Karl Lindholm: Say it isn't so, Mookie!



One hundred years ago last month (Jan. 5, 1920), the Red Sox unloaded their best player for financial reasons.

They sold the best left-handed pitcher in the American League, a versatile 25-year-old who had begun to play in the field on occasion because he could also hit: George Herman “Babe” Ruth. 

How’d that work out?

Will my children and their children be lamenting the Curse of Mookie after I’m gone?

Mookie Betts is one of my favorite Red Sox players ever. I place him in the exalted company of Nomah and Pedro. I like him even better than Papi, and that’s a high bar.

Mookie looks like a high school sophomore, plays with exuberance of one too. He has five-tool excellence: He can hit for average, hit for power, run, throw, and play scintillating defense in the outfield.

He’s only 27 years old. Jeez. He’s been in the majors for six years, all with the Red Sox (Babe put in six years in Boston, too, before departing for New York). Mookie was four times an All-Star, the American League Most Valuable Player, and a World Series champion. His batting average is .301 over his time with the Sox, and he averaged 26 homers a year and 28 stolen bases, and was awarded Gold Gloves (best defensively at his position) four times. That’s quite a résumé!

Mookie resisted the Red Sox efforts to sign him to a long-term contract, betting on his own abilities to get him to free agency in 2021 and a big payday. By contrast, his brilliant teammate, shortstop Xander Bogaerts, also 27, signed for six years and $132 million, opting for the security Mookie eschewed. He likes it in Boston.

The word is that the Red Sox last year started at 10 years and $300 million, enough it would seem to provide a comfortable living for Mookie. Nonetheless, Mookie said, “No thanks.” While not willing to sign a long-term contract, he has been well compensated: For his last year under contract to the Red Sox, Mookie signed a one-year, $27 million deal last month.

It really did make sense for the Red Sox to trade him and get something in return, rather than allow him to play out his contract. So now Mookie is headed to sunny Southern California and the Dodgers, who pick up that one-year contract, essentially renting him for the season, unless they can meet his demands for a mega-contract over many years.

Now let’s not feel great sympathy for the poor Red Sox and owner John Henry and his minions. The Sox could afford to have gone higher: The team is valued at $3.2 billion, third richest in baseball after the Dodgers ($3.3b) and the Yankees (off the charts at $4.6b).

Boston fans, like me, while sad, are largely giving Mookie a pass. Baseball’s a business, we understand that. Mookie has every right to go for the gold, and sign with the highest bidder.

Some free agent stars do sign with their present club, accepting the so-called “hometown discount,” (while still being compensated with astronomical sums of money). Red Sox lifer Jason Varitek once instructed his agent (Scott Boras) to get him “the best possible deal . . . with the Red Sox.”

Mookie’s defection, and his landing spot in Los Angeles, reminds me of two other Red Sox superstars who declined to stay in Boston, split for the Coast, and were never again the players there they were with the Red Sox.

Fred Lynn came up to the Red Sox at 22 in 1975 and won both the American League Most Valuable Player and Rookie of the Year awards in his first season. Along with fellow rookie Jim Rice, he led the Red Sox to the World Series: Rice was injured and the Sox lost in seven games to the Big Red Machine.

Like Babe and Mookie, Lynn spent six spectacular years in Boston. He made the All-Star team all six seasons, and again, like Mookie, won four Gold Gloves as a center fielder. He was a good player for the California Angels, and played till he was 38, but was never again the player he was in Boston. Rice stayed in Boston and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 2009. 

Mo Vaughan, a New Englander (Connecticut), was well aware of the Red Sox’s racist past and embraced his role as an African-American sports hero in Boston. He was with the Sox for eight years, before leaving at 30, like Lynn, for the Angels.

Mo was the AL MVP in 1995, batting .300, hitting 39 homers and knocking in 120 runs. He had an even better year in ’96 (44 homers, 143 RBI, and a .326 batting average). Unfortunately, he left town angry with the Red Sox in a contract dispute in 1999. Should have stayed. 

Southern California is different from the Northeast, more laid-back, as they say. It will be interesting to see if Mookie is embraced there as he was here. The passion here can be both a blessing and a curse. He is fortunate to be playing for highly regarded Dodger Manager Dave Roberts, a Red Sox immortal for one stolen base in 2004.

I am glad he’s not in the American League to torment us. And games from the West Coast are generally on too late for me to stay up and watch. I don’t want to even think about the possibility that the leviathan Yankees might scoop him up after his year out West.

So Mookie’s gone, alas. But I find myself intrigued by these players the Dodgers sent to us for him: They’re young and talented.

I guess I’ll still watch Sox games on TV next summer.

Every night.

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