa, Wilson Alvarez and Scott Fletcher to the Chicago White Sox for Harold Baines and Fred Manrique.
In 1986, Bobby Valentine’s first full season as manager of the Rangers was full of vows of a youth movement that would lead to successful baseball. The Rangers would win 87 games that year, but stumbled to lose 87 and 91 ballgames the following two seasons. But in April of 1989, the club got off to a start that had fans buzzing.
The team went 17-5 through the first month of the season and owned at least a share of first place in the seven team AL West for all but three days of the month. Even a 10-17 May didn't phase the momentum that seemed to have surrounded the club and the 27-22 record on June 1st stood as the club’s best mark at that point of the season eight years.
The youth movement that Valentine had so heralded upon his arrival had appeared to be coming into fruition. Twenty-three year old Ruben Sierra was on his way to finishing second in that year’s vote for Most Valuable Player and Rafael Palmeiro was growing into a solid contributor at first base. On the mound, Kevin Brown’s arm was becoming strong while a 24-year old Kenny Rogers brought an added boost to the bullpen.
The minor league system was looking just as strong, thanks in part to Assistant General Manager Sandy Johnson’s work in Latin America. Two of those highly touted youngsters would soon arrive in the big leagues: A 19-year old Venezuelan lefty named Wilson Alvarez and a young outfielder by the name of Sammy Sosa.
As the summer of 1989 rolled around, the Rangers were thinking playoffs. In late June, the club had gotten to within two games of first place Oakland. It was the closest the Rangers had been to first place this late in the season in quite some time, and it sent General Manager Tom Grieve on a mission to find the perfect veteran to plug into the middle of the lineup.
When everyday left fielder Pete Incaviglia suffered a neck strain mid-month, the Rangers were forced to make a move and chose to call up Sammy Sosa, who at the time was a member of Double-A Tulsa. It wasn’t an awe-inspiring major league debut for Sosa, who hit just .238 in 84 at-bats over the span of five weeks, but he connected for the first of what would be more than 600 big-league home runs, a solo shot off Boston's Roger Clemens on June 21.
About a month later, Texas summoned Wilson Alvarez from Tulsa to make a start in place of the injured Charlie Hough. What might have been a showcasing of talent for possible suitors turned out to be a regrettable appearance for both parties, as Alvarez faced five Blue Jays hitters and retired none of them, giving up a single, followed by back-to-back home runs, and then back-to-back walks.
The Rangers had some serious thinking to do on who they could deal for what they hoped would be the final piece of their playoff puzzle. One thing was for sure, it wouldn’t be Juan Gonzalez, who was destroying Double-A pitchers and was sure to be a part of the team for years to come. But the window to make a trade was closing.
On July 28, the club fell to seven games out of first in the division, the furthest out it had been all year. The downward spiral seemed to only elevate the club’s need for a true designated hitter. It was a role filled by a cast of characters following the retirement of Buddy Bell earlier in the season, featuring the likes of players such as Rick Leach, Jack Daughtery, and Jeff Stone, to name a few.
But one day later, a deal was finally struck.
The trading partner would be the Chicago White Sox and their General Manager, Larry Himes. By mid-July, the White Sox were buried in the American League West, over 20 games out of first place with no hope for the postseason anywhere on the horizon. Their roster was relatively young, with the exception of 41-year old catcher Carlton Fisk and designated hitter Harold Baines, who at age 30 was Chicago's only other regular not in his twenties. With a bad ballclub and a weak farm system, the White Sox had expressed an interest at getting even younger and had struck an accord with the Rangers.
Heading to Chicago were Sosa and Alvarez, along with Scott Fletcher – a sturdy infielder and the first million-dollar athlete in the Dallas/Fort Worth sports scene. They received Harold Baines, who had played with the White Sox since 1980 and developed a reputation for quiet toughness. He’d undergone arthroscopic on his right knee in 1986 and again a year later, but hadn’t played fewer than 132 games in a season since 1981. Baines also had the postseason experience Grieve and the Rangers were seeking. His sacrifice fly clinched the division title for the White Sox in 1983 and given the team its first baseball title since the 1950's. He was joined by Fred Manrique, a decent second baseman with a strong arm and good range.
The team stood at 55-46 before acquiring Baines. But despite his addition, things never did get much better for the Texas Rangers. After an 0-for-4 debut during a frustrating 8-2 loss to the Brewers, the new designated hitter collected three hits in his second night in town. He also cracked a two out homer in the ninth inning of a 4-3 victory over the Tigers. But not much else went right. The Rangers would lose seven of their first ten games after the trade and couldn’t compete with the A’s and their newest addition, speedster Rickey Henderson. Amazingly enough, the 83-79 record and fourth place finish represented the second-highest win total in the decade.
Harold Baines failed to make much of an impact with the Rangers during the waning months of the season. Although he hit for a respectable .285 average, Baines had just three home runs and 16 RBIs in 50 games with Texas (compared to a .321 average, 13 homers and 56 RBIs in 96 games with the White Sox).
The 1990 season was a slightly better one for Baines, who hit near .300 before the Rangers, who were 14 ½ games out of first place in late August, sent him to the Oakland for two players to be named later. It was an unceremonious departure for a player viewed as the final passenger on a playoff bound shuttle when he came to Arlington in 1989. Still, it cleared the way for Juan Gonzalez, who was immediately called up from the minors following the trade and remained their for the rest of his time in Texas.
Sosa lasted two and a half seasons with the White Sox before being sent to the Cubs in a 1992 deal for George Bell. While Texas floundered during their three playoff runs in 1996, 1998, and 1999, Sosa hit .291 in those same three years, with an average of 56 homers while the Cubs failed to reach the postseason.
Wilson Alvarez spent a year in the minors with the White Sox, trying to ease some nagging control issues. But in his return to the major leagues in 1991, his second start went much better than his first. Although he did issue five walks, Alvarez held the Orioles hitless and struck out seven en route to his first, and only, no-hitter. With 12 wins, he reached the All-Star Game in 1994 before slipping to a sub .500 record the following year. But Alvarez would rebound in a big way a year later, winning 15 games and striking out 181 during what would be his last full season in Chicago.
The sad truth is that by trading Sosa and Alvarez in 1989 rather than banking on Baines to help make a run at the postseason, it's possible that the Rangers' playoff years of 1996, 1998, and 1999 could have turned out much, much better.