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.
It had been over a century since the Chicago Cubs last won the World Series, and their last National League Pennant came just six months after the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt. While the 2016 Cubs winning the World Series should not have been a shock to baseball fans–they were loaded with young talent and good veteran starting pitching, their roster was built by Theo Epstein, and they were in the NLCS the year before–they shocked the world because of the lovable loser legacy of their jersey and their ballpark. If you thought nothing in the world could top 2016 for the Cubs and your fans, you would not be wrong, but their 2017 season has been underwhelming to this point, even without the context of history, fate, and destiny.
The Cubs currently hold a record of 43-43, four and a half games behind the surprisingly good Milwaukee Brewers in the National League Central. They struggled early on, and they could very well go on a run, take back the division, and finish 2017 right where they were the last two seasons. But they are not the juggernaut they were before. They are not the only expected good team that has underperformed in the first half–the San Francisco Giants currently hold the second worst record in Major League Baseball–but the Giants were not expected to be right there with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals (or perhaps better than both) the way the Cubs were–and the Giants have three World Series titles in the bank for this decade after not winning any in their first 50 years in San Francisco.
As the Cubs’ struggles are going on–from Jake Arrieta’s drop in velocity, to Kyle Schwarber getting sent down to the AAA Iowa Cubs, to Miguel Montero getting traded to the Toronto Blue Jays for publicly criticizing Arrieta–I know the baseball operations people are still working long days trying to put out the best possible product, but it seems like Cubs fans are still just happy to have 2016. On the field, the Cubs are proving that chemistry is overrated, that it’s a product of winning, not the other way around. Off the field, Cubs fans are experiencing a long-awaited championship hangover of their own.
In 2016, the Cubs had five position players (Anthony Rizzo, Ben Zobrist, Kris Bryant, Addison Russell, and Dexter Fowler) and two starting pitchers (Arrieta and Jon Lester) elected to the National League All-Star team. In 2017, all those players except Fowler (who signed with the St. Louis Cardinals as a free agent) are still on the Cubs, but their only All-Star representative (prior to announcing replacement players) is new arrival closer Wade Davis. This would make the Cubs the first World Series champion to not have any players from their World Series team in the following All-Star Game. I defend Cubs fans by pointing out the fact that the last time they won the World Series was a quarter century before the first All-Star Game, and they might not know any better, but they had seven guys voted into the game last year, so they clearly know how it works.
The plight of the 2017 Cubs reminds my of the 2005 Boston Red Sox, but with significant differences. The 2005 Red Sox experienced a greater amount of roster turnover from the curse-breaking season before, as Theo had built that team more through free agency and trades than through the farm system like he would go on to in Chicago.
Pedro Martinez signed with the Mets. Derek Lowe signed with the Dodgers. Orlando Cabrera signed with the Angels. Pokey Reese signed with the Mariners, but never played in another Major League game. Dave Roberts was traded to the Padres. The 2005 Red Sox had a different look to them, with guys like David Wells, Matt Clement, Edgar Renteria, and Jay Payton taking their places. It wasn’t the same. Renteria struggled, and my uncle referred to him as “Rent-A-Wreck” that year. Payton was designated for assignment after publicly complaining about playing time (Trot Nixon was Boston’s everyday outfielder in those years, and with Manny Ramirez in left and Johnny Damon in center, the fourth outfielder mostly played when there was a lefty starter and Nixon was sitting). In spite of all that, the Red Sox still went 95-67 and made the playoffs as the American League Wild Card. They were swept in the ALDS by the eventual World Series champion Chicago White Sox. It was not a bad season by any stretch of the imagination, but after the emotional lows and highs of 2003 and 2004, it was dull.
As a Red Sox fan, I wondered if the 2005 Red Sox were all baseball ever could be after seeing 2004 happen. I did not have to live through most of the drought, and it still felt like a once in a lifetime thing at the time. My grandfather was born in 1925, died in 2000, was a Red Sox fan his whole life, and never got to see them win it all. I saw them win it twice while I was in high school. Nobody alive today remembers the 1908 Cubs. Most Cubs fans alive today did not even remember them in the World Series, and even then, it was before television and before the Major Leagues were integrated. Even the 1945 Pennant team was ancient history.
