In August of 2003 the "Believe!" Royals were gamely fighting through a threeway pennant race against two superior teams, the White Sox and Twins. While the Royals famously had a 7.5 game lead on July 17th, that cushion was amazingly lost by August 1st, when the White Sox caught the Royals at 57-50. Still, displaying the pluckiness that made them a lovable, though flawed team, the Royals didn't fold right away, eventually building another three game lead just three games after being caught, and holding onto first all the way until August 20th, when they lost 8-7 to the Yankees and fell to 65-60.
On August 26th, with the Royals just a game back, Allard Baird acquired Rondell White from the Padres in exchange for Brian Sanches and Chris Tierney, two minor league pitchers. On the day he joined the Royals, in 4395 career PAs, Rondell was a .287/.343/.470 hitter. White was 31 at the time and had recently been named an All-Star, despite the fact that he was years removed from his best years in Montreal.
For most of the season the Royals had been playing Michael Tucker in left field, however Tucker broke his right tibia and hit the DL on the 5th. Tony Pena Sr. fielded 107 different lineups in 2003, and as I can tell, other than Beltran playing most of the time in center, just about every variation of a Guiel/Ibanez/Tucker platoon was employed, with Ibanez also starting 18 games at first. And don't forget Desi Relaford playing nearly every position as well. In retrospect, Pena deserves credit for how nicely he integrated a number of semi-overlapping parts into what was a functional and sometimes above-average offense.This has all been a very long way of saying that in part, but only in part, White replaced Ibanez in left, with Raul shifting sometimes to 1B or DH or RF.
What wasn't complicated was that White hit as a Royal, posting a .347/.400/.613 line in his 85 PAs in blue. Being Rondell White, he didn't quite play everyday, appearing in just 22 of the team's final 32 games (ok that was a cheap shot... it appears many of the missed games were part of Pena's ever-shuffling of the lineup and a semi-platoon with Raul.
Rondell won his first two games as a Royal, going 3-6 with a walk and five RsBI in successive wins over Texas. After that, White went somewhat underground, posting an 0fer on back to back days, then, after a solid game in a loss to Arizona, Rondell missed games 139-142, then only appeared as a 9th inning pinch-hitter in a 7-1 loss to the Indians. That loss dropped the Royals to 73-70 and 4.5 games back, the farthest they'd trailed since early June. The next day, with the Royals desperately needing a win Rondell responded, stroking a key two-out double of off former Royal Chad Durbin in the first inning that gave the Royals a 2-0 lead behind former Indian Brian Anderson. In the 5th, with the Royals now trailing 6-4, White singled, part of a 5-run inning that would see the Royals take a 8-6 lead. The eventual 9-7 win pulled the Royals back to within 3.5 games in the Central.
The Royals lost their next two games, a 6-5 killer to the Indians, then a crushing 3-0 loss to the Tigers, who were one of the worst teams of all-time that season, wasting a golden opportunity to gain ground in the Central. Still, the Royals were only 3.5 games out, a large margin with only two weeks to play, but not an impossible one.
We all know how this story ends, the 2003 Royals couldn't catch the Twins or hold off the White Sox and ended up at 83-79 and in third place. They didn't play terribly down the stretch, but they couldn't muster a miracle either. Rondell White however, after looking like more or less an irrelevant acquisition, was not to blame. From game 148 through 161, Rondell hit .391/.451/.739 with four homers and fourteen RsBI. Unfortunately, the Royals only went 7-5 in those games, which included an incredible 15-6 loss to the aforementioned Tigers. In two signature games, Rondell went 3-4 with a double and a walk against the rival White Sox in a 7-1 win and 4-4 in a 12-6 drubbing of the Tigers.
Sadly, Rondell's final game as a Royal came during the penultimate contest of the season, a 19-3 beatdown by the White Sox. In the top of the 7th, trailing 15-3, White was replaced in left field by the immortal Dee Brown after going 0-2. We can only imagine how sadly Rondell watched the final game of the season, a 5-1 loss, from the dugout.
Considering that the Royals also received cash to help cover part of White's prorated $5.5 million dollar salary, we would have to consider the Rondell White trade as one of Allard's finest moves and perhaps the best in-season pickup he ever made. Fellow 2003 acquisition Brian Anderson was also a success, as he more or less maintained his career year status as a Royal, allowing just a 3.99 ERA in his seven starts as a Royal. Unfortunately, the Royals were fundamentally not an 85 win or even a 75 win team, and as fluky performances from Desi Relaford and Lima Time cooled, the worthy contributions of White and Anderson could only help sustain .500 play as opposed to pushing the Royals over the top.
White would play four more seasons in the Major Leagues, appearing in more than just 100 games once, his 2004 season with the Tigers. In two seasons in Detroit White battled injuries put still managed to post above average OPSes despite playing in Comerica (108 and 122 OPS+s respectively). In 2006 he signed with the Twins, a natural fit given Minnesota's proclivity for old guys who can't play anymore (but they play the game the right way!). In '06 White hit .246/.276/.365 in 99 games, though it took one final post-DL tear for him to get his line that high. In his final 45 games that season White hit .321/.354/.538. In 07 however, he was done, hitting .174/.235/.321, saying that he was 99% retired after the season and that his body hurt. Thankfully for Rondell, he earned over $35 million playing baseball and he remained a popular man.
If there had been a Royals Review in 2003 I'm sure a few people, myself maybe included, would have expressed worry that giving up two pitching prospects for a two month rental was too high a price to pay. Clearly, we would have been wrong., as neither Sanches or Tierney emerged with the Padres to make the Royals look bad. Sanches, somewhat weirdly, has actually surfaced with the Nationals the last few years, while Tierney -- a 7th round pick -- never made it above A ball and appears to be out of baseball.
And so, nearly five years after he came into our lives, let us lift our glass in public pledge to Rondell White... and maybe a little halfway toast to Allard Baird as well.