The Boston Red Sox have designated third baseman Pablo Sandoval for assignment, ending a tumultuous tenure for one of the greatest free agent busts in baseball history. Sandoval, the overweight, oft-injured former World Series MVP was a fan favorite with the endearing”Kung Fu Panda” nickname in another life, but the Red Sox never got any of what made him so popular in San Francisco. The team is willing to eat the rest of his salary (pun intended, but almost too easy to acknowledge), and were willing to make him go away without getting anything in return, which speaks to just how bad he has been. Hopefully, the Red Sox will recognize what went wrong so the do not repeat the mistakes of this signing.
The blame game is never simple when evaluating acquisitions in Major League Baseball. Ben Cherington was the GM of the Red Sox in the 2014-15 offseason, when the Sox signed Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez, and traded Yoenis Cespedes in exchange for Rick Porcello. But in order to cough up that kind of money, Cherington had to have the blessing of ownership, and former team president Larry Lucchino was still in the picture at the time. Lucchino was a great baseball executive, an inevitable and deserving Hall of Famer–from overseeing the building of two beautiful modern ballparks in Baltimore and San Diego to the renovation and revitalization of Fenway Park–but his track record of meddling in Boston’s baseball operation, particularly this decade, was not a great one.
Lucchino clashed with Theo Epstein, who left the Red Sox for the Chicago Cubs in 2011, and who will go down as baseball’s greatest executive since Branch Rickey. He brought in Bobby Valentine to replace Terry Francona, going from the best manager in Red Sox history to maybe the worst to manage a full season. He lowballed Jon Lester in contract extension negotiations, which set off a series of events that led to a player who never wanted to leave getting traded to Oakland at the 2014 trade deadline, signing with Epstein’s Cubs that winter, and being Chicago’s go-to big game pitcher in their 2016 World Series run.
The Sandoval signing had all the markings of a Lucchino move. He was a big name, one of of the most recognizable characters on a Giants team that had won the World Series three times in five years, including in 2014. Surely, he’d be just as marketable in Boston, right? Wrong. As it turns out, past success on a west coast team in the other league combined with never being able to stay on the field, and being absolutely terrible when you do play does not make for a marketable star in Boston.
Cherington left the Red Sox in 2015 and now works for the Toronto Blue Jays. He was replaced by Dave Dombrowski, the former Detroit Tigers GM with whom he made the Porcello trade. Lucchino retired in 2015, and now runs the Pawtucket Red Sox. Dombrowski inherited the Sandoval problem, but he did not make the third base situation any better by trading Travis Shaw for Tyler Thornburg, who still has not pitched for the Red Sox.
Nobody is innocent in this mess. Sandoval himself should have a better work ethic when it comes to keeping himself in shape. I’m not usually one for body shaming, but he’s a professional athlete. His job is to play baseball, and he has been well compensated for the poor job he did in Boston. San Francisco offered him a similar contract but with weight and health clauses written into it. The Red Sox did not hold him to that, and they got the player. It’s hard to feel sorry for the Red Sox as an organization when they sign a fat guy, and then are mad that he’s fat. Same thing when you sign an ace pitcher who has never won a start in the playoffs and is prone to social media meltdowns, and then are mad when he chokes in the playoffs and loses his cool with the media, social or otherwise.
For all their success this century, this is what the Red Sox are: constantly straddling the line between competence and dysfunction, between baseball decisions and marketing decisions, between joy and despair. This is what the Red Sox have been for a hundred years. They were the first dynasty of the 20th century, then they traded a young pitcher to New York, and he became the greatest power hitter of all time. John Henry is no Harry Frazee, and he may be one of the better owners in the game today, but he has had his share of slip ups to go along with his success.
The Red Sox may have broken through and broken the Curse, but they still have the DNA of the franchise that lost Game 7 of the World Series four times in 40 years. As great as David Ortiz was, and Pedro Martinez was, and Chris Sale is, and Mookie Betts is, they are always a couple of bad signings, or a couple of terrible trades away from it all falling apart. Such is baseball. Such is life.
The Boston Red Sox formally closed the door on the David Ortiz Era this weekend by retiring. No Red Sox player will ever again wear #34. Maybe JetBlue overdid it by dedicating Gate 34 at Terminal C of Logan Airport for him, and maybe the City of Boston overdid it by also renaming part of Yawkey Way “David Ortiz Drive,” and maybe they rushed into things by waiting less than a year after Big Papi played his last game before retiring his number–they waited until induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame to honor Carlton Fisk, Jim Rice, Pedro Martinez in this way–but there is no one like David Ortiz in Red Sox history. The team’s and the city’s reaction was to be expected.
