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The Curse of the Betts?

Mookie Betts celebrates a hit during a road game for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Five years without a title is too soon to announce a curse, but the parallels between the trades of Babe Ruth and Mookie Betts are ominous.

The Boston Red Sox have made numerous bad Betts over the years. As time goes on, the OF Mookie Betts deal continues to look worse and worse, similar to the trade of OF Babe Ruth. When investigating these two trades, there are similarities but also some differences. In a nutshell, the similarities are the quality of player, the motives to trade, and the success (or lack thereof) of the Boston Red Sox. The differences are marginal and, for the sake of argument, we’ll say irrelevant.

Here are some of the trade basics: The Sox traded Babe Ruth in January 1920. They traded Mookie Betts in February 2020. Both were the best player on a Red Sox team that won a title in ‘18 (1918 and 2018). Both men played in the outfield. Betts was 27 when he was traded and Ruth was 25, meaning both men were in their primes. Betts was the AL MVP in 2018, and Ruth likely would have been an MVP if the award had existed. 

Ownership Situation

Harry Frazee bought the Red Sox in 1917. When he traded Babe Ruth, he had one World Series title. The current Red Sox ownership group- Fenway Sports Group (FSG), lead by John Henry and Tom Werner- bought the Sox in 2002. They now have four World Series to their name. Complacency could be a cause for having agreed to trade a blossoming star, but the main cause for both seems to be a lack, or loss, of interest in the Red Sox. Frazee had an established career producing plays on Broadway and continued to do so while owning the Sox. FSG bought Liverpool F.C. in 2010 and then the Pittsburgh Penguins in November 2021. This last deal added the wrong black and yellow hockey team to the portfolio of an ownership group with a Boston landmark as its namesake. 

It is business 101 to have a diversified portfolio, but sports are not a typical business. This becomes a concerning thing for fans when investment in one area coincides with less investment in other areas. For a team to be competitive, there has to be buy-in throughout the organization, from top to bottom. This is something Frazee and FSG ceased to do when they made their trades.

The Motive

Money. One may argue that American business is the king of capitalism, so if the bottom line ain’t fine, you gotta whine. In Harry Frazee’s very literal case, Ruth was traded for $100,000. What was done with this money is up for debate, but a common Sox fan myth is that it was used to fund Frazee’s fledging investments in the theater world. Betts was traded along with SP David Price to get the Red Sox below the luxury tax threshold of $208 million for the 2020 season.

I’ll briefly play devil’s advocate and mention that Ruth and Betts were both clamoring for money since they were nearing the end of their contracts. Thus, both men are responsible, to a degree, for their leaving Boston.  However, hindsight makes any justification attempt seem foolish. One could even argue the trading of Betts was in the moment a more foolish move than the trade of Babe. At the time of the trade, Babe’s hitting was not fully established because he had one season of full-time hitting under his belt. Obviously, he went on to re-write the record books, but was not as known of an entity as Betts. Also, Babe was a headache off the field in a way that Betts never was.

It is unlikely that Betts will ever match the fame and reputation of Babe Ruth. Will anyone? Either way, the trade will still live in infamy in Boston. The fact that two of the three players traded for Betts–OF Alex Verdugo and INF Jeter Downs–are no longer with the Sox adds to the hurt and reinforces the idea that the trade was about money.

Baseball Karma

The main concerning parallel between the two trades is what it meant about the direction of the franchises involved. In both cases, Boston began losing and the other team began or continued to win. When Ruth was traded, the Sox became mired in an 86-year World Series drought, while the Yankees began their quest of winning the most World Series of any team in Major League Baseball. This was after they never made an appearance in the World Series prior to the trade for the Bambino.

Fast forward to today, the Dodgers were a contending team but not able to break through and win the Series until Betts arrived. The Dodgers have continued to be one of the most consistent teams in baseball the last five years and continue to spend money to maintain their winning ways. The Red Sox have finished last in the AL East three out of the last four years and have avoided spending money to return to their winning ways of earlier in the 21st century. 

Final Thoughts

The Yankees prioritized winning in a competitive league. The Yankees gambled on Ruth and were rewarded. I hate to admit it, but winning is a habit that they often continue to do. The OF Juan Soto trade means they are still willing to gamble as well. The Red Sox prioritized money over winning in a business where winning is all that really matters. The baseball gods frowned upon this act, jinxing the team. They also created a stigma around a franchise that took too long to reverse, going from the team to beat in the American League to loveable losers, at best, for the remainder of the 20th century. 

I know this may seem like the complaints of a spoiled sports fan. Some of this is exactly that but is it also necessary to acknowledge the problem in the franchise. You cannot solve a problem if you don’t acknowledge it. The Sox as a franchise must return to the more aggressive ways of the past. Fortune favors the bold, and the further removed the Sox get from the trade of Betts the more obvious it becomes that the trade was not made with 20/20 vision. Only time will tell if the franchise takes 86 years to atone for this mistake too. 

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