March 4, 2020
The idiom “Whistling past the graveyard” is defined as the attempt to stay cheerful in a dire situation. Well, I’m all puckered up and ready to blow. Are you ready?
The Red Sox loss of Mookie Betts might not the mean end of the world.
There. I’ve said it, and I have anecdotal evidence to back me up. Less than 20 years ago there was another young player who, in the age of free agency, left his original team, the one that had brought him to the big leagues. He was, if anything, even better than Mookie. In approximately the same number of at-bats he had a higher batting average than Mookie does now (.309 to .301), many more home runs (189 to 139), more RBIs (595 to 476), and he even more stolen bases (133 to 126). Like Mookie, he was a defensive whiz at his position. And at age 25, he was even younger than Mookie is now, which is 27.
The year was 2001 and that player was Alex Rodriguez. He left the Seattle Mariners to sign a massive 10-year, $252 million contract with the Texas Rangers. How, you might ask, did the Mariners survive the loss of the best young player of the generation? Keep in mind that at this time there had never been any link made between A-Rod and performance enhancing drugs. In their first season without him, the Mariners set an all-time American League record for victories during the regular season, finishing at 116-46. That’s 8 more wins than the Red Sox had in their too-good-to-be-true season of 2018. Unfortunately for them, the Mariners ran into the Yankees of Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, and Bernie Williams in the American League Championship Series and so never made it to the World Series.
If you’re worried about the double whammy aspect of losing both Mookie and David Price, consider this: In 1998, just two and a half years before A-Rod’s free agency, the Mariners dealt the best lefthander in baseball, Randy Johnson, at the trading deadline rather than lose him through free agency. In 2000, without Johnson, they made the playoffs as a wild card, and in 2001, without both Johnson and A-Rod, they set the all- time record for wins. Those are the only two times in their entire history that the Mariners have appeared in the post-season.
And what of that huge contract A-Rod signed with the Rangers? After three seasons Texas decided it was too rich for their blood and started actively shopping him around. The first takers were none other than the Red Sox. They put together a package of deals in which Rodriguez agreed to restructure his contract, but the players union stepped in and disallowed the arrangement, claiming that it amounted to a pay cut, so the deal was dead. The Yankees then swooped in and scooped up A-Rod, complete with his baggage of PEDs and untruths that soon came to light. Rodriguez ended up as a terrible (and terribly expensive) distraction to the Yankees, and with his own reputation in tatters. Boy, did the Sox dodge a bullet on that one.
The point is that in the aftermath of the Seattle Mariners letting Alex Rodriguez walk, they thrived. The same could happen with the Red Sox in the wake of the Mookie deal ; we hope, and we pray.
Exhibit B in our whistling tour is provided courtesy of my pal Tim Samway, a life-long Red Sox devotee and student of the team’s history, which I guess explains his emotional scar tissue. Tim reminded me the other day of another terrific young outfielder the Red Sox traded away, then went on to win a World Series without him. It happened more than a century ago, true, but it happened. Tris Speaker had compiled a .337 batting average in seven-plus seasons with the Sox and had already earned the reputation of one of the greatest defensive outfielders of all time. He had just turned 28. As with Mookie, money was a contributing factor. The upstart Federal League had started pirating players from the National and American Leagues in 1914, and in order to protect their investment in Speaker, the Red Sox doubled his salary to $18,000. When the Federal League folded a year later, the Sox tried to cut Speaker’s contract back to the $9,000 it had originally been. Needless to say, Speaker resisted, so just before the 1916 season began, he was shipped off to Cleveland for pitcher Sad Sam Jones and infielder Fred Thomas, plus $50,000 in cash. Speaker refused to report until the Sox agreed to fork over $10,000 of the 50 grand they got from Cleveland, which they did.
Oh, and there was also the matter of religion that factored into the trade. Speaker, who was reportedly a member of the Ku Klux Klan back home in Texas, was virulently anti-Catholic during his Red Sox years, which caused a schism in the clubhouse. And since Boston’s fan base was, as was the city itself 100 years ago, largely Irish Catholic, he was, despite his great talent, deemed expendable. Things have a way of working out, though. Once he settled in Cleveland, Speaker met, fell in love with, and married an Irish-Catholic girl. It - that is to say, she – changed him. Not only did his attitude toward Catholics change, but also, when Larry Doby became the first black player in the American League only a few months after Jackie Robinson broke in with the Brooklyn Dodgers, his personal coach and biggest booster was none other than former KKK member Tris Speaker.
In his first season with the Indians, 1916, Speaker led the American League in batting (.386), hits, doubles, and slugging percentage. But the Red Sox repeated as World Series champions. So there.
The darn graveyard is pretty big and plenty scary, but I’m still whistlin’ on my way past it. And I’m thinking that maybe, just maybe, losing Mookie Betts isn’t the end of the world after all. It sure feels like it is, though, doesn’t it?