From a numbers standpoint, David Ortiz was not the best player in Red Sox history. For position players, Ted Williams, Wade Boggs, Carl Yastrzemski, and Carlton Fisk all had more career WAR by the Baseball Reference calculation (Ortiz is #231 all time, which is still impressive for a guy who was mostly a designated hitter and could not contribute in the field), and Williams and Yaz racked up all their Major League numbers with the Red Sox. But before David Ortiz, every great Red Sox player post-Babe Ruth was defined, fairly or unfairly, by not getting it done in October. Ted Williams was one of the greatest hitters ever, but only made the postseason once in his career. The signature moment of Carlton Fisk’s career was his walk-off home run off Fenway’s left field foul pole in the 1975 World Series… but that was in Game 6, and Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine won Game 7.
David Ortiz was one of many stars on the 2004 team, but it always seemed like he was in the batter’s box when it mattered most. Cast off by the Minnesota Twins, it’s almost as if David Ortiz’ MLB career did not really begin until he joined the Red Sox in 2003, one of the first of many moves that gave Theo Epstein the baseball genius reputation he enjoys today. Ortiz was the only member of the 2004 World Series Champions who was also on the team when they won it all in 2013, and he was the World Series MVP.
Ortiz had too many clutch moments for their to be a singular career defining moment. I keep going back and forth between his walk-off against the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALCS and his grand slam that turned the Fenway Park bullpen cop into a folk hero in the 2013 ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. Then again, there is also his “This is our f*cking city” moment after the Boston Marathon bombing. On and off the field, no player meant more to Boston than David Ortiz.
Ortiz’ accomplishments in Boston sports this century are matched only by Tom Brady. Like Ortiz, Brady turned the fortunes of a long-downtrodden franchise almost as soon as he arrived. Together, they transformed the Boston teams from ones devoid of titles to ones defined by them. The success of the Red Sox and Patriots was so infectious that even the post-Larry Bird Celtics and Jeremy Jacobs-owned Bruins followed suit.
Like Ortiz, Brady is as good as ever as he enters his 40s. He was already firmly in the Greatest Of All Time discussion before he won two of the last three Super Bowls. The comeback he orchestrated against the Falcons this February is one I still stop and think about in semi-disbelief that it really happened, and may be the best game he’s ever played. Both Ortiz and Brady proved themselves time and again after most had written them off. Obviously–purely based on the impact of an NFL quarterback compared to that of a MLB designated hitter–Brady is the more important player in the overall history of his sport, but given the historical importance of the Red Sox in Boston (their World Series drought predated the Patriots’ inaugural season by 42 years) makes the Ortiz vs. Brady discussion a debate.
As crazy as the David Ortiz farewell tour of 2016 that spilled into 2017 may have been, don’t be surprised if it’s even crazier if Brady ever retires. Then again, Brady’s end might come in another Super Bowl, which was the only thing missing from the end of the Ortiz Era. The 2016 World Series was the Series That Boston Built. It validated so much of what I have believed about baseball for years. If I wanted to build a title contender from scratch, I would want Theo Epstein running my front office. Even though his team lost, Terry Francona out-managed Joe Maddon, and Tito is the guy I would want managing my team. I would want Jon Lester starting the biggest game of the year, and Andrew Miller pitching the innings of highest leverage. The Red Sox had all of those guys on the payroll as recently as 2011. If that wasn’t enough, former Boston World Series champions John Lackey, David Ross, Mike Napoli, and Coco Crisp also played in the World Series.
David Ortiz went into his last postseason with a cast that was not good enough, and got swept in the ALDS Francona’s Cleveland Indians. The only thing missing from the Series That Boston Built was Boston, and by extension, David Ortiz. David Ortiz was Boston baseball. Boston celebrated him the way they did because he was the best we ever had when the games mattered most.
The 2016 Major League Baseball season was one for the ages, capped off with an unforgettable World Series played between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians. It was a great year for baseball, I could not help but feel like my team, the Boston Red Sox, squandered a golden opportunity, when they were swept in the ALDS by the Tribe. The 2016 World Series, which featured a team built by Theo Epstein and a team managed by Terry Francona, and a half dozen other players between the two teams won earned World Series rings with Boston earlier in their careers, validated so many of my long held baseball beliefs, but was also a stark reminder that those people I believe in–particularly Francona, Epstein, Jon Lester, and Andrew Miller–are no longer with the Red Sox, and now, neither is David Ortiz. Where do the Red Sox go from here?
