What’s old is new again: Revisiting 1981 in the wake of trading Mookie

Tuesday night’s Mookie Betts trade to the Los Angeles Dodgers left the block decidedly busted. But this wasn’t the first time the Boston Red Sox shipped out a star over supposed fiscal concerns. In fact, none of this is new for Boston; this might be the rule rather than the exception.

The Boston Red Sox traded a young, proven superstar, a Gold Glove winner and MVP in his late 20s to a West Coast team late in the offseason over the club’s supposed financial concerns.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet California Angel Fred Lynn.

Lynn found himself in arbitration with the Red Sox in 1981 after seven outstanding seasons patrolling center field at Fenway Park. He was Rookie of the Year and MVP in 1975, exploded in 1979 leading the American League in slash stats and piling up impressive counting numbers and a 9 bWAR en route to an inexplicable fourth-place finish in MVP voting that season (Don Baylor, who had a good season as a part-time outfielder, won it, but wouldn’t have moved the needle in the sabermetric era. Top-five probably should have been Lynn, fellow Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice, George Brett, Ken Singleton and then Baylor.)

“The Boston Red Sox, faced with the loss of Fred Lynn as a free agent, interrupted the star center fielder’s arbitration hearing yesterday and settled his grievance by trading him to the California Angels, who promptly signed Lynn to a four-year contract,” The New York Times proclaimed on January 24, 1981.

Like Lynn, Betts earned the right to be paid handsomely. Like Lynn, the Red Sox were perennial winners, playing good, plus-.500 baseball year in and year out. Like Lynn, Betts for whatever reason wasn’t considered Boston material. Like Lynn, rather than paying a cornerstone player and generational talent, they shipped him off for what might at best amount to 70 cents on the dollar.

Don’t think that a misplaced and ill-perpetuated sense of provincialism doesn’t play into this.

I need not remind readers that the Red Sox are probably more dangerous now than their ’70s forebears, still basking in the fading light of their 2018 World Series championship, four consecutive seasons of plus-.500 baseball and having continually signed core players to pricey long-term deals (Chris Sale, Xander Bogaerts, J.D. Martinez, Nathan Eovaldi, David Price [also jettisoned to the Dodgers as the newest incarnation of Theo Ratliff’s Expiring Contract]), they were set much as they were throughout the ’70s with Yaz, Rice, Lynn, Dwight Evans, Carlton Fisk, Luis Tiant, so on and so forth.

But Fred Lynn was putting up video game numbers, reminiscent of Christian Yelich and Cody Bellinger of late. Even his 1980 season, considered an injury-plagued regression, was .301/.383/.480 with 32 doubles, 12 home runs and a 130 OPS+ in under 500 plate appearances. Like Yelich in 2019, Lynn’s 1980 season ended with an injury via foul-off. Betts was better that in almost every way, yet it wasn’t 2018; much as Lynn’s ’79 follow-up wasn’t his ’79.

The Red Sox did Lynn—and Fisk, also traded in that fateful winter—wrong by missing a procedural deadline with postmarked contract, putting the Sox and Lynn and Fisk into arbitration in the first place. In a similarly underhanded way, the Red Sox front office did nothing to dispel rumors that Betts wanted more than Mike Trout money, rather appearing to use reliable media stooges to bury Betts in the court of public opinion.

Now, Betts is the Dodgers’ problem, and what a problem to have. An outfield with Bellinger, Betts and A.J. Pollock, with Kiké Hernandez and Chris Taylor behind them and a farm system still rife with talent? Who do you pitch to in that Dodger lineup?

It’s possible that the whole might end up less than the sum of its parts, and it’s possible that Betts may not demonstrate the power numbers in the NL West he enjoyed in an offense-favorable AL East, but there are exceedingly-capable bats throughout that lineup, as there were in Boston. And, by way of cautionary tale, Lynn’s career as an Angel was never what it was with the Red Sox. He was good, but never great. Injuries mounted, his star faded, now an echo of the past, like Rocky Colavito, Graig Nettles, Ted Kluszewski: guys you have to appreciate to remember. It’s entirely possible that the Red Sox are selling high.

It’s not likely, though. Nor should one expect or root for injury or regression for any ballplayer.

And this is where Lynn’s and Betts’ path diverge: while Lynn was also put in a position to succeed (take some time to look at those Angels ballclubs from the late 70s and early 80s and wonder what might have been), Betts’ future is unwritten.

For the Red Sox, their future is also unwritten, but precedent leaves the outlook bleak: after trading Lynn in 1981, they stumbled through the 1980s and 90s until the strike, 1986 notwithstanding. And regardless of outlook, driving talent out of town, whether it’s Lynn, Carlton Fisk, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs, Johnny Damon, Mookie Betts or Babe fricking Ruth, is never a good look. Every club has that semi-estranged player; the Yankees with Tony Kubek, the Brewers and Paul Molitor to name but two examples. Few clubs seemingly do it as a matter of course.

The Red Sox could field a Strat-o-Matic Murderers’ Row of exiled players before Tuesday night. Mookie Betts just became its leadoff hitter. Fred Lynn could easily bat second.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

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