The bargaining must have been ferocious. The Red Sox were prepared to send Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto to the Los Angeles Dodgers sometime this weekend, but Sox general manager Ben Cherington was not going to make the deal unless he received what he thought was full value. He would not send the four players -- three of whom had been All-Stars at some points in their careers -- to the West Coast in exchange for a ball of string.
“A ball of string is not going to do the job,” he told Ned Colletti, his L.A. counterpart.
The showdown began.
“OK, we’ll throw in an autographed picture of Tommy Lasorda,” Colletti said.
“And a deck of playing cards. All 52 cards. Still sealed.”
“And a No. 2 pencil. Sharpened.”
No doubt Cherington would have liked to have received more -- he had his eyes on a gallon of anti-freeze or maybe a canned ham -- but he settled for the string, the autographed picture, the playing cards and the No. 2 pencil. Fair was fair. The secret truth was that anything at all was a good deal in his situation.
For the Red Sox, this was an exorcism, a cleansing, a purge. The four players weren’t traded as much as they were voted off the island, sent home from the runway. In the perpetual reality show that is Boston baseball, these were the perceived villains. They were exiled, cast adrift, dropped like so much ballast. They were sent packing with a good boot in the pants on their way out the door.
“BUMS AWAY,” the tabloid Boston Herald shouted with its front-page headline. This was a common thought.
“You want them to blow it up?” Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy asked as details of the deal started to emerge. “This would be blowing it up. The prospective blockbuster would signify a white flag on this horrible season. More than that, it would mark the end of a failed era of big names, big salaries, big egos and maddening underachievement. … It’s about changing the rotten culture of the Sox clubhouse, a malaise that has turned even die-hard fans against the once-beloved franchise.”
There is a longstanding Red Sox tradition to tar and suitably feather the departing characters in all transactions. Harry Frazee told the local population that Babe Ruth was a clubhouse agitator, a bad example, as Babe went to the Yankees in 1920. Roger Clemens was “in the twilight of his career” when he left for the Toronto Blue Jays after the '96 season. Nomar Garciaparra was enmeshed in “Nomargate,” allegations that he was a disruptive influence, when he was banished to the Chicago Cubs in 2004. On and on.
Never has more tar been used than there was here. Bums away! Punto can be removed from the picture, a utility player in his first year in Boston, just another small name on the roster, but Gonzalez, Crawford and Beckett all were linked like 300-pound lead weights to the downward spiral that began a year ago, Sept. 1, 2011, when the Sox proceeded to lose 20 of the next 27 games and blow a nine-and-a-half-game lead for a wild-card spot in the playoffs. Their record since that date over two seasons is 68-86 through Sunday.
Gonzalez and Crawford were seen as big-money busts. Big contracts, signed by each of them two years ago, were accompanied by big expectations. Gonzalez, with a swing built for the left-field wall at Fenway Park, was supposed to hit 40 homers a year, give opposing pitchers sleepless nights. Never happened. He hit 42 home runs in TWO years. The power disappeared after a good start a year ago, and while he still hit for average, still was a Gold Glove first baseman, he seemed to work without passion, as if he were sorting letters at the post office. Fans did not approve.
Crawford, supposed to inherit left field in the long line from Ted Williams to Carl Yastrzemski to Jim Rice, never looked good, maybe tried too hard, maybe was intimidated by his salary, $140 million for seven years, was tentative and nervous. Then he got hurt, and hurt again, and hurt again, which was even worse. Fans did not approve.
Beckett was a grumpy mystery. A 20-game winner and a prime part of the Sox’ World Series win in 2007, a hero, he had become one of the most disliked athletes in local history. He was an unrepentant member of the fried-chicken-and-beer-in-the-clubhouse group during last September's collapse. (His biggest concern was who was the snitch, the source for the newspapers.) He was the guy who played golf when he was scratched from a start. He was, most important of all, the guy whose fastball had dropped four or five miles per hour on the speed guns and now he couldn’t climb through a major-league lineup without getting shelled. His record was 5-11 and he had a 5.23 earned run average. His disposition was lousy. Fans definitely did not approve.
“So what do you think you’ll do with the string?” Colletti must have asked Ben Cherington after the deal was complete, the three Boston misfits packaged with Punto for the strange, bargain-basement collection that the Dodgers sent to Boston in return.
“I’m going to tie up some loose ends,” Cherington replied. “We seem to have a million of them.”
“What about the picture of Tommy Lasorda?”
“Going to hang it in our manager Bobby Valentine’s office. He is Lasorda’s protégé.”
“The playing cards?”
“Going to keep shuffling.”
“And the pencil?”
The key to the deal obviously is the estimated $260 million in contracts that the Red Sox also shipped west. Most of that money should now be available. The team can be restructured, rebuilt under a hustling, passionate, over-achieving model that fans will find endearing. There suddenly is an open-ended future.
“I’ll be able to do some math with this pencil,” Cherington said. “Some entirely new math.”
He did not say what he would have done with the anti-freeze or the canned ham.