Baseball Way Back: Jose DeLeon’s Chicago baseball odyssey

St. Louis Cardinals starting pitcher José DeLeón throws during the sixth inning of a baseball game against the Montreal Expos, Sept. 6, 1988, in St. Louis, Mo. DeLeón, a major league pitcher for 13 seasons who led the National League in strikeouts for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1989, he died Sunday evening, Feb. 25, 2024, at a hospital in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He was 63. (AP Photo/Loen Algee, File) AP
Pittsburgh Pirates rookie pitcher José DeLeón, left, is consoled by catcher Tony Peña after the New York Mets broke up a no-hitter with one out in the ninth inning of a baseball game, July 31, 1983, in New York. DeLeón, a major league pitcher for 13 seasons who led the National League in strikeouts for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1989, he died Sunday evening, Feb. 25, 2024, at a hospital in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He was 63. (AP Photo/Ray Stubblebine, File) AP

Jose DeLeon may not have had a stellar career with the Chicago White Sox.

But DeLeon, who died Feb. 25 at age 63, did manage to be part of two of the more interesting trades in the club’s history, including one that had a positive long-term impact.

If one were to borrow a movie title to describe his career, one might call it, “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.”

The right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic began his major-league career in 1983. By the time it ended in 1995, he had compiled a won-loss record of 86-119. However, his career ERA was 3.76.

He led the National League twice in losses, both times with 19, once with the 1985 Pittsburgh Pirates and also with the 1990 St. Louis Cardinals.

In one of his few above-.500 seasons, 1989, when he went 16-12 for the Cardinals, he led the NL in strikeouts, throwing 201.

He arrived on the Chicago baseball scene in 1986, courtesy of Ken “Hawk” Harrelson in his lone year in charge of the White Sox.

Hawk’s rule wasn’t all bad. There was some good — the Scott Bradley for Ivan Calderon trade, for instance. But there was enough bad, and that’s where DeLeon comes in.

The Pirates left promising prospect Bobby Bonilla unprotected in December 1985. Chasing a pop fly, he had broken his ankle during a spring training game in a collision with teammate Leon “Bip” Roberts and only played 39 games in Class A in 1985, batting just .262.

The Sox drafted Bonilla in the major-league draft for $50,000.

“We knew we were taking a gamble,” Pirates farm director Branch Rickey said at the time. “We lost.”

Bonilla got his chance in 1986 when first baseman Greg Walker broke his wrist in an April 14 game against Detroit. Manager Tony La Russa inserted Bonilla as a pinch hitter for catcher Marc Hill — Bonilla responded by driving in a run with a sacrifice fly — and then moved him to first base.

Mainly splitting his time between first base and left field, Bonilla proved serviceable, batting .269 in 75 games, with 10 doubles, two triples and 26 runs batted in.

In late April, Harrelson told the media if the Sox offered Bonilla back to the Pirates, “They’d grab him in a minute.”

Then on July 23, that’s just what happened. The Sox traded Bonilla back to Pittsburgh, getting DeLeon in exchange.

“DeLeon has one of the top 10 arms in baseball,” Harrelson said. “I had a tough decision in moving Bonilla, but when you’ve got a chance at a guy like DeLeon, you’ve got to take it.”

DeLeon had debuted in 1983 by going 7-3 with several near no-hitters. Successive seasons of 7-13 and 2-19 had soured the Pirates on the 25-year-old DeLeon, and after a 1-3 start in 1986, the Bucs shipped him to the South Side.

It proved a controversial trade for the Sox. Bonilla went on to six all-star appearances and 2,010 hits, 287 home runs and 1,173 runs batted in.

DeLeon wasn’t bad with the Sox. He posted a 4-5 record in 1986 with a 2.96 ERA and an 11-12 mark in 1987.

But before we close out the ledger with a loss, let’s look at what Sox GM Larry Himes did in February 1988. He traded DeLeon to the Cardinals for left-handed pitcher Rick Horton and a speedy center fielder named Lance Johnson, who had a stolen base in the 1987 World Series against Minnesota.

Horton, the Sox’ 1988 Opening Day starter and winner, would be gone by August, traded to the Dodgers for pitcher Shawn Hillegas. Johnson, on the other hand, better known as the “One Dog,” would be a fixture on the South Side into the mid-1990s, helping them win a division in 1993. Later, Johnson became a member of the Cubs’ wild-card team in 1998.

As for DeLeon, he would be Johnson’s teammate on the AL West champion 1993 White Sox. Yes, the Sox acquired DeLeon one more time, getting him in August from the Phillies for Sox all-time saves leader Bobby Thigpen.

The Sox used DeLeon in relief late in the season and in two of the playoff games against Toronto. He relieved Jack McDowell in the disastrous Game 1 at new Comiskey Park and took over for Black Jack again in a losing effort in Game 5.

DeLeon stuck with the Sox in 1994, a year when the team should have won the World Series, pitching 42 games in relief and going 3-2 with a 3.36 ERA.

He was re-signed in 1995 but traded in August to the Montreal Expos for Jeff Shaw.

DeLeon proved useful in his several stints with the White Sox. He wasn’t spectacular but, in the end, wasn’t horrible. And while it is tantalizing to think of what Bonilla might have accomplished long-term on the South Side, the One Dog was a valuable part of some pretty good Sox teams.

Above all, the Sox didn’t have to wind up as the team paying Bonilla until 2035.

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