This is why I was actually pulling for the Cleveland Indians in the World Series last year. Beyond my personal affection for Terry Francona, Mike Napoli, Francisco Lindor, and Andrew Miller, the plight of the Indians fan seemed more like the plight of the Red Sox fan before 2004. They had not won since 1948, and in my lifetime, transformed themselves from being Cubs-esque to being Red Sox-esque. The quintessential Cleveland sports movie is about a down on their luck Tribe team that improbably has a great season, but they don’t even get to the World Series in that movie! Major League came out in 1989, but then the Indians took the World Series to seven games in 1995, before falling to the Atlanta Braves, and again in 1997, before falling to the Florida Marlins. They lost the World Series again in seven games in 2016, and just like that, they are as far removed from their last title as the Red Sox were in 1986, when they lost the World Series in seven games for the fourth time since 1918.
I thought the Cubs needed to get close and feel the pain of losing in the World Series before actually winning it. I thought it was Cleveland’s turn. I thought it would be best for baseball to still have this incredibly long drought intact. But baseball is not pro wrestling, and the best storyline is not what always happens. While the Indians can add this to their legacy, and that will make it even sweeter if and when they do win it all, it’s the Cubs and their fans who have to figure out what comes next for them. For a century, their identity was losing, and their fans, like Red Sox fans, wore it as a badge of honor. It takes time to figure out life after that championship you never thought would happen, and even if the Cubs turn their season around, their new identity is still a work in progress.
Last weekend, the Baseball Hall of Fame had their annual induction ceremony and the Class of 2016 included Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza, two of baseball’s biggest stars of my childhood. Both are worthy and both inductions are significant (Griffey became the first #1 overall pick to get into Cooperstown, and Piazza, taken 1390th overall in the 62nd round of the 1988 draft, is the lowest draft pick ever to make the Hall of Fame), but with each passing year, there are more worthy players being left out of Cooperstown. My thoughts on the Baseball Hall of Fame are well documented, from David Ortiz to Jack Morris, going through the archives of this blog, but one case I haven’t really discussed at length (if at all) is that of Tim Raines.
Raines first became eligible for the Baseball Hall of Fame ballot in 2008, when he earned just 24.3% of the vote, but in 2016, his ninth year on the ballot, he was up to 69.8% (with 75% being the cutoff required for the Hall). This upcoming ballot will be his last to chance to get inducted by the esteemed Baseball Writers’ Association of America (BBWAA), and it seems like a real toss up whether he gets in or not in 2017. Jonah Keri, one of my favorite baseball writers anywhere, and one of my biggest writing heroes, is an analytically inclined guy, and while he’s mostly indifferent to teams and rooting interest based on laundry, his weakness is the late great (Well, maybe not great. Critically acclaimed, though? 1994 was something special, but we’ll never know how great that team really was? I like that description better.) Montreal Expos, of which Tim Raines was one of the biggest stars along with Andre Dawson, Vladimir Guerrero, Larry Walker, and Pedro Martinez (Sorry, Randy Johnson. You don’t make the cut. It would be a little like listing Jeff Bagwell as a Red Sox legend or Sammy Sosa as one of the all time great Texas Rangers.). Keri is not a Hall of Fame voter at this time, but he has made Tim Raines his personal crusade. I was always aware of Raines, and I knew he was a good player, especially in the Montreal years, but I never really dug deeply into his career. The more I read and listened to Jonah Keri, the more intrigued I was by this Hall of Famer who isn’t.
In theory, Tim Raines should be in Cooperstown already. He’s a seven time All-Star, the 1986 National League batting champion, led the NL in stolen bases four times, and won two World Series rings as a player with the New York Yankees (and was a coach for the 2005 World Series Champion Chicago White Sox). His 808 career stolen bases are good for fifth all time, behind Rickey Henderson, Lou Brock, Billy Hamilton, and Ty Cobb, making him the all time leader in stolen bases by someone who is not in the Hall of Fame already. Even if you think stolen bases are overrated, as I do to a degree, it’s hard to overlook that kind of production on the base path. Raines was as good a leadoff hitter as anyone in the 1980s, and when he got on, he found his way into the pitcher’s head. Even if you think the All-Star Game is a glorified popularity contest that only rewards players with great first-half performances and pre-existing reputations, but being selected for the All-Star team seven straight times, as Raines was from 1981 to 1987, it is hard to ignore that kind of name recognition. Outside of baseball, how many seven time All-Stars miss the Hall of Fame?
