In defense of the Mookie Betts trade … sort of

Mookie Betts Los Angeles Dodgers
Mookie Betts was at the center of the Dodgers' 8-3 victory in Game 1 of the World Series on Tuesday night in Arlington, Texas, against the Tampa Bay Rays. –Tom Pennington/Getty Images

COMMENTARY

At least our regional proclivity to see everything through the lens of ourselves actually fits this occasion. If you were watching Game 1 of the 2020 World Series on Tuesday night, and you weren’t talking about the Los Angeles Dodgers or the Tampa Bay Rays, you were almost certainly talking about Boston.

“The Red Sox are going to have to live with this for a long, long time,” Fox’s Ken Rosenthal opined from the field not long after Mookie Betts cracked a leadoff homer in the sixth, L.A.’s 8-3 victory orbiting largely around No. 50. “They had opportunities to sign Betts. They tried to sign Betts. They obviously did not offer him the deal that he felt was acceptable. And yes, they got back Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs, an infield prospect. Yes, they created financial flexibility by also purging David Price’s contract.

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“But this is a transcendent player. He’s baseball’s LeBron James. I don’t know that you can ever trade a player like that.”

“There’s nothing there not to love,” exclaimed Joe Buck, whose mere presence on TV you can overreact to literally every night this week.

“It is now clear, if it wasn’t at the time, that the trade eight months ago … is the most consequential in recent baseball history,” wrote Dave Sheinin in the Washington Post. “This generation’s version of Frank Robinson for Milt Pappas.”

“We would have beat the Red Sox [in 2018] if we’d had Mookie Betts,” Dodgers manager and fellow Red Sox hero Dave Roberts said on Sunday night, his team not headed to another World Series had Betts not made three robberies in right field across Games 5-7 (in which he also hit 5-for-12) of the NL Championship Series with Atlanta.

It conjures an image of the Boston braintrust, lifting their green eyeshades from the ledger for a moment to spit take some brandy. “Wait. This Betts was good at baseball?!

It’s absurd, simplistic, and silly. But just as obvious, it all stinks. That’s how I felt about it in February, it’s how I feel now, and it’s how I’ll feel as the Red Sox fade to sidelight as Betts comes however close to baseball immortality he gets the next dozen years.

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Even as someone who’s had a soft spot for the Dodgers since Kirk Gibson, Betts in their blue will never feel good. His fifth-inning walk, stolen base, stolen base, race home on a grounder to first on Tuesday is essentially how he left us, his final Red Sox act the magic to which we’d grown accustomed. We know the story of the bat and ball necklace. We know everything Dodger fandom and the wider baseball world has learned and will learn. It stings at best and burns at worst.

But enough already. Every successive superlative play is not a surprise on Jersey Street, nor is this story any more black and white than any other.

In the winter after the 2018 World Series, asked if he was interested in signing a contract extension, Chris Sale declared, “Yeah. My phone’s on.” Xander Bogaerts, after months of fruitless back and forth, declared “I want to stay here” and made it so. Mookie Betts did not do those things.

“Contract things are kind of tough to come up with,” he told reporters, in part, in January 2019. “We’ll just continue to see what happens.”

No one has any right to begrudge him that. Baseball players take less than market value for years in hopes of one day working for whomever they want, for whatever the market will yield. But by the same token, we can’t begrudge or ignore deals take two parties, and these two fought for years.

In 2017, after Betts nearly won the MVP in his second full season, he and the Red Sox couldn’t agree on a salary. Boston, as is a team’s right with pre-arbitration players, unilaterally settled on $950,000 — a kingly sum for anyone with less than three years service time. In 2018, after Betts took a step back but was still a top-10 player, the sides again couldn’t agree and actually went to arbitration, something rarely done. Betts won himself $10.5 million, again nearly a record, and $3 million more than the Red Sox wanted to pay.

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The $20 million successfully agreed to for 2019 came in the afterglow of an MVP, a 119-win victory march, and a presumed run at a repeat. The $27 million agreed to for 2020 in January smashed arbitration-eligible records, but again made clear that unlike scads of other young stars off the market by then, Betts and his team simply could not find common ground.

That’s how a team possibly could’ve traded Mookie Betts: After a half-decade of trying, after nearly two decades of top-five spending befitting their place among the richest franchises in sports, a bidding war was looming. And the Red Sox, facing the real possibility of losing him for no more than a draft pick, got what they could.

“They tried to sign Betts,” reiterating Rosenthal’s words on Tuesday. “They obviously did not offer him the deal that he felt was acceptable.”

It doesn’t mean it wasn’t a colossal mistake. It doesn’t absolve the Red Sox of anything, especially not when — and, I can’t quite believe this really happened, even after a year of public relations debacles — they’re out here announcing real-estate deals on the cusp of their departed superstar playing on the game’s biggest stage. But it’s some needed context.

As is the following for everyone who wants to (rightfully!) scream about $3.3 billion for the team and $8 billion for the sports business empire … you’re not wrong, and I don’t blame you, but it’s not a realistic standard. Teams don’t do that anywhere but in European soccer, and oh boy is that not an avenue we have time to go down.

As we sit here, the Yankees look poised to cut payroll, likely to luxury-tax-reset levels, again. The Cubs trimmed their sails all last winter and look likely to do so again, perhaps without Theo Epstein at the helm. Pandemic related? Of course, but also a repeat of things they did before it.

And the Dodgers? Where did they find the room for Betts? Their last megabucks free-agent signing was Zack Greinke in December 2012, two years before baseball boss Andrew Friedman left Tampa. Their big expenditures since have been their own guys — Clayton Kershaw, Kenley Jansen, Justin Turner — and, perhaps, A.J. Pollock, not a one of whom got a nine-figure contract.

Corey Seager, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson, Will Smith, Edwin Rios, Walker Buehler, Dustin May … the Dodgers drafted every one, and supplemented from the bargain bin. Max Muncy and Turner were minor-league free agent signings. Julio Urias was signed at 16 out of Mexico. They reset in the 2017-18 offseason, and now Betts is the only Dodgers player signed past 2022.

It’s the Friedman 2.0. The Tampa model, implemented on a massive wallet.

The model Chaim Bloom is hoping for, and is trying to build.

COVID-19 has changed everything, of course, and I’ll long wonder if this new landscape emerged a little earlier, with Betts still in Boston colors. If 12 years and $365 million would’ve been offered, and if it could’ve been amenable same as it became in Los Angeles.

Who knows. And frankly, kudos to those who can find the full throat to care.

I watched Wade Boggs leave as a teenager. I watched Roger Clemens leave. I watched my favorite hockey team pull up stakes from Hartford and move to North Carolina, for goodness sake, and the cueball ghoul behind it got his name on the Stanley Cup and his place in the Hall of Fame. I understand the pain of Betts in Pantone 294, through my own eyes and those of my 4-year-old, his favorite player now on another team, but who doesn’t want a new shirt because his favorite team is still “J.D. Martinez team, the Red Sox.”

I’m still here in spite of being stabbed in the chest by sports, and in the knowledge I know I will be again. I suspect you will be too, and that if these Red Sox are reconstructed into contenders again, Fenway Park will only be empty if health concerns mandate it.

For all the roadblocks to normalcy we’ve weathered, hockey’s champion was worthy, basketball’s was too, and baseball ended up with two of its best teams capping another tremendous October of games. Be upset. Be angry. But try to find some time to be thankful we got anything near this good, for anything near this long.

Horribly cliché, I know. But it’s been a long year, and I fear it’s only going to get longer.

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