Swapping Stories: The Jose Canseco Trade of 1992

August 31, 1992: Texas trades outfielder Ruben Sierra and righthanders Bobby Witt and Jeff Russell to Oakland for outfielder Jose Canseco.

Oakland starter Kelly Downs got out of the first inning on August 31, 1992 unscathed, stranding two Orioles on base. A’s right fielder Jose Canseco jogged in to the home dugout, replaced his glove with a batting helmet, and grabbed a bat.

Leadoff hitter Rickey Henderson skied out to left, bringing third baseman Jerry Browne to bat. Canseco replaced Browne in the on-deck circle. But that’s as close as he got to the plate.

As Browne was busy working a Mike Mussina walk, Oakland manager Tony LaRussa called Canseco back to the dugout, following the orders of A’s General Manager Sandy Alderson, who had just agreed to trade the slugger to Texas, for fellow 1992 All-Star outfielder Ruben Sierra, starting pitcher Bobby Witt, and reliever Jeff Russell.

Lance Blankenship, hitting for Canseco, flied out to left and cleanup hitter Harold Baines struck out to end the inning, but outside of the nine Orioles on the field and the official scorekeeper, it’s doubtful anyone noticed. All attention was on the man who had just disappeared from the on-deck circle and the dugout.

Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Rangers Vice President of Public Relations John Blake had manager Toby Harrah send Witt and Russell from the dugout to the clubhouse, where Blake told the two righthanders they’d been traded. Then Blake did something he has never done another time in his 28 years in the game – he opened the clubhouse to the media while the game was still going on, so that the beat reporters could have their time with Witt and Russell before they departed for Oakland.

Sierra? He was back in Texas, quarantined with a case of chicken pox that wasn’t improving. But the A’s had to make the blockbuster deal that day in order to have their new players eligible for the playoffs.

No player had more than Canseco’s 230 home runs from his rookie year of 1986 through 1992, and in that same span the 26-year-old Sierra had 156 bombs himself, more than Barry Bonds had through his age 26 season. The names of Rogers Hornsby and Frankie Frisch were showing up in columns following the trade, as not since those two were involved in a 1926 deal had two future Hall of Famers been traded for each other.

Texas was looking for a shakeup. In July the club had dismissed manager Bobby Valentine after more than seven years on the job, the longest tenure in franchise history. Sierra, who would have the right to test free agency for the first time after the 1992 season, had already rejected a five-year, $25 million contract extension offer from Texas, demanding an extension surpassing the one that Bobby Bonilla had inked before the season with the Mets, a five-year, $29 million deal that was the richest in baseball history at the time. Witt was also in his final year before free agency, and Texas didn’t plan to offer him a long-term contract. The Rangers didn’t want to part with Russell, who would also be a free agent, but they agreed to do so in order to make the deal, going with Matt Whiteside as the primary closer down the stretch before signing Tom Henke in the off-season.

Oakland was 27 games over .500 at the time of the trade, but had played 34 of its 131 games without Canseco, who was bothered by a bad shoulder. The relationship between the club and its marquee player was stretching thin off the field as well. On August 10, Canseco pulled himself in the fifth inning of a game against the White Sox, complaining of tightness in his back, and he dressed and left the stadium before the game ended, drawing a barrage of public criticism from teammates and A’s management.

But when Alderson called Rangers General Manager Tom Grieve, it was pitching that he sought. At least on the surface. “Sandy wanted to improve his pitching, particularly his bullpen behind Dennis Eckersley, with the playoffs in mind,” Grieve recalls. “He didn’t bring Canseco’s name up until talks got serious. But I always felt that, even if just in the back of his mind, moving Canseco was what he wanted to do all along.”

Knowing he wasn’t going to be able to re-sign Sierra, Grieve considered the thought of adding Canseco for three guaranteed seasons a more appealing option than recouping two compensatory draft picks upon Sierra’s departure. Alderson was less interested in the long term, focused instead on the next two months of baseball.

