Last week, I finished reading Alex Speier’s book Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion from the Ground Up, and I was amazed at how dated a book that was published in the summer of 2019 already felt. In 2018, the Red Sox had the greatest season in franchise history, winning 108 regular season games and losing just three postseason games against very good Yankees, Astros, and Dodgers teams. While the 2004 team had just one truly homegrown player on the playoff roster (Trot Nixon), the 2018 squad had major contributions from Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, Brock Holt, Christian Vazquez, and Rafael Devers. It was the culmination of hard work years in the making.
In September, the team fired Dave Dombrowski, and the good will built up by a fourth World Series title in 15 years has already given way to angst and uncertainty. As an organization, the Red Sox have changed their tune, preaching the virtues of fiscal responsibility a year before their superstar outfielder is set to become a free agent, and I do not like it at all. As it all that wasn’t enough, today I returned to work to find this page from the weekend on my daily calendar:
Trading Mookie Betts, or not offering him the contract he is worth when you are a big market team like the Boston Red Sox with a lineup built to contend for years to come is profoundly stupid on it’s own. He is a better player than Bryce Harper, who the Nationals did not extend themselves too far to keep and won the World Series the year he signed with the division rival Phillies. He is a better player than Manny Machado, who the lowly Orioles traded to the Dodgers before signing with the Padres. The only player who has been better the last five years is Mike Trout. The Red Sox have won with Betts, and they have never been afraid to spend money under this ownership group. As bad as some free agent signings were (Julio Lugo, Pablo Sandoval, Hanley Ramirez, and Carl Crawford, to name a few), I never got too upset about it because it meant they were trying. John Henry is not hurting for money even if he signs an overweight third baseman who can’t stay on the field, but professional sports teams are a major source of civic pride, and the best owners treat their teams as public trusts. It’s troubling that they decide the moment for cutting costs is when it comes time to pay their best homegrown position player since Carl Yastrzemski. I was mad when they cheaped out on Jon Lester in 2014, but this is a whole new level of stupid.
The great sin of the analytical revolutions in sports has not been the quest to get smarter about player evaluation; it’s that to too many people the executive becomes the greater sports hero than the player. Moneyball is a great book and a better movie than it deserves to be. A sports movie where the star is the GM shouldn’t work, but Brad Pitt’s portrayal of Billy Beane earned an Oscar nomination. In the long run, all it did was transform the old boys network of MLB from offices from being filled with former ballplayers to being filled with Ivy League grads, and it glorified cost cutting strategies. That’s what the A’s and Rays needed to do to compete with the bigger fish, but when the Dodgers hire Andrew Friedman away from Tampa and the Red Sox hire Chaim Bloom from that same organization, and the rich teams start acting poor, it makes me think twice about the lessons learned from that book.
The story is framed as Billy Beane being the underdog executive running the underdog baseball club, having turned to the statheads in favor of conventional baseball wisdom as a former ballplayer without a degree. Beane’s great regret in life was choosing a Major League signing bonus from the New York Mets over a full ride scholarship to Stanford, and while he did become an executive without a college education, his field was limited to baseball. But there are hundreds of former ballplayers of color whose signing bonuses were less than Beane’s, who never had Stanford as an option, and definitely never got serious consideration to run one of the 30 Major League teams. His underdog story about revolutionizing team building through statistical analysis and finding the value in undervalued assets (AKA underpaid players) is wrapped in several layers of white privilege. And many of those same layers, in front offices and in sports media outlets, filtered through social media and fan sentiment, is what pressures young players to sign team friendly deals, but Mookie Betts has the audacity to bet on himself, and perhaps, the Red Sox are betting on their fans turning on him if they don’t offer him what he’s worth. I can see it playing out this way, on the airwaves of Boston’s two fulltime sports radio stations in their race to the bottom, in The Boston Globe and on Twitter, and I do not like it at all.
A century ago, the Red Sox had a star pitcher, a phenom, who also happened to hit home runs on occasion. This was a different time. A pitcher could hit 11 dingers and lead the American League at the end of the season. But after winning the World Series with him in 1915, 1916, and 1918, they sold this player to the lowly New York Yankees, who had never won a title at that point, and the Yankees encouraged him to swing for the fences. With that one acquisition, the Yankees became the Yankees, and Babe Ruth retires with 714 career home runs, still the most of any white ballplayer (all 714 coming off white pitchers, it’s worth noting), and the Red Sox did not win the World Series again until 2004.
There is no sport more obsessed with its history than baseball, and few organizations more aware of that history than the Red Sox. They still play in the same beautiful ballpark that opened in 1912, and proudly display their nine World Series pennants alongside their five American League pennants, but a large swath of their history is defined by being a bad combination of racist, cheap, and incompetent. Pumpsie Green integrated the Red Sox a decade after Jackie Robinson integrated Major League Baseball, passing on Robinson, Willie Mays, and Larry Doby along the way.
The Red Sox have a chance to do the smart thing, the winning thing, and at the same time do right by the best African American player in baseball today, and it is shocking how obvious it isn’t to them after all we’ve been through.