The first thing to remember when comparing the Raymond Felton/Jeremy Lin trade to the Jim Fregosi/Nolan Ryan trade is that neither trade actually happened that way.
The Mets actually traded Nolan Ryan and three other guys for the chance to acquire Fregosi back in December 1971, adding pitcher Don Rose, catcher Francisco Estrada and outfielder Leroy Stanton for the right to deal a Hall of Fame pitcher, not yet 25, for an infielder whose best days were behind him.
But in the public mind over the four decades since the deal, it was simplified: Ryan for Fregosi. The heist that will live on for all time.
Ryan immediately became Nolan Ryan upon arriving in California. Over the subsequent two decades, his excellence and longevity served as a constant reminder of just how monumental an error the Mets had made. Moreover, the Mets had traded an era -- an imaginary one, with Ryan and Tom Seaver's peak taking place at Shea Stadium -- for the wasteland that passed for late-1970s New York Mets baseball.
Can Jeremy Lin for Raymond Felton really live up to that? Maybe not. But that outcome is very much in play, for emotional reasons as much as for value ones.
Fast forward to 2012. The Knicks didn't trade Lin for Felton, either. They didn't even trade Lin, period, instead allowing him to go to the Houston Rockets as a restricted free agent. Simply by matching the offer sheet, Lin would have been a Knick.
Instead, the Knicks traded a pair of highly regarded Greek prospects (Georgios Printezis, Kostas Papanikolaou), a couple of players and, seemingly as required by law in any Knicks trade, a 2016 second-round pick for Felton.
That decision looked terrible at the time. And it looks so much worse now, with Lin continuing to develop and contribute for a Houston Rockets team in the title hunt in the Western Conference, and struggling Felton now facing felony gun charges that could short-circuit a season in which he'd been just awful.
So that's what the trade has been so far. The Knicks, from the moment they let Lin get away, have had an epic point guard problem, without the assets to address it, while Felton has allowed virtually every other playmaker in the league to get to the basket against the Knicks at will.
At the trade deadline, the Knicks were eager enough to be rid of Felton that they attempted to package him with what remaining assets they had in a deal. Other teams were uninspired enough that Felton remained a Knick. And had it not been for this felony charge, Felton was a good bet to stay a Knick this year, next year and, thanks to a handy player option, 2015-16 as well.
So let's consider that in weighing what Felton is likely to be for the Knicks going forward, it is either someone the team manages to cut ties with thanks to these charges, or a player who hasn't managed to stay in shape or play at a competent level at age 29. These Knicks are a good bet to miss the playoffs in 2013-14, despite the brilliant play of Carmelo Anthony. (Is there any better summary of the Knicks' season than Monday's loss to the Mavericks? Melo scores 44, Knicks lose.)
That's the Fregosi end of things. And there's more than just the on-court problem now. While Jim Fregosi was, by all accounts, a great guy who was loved throughout baseball, the headline on his New York Times obit read: "Jim Fregosi, All-Star, Dies At 71; Angel Was Traded For Nolan Ryan." The four decades that followed -- building relationships all over baseball, managing a pair of playoff teams -- didn't change that headline.
And Raymond Felton doesn't even have the bridge-building going for him, not so far. He deserves the presumption of innocence on the gun charges. But the Blazers, and now the Knicks, couldn't wait to be rid of him. And we're about to find out just how much uglier this part of the Lin/Felton legacy, being written now, can get.
Meanwhile, what of Lin?
He is now 25 years old, or roughly the age Ryan was when the Mets shipped him westward. While Ryan had been part of the 1969 Mets and their miracle run, he was hardly the kind of vital cog who earned the undying love of Mets fans. He hadn't become Nolan Ryan until the Angels got him.
But Knicks fans experienced, back in 2012, Linsanity. You might have heard about it. And I know I can't be the only one who thought Linsanity was the most fun the New York Knicks have been in my lifetime. I was born after the Willis Reed/Walt Frazier years. But Linsanity, in terms of the basketball being played by the Knicks, was more enjoyable to watch than anything that took place last year, during the Knicks' 54-win campaign, and obviously edged the Patrick Ewing Knicks as well.
Part of it was seeing Lin score, distributing like no point guard the Knicks have had in decades as an utter surprise off the bench. Long-dormant Knicks fans watched the team regularly. People I know who don't even like basketball were transfixed by Jeremy Lin. Those people didn't watch the Knicks last year, and they sure as hell aren't watching them now.
And to the diehards, Linsanity was enormously exciting for a simple reason: The Knicks had Jeremy Lin's future inextricably linked with their future. We'd get to see this guy for years to come.
It's as if Knicks fans got to see that Nolan Ryan breakout season with the Angels -- and then saw Lin exiled by the team. It's as if the Knicks traded a whole era away, just by letting Jeremy Lin go.
And for what? For Raymond Felton.
Interestingly, Lin's skeptics are heartened by the two seasons that have followed in Houston. After all, Lin's scoring totals and his assist totals are down. But it is worth remembering that Lin hasn't been allowed to play the same way in Houston as he did in New York, as he could have in New York for many years, as he could be in New York right this second. Before Lin played a regular-season game with the Rockets, Houston acquired James Harden, who is not just a ball-stopper, but a ball-stopping guard.
This instantly turned Lin into someone who needed to play off the ball far more than playing with it, neutralizing the best skills that made him an instant star and forcing him to find others. To his credit, he's done this, improving his three-point shot, with his overall true shooting percentage rising each season. He's shooting better from two, from three and from the line than he did for the Knicks, and he's doing it while essentially playing a different game.
It may well be that we never get to see Jeremy Lin as he was in 2012 again. But there are plenty of teams, the Knicks reportedly included, who see what Lin actually is these days: an improved shooter from his breakout moment playing out of position at the moment.
His salary jumps to $15 million next year, then he'll hit the free-agent market in the summer of 2015 and get to pick his own situation. Exactly what we think of when we think of Jeremy Lin is anything but settled.
However that turns out, though, it is hard to imagine Knicks fans doing so against any backdrop but one that is unspeakably bleak. If Carmelo Anthony, who has said he will opt out of his contract this summer and make himself a free agent, returns to the team, their chances aren't particularly good. Consider that Anthony's peak is right now, and the surrounding cast for that peak has the Knicks well out of the playoff race in a godforsaken Eastern Conference. With the minutes Mike Woodson is subjecting Anthony to, it's going to be difficult for Anthony to age gracefully in the coming years. And help isn't coming in the 2014 draft -- thanks to the Anthony trade -- while salary-cap issues make adding a free agent difficult this summer as well.
And should Anthony leave, the Knicks will be without their best player by far, with no draft pick to show for it. Exactly why that situation would entice another free agent to come and experience what Anthony just fled is hard to fathom.
For Mets fans, too, watching Ryan turn into a Hall of Famer was made more difficult by one of the worst eras in team history. The 1974-1979 Mets were bereft of talent, or much hope, while fans doubted ownership's ability and desire to turn things around. Realistically, even if the Mets had kept Nolan Ryan, not much would have been different.
The stage is now set for the Knicks to suffer through that kind of era, thanks to self-inflicted wounds. That would be true, even if the Knicks had held onto Jeremy Lin. And whatever Lin becomes, Knicks fans even have the memory of just how much fun it was, ever so briefly, before the team threw that all away.
And for what?
For Raymond Felton.
It's going to be the kind of swap New Yorkers talk about for decades. This might just be our Ryan for Fregosi.