Because it was after the non-waiver trade deadline of July 31, in order for Oakland to trade Canseco the club had to get him through revocable waivers, or at least get him by every team that had claim priority over the one that the A’s intended to make a deal with. In this case it meant that seven teams – including the Yankees and Red Sox, both having awful seasons but surely not scared away by Canseco’s injury, his antics, or the $15.7 million that he would be owed over the 1993 through 1995 seasons – had to pass on him before Texas could submit its claim. Like the other five non-contenders, New York and Boston probably didn’t bother, figuring the A’s would never trade Canseco during a pennant race.

As for the three Rangers involved in the deal, their slide on the waiver wire past every team in the American League (Oakland had the league’s best record) was more surprising. Sierra was a young star, Witt a reliable workhorse, and Russell a top-tier closer. Since all three were five weeks from free agency, contract obligations were certainly not a disincentive to contending teams wanting to ensure that no competitors could acquire them. But no team jumped in to block Texas from dealing them – Sierra reportedly cleared waivers altogether – and the trade was made just in time for the trio to be eligible to be part of Oakland’s playoff roster.

While his 1999 season hadn’t been as hampered by injury as Canseco’s, Sierra had fought through a hyperextended wrist and a strained hamstring himself, and missed his final two Texas games due to the chicken pox and didn’t appear for the A’s until September 6. In his Oakland debut, Sierra singled and drew an intentional walk in a 2-1, 10-inning win that Witt started (allowing one run in seven frames) and Russell made his third A’s appearance in (striking out both hitters he faced in the eighth).

Sierra would hit .277/.359/.426 with 17 RBI over the season’s final five weeks. Witt would replace Downs in the A’s rotation and post a 1-1, 3.41 record in six starts. Russell pitched eight times, winning twice and saving two games without allowing a run in 9.2 innings of work. In Oakland’s League Championship Series loss to Toronto, Sierra hit .333/.357/.625 and led the club with seven RBI in the six-game series, while Russell pitched three times, allowing two runs in two innings, and Witt appeared just once, pitching the final inning of the final game, giving up two runs in a 9-2 A’s loss.

Canseco, meanwhile, had a disappointing month with the Rangers, who were 15.5 games behind the A’s at the time of the trade and ended up 19 games back and in fourth place. Taking the fully allotted 72 hours before joining his new club, he hit just .233 with four home runs in 22 games, including none in his final 11, and he missed a handful of games due to shoulder and back problems.

As much of a letdown as Canseco’s 1992 Rangers stint was, however, it paled in comparison with his 1993 season, which was marked by a header into the stands on May 26 and a pitching performance on May 29 that was followed by a June visit to Dr. Frank Jobe and a determination that he needed Tommy John elbow surgery.

Canseco lasted one more year in Texas before Doug Melvin, two months into his job as Rangers General Manager, made his first trade, sending Canseco to Boston for center fielder Otis Nixon and third base prospect Luis Ortiz, a markedly inferior package to the one that Texas had given Oakland two years earlier to get Canseco in the first place.

Sierra put up moderately disappointing numbers over the next two and a half seasons in Oakland, before the A’s traded him with a pitching prospect to the Yankees for Danny Tartabull. Witt went 22-23, 4.53 in 1993 and 1994 before Oakland allowed him to leave via free agency. Russell, following his solid work setting Eckersley up in the aftermath of the 1992 trade, departed as a free agent after the season, signing for two years with Boston to pitch in the ninth inning for the Red Sox.

The August 1992 trade never came close to living up to expectations. In fact, after the deal, Canseco would change organizations nine more times. Sierra would do so 13 times. Witt six times, Russell three times. All four returned to their original organizations, at least once, but things were never the same.

In the case of Canseco and Sierra, it wasn’t at all the way their careers were supposed to play out, given that the only new address many had in mind for the two sluggers before they were traded for one another was in Cooperstown, New York.

Jamey Newberg is a contributor to MLB.com. A Dallas lawyer, he has been an insane Texas Rangers fan since the days of scheduled doubleheaders, Bat Nights when they actually handed out a piece of lumber instead of a grocery store voucher, and Jim Umbarger. He has covered the Texas Rangers, from the big club down through the entire farm system, since 1998 on his website, NewbergReport.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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