On Tuesday, February 8, 1994 I was a senior in high school in the suburbs of Chicago. I was probably skipping study hall and Mr. Edwards’ business class. I’d say I was expertly using the second half of my senior year to torpedo all the early work I had put in the first three years.
I spent most of my life at that time listening to music, hanging out, and watching or playing sports. I had no idea where I wanted to end up or what I wanted to do with my life. Like many of my mid 90’s graduate peers, I was lost in the grunge years and felt partially marginalized.
At a month younger than me, a 17-year old Carlos Lee would start his major league journey on this day. The 6’2”, 205 lb. third baseman had been scouted by three teams: the Yankees, Dodgers, and my team, the Chicago White Sox. They all loved his bat. The hang up for both the Yankees and Dodgers was his body type.
He was a massive kid, tall and a little on the heavier side. He could run, had good reactionary time at the hot corner, and possessed a decent arm. LA and NY both gave Carlos “the Kevin Youkilis treatment”. They decided his body would hold him back and opted to offer him less than $10,000. The White Sox and scout Miguel Ibarra thought differently and swept in to outbid the Yankees and Dodgers with an offer of $25,000.
His first year was spent at the White Sox Venezuela academy. His tools were apparently just impressive enough to get sent to rookie ball in 1994. For his first season stateside he was assigned to the White Sox of the Gulf Coast League. Though he lost 34 lbs to improve his physique, he was unimpressive with a slash line of .125/.183/.143.
He was assigned to rookie ball again in his second year, this time at Bristol of the Appalachian league. This would prove to be a breakout campaign for him, and he would not look back. He hammered the App league to the tune of .346/.365/.494. Mid season he was promoted to Hickory and hit a respectable .248/.278/.353 in the half season.
In the following three-plus seasons, Lee moved from A to AAA, earning the Charles W. Lubin award three times. (The top prospect honor was named after former White Sox stockholder, Charles W. Lubin, the founder of Sara Lee bakeries.) Lee went on a tear hitting 46 HR’s and driving in 258 in the 1996-98 seasons. With his performance he earned himself to the top slot of the White Sox Baseball America prospects list in 1999.
In 1996 the White Sox had just brought ‘93 2nd rounder Greg Norton up (no, not the bass player from rock band Hüsker Dü) and they drafted Joe Crede. Joe was a few years behind Carlos, but was looked at as the third baseman of the future.
As Carlos moved up the prospect list, the Sox decided to make a change and, after the ’98 season, moved Carlos to the outfield. In concert with this, after the 1998 season the White Sox moved on from two of their outfielders. Albert Belle was allowed to leave via free agency and Mike Cameron was traded to the Reds for some prospect named Paul Konerko. There were still two outfielders of note remaining on the roster: Chris Singleton, who was placed on the Topps All Star Rookie team in 1999 and Magglio Ordóñez, who had made that same list in 1998.
Lee started in the OF in 1999 for the Charlotte Knights, with the plan being that he would come up when he looked ready. He managed to play a decent outfield, and tore the cover off the ball in April for the Knights, hitting .351/.396/.532 including 4 HR’s and 20 RBI.
On May 7, 1999, Lee played in his first game at US Cellular Field as a member of the White Sox. This was a dream realized for Carlos, and a harbinger of things to come for Sox fans. In his first professional at bat, Carlos, who will forever be known as “El Caballo” on the south side, took a Tom Candiotti knuckleball over the left center field wall.
Carlos was a huge part of my love for the White Sox at this point in my life. He wasn’t the best player. That honor would certainly go to Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. He wasn’t the most well rounded player. That would probably be either Ray Durham or Ordóñez. But what he did, he did well, which was come up clutch.
In June of 2000 the White Sox would play the Yankees 7 times in 11 days. They would score 62 runs in those 7 games going 6-1, and El Caballo would go 10 for 32. On June 23, Carlos came up in the bottom of the ninth against future Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera.
Carlos Lee would go on to hit .288/ .340/ .488 in six seasons with the White Sox. His OPS-plus pegs him at only 11 percent over the league average, but it seemed that he always put his best foot forward when the Sox needed it. His 28 game hitting streak in 2004 is the longest by a Sox hitter and his 152 HR’s still ranks tenth all-time for the franchise.
Despite no All-Star appearances or Silver Slugger awards with the White Sox, he would get a few MVP votes in 2003 for a year with 31 HR’s and 113 RBI’s.
After his 2004 season (31 HR’s, 99 RBI’s, 127 OPS+, and his best defensive season with a 9 DRS and 14.6 UZR), it is rumored the White Sox felt that Carlos had outplayed a number they were willing to spend.
El Caballo would go on to play eight more seasons for the Brewers, Rangers, Astros, and Marlins. He would get to three all star games and win two NL silver slugger awards in 2005 with Milwaukee and 2007 with the Astros. Would the White Sox have still won it all in 2005 with Carlos? I’d like to think so, but we will never know.
I wouldn’t ever say that Carlos is deserving of a spot in the Hall of Fame, as his defensive numbers would ultimately keep his overall value scores down, but El Caballo will always have a special place in my heart as a Sox fan.