The David Ortiz Era is over in Boston, and what an era it was. Barring some kind of desire to play on always nagging feet again, and barring some kind of Instagram rumor being any more than that, we are more likely to see Dave Dombrowski or John Farrell go all Rick Pitino on the Red Sox press corps (Side note: having just re-watched that clip for the first time in a while, that press conference feels like a million years ago, but amazingly, Vince Carter is still playing in the NBA) than we are to see even one more Big Papi walk-off hit. The only David Ortiz highlights Red Sox fans should expect now are when the team retires his #34, when they induct him into the team Hall of Fame, and hopefully when the BBWAA votes him into the Baseball Hall of Fame (Although, I’m not sure when that will be. If it were up to me, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Jack Morris, and Tim Raines would already be in Cooperstown, and Manny Ramirez would be elected in this year on his first ballot.). It would have been nice for Ortiz, the greatest playoff performer in Red Sox history and of of the greatest of all time, to get one last deep postseason run, but it did not happen. The pitching could not keep up with their hitting, and Cleveland’s pitching was really, really good. Now it’s time to pass the torch to a new generation in Red Sox baseball.
For a decade, Red Sox Baseball was all about David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, and Jon Lester. Ortiz is now retired, Lester is now going to be at least equally remembered for being a Chicago Cub as he was for his two stellar World Series winning performances with Boston, and while Pedroia is still here, I feel like going forward, it’s about the kids. Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, and Andrew Benintendi are the present and the future of the Red Sox, and I am fine with that. These kids are alright, and I am really glad Dombrowski did not have to deal away any of them to get Chris Sale.
I have a feeling the Red Sox’ pitching will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016. I could be wrong, as I thought they were going to be better in the first half of last season than they were, but the way David Price improved in the second half was encouraging, even if he turned back into Playoff David Price in the playoffs. I think Rick Porcello had a great year, but he did steal the Cy Young Award from Justin Verlander. I have to agree with Kate Upton on that one. He has yet to pitch for the Red Sox, but I have wanted for years for them to make a run at Chris Sale. The guy has a bit of a nutty streak in him, best exemplified by that jersey cutting incident with the White Sox last summer, and every picture of him pitching on Google Images looks like his elbow is about to explode, but the dude can pitch, and pitchers with that kind of edge to them have done very well in Boston, from Clemens, to Pedro Martinez, to Curt Schilling, to Josh Beckett (when he cared), to Jonathan Papelbon, to John Lackey, and if any of that attitude rubs off on Price (Porcello showed a little bit of attitude last season too, which I liked), then everybody wins.
I would also be remiss if I did not take the time to mention that Clay Buchholz is no longer a member of the Red Sox, and I am as overjoyed as one can be about something that should have happened three years ago. Clay Buchholz is my least favorite Red Sox player ever, and my least favorite Boston athlete who never (to my knowledge) murdered anybody. Yes, he had good stuff, but his flashed of brilliance were not worth the frustration of injuries and poor performances when Boston needed him. I got off on the wrong foot with him when he first pitched brilliantly after being called up from the minors in the summer of 2007, even throwing a no-hitter in his second career start, but then the Red Sox had to shut him down when he was too fatigued to pitch in the playoffs. I knew he was trouble back then, and when he took a summer vacation in 2013 because his child slept in an uncomfortable position on his shoulder, and then pitched like he did not want to be there in the World Series, I was done. No player has ever done less to earn two World Series rings in Boston. The Red Sox traded Buchholz to the Philadelphia Phillies for a minor league prospect named I Don’t Even Care. All that matters is I do not have to root for him anymore.
Going into 2017, the Red Sox are, on paper, the team to beat in the American League thanks to the addition of Sale. I have my concerns about how sustainable their operation is, though. The 2016 World Series validated how good the people who made 2004, 2007, and 2013 happen were, but with each passing season, fewer of those people are working in Boston. Dave Dombrowski has no emotional connection to that era, and he has not been operating the way Theo Epstein and Ben Cherington were, for better or for worse. The biggest knock on Cherington, who was the initial replacement for Epstein, and a longtime assistant GM to Theo, was that he did not pull the trigger on trades of prospects. With the departure of Mike Hazen (who last year served as general manager under Dombrowski as president) to become general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, the Red Sox are drifting towards a new philosophy from what helped them win in a bigger way than they have since Dan Duquette was still in charge of the baseball operation.
