Alex Verdugo may never escape the shadow of Mookie Betts, but he’s already proven he deserves better

Alex Verdugo's three-hit game on Patriots' Day included a home run, and began a run in which he hit .478 across six games.

COMMENTARY

I plowed through “The Big Bam” over the past week, Leigh Montville’s compilation of 75 years of Babe Ruth biographies an engrossing picture of a multi-generational icon. Thoroughly enjoyed it, though I’ll spare you a book report other than to say it’s from another world, but not one lacking modern reference. (Shohei Ohtani literally managing a Ruthian feat Monday, for one.)

The chapter on Ruth’s sale to New York still cranks the heart rate a bit, even without a single ‘Curse of the Bambino’ reference. You know the history, but this was news to me: In April 1920, the first month of baseball after the sport’s axis was reoriented, the Sox went 10-2, beating the Yankees four straight times as Ruth failed to hit a home run. Boston wasn’t crowing, but having been told the sale was a necessity, and that the money saved on Ruth would offer the flexibility to go into the mar …

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Like I said, not a world lacking modern reference.

That dopes like yours truly are still tying all these strings together a century later seems to answer the “When will Boston get over the Mookie Betts trade” question with a hearty laugh and a pat on the head. At some point, Betts will naturally cease to be a former Red Sox star in the general consciousness the same as Ruth did, a process whose speed and ease will have something to do with what happens in his wake.

Meaning Alex Verdugo’s place as “the guy the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts for” doesn’t have a ton to do with him. He wears it by circumstance, and he’ll shed it only by accomplishments far beyond his own.

Though he’s certainly doing his part to forge his own path, and to mold Boston’s next chapter as much better than the 1920s were around here.

“He can hit righties, he can hit lefties, he controls the strike zone, he knows his swing, good defender, overall a good baseball player,” Alex Cora told reporters on April 14, when Verdugo went 5-for-8 in the doubleheader sweep of the Twins. “He’s still young, he’s still learning, but we’re very pleased with the way he’s playing the game right now.”

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Soon to be 25, Verdugo sat out Sunday’s win as a precautionary measure after his hamstring cramped the prior night. Cora suggested Verdugo might sit again Tuesday, Boston drawing lefty David Peterson to begin its two games in New York against the Mets, but be back for all-world Jacob deGrom on Wednesday night.

They’ll need one of their best hitters against baseball’s reigning ace. Verdugo has a .908 OPS (.325/.371/.538) through 21 games, made all the better given he started the year 0-for-12 and debatably a little low given what’s expected from his quality of contact. He’s an attacking hitter who doesn’t quit on at-bats and doesn’t chase, with 11 hits in his last 23 at-bats heading into Tuesday. A step behind J.D. Martinez and Xander Bogaerts statistically, just like much of the rest of the majors, but Verdugo is nothing less than the defining personality on a surprisingly likable team.

“He worries about what he’s got to do and how he can help the team. I’ve been very, very impressed with that, especially from a young player,” said Garrett Richards, Tuesday’s Red Sox starter, during spring training. “He’s young, but he really understands what he wants to do out there at the plate. Great approach. … We talk quite a bit. I was just really impressed with how he carries himself.”

“I love the way he plays [with] energy, everything,” Eduardo Rodriguez said in Minnesota.

It’s hard not to get caught up in. Just ask the Deadhead who, with ’99’ scribbled on his disposable mask and a “Verdu Go Red Sox” sign in hand, caught Verdugo’s Patriots’ Day home run. (Verdugo saluted him when he returned to center field the next half-inning, then again on Instagram.) Or the fans who got a hitting lesson from him next to the dugout, the sort of genuine engagement the sport is dying for.

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That laundry-cart celebration after every Red Sox home run? It’s apparently a Kevin Plawecki/Jason Varitek creation, but the vibe from which it sprung is the sort of thing the Dodgers credited Verdugo for helping create during his 2019 breakout.

“I’ve always been a very emotional player so, you know, whether it’s good or bad, I like to show some emotions,” Verdugo told reporters earlier this season. “I just naturally get fired up and I like to look in the dugout and see the boys riled up and fired up as well. I think we’re kind of constantly feeding off energy with all of us.”

Despite it, Verdugo was one of the few young talents the system-rich Dodgers were willing to part with. Any baggage he accumulated there, up to and including his involvement in a 2015 assault, wasn’t enough to discourage the Red Sox from making him the major-league ready piece in their biggest transaction since, well …

Continuing to beat this drum serves no one, really. As we’ve said here before, Betts’s own words show the depth of the decision to trade him, and we can let the biography readers down the road decide which of us were the rubes.

Given three extra months to heal from a stress fracture in his back that would’ve kept him far from a March Opening Day, Verdugo used them to their fullest. He got healthy, had three hits in his first Red Sox game, robbed a home run in a game a couple weeks later after hitting two, and finished 12th in AL MVP voting, easily the shining star of a gruesome 2020 season.

“I don’t think anyone could have expected that he would come in and perform as well as he has,” chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom told the Globe last summer, though the words wouldn’t likely be a ton different today. “This is more than we had a right to expect.”

Seventy-four games into a Red Sox career is not the time for a final judgment. It can be, however, a moment to appreciate how far we’ve come. Alex Verdugo has been an all-fields force and a breath of fresh air on a team in desperate need of both. He’s been, to borrow his own words, the Adderall to bring focus back on the Olde Towne Team. It might be better if he could pitch six innings, and especially the first, but that really is a story for another day.

He is not perfect by any stretch. He is not Mookie, nor will he likely ever be. But he might be the greatest beneficiary of this pleasant surprise start he’s helped create.

Because it means he can begin to be truly celebrated and enjoyed for what he is.

“I don’t care about shoes to fill or anything like that,” Verdugo said last summer. “I’m playing my game.”

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