Three-and-a-half years ago, the Boston Red Sox made one of the most questionable trades in franchise history, sending Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers. On Friday, Betts returned to Boston for the first time since the trade, with a Green Monster-sized pile of what-ifs in tow.
In his time since joining the Dodgers, Betts has earned three All-Star nods, two Silver Sluggers, two Gold Gloves, 20.9 Baseball-Reference WAR and, of course, a second World Series ring, while Boston’s return has looked worse by the month.
Despite the controversy surrounding his exit, Betts saw a positive reaction as he stepped up to the plate at Fenway Park on Friday. There were definitely some boos, yes, but Red Sox fans overall seemed to treat him like the star that the team traded away rather than one who supposedly wanted out.
Betts fouled out to end the at-bat.
A half-inning later, Alex Verdugo, the most notable player the Red Sox received for Betts, added himself to the narrative with a first-pitch leadoff homer.
Before the game, Betts was diplomatic with reporters about his time in Boston and exit, but he also pushed back on the idea he had any interest in leaving Boston during talks involving Red Sox general manager Chaim Bloom and owner John Henry.
Via NBC Sports Boston:
“I’ll let Chaim and those guys explain that, or John Henry, whoever. … If they ever want to explain it, I’ll let them explain it. I’m not throwing anybody under the bus or anything, but yeah, at the beginning I didn’t want fans to think — they still do, it is what it is — but think I didn’t want to be here and that he wanted to leave a couple of years before I actually got traded or whatever. I don’t know where the narrative came from or how it came about. If that’s what makes y’all sleep at night, cool, but that’s not even remotely close to where I was mentally.
I thought I would be here, but negotiations didn’t go the way we had planned, so you just pivot. That was a very, very dope chapter in my life, but the chapter I’m in now, I’m enjoying it so much and I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”
At least one Red Sox reporter was pessimistic Henry would ever explain his side of the negotiations.
The Betts trade was preceded by failed negotiations for a contract extension, in which the Red Sox were reported to have offered him a 10-year, $300 million deal. Betts signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers later that year, before he had ever played a game for them.
If you squint hard enough, maybe you can convince yourself that’s a story of yet another athlete leaving town for more money, but it was Boston’s decision to trade away the centerpiece of its 2018 World Series team rather than pay to keep him around for potentially the next championship team. The team had recently hired Bloom as Chief Baseball Officer, with an apparent mandate of cutting payroll after leading MLB in salary the previous season.
There didn’t seem to be any hard feelings though, as Betts hugged Bloom when they met up. Red Sox manager Alex Cora said he expected Betts to receive a warm reception from the fans and recalled how Betts stood by him when he was suspended for the 2020 season.
When asked if he would recommend playing in Boston, Betts made it very clear he liked playing for the Red Sox while noting there is immense pressure to perform, something he credited for making him a star:
“Yeah, I would definitely recommend it. It’s a super-dope place to play. I had the time of my life playing here. I think a lot of people do. I would tell them, ‘If you go up there, you know you gotta play well.’ There’s nothing else. You gotta go up there and you gotta play well. I think that’s why I did play well, because I knew every day I put the uniform on, you gotta play well, no matter what, or the media, the fans, people will let you know. That’s the blessing, that’s the good part.”
The Red Sox appeared to get decent value for Betts at the time of the trade, acquiring promising young outfielder Alex Verdugo, top-100 prospect Jeter Downs and catching prospect Connor Wong, but the luster around that group has since faded. Downs was designated for assignment after last season, while Verdugo has played like an overall decent starting right fielder, but nowhere close to what Betts has done.
Teams trading away future Hall of Famers in their prime is rare for a reason, but the Red Sox were either so disinclined to pay Betts what turned out to be his market value or confident enough they could get fair value for him. Fast forward a few years and the decision looks even worse, with his reception on Friday indicating some fans still believe Betts had a hand in his own exit.
But Red Sox fans were at least able to represent themselves well against expectations as he made his return.