Dombrowski has shown a fearlessness in dealing prospects from the Red Sox farm system for Craig Kimbrel, Drew Pomeranz (and even after the San Diego Padres were penalized for improper medical disclosure before the Pomeranz trade, the fact that Dombrowski did not try to renegotiate the deal to get Pomeranz for a lesser prospect than Anderson Espinoza remains a head-scratcher to me), and Chris Sale, which is on one hand refreshing, but at the same time worrying because when he was the GM of the Detroit Tigers, he strip-mined their farm system for an octogenarian owner who demanded the Tigers win now. The Tigers were among the best teams in baseball for a good stretch, even reaching the World Series in 2006 and 2012, but they never won it, and when it was clear they would have to rebuild, Dombrowski was out of a job, and here he is in Boston. The fact that he is operating the same way here as he did in Detroit makes me wonder if he learned from what went wrong there, and while he did have his share of trade success (Miguel Cabrera, Max Scherzer, and David Price, to name three), it’s not the most sustainable way to win consistently. I hope this is what Dombrowski is doing to put his stamp on the team, to make the roster his roster and not Ben Cherington’s roster anymore, but that every offseason is not what the 2015 and 2016 offseasons, with the farm system eventually getting depleted. That is a long-term concern, but it will not be a major talking point in 2017 if the young guys continue to hit.
This is an article I wrote for the school newspaper at Fitchburg State University in November of 2016. Before it got a chance to run, the election happened, and suddenly an epic end to an all-time great World Series was no longer news. Now that I have graduated, I am publishing some of my writing from the semester. I plan of writing more in the coming days. Enjoy!
It was a series with a combined 176 years of title-drought baggage, a series where the National League team was at an advantage in the American League ballpark because of their game-changing designated hitter, and it was a series in which both fan bases went into Game 7 convinced their team would lose… and they were almost both right. It was a World Series for the ages, and it had everything baseball fans could possibly ask for.
In the end, the Chicago Cubs won the deciding seventh game 8-7 in a ten inning, rain delayed, thrilling mess of a game in Cleveland, winning the World Series for the first time since 1908, but they certainly didn’t make it easy for themselves. Cubs manager Joe Maddon took starting pitcher Kyle Hendricks early in the game when he was pitching well to bring in Jon Lester as well as Lester’s personal catcher David Ross. Every head-scratching move Maddon made, though, was bailed out by his players playing well. First, Lester threw a pitch so wild it bounced of Ross’ face mask and brought in two Cleveland runs, but then Ross hit a home run off lefty reliever (and fellow 2013 World Series champion with the Boston Red Sox) Andrew Miller. Maddon will go down in history as the manager who oversaw the end of a 108 year curse in Chicago, but he also showed that managing is overrated. Theo Epstein built the team, and the players Epstein picked came up big for the Cubs, but Terry Francona out-managed Maddon and his team lost because the pieces he had to work with were simply not as good as Maddon’s.
As a Red Sox fan, this series validated so many of the baseball beliefs I have held for years. After an amazing seven game World Series that got better ratings than the NFL, it is clear that in 2016, if you were to start an expansion baseball team and build from the ground up, Theo Epstein would be your first choice to run the front office, Terry Francona would be your first choice to run the field operation, Jon Lester is the guy the guy you want taking the mound in a big game, and Andrew Miller would be the guy you want coming out of the bullpen in the highest leverage innings. The Red Sox had all those guys, and won championships with all those guys.
For the Cleveland Indians, it was a series they did not win literally, and could not win figuratively. Terry Francona had to go with a three man pitching rotation and had a much narrower margin for error in the managerial decisions he made compared to Maddon. Cleveland’s entire postseason run was predicated on a great bullpen and Corey Kluber pitching out of his mind every time he took the mound. Given that Kluber, the 2014 American League Cy Young Award winner, was coming off an injury and had never pitched in the playoffs, that was no sure thing. On paper, the Indians should not have beaten the Red Sox (who they swept) or the Toronto Blue Jays (who they bear in five games), and the fact that their season was still going in the tenth inning of Game 7 of the World Series against a 103-win Cubs team is incredible. The Indians and their fans should be proud.
