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 Friday at Fenway Park. There were some boos, yes, but Red Sox fans overall seemed to treat him like the star the team traded away rather than one who wanted out.
— MLB (@MLB) August 25, 2023
Betts fouled out to end his at-bat leading off the first inning, but finished the game 1-for-4 with a walk and two runs scored in a 7-4 Dodgers win. His 1.008 OPS still leads the National League
On the bright side for the Red Sox, Alex Verdugo, the most notable player the Red Sox received for Betts, provided a narratively compelling first-pitch leadoff homer in the first inning.
In the top of the third, Betts struck out, and in the sixth, he doubled and scored as part of a three-run inning for the Dodgers. In the seventh, he walked and scored as part of another three-run inning that put L.A. ahead.
Before the game, Betts was diplomatic with reporters about his time in and exit from Boston, but he also pushed back on the idea that 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 that 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 Betts a 10-year, $300 million deal. He signed a 12-year, $365 million extension with the Dodgers later that year, before he had played a game for them.
If you squint hard enough, maybe you can convince yourself that's a story of an athlete leaving town for more money, but it was Boston's decision to trade 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 the roster led MLB in salary the previous season.
There didn't seem to be any hard feelings though, as Betts hugged Bloom when they met. 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 that he liked playing for the Red Sox while noting that 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 future Hall of Famers in their primes is rare for a reason, but the Red Sox were either disinclined to pay Betts what turned out to be his market value or confident enough that they could get fair value for him. Fast-forward a few years, and the decision looks even worse, with his reception Friday indicating that some fans still believe Betts had a hand in his own exit.