A year ago, John Cangelosi was a reluctant expatriate, toiling in the Mexican League and wondering what had gone wrong with his career. But what a difference a year makes. Though he went to spring training with the Chicago White Sox as a non-roster player ticketed for another season in Triple A, Cangelosi has emerged not only as the team's starting centerfielder and offensive catalyst, but also as the biggest little surprise in the American League. No wonder he's being called the Spud Webb of baseball, one of the few Chicago bright spots in an otherwise lackluster season.
Cangelosi is listed at 5'8" and 150 pounds in the program, but don't be fooled. Your sixth-graders go to school with bigger kids. When asked if he could recall playing against someone that little in his many years in the majors, White Sox coach Doug Rader thought for a moment and quipped, "Billy Barty?" (Barty is a 3'9" actor.)
Then there was the prank played by White Sox reliever Bob James in spring training. Cangelosi was being interviewed by reporters when James approached, cap in hand, placed the cap on the floor and said, "Here's John Cangelosi stealing third." James gave the cap a shove, and sure enough, it went scooting across the floor. The trick was revealed when the cap finally stopped and flipped over, revealing a metal exercise ball.
Cangelosi, a soft-spoken 23-year-old with a choirboy's face, simply shrugs and smiles at his teammates' barbs. "That's been the story of my life," he says. The son of an airplane mechanic, he grew up in Hialeah, Fla., which may account for his penchant for speed. On the field he is a feisty performer who plays a shallow centerfield and runs with abandon on the base paths. Two weeks ago he precipitated a beanball skirmish with the Tigers by stealing with a six-run lead in the third inning. Through Sunday he was second in the league in stolen bases (9) and had reached base in every game he played (15). Cangelosi, a switch-hitter, is hitting .255 with a hefty .423 on-base percentage. Says White Sox vice-president Ken Harrelson, "I figure if this kid walks 80, 90 times and gets 150 hits, he could steal 70, 80 bases. Rickey Henderson will have to extend himself to beat him."
A fourth-round draft choice of the Sox in '82, Cangelosi averaged 57 steals and 88 walks in four minor league seasons and cultivated a reputation as a crowd pleaser. "People like to see guys hit home runs," he says, "but they also like to see them steal second and third." He was such a favorite at Class A Niagara Falls that fans threw money onto the field for him.
Cangelosi would like to forget the first half of the '85 season. The White Sox had loaned him to the Mexico City Reds, and although Cangelosi batted .353 in 61 games, he felt like an exile. One night he was caught in the middle of a gun battle on the dance floor of a local bistro. "These four guys just started shooting at each other," he says. At that point, Cangelosi took advantage of his speed.
He could not, however, outrun the chicken pox, which he contracted from the son of a teammate. "My mom had to come down and stay with me," Cangelosi says. "Honest to god, I had it from head to toe." When Cangelosi was recalled to the Sox' Triple A club in Buffalo at midseason, his first request upon arrival was for some domestic beer. "I learned never to take anything for granted," he says.
In early March, Cangelosi was cut from the 40-man spring roster because, says Harrelson, "there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell he'd make the club." Cangelosi stunned everyone with his remarkable performance in the Grapefruit League, batting .345 and swiping 18 bases in 18 attempts. Chicago had two candidates to play center, but Cangelosi ran Rudy Law off the team entirely and Daryl Boston back to the minors.
"In my 27 years in baseball, I've never seen a player explode on the scene like this," says Harrelson. "There is a lot of Americana in this little guy's story." There's a little Mexicana in there, too.