In June, the Cavaliers overcame a 1-3 series deficit to beat a Golden State Warriors team that won a record breaking 73 regular season games to win Cleveland’s first major professional sports title since the Browns’ NFL Championship in 1964. The Indians themselves have not won the World Series since 1948. Against any other National League opponent, the Tribe would have been the feel-good story that baseball fans across America would be rooting for. Now, the Indians have the longest title drought of any team that has stayed in the same place (in football, the Chicago Cardinals won the NFL Championship in 1947, but moved to St. Louis in 1960, and to Arizona in 1988), and their drought is as long as the Red Sox were without winning it all when Mookie Wilson’s grounder went through Bill Buckner’s legs in the 1986 World Series. Heartbreak like this, blowing a 3-1 series lead in baseball just months after overcoming a 1-3 series deficit in basketball, it the kind of thing that will only make it sweeter when the Indians win the World Series in the future.
For Cubs fans, the thing that was never going to happen finally happened. Fans from Bill Murray to John Cusack to Eddie Vedder to 96 year old retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens, who attended World Series games at Wrigley Field in 1929 and 1932, are finally getting a taste of baseball championship glory. That’s pretty cool to see. There is no fan base that has suffered nearly as long as Cubs fans did, and as jaded as I might be, it’s hard not to enjoy this one.
In spite of their flaws, in spite of the underachievement by the players that were expected to be really good, the Boston Red Sox are a fun team to watch and a fun team to root for in 2016. For the first time since 2013, the Red Sox are still in the pennant race in the middle of August, and that’s a refreshing change of pace for a die hard fan of America’s Regional Pastime. As shaky as the pitching has been this year, the offense has carried the Red Sox more often than it hasn’t, and while David Ortiz is still amazing, and still an enormous part of what the Red Sox do offensively, this summer the torch has been passed to a new great hitter, and you wouldn’t know by looking at him.
Markus Lynn “Mookie” Betts, the Red Sox outfielder who will turn 24 in October, is doing everything he can to crash the season-long party that has been David Ortiz’ farewell tour in the best ways possible for the sake of the team. The Red Sox have an exciting core in the Four Bs (I’m still workshopping the nickname. I’m not married to it. It doesn’t roll off the tongue the way The Core Four does. Why do the Yankees always get to have nice things? I’m open to suggestions): Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and recently called up Andrew Benintendi. While all four received varying levels of hype, Betts has been the most consistent since getting called up to the Majors in 2014, and his ability to hit for power like this has shocked the baseball world to the point where Dave Cameron (not to be confused with David Cameron, the recently resigned British prime minister) of Fangraphs wrote this week about how Betts has defied the comparisons people like him have wanted to compare him to in his professional baseball career.
Mookie Betts has 28 home runs already this year (he hit 18 home runs in 2015, his first full Major League season), and has had two multi-home run games just this week, hitting three home runs against the Arizona Diamondbacks and becoming only the second Red Sox player to have multiple three home run games in a single season (the other was some guy named Ted Williams), and then a two home run game against the division rival Baltimore Orioles in which Mookie drove in all five runs for Boston in their crucial 5-3 win at Camden Yards. He’s not just hitting for power, but he’s hitting for power in big moments. That’s ripped straight from the David Ortiz playbook, but that’s where the Papi/Mookie comparisons stop. Ortiz is a left-handed hitter, while Betts is a right-handed hitter. Ortiz was a low-risk free agent signing after the Minnesota Twins wrote him off, while Betts was drafted by the Red Sox in 2011, and developed in their farm system ahead of schedule. Ortiz was crushing baseballs and giving fans hope for reversing the Curse of the Bambino when I was still in middle school, while Betts is younger than I am. Most of all, Ortiz is a bulky, lumbering 6’3″ beast of a man who gets opposing fans and pitchers alike shaking at their knees by his mere presence in the batter’s box, while Betts is a slight 5’9″, looks like Steph Curry to Papi’s LeBron, and is still getting underestimated by much of the competition. Other than that, they’re exactly the same.
It really amazing how much power Betts is packing into such a small body, and it’s refreshing to see a guy who can hit like that who can also move the way he does, both in the field and running the bases. Usually the Red Sox have guys who are one or the other. Guys like David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Ted Williams if you want to go back that far, they were all great hitters for average as well as power, but you also hold your breath whenever the ball is hit their way. Guys like Johnny Damon and Jacoby Ellsbury were all speed, but were never much in the way of power hitters. Betts is the best of both worlds, and he’s younger than me, shorter than me, faster than me (not that anyone cares), is making exponentially less money than Jacoby Ellsbury is right now with New York, and he’s still wearing a linebacker’s number as if he just got called up to Boston last week (One thing I always find mildly interesting is unconventional number/player combinations. I like it when an established, every day player still wears a high number like a recent call-up like Betts is wearing #50, or when Manny Ramirez chose #99 when he was with the Dodgers. Xander Bogaerts wore #72 in the 2013 World Series, but changed it to #2 the next year after Ellsbury signed with the Yankees, for instance. I also really like Sandy Leon this year. Partly because he’s been crushing everything that crosses the plate lately, and partly because he’s a catcher who has bounced between Boston and Pawtucket the last two years, but has a single digit jersey. How did he pull that off? Who in the Red Sox organization does he have dirt on?)!
