Mike Caruso was the White Sox starting shortstop the year he turned 21, but didn’t play a game beyond age 25.
It all happened so fast. Remember that guy?
Caruso was born May 27, 1977, in Queens, New York. He shares a birthday with both Frank Thomas (1968) and Yoan Moncada (1995). He was drafted in 1996 by the Giants in the 2nd round (42nd overall); Jimmy Rollins was taken 46th and Josh Paul 47th. Caruso, like Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, attended Stoneman-Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, which later in 2018 was the scene of a tragic shooting that shook the nation.
Caruso made his pro debut in 1996 with Bellingham (Low-A Northwest League), and hit .292 with 24 stolen bases in 73 games. He started out well in High-A San Jose in 1997, hitting .333 with 11 triples and 11 stolen bases (despite 16 times caught stealing) in 108 games before a trade sent him to Chicago.
On July 31, 1997, Caruso along with outfielder Brian Manning and pitchers Keith Foulke, Bob Howry, Lorenzo Barcelo & Ken Vining were sent to the White Sox in exchange for pitchers Wilson Álvarez, Danny Darwin and Roberto Hernández in what is referred to in Chicago as the “White Flag” trade. Through games on July 31, the White Sox were 53-53, seemingly in striking distance in third place, a half-game back of the second-place Brewers and three games back of the first-place Indians. With a new superstar outfielder in Albert Belle, there were high expectations for the 1997 Sox. South Side fans were frustrated.
Caruso slumped through the end of 1997, but ended up making the big league roster for opening day 1998. Caruso debuted for the White Sox on March 31, 1998 as the opening day shortstop at age 20, replacing Ozzie Guillen who signed with the Orioles. He went 1 for 5 with a single off the Rangers’ Bobby Witt. The first home run came April 15 in Baltimore off former Cy Young winner Doug Drabek, but power wasn’t his game. Regardless, he had a very solid rookie year, hitting .306/.331/.390 with 5 home runs, 55 RBI and 22 stolen bases. Caruso’s .306 average was the highest by a White Sox rookie (minimum 500 at-bats) since Minnie Miñoso in 1951 and remains one of only seven White Sox rookie seasons of .300 and 500 at-bats. José Abreu is the only one to do it since. Caruso celebrated his 21st birthday with a 4-hit game on May 27 – he’s the only White Sox player to collect four hits on his birthday since Mike Kreevich on June 10, 1937. It was the first of his four 4-hit games in 1998.
In addition to that, the young shortstop led the AL in at-bats per strikeout (13.8). Caruso posted a 14-game hitting streak in May-June, and hit a scorching .365 in June. Caruso also topped the American League in 1998 with 20 bunt hits, though he also led the Majors with 35 errors in the field. Despite the miscues in the field, he still placed third in the AL in Rookie of the Year voting, behind winner Ben Grieve & Rays hurler Rolando Arrojo and ahead of El Duque Hernández & Magglio Ordóñez.
In 1999, Caruso hit an underwhelming .250/.280/.297 with 12 stolen bases (but 14 times caught). Again he was the toughest qualified batter to strike out (14.7 AB/K) but when he wasn’t striking out he wasn’t doing much, collecting only 17 extra-base hits in 529 at-bats, and walking only 20 times. Caruso slashed his errors from 35 to 24 but his performance was still far from ideal. Caruso’s biggest moment of the season was June 13 at Wrigley Field, where he hit a 2-run homer off the Cubs’ Rick Aguilera in the top of the 8th inning to give the White Sox a 6-4 lead which they held.
In January 2000, the White Sox acquired José Valentín from the Brewers, and the White Sox at first attempted to give Caruso some reps at second base to stick in the big leagues. The thought at the time was that Caruso was still young (he was, still not yet 23), and could figure things out, but he ended up spending the season at Charlotte (AAA). And he never did figure it out, hitting .246/.301/.314 with no home runs at triple-A in 2000. Caruso was claimed off waivers by the Mariners in December, but failed his physical due to a bad back and was ordered back to the White Sox, who released him.
Caruso signed with Devil Rays in February 2001 and hit .292/.340/.364 for Durham (AAA), but still couldn’t make it back to the Majors for a 62-100 Tampa Bay team. In December, Caruso signed with the Reds and was selected off waivers by the Royals at the end of April. Mike played what would end up his final 12 Major League games for the Royals in 2002, going 2 for 20 at the dish.
Caruso popped up in 2004 for the Long Island Ducks (independent Atlantic League), and again in 2007 through 2009 for a few other independent teams, including a 25-game stint for the Joliet Jackhammers in 2008.
Mike Caruso’s Major League career lasted all of 281 games for the White Sox and Royals. He hit .274 with 294 hits, 7 home runs, 90 RBI and 34 stolen bases. He replaced a White Sox legend at a key position and for a minute looked like he’d be a star. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out. But 1998 was a fun ride.
You remember Mike Caruso.