The best cross-sport comparison I can think of for Tim Raines is Clyde Drexler. Drexler was a great shooting guard, a ten time All-Star, the Portland Trail Blazers’ all time leading scorer, was a member of the 1992 United States Olympic “Dream Team,” and an NBA champion with the Houston Rockets in 1995. He had a great career, and is in the Basketball Hall of Fame (Seriously, being a 1992 Olympic Gold Medalist practically puts him into the Basketball Hall of Fame by default. The Dream Team has been inducted as a team and Christian Laettner is the only player who has not been inducted as an individual.), but with a career like that in baseball, he might not be a Hall of Famer, as evidenced by the plight of Tim Raines.
The biggest knock on Clyde Drexler’s career was that he wasn’t Michael Jordan. Picked 14th overall in the 1983 NBA Draft by Portland, the Blazers felt Drexler was good enough at the shooting guard to pass on Jordan when he was there for the taking at #2 the following year. Instead, Portland took the immortal Sam Bowie. If you think falling to #3 didn’t annoy and anger Jordan, you don’t know Jordan. MJ made it his mission in the 1992 NBA Finals when his Chicago Bulls played Portland, and later that summer in Dream Team practices to embarrass Drexler, to make sure that anyone who thought Drexler was on his level was made to look the fool. When Drexler retired, one thing was clear: he was great, but he was no Michael Jordan, and that’s fine. Nobody is Michael Jordan except Michael Jordan. Not Joe Dumars. Not Dwyane Wade. Not even Kobe Bryant. Certainly not Clyde Drexler. Maybe the biggest difference between the way we remember star players in basketball as opposed to baseball is that all the good players get into one Hall of Fame, and even some of the truly great players don’t make it into the other.
Tim Raines’ Michael Jordan is Rickey Henderson. Rickey made his Major League debut in June of 1979, and Raines debuted in September of 1979, but while Raines played his last game in 2002, Henderson stuck it out through the 2003 season. Raines had a very impressive 808 career stolen bases, while Henderson compiled a record-breaking 1,406 stolen bases. Raines made seven All-Star Games, but Henderson made ten. Both earned two World Series rings, but while Raines earned his as an older veteran with the Yankees in 1996 and 1998, Henderson got his rings closer to his apex in 1989 with the Oakland A’s and 1993 with the Toronto Blue Jays. Both had cool nicknames by baseball standards: Raines was “Rock,” but Henderson gets a slight edge with “Man of Steal.” Raines is remembered less than he should be because there was another player in his era who did the things he did, and did them better.
Pro-Raines people will argue that while Henderson without a doubt compiled more impressive numbers over his near quarter century in Major League Baseball, that Tim Raines did what he did more efficiently. While Raines hit (2,605) and home run (170) totals pale in comparison to Henderson’s (3,055 hits, 279 home runs), Raines’ career batting average (.294) was fifteen points higher than Henderson’s (.279). It was recently brought to my attention in a Reddit post about Raines’ superior base stealing efficiency that Raines was a much more efficient base-stealer. Raines ranks 14th in career SB% at 84.696% according to Baseball Reference, with Henderson ranked 44th at 80.758%. What’s 3.938% really in the grand scheme of things? Enough that Henderson, in 2016 at the age of 57, would need to steal 448 consecutive bases without getting caught to match Raines’ stolen base efficiency. That’s something.
The biggest reason I think Raines belongs in the Hall of Fame is because just because you had two great players who did similar things but one was significantly more prolific, would it really kill you to have them both in Cooperstown? Clyde Drexler is nobody’s Michael Jordan, but if he had been left out of the Basketball Hall of Fame or the more-exclusive-if-less-official Bill Simmons Hall of Fame Pyramid (Drexler is ranked 44th), fans in Portland and Houston would have lost their collective minds. Maybe this is what works against Raines the most: the fanbase that saw his best baseball lost their team when they Expos moved and became the Washington Nationals in 2005. This “one but not the other” issue doesn’t seem to happen in other sports. The Pro Football Hall of Fame did not let in John Elway and Dan Marino in and then decide they had hit their quarterbacks from the 1983 NFL Draft quota so they could exclude Jim Kelly. Charles Barkley and Karl Malone were both all-time great power forwards who couldn’t get past Jordan in the Finals, but the Basketball Hall of Fame had room for both of them. Not everyone is the greatest ever, but that does not make them not great. See Tim Raines and Clyde Drexler.