This may be David Ortiz’ year, and he’s earned the right to be celebrated the way he has, but Mookie Betts has shown us this year that the Red Sox’ offense will be in good hands even after Big Papi retires, and it’s going to be a lot of fun along the way. If the Red Sox make the playoffs, Mookie Betts has a chance to win the American League MVP, especially since Mike Trout’s Angels are out of the picture (On a side note, it’s amazing how fast the baseball writers who vote on awards took Trout for granted. Guys like Peyton Manning and LeBron James both had to win three or four MVPs in their respective sports before people got sick of voting for them, and Trout only won once and before getting passed up in favor of Josh Donaldson last year. Trout should be really be mad at the Angels’ front office for not putting a better team around him. Donaldson won because the helped the Blue Jays end a 22 year postseason drought. Mike Trout only turned 25 a couple weeks ago and he’s already in danger of being the best player to have his prime squandered by an incompetent baseball operations department since Ted Williams, who only made the postseason once in his career, when the Red Sox lost to the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games in the 1946 World Series, but even then, Ted played in an era when only one team in the American League made the playoffs every year. Trout’s Angels have five times as many chances! Sorry about that. Moving on.), but even if he doesn’t win, Mookie Betts is the most exciting thing to happen to the Red Sox since their fans got used to the idea of winning the World Series before they die. This isn’t the best Red Sox team we’ve ever seen, but it sure is a good time.
In a year when sports fans said goodbye to Peyton Manning and Kobe Bryant, and much more quietly to Tim Duncan, in a year when we get to sit back and appreciate the late-career renaissances of David Ortiz, Ichiro Suzuki, Dirk Nowitzki, Tom Brady, Drew Brees, Joe Thornton, and Jaromir Jagr, and in a week we learned for sure that this the end for Mark Texeira (retiring at the end of the season), Prince Fielder (retiring effective immediately due to neck problems), and likely also Tim Lincecum (designated for assignment by the Angels after posting an earned run average over nine), the weirdest departure is that of New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez… because of course it is. He wouldn’t go down any other way.
A-Rod’s career is coming to an abrupt end this week, after playing the series this week at Fenway Park against the Red Sox, Rodriguez will play one more home game in front of the New York crowd, and then will begin a new career as a special adviser to the Yankees’ organization for the duration of his playing contract. No chase for 700 or 714 or 755 or 763 home runs. No farewell tour. Just one last chance to be heckled by the Boston fans who have been heckling him since 2004, and one last chance to be cheered by the New York fans who I imagine could not have felt good about this guy being one of the faces of their storied franchise for over a decade. It’s just weird. Nothing ever totally added up with this guy.
I’ve been aware of Alex Rodriguez for as long as I’ve been following baseball full time (my earliest recollection of watching the games and knowing what was going on was the 1996 World Series between the Yankees and Atlanta Braves, when I was six, but I did not start following baseball day to day until the 1998 season, when I was eight), and I always knew he was a supremely talented player from his early days with the Seattle Mariners and his big free agent payday with the Texas Rangers, when his ten year $252 million contract shattered the record for player contracts in North American professional sports set by Kevin Garnett, but I did not hate him until 2004. The deal that the Red Sox tried to make to acquire A-Rod, would have changed the landscape of Major League Baseball, with the Sox having A-Rod at shortstop in 2004, and without Nomar Garciaparra available to be the trade chip to fill out the roster with role players, without Manny to be behind Ortiz in the lineup right when David Ortiz was becoming David Ortiz, and without Jon Lester, their lefty ace of the future. A-Rod would have come into Boston with enormously high expectations, would have had to replace Nomar and Manny, and would have had to deal with 86 and counting years of emotional baggage. In hindsight, it’s hard to imagine the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2004 and 2007 without Manny, and hard to see the Red Sox winning the World Series in 2007 and 2013 without Lester. How would the ALCS comeback have even started? Do they even have Dave Roberts on the roster to steal second base if Nomar had already been dealt the winter before? Things turned out alright for the Red Sox without A-Rod, and I cannot see the A-Rod Era in Boston going any better than the last 12 years when A-Rod was in pinstripes went, but in the moment it was a slight that he ended up in New York that every Boston fan took personally on some level.
