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The unkindest cut

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Dick
Flavin

Talk about rubbing salt on an open wound!

Some guy from Los Angeles has rented a billboard right across the street from Fenway Park that says, "Dear Boston, thanks for Mookie Betts." The perpetrator of the outrage then had the audacity to claim that he meant no harm -- as he carefully removed the dagger from our spleen. It's not enough to say that the billboard has interrupted our healing process. We're not even through grieving yet.

A friend of mine who is a Red Sox devotee -- which is to say a fellow mourner -- recently fulminated that the Mookie trade to the Dodgers was at least as bad, and probably worse, than the sale of Babe Ruth to the Yankees that took place more than a century ago. And we're still not over that one.

For whatever comfort it may be, the Mookie trade does not rise to the level of crime against humanity that the Ruth deal did. In the first place, Babe Ruth was arguably the greatest player in baseball history; Mookie Betts is great, but he's not even the best player in today's major leagues (that honor is generally accorded to Mike Trout of the Angels), let alone in history. Ruth hit 714 homers in a time when no one else had as many as 400; which is about what Mookie, if he remains productive for the length of his gargantuan contract with the Dodgers, is projected to hit over the length of his career. Ruth had a lifetime batting average of .342. In the years since he played, only Ted Williams (.344) has hit for a higher average. Mookie has a lifetime batting average of .301 and has not reached the .300 mark since 2018. Much has been said, and rightly so, about Betts's defensive skills and base running acumen; but Ruth, who, it should be noted, was only 25 in his first season in New York, had plenty of speed, was highly regarded defensively, and had an arm, having been the best left handed pitcher in the league while with the Red Sox, was at least the equal of Betts'. It was only in his later career that Babe's torso grew to the proportions for which it's now so well remembered thus slowing him down.

Mookie Betts is a wonderful player in every respect, but he is no Babe Ruth, and neither has anyone else been in baseball history.

A key component of the Ruth deal was never announced at the time. In addition to the hundred grand (the highest price in baseball history at the time) that Yankee owner, Colonel Jake Ruppert, forked over for Ruth, he also granted Sox owner Harry Frazee a loan of $300,000 with Fenway Park itself put up as collateral. That part of the transaction was all very hush-hush, of course, but what it meant was that the owner of the Yankees held the mortgage on Fenway Park and thus had the owner of the Red Sox completely under his thumb. That's how he was able to hire away Red Sox manager Ed Barrow to be the Yankee general manager and then cherry-pick every good player from the Red Sox roster.

So it was that in 1923, when the Yankees won their first ever World Series, their starting catcher (Wally Schang), shortstop (Everett Scott), third baseman (Jumpin' Joe Dugan), the entire starting pitcher rotation (Waite Hoyt, Herb Pennock, Bullet Joe Bush, and Sam Jones), oh, and let's not forget the guy out in right field, who by then was as famous as the president of the United States, had been sold to them by Red Sox owner Harry Frazee in the aftermath of that infamous under-table loan.

The hardest thing to stomach about the epic sell-out to the Yankees was that very little of the cash that Frazee reaped was used to develop the Red Sox; it all went into propping up Frazee's foundering theatre production business and supporting his lavish life-style.

But that was then and this is now. The question now is will Mookie be worth the guaranteed $365 million that the Dodgers committed over the next 13 years to keep him, for it surely would have cost the Red Sox as much. The answer over the short term is absolutely yes. Betts led Los Angeles to their World Series title in his first year with them, their first in 32 years. But how will the Dodgers' investment look 13 years down the road? Long-term contracts at big bucks don't generally work out. In 2011, the Los Angeles Angels signed Albert Pujols to a 10-year deal at the then outlandish sum of $240 million. It seemed reasonable at the time because in 11 years with the St. Louis Cardinals he had compiled a batting average of .328 to go along with 415 home runs and 1329 runs batted in, numbers that could be described as near Ruthian. But in nine seasons with the Angels, he's hit for an average of only .257 with just 217 homers and 771 RBIs. Moreover, in those nine seasons with the Angels, they have made the postseason exactly once, in 2014, when they were swept in the first round by the Kansas City Royals. Pujols is on the books this season, the last of his contract, for $30 million. I would say that the Angels have not received much bang for their 240 million bucks.

Another example of a big contract gone bad, or at least in the process of it, is Giancarlo Stanton's deal with the Yankees. Remember the weeping and gnashing of teeth that went on when the Evil Empire procured him and the lion's share of his huge contract from the Miami Marlins? Well, it turns out that Giancarlo, for all his impressive size and muscles, is a delicate creature; he managed to get to bat only 59 times in 2019 and 76 times last season. What's the over-under on when he hits the injured list this year, June 15? The bad news for the Yankees is that Stanton has seven years to go on his contract at a cost of $218 million, $188 million of which they're on the hook for.

That guy who rented that billboard across the street from Fenway Park only rented it for a month. He made a much better deal than a lot of baseball teams have made.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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