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February 15, 2004

Shock and Awe
by Larry Mahnken

In the winter of 1919, the Red Sox had a problem. They had followed up their 4th World's Championship in 7 seasons with a dismal 6th place finish, but their star slugger, Babe Ruth, had enjoyed a season of historic proportions. Ruth smacked 29 home runs that year, breaking the record of...well, nobody was really all that sure back then, but they were pretty darn sure it was a record. More than that, Ruth was an entirely different type of player than what baseball fans had been used to. He purposefully swung for the fences, and his mighty drives drove the crowds wild. Having Ruth was a license to print money, and The Babe knew that. So, using what little leverage he had in those reserve clause days, he went off to Hollywood to act poorly in some bad movies, and threatened to quit the game forever and take up as a lousy actor unless he got the $20,000 a year he wanted--and this just a year after signing a 3-year, $30,000 deal the previous offseason, and there was no reason to believe that he wouldn't do it again in 1920. Ruth was becoming an expensive distraction for a team that had finished in the second division, and the Red Sox didn't feel he was worth it anymore.

And so, for baseball reasons (and to undermine Ban Johnson's authority, to boot), and not to finance a Broadway show, as some self-serving curly-haired pseudo-journalists in Boston would have you believe, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold Ruth to his on-field rivals and off-field allies, the Yankees, for $100,000. The $300,000+ loan Yankees' owner Jacob Rupert gave to Frazee with Fenway Park as collateral was not related to the Ruth transaction at all, and occurred the next spring.

The Ruth sale was a baseball move, and the Red Sox intended to reinvest the money in the team. Unfortunately, the replacements didn't make up for the loss of Ruth, and the Red Sox finished worse in 1920 than they had in 1919. A slight rebound in 1921 brought them back near .500, but fans were no longer willing to pay to see a losing team without Babe Ruth, and attendance dropped 30%. That offseason, the fire sale began, as the Red Sox tried to get out of the red ink by selling their best players--most of them to the Yankees. One of the myths about the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry is that the sale of Babe Ruth ruined the Red Sox and made the Yankees. It's not quite true--Boston was declining with Ruth, and the Yankees were on the rise without him, but without the sale, Boston might have drawn enough fans to keep their team together in the early twenties. As it was, the trades and sales that followed Ruth were what ultimately pushed New York over the top, not Ruth himself.

But Ruth was still the key. Had the sale never happened, Boston would not have fallen so far for so long, and the Yankees would not have risen so high. You can't blame 86 years on one move, but if there was one, that would be it. Boston had sound business reasons for moving Ruth, but in the end, they should have sucked it up and kept him, because you just don't let a player like that get away, even if you have to overpay for him.

But, 84 years later, the Red Sox have once again lost out on an all-time great to the New York Yankees. No, the trade is not truly comparable to the Ruth sale, and the ramifications are nowhere near as great, but the Red Sox did pass on Rodriguez for the same reason they shipped out Ruth: it was a good business decision. The Yankees, on the other hand, saw the opportunity to get a player who could contribute things to the team that no other combination of players could do, and they appear to have taken it.

This trade does not by any means seal up another title for the Yankees. I think it makes the Yankees better than the Red Sox--I think their lineup is now better than Boston's (but not by much), their rotation is better (but not by much) and their bullpen is better (but not by much). The AL East race will almost certainly go down to the wire, and the Yankees and Red Sox will probably meet in the ALCS again, and no matter how good the Yankees' lineup is, Pedro Martinez and Curt Schilling are going to be tough to beat.

This trade is great for the Yankees on so many levels: they get Rodriguez at a discounted price, about $16 million per year; they only have to give up the talented by flawed Alfonso Soriano and a minor league player for A-Rod (which is a good trade, even if that player is Dioner Navarro, which I doubt). A-Rod doesn't eliminate the hole in the Yankees' infield caused by the loss of World Series hero Bret Boone, but rather shifts it to second base. But there are more options to fill the second base hole than there were at third, and it also gives the Yankees an amazing opportunity. Their defense, the worst in baseball over the past couple of seasons, could be dramatically improved. If they play A-Rod at short, moving Jeter to third, bring in a strong defensive second baseman, play Kenny Lofton in center and Travis Lee at first, their defense goes from being putrid to being--wait for it--a strength. The Yankees could score more runs than any team in baseball this season, and allow fewer. This trade opens up great possibilities, and it's something of a shame that they didn't consider it earlier, before Boone's injury necessitated something bold.

Of course, there's the possibility (probability?) that the Yankees will make the wrong decision on who to put in the field every time, but I'll talk about that later. As it stands, the Yankees have made one of the greatest trades in their history, and one of the greatest in the history of the game.