A-Rod was easy to root against because he was so insanely talented, yet so often disappeared from big moments. Michael Baumann of The Ringer wrote this week among other things about the bad week for star players who came to prominence in the late-2000s with unconventional bodies, with the end coming for the comically oversized Prince Fielder and the comically undersized Tim Lincecum, but A-Rod had it all from a physical standpoint. He was one of the seven most purely talented position players Major League Baseball has seen in the last 20 years, along with Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Bonds, Roberto Alomar, Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout. While ballplayers like the inaptly named Fielder (Prince Fielder was so fat, he made Mo Vaughn look like Jacoby Ellsbury.) and Lincecum (Tim Lincecum was so small he made Pedro Martinez look like Roger Clemens. I think I’m done fat-shaming and skinny-shaming for this column. Moving on.) were praised for getting the most they could out of their unconventional baseball bodies, those seven guys had (and still have in the cases of Miggy and Trout) astronomically high expectations for their careers because they had it all. Griffey and Alomar are in Cooperstown already, Bonds should be, Pujols has cemented his status as a no-brainer Hall of Famer despite being on the decline, and Cabrera and Trout are well on their way. A-Rod has the numbers for the Hall of Fame, but it certainly feels like he never quite reached his full potential. There’s also the steroids thing, and being suspended for the entire 2014 season for PEDs. I’m on record as being pro-steroids to a degree. I’m a Barry Bonds apologist and a Manny Ramirez apologist, but the combination of A-Rod’s steroid use and his constant trying to shape his own image to be something he’s not (His tendency to try too hard to act human has given him comparisons to both Tom Cruise and Ted Cruz.) is what bothers me about him. He’s always acting because he wants people to like him. That’s something I can relate to, but on that level it’s annoying. Be yourself, man. Stop doing this weird Derek Jeter/Cal Ripken impression so people will like you more.
The quintessential moments of A-Rod’s career came in the 2004 season, and they are not clutch, game-winning hits to bring the Yankees to glory or anything like that. First, there was the fight with Jason Varitek after getting hit by a Bronson Arroyo pitch in a midsummer game against the Red Sox, and then of course, there was The Slap. In a play also involving Bronson Arroyo, A-Rod became A-Fraud in the eyes of Red Sox fans (I was proud of myself for coming up with that nickname in 2004 when I was a high school freshman, only to go on sports message boards years later and realize everyone else on the Internet was thinking it, too.). He swats the ball out Arroyo’s glove, Jeter goes around to score, the Yankees win again. That’s what was going to happen. 86 years without a World Series title, and this guy who was supposed to be our shortstop in 2004 swats it away from us in the cheapest way possible. Fortunately Tito came out of the dugout and argued, and fortunately another umpire had a better angle and overturned the play. The look on A-Rod’s face, caught red-handed in a lie, but still defiant enough to act like he was the one being persecuted, was Alex Rodriguez in a nutshell. He could have led the Yankees to five World Series titles, he could have hit 800 home runs, he could have never taken a performance enhancing drug in his life, and that defiance in the face of false persecution act on second base at Fenway Park on that October night would still be my lasting impression of him.
The difference between Alex Rodriguez and other sports villains is that nobody wants to defend him. San Francisco fans still love Barry Bonds. Lakers fans will always love Kobe. Patriots fans will die on a metaphorical hill for Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Yankees fans don’t like A-Rod either. Brian Cashman couldn’t stand him. Joe Girardi couldn’t stand him. They couldn’t even wait to for the season to end to push him out. A-Rod hasn’t said he’s retiring, just that his time with the Yankees ends this week. Might he try a comeback with a team like the Miami Marlins? He’s beyond washed up, but he’s close to 700 home runs. Leave it to A-Rod to write a weird ending for himself.
I wrote a couple of weeks ago about baseball’s uncertain future, about baseball’s success as a regional sport may leave it in the dust behind football and basketball on the national stage. I cited my own fandom and the way my friends follow baseball. I am a bigger fan of baseball than most people in their mid-20s, and even though one of my closest friends is named Daniel Murphy (and it’s worth noting that MLB’s Daniel Murphy has followed up his incredible postseason with the New York Mets by leaving for the Washington Nationals and having a career year in D.C.), compelling playoff stories like the Mets or the Cubs or the Royals or the Blue Jays last year just don’t move the needle out of their local markets the way they would in other sports. In my observations of the declining relevance of baseball, I neglected to mention the demise of Boston’s most hated rival and the dull irrelevance of the New York Yankees.
