Asking for sympathy for Boston Red Sox fans is a tall order for anyone in this current millennium, and so perhaps the collective lamentation from fans when the franchise traded Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Tuesday will fall on deaf ears. I get it. Four World Series titles since 2004 certainly does a number on your likability across the sport.
But trading Mookie Betts for prospects that might one day be as good as Mookie Betts doesn’t make any sense for a franchise that’s trying to sell a line to fans it doesn’t have the right to offer. It’s not just that Betts has remarkable talent in the outfield, is a pro-caliber bowler, and is one of the most charismatic players in the league. All of that is why Betts in particular is special and worthy of a contract befitting his talent and stature in the league. Being unwilling to offer that contract is one thing, but establishing a narrative that the team simply has to trade him — that it’s best for the team — is completely insane. It should not be allowed to stand as reasonable logic, and those that enable these narratives are actively harming a league moving in an increasingly poor direction.
The Boston Red Sox are not house poor or cash poor or any kind of poor imaginable. Fenway is small but full. Merchandise flies off the shelves, and baseball’s TV deals still bring in plenty of revenue. Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Sox, also owns Liverpool, which more or less prints money worldwide, while John Henry, the team’s principal owner, also owns the Boston Globe and co-owns stock car racing giant Roush Fenway Racing. But talk of “cost certainty” has permeated a league that’s wondering where fans are going, why young people don’t pay attention, and why it struggles to find anything but diminishing returns on viewership and attendance this past decade.
The Red Sox, fresh off another magical World Series run in 2018, somehow found themselves in that category of squads that seemed unwilling to spend, a move that caused whiplash for fans used to decades of the franchise’s spending rivalry with the Yankees. Sure, they rewarded World Series hero Nathan Eovaldi with a nice contract and he immediately got hurt. David Price got paid, as did Chris Sale, but somehow the team decided it wouldn’t bring back its fireball closer, Craig Kimbrel. They failed in replacing him and were sunk by, surprise, poor pitching depth when injuries struck.
Very quickly the narrative around the team soon changed: it had to spend less, even though it had made questionable deals just an offseason earlier that even the most sentimental of fans could have told you was likely a bad idea. That these deals now equate to trading a recent AL MVP just because his free agency is looming is nothing short of insanity. This isn’t a move the Boston Red Sox have to make. That the Red Sox of all franchises are doing something countless small market franchises have done in baseball — and other sports — speaks to just how broken a system Major League Baseball has, and the worst instincts owners in all sports have.
The worst aspects of sports are when the benevolent owners ask for the trust and loyalty of fans and take that good faith, put it in their pocket, and essentially spit in their face. It’s not unusual for fans to be sold a bill of goods that doesn’t make any sense outside the context of sports. Taxpayers are asked to fund new sport-specific venues in which the ultra rich get the best benefits and the team, not the governments footing the bill, reap the increased revenue. Personal Seat Licenses take more money from season ticket holders just for the pleasure of keeping the same general seat they had at the old place. And so on and so on.
You can’t root for cost certainty or fiscal responsibility. Only the biggest of salary cap nerds fist pump at a general manager getting under the luxury tax. The winning is the thing. It’s what coaches preach and what the trophies are for and that Major League Baseball allows owners and general managers to flatten average salary rates and not reward its best players with its biggest contracts on the teams where fans have grown to love them is extremely depressing for everyone involved in the sport itself.
Betts will be fine in Los Angeles, and the Dodgers are likely the overwhelming World Series favorites this year with him in the lineup. He will get a contract somewhere. But the fact that it’s certainly not in Boston is insane. It’s hard to imagine it’s a decision that will ever be justified, even if the Red Sox can nimbly shed payroll and still be competitive in future seasons. That they have to do it without Betts — because, as deep-pocketed owners who could have cut a check will argue, they no other choice! — speaks to the bleakest parts of sports that we as fans have no choice but to accept or walk away altogether.
It’s a symptom of the disease that’s slowly killing baseball, and maybe the whole planet, while those in power decide to extract as much capital from the existing skunkworks rather than trying to build something that actually makes sense. There’s nothing to be done but decide if the watching and rooting and paying for expensive beer and wordmark-shaped pretzels is worth it when fiscal responsibility comes calling over winning and rooting for good players again.
It’s probably worth the World Series wins for the Red Sox, if I’m being honest with myself. The winning is extremely good, and what the team does to limit that winning after the fact doesn’t change the record books. The flags fly forever, as some fans like to say. And it’s not unique, especially not in baseball — ask the Miami Marlins fans that are left how that new stadium is treating them 17 years after their second title and subsequent teardown.
If anything it’s the ties that bind all fans across all leagues: owners will always say you’re the best fans in sports when you’re winning, but it’s clear that asking many teams to putting winning over money is simply being ungrateful.