Wednesday, July 27, 2005

Politicians often try to be comedians, so it was no surprise that GOP presidential nominee George W. Bush responded with a one-liner in the fall of 2000 when asked his biggest mistake as an adult.

“Well, I signed off on that wonderful transaction, Sammy Sosa for Harold Baines …,” Bush said, undoubtedly drawing a laugh from his audience.

Down in Texas Rangers country, though, it’s doubtful many folks were snickering. Sixteen years ago this week, on July29, 1989, the Rangers made one of the worst deals in baseball history when they sent two rookie “prospects” — outfielder Sosa and left-hander Wilson Alvarez — to Chicago for gimpy hitmeister Harold Baines. Other players were involved, but these were the principals.

Sosa wore a Rangers uniform for all of 43 days, and when he went to Chicago, it was as a skinny player for the White Sox, not the Cubs. He moved over to the North Side and Wrigley Field on March30, 1992, when the White Sox — just as clueless as the Rangers had been — sent him and pitcher Ken Patterson to the Cubs for outfielder George Bell. But again there were statistically extenuating circumstances. In 2 seasons with the South Siders, Sammy batted just .227 with 28 homers.

Though political adversaries like to cite the first Sosa trade as evidence that Bush lacks savvy, the president seems in the clear. For one thing, the unfortunate deal was cooked up by Rangers president Tom Schieffer, now U.S. ambassador to Japan, and general manager Tom Grieve. All Bush did, as the club’s new managing general partner, was affix his “George W.” to a piece of paper.

Nobody remembers that, of course, because neither Schieffer nor Grieve became president.

Sosa smacked his 586th home run last night, tying him for fifth on the all-time list with Frank Robinson, but there were no indications in 1989 that a future superstar was lurking in his uniform.

Sure he had potential, but so does every young player who makes it to the major leagues. Sosa played only 25 games for Texas during the first half of the 1989 season, batting .238 with one homer and three RBI. When the Rangers had a chance to get the sweet-swinging Baines, who ultimately collected 2,866 hits and batted .289 over 22 seasons with five clubs, it seemed a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, the Rangers were singed twice in the deal. Alvarez pitched a no-hitter against Baltimore on Aug.11, 1991, after a year in the minors and has a record of 102-91 and a creditable ERA of 3.95 as he winds down his career this season with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Ironically, Baines played only 153 games over two seasons with the Rangers, batting .285 for the rest of 1989 and . 290 in ‘90 before being traded to Oakland. Always a line drive hitter, the St. Michaels, Md., native had just 16 homers in a Texas uniform.

Sosa was no immediate success after joining the Cubs, hitting only eight homers and batting .260 in 1992. The following year, though, he had 33 homers and 93 RBI — providing a hint of the power surge that let him bash 66, 63, 50 and 64 homers during his prime power years of 1998-2001.

And that’s when people started linking the names of Dubya and Sammy.

You pays yer money and takes yer choice when it comes to identifying the worst baseball trades since people began playing rounders for money. Largely, it depends on what team you favor. In these parts, the Orioles have been both winners and losers. They got “an old 30” Robinson for pitcher Milt Pappas in December 1965, and all F. Robby did was win the Triple Crown and lead the O’s to their first World Series triumph the next season.

But they also traded future stars Curt Schilling and Steve Finley to the Houston Astros in 1991 as part of a deal that brought them overrated first baseman Glenn Davis. Bothered by orthopedic problems that made him literally a pain in the neck, Davis batted just .247 with 24 home runs in 185 games over parts of three seasons with the Orioles and disappeared from the majors at age 32.

The Cubs were big victims in 1964, when they dispatched obscure outfielder Lou Brock to the St. Louis Cardinals for right-hander Ernie Broglio. Brock was a key figure as the Cardinals won three pennants in five years and finished a Hall of Fame career in 1979 with a then-major league record 938 stolen bases. Broglio went 7-19 over three seasons with the Cubs.

Many other one-sided deals litter the baseball landscape — Nolan Ryan for Jim Fregosi, Steve Carlton for Rick Wise, Ryne Sandberg for Ivan DeJesus, John Smoltz for Doyle Alexander, Jeff Bagwell for Larry Andersen, etc. — but baseball executives can’t peer into the future any better than the rest of us.

Similar things happen in other sports, of course. Washington Redskins fans with some years on them will never forget the magic date of April1, 1964, when the Philadelphia Eagles shipped us Christian Adolph Jurgensen for Norm Snead.

Did somebody say hindsight is always 20-20? Somebody should.

Despite President Bush’s relatively small role in the Sosa-Baines debacle, people keep bringing it up.

Sports columnist Randy Galloway of the Dallas Morning News went as far during the 2000 campaign as to “report” an imaginary phone call in which Democratic nominee Al Gore said he planned to defeat Bush by reminding voters of the trade.

Yeah, right.

In another misguided attempt at humor, a Web site called “quoted” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer as saying, “It has now become apparent that Saddam Hussein did not allow the Rangers scouts to conduct complete inspections of Sammy Sosa’s abilities in 1989.”

Say what?

It’s unlikely that President Bush lost much sleep over what appeared at the time as a reasonable trade for the weak-hitting Rangers. But now that Sammy Sosa is playing for the Orioles in the twilight of his remarkable career, maybe he could pop over to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. one of these days and apologize, sort of, for making his former boss look bad.

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