Red Sox vs. Yankees used to be one of the best rivalries in sports, for decades. It was a lopsided rivalry, for sure, and having grown up on the losing end of the rivalry, it mattered that much more. For 86 years, the Red Sox had to measure themselves against the Yankees, after giving up arguably the greatest baseball player ever to New York before his potential was fully realized. The Yankees were a nothing franchise before Babe Ruth, like the New England Patriots before Tom Brady, or the Pittsburgh Steelers before Terry Bradshaw, or the Dallas Mavericks before Dirk Nowitzki, except magnified by nearly a century long sample size. Babe Ruth made the Yankees the Bronx Bombers, and ever since they had been baseball’s perfect villain. 27 World Series titles, 40 American League Pennants, and a meddling billionaire owner who was basically a more impressive version of Donald Trump. They were the perfect team to hate, and not just for Boston. That was what made October of 2004 as sweet as it was. The Red Sox did not just win the World Series. The Red Sox did not just vanquish their greatest foe. The Red Sox did not just vanquish their demons from 2003. It vanquished 1999 and 1978, and all the other years of “good, but not good enough” that defined Red Sox Baseball from Prohibition to Mission Accomplished. We had just gotten the upper hand over Yankees fans in the rivalry, and then it faded into obscurity.
We’re now in our third Presidential Election year since the Red Sox defeated the Yankees in the most thrilling seven game series (or at least the most thrilling comeback) in the history of baseball, and the Red Sox and Yankees have not met in the playoffs since. The Sox won the World Series two more times in 2007 and 2013, and the Yankees won it all in 2009, but the rivalry just isn’t what it was. If baseball can’t matter to New Englanders as much as it did before 2004, that is especially true of their most hated rival.
In 2016, the Yankees are in a position they are not used to being in at the trade deadline: sell mode. Money cannot fix all their problems. The enormous contracts they gave out to C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira before the 2009 season (which seemed like great deals at the time as New York would not have won the World Series that year without those two players) have hindered their ability to retool on the fly. Baseball has no salary cap, but it has implemented a luxury tax system that when a team like the Yankees or Dodgers cross that threshold, spending more becomes prohibitive. After the 2013 World Series, the Yankees paid top dollar for the dynamic, but oft-injured Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, and Red Sox fans weren’t even mad, for the most part. The following winter, when former Red Sox lefty ace Jon Lester was available in free agency, the Yankees were not even in the mix for his services. The Yankees were not dominating in the standings or in hot stove headlines, and it was weird.
This week, Yankees GM Brian Cashman sent controversial closer Aroldis Chapman (who was suspended for domestic violence after the Yankees traded for him from Cincinnati last winter and whose presence will no doubt complicate the feelings of Cubs fans as their highly anticipated 2016 postseason run approaches) to the Chicago Cubs for a haul of prospects, and today sent hard throwing lefty (and 2013 World Series Champion with Boston) Andrew Miller to the Cleveland Indians for even more prospects. Gutting New York’s stout bullpen like this is essentially waiving the white flag on the 2016 season, but it could set the Yankees up for a brighter future when Teixeira’s and Alex Rodriguez’ contracts come off the books in the coming years. At the same time it raises the stakes even more for a Chicago team that has not won the World Series since 1908 and a Cleveland team that last won it in 1948.
Now Cashman has a chance to show that he’s the talented GM I believe he is. Since he became GM in 1998, inheriting a team that was already really good and had the spending power to add and add and add, his reputation has been just that. I thought that when Theo Epstein left Boston for the Cubs after the 2011 season, that Cashman might try to do something similar. While Theo has the distinction already of being the executive who built a championship team in Boston when no one had been able to since 1918, and now is trying to do that for the lowly Cubbies, I thought Cashman might find another midwestern National League team with over a century of history of his own, perhaps the Cincinnati Reds, to forge a second chapter of his legacy in a smaller market.
If Cashman can make the Yankees great again (gulp!), in this new competitive landscape, then he will deserve a lot more credit than he will likely get. No other team’s fans have any love for the New York Yankees, but there is something missing from baseball season when they are not in the mix. I hate to say this, but for Major League Baseball to be a national sport like the NFL or NBA, maybe it needs the Yankees. And I say that as a fourth generation Red Sox fan (gulp! again).