"Totally, totally dead."
That was the portrayal by then-Rangers owner Tom Hicks to The Boston Globe 10 years ago Monday of the status of talks between the Red Sox and Rangers regarding a potential mega-trade that would have made Alex Rodriguez the face of the Red Sox -- with Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester going to the Rangers.
At the time, the non-deal represented something of a punch to the collective gut of New England, amplified two months later when the Yankees swooped in and acquired A-Rod in exchange for Alfonso Soriano. In hindsight, the almost-consummated deal -- which fell apart when the Players Association refused to sign off on Rodriguez's willingness to lop about $4 million per year from his salary in exchange for other concessions (earlier opt-outs, licensing/marketing rights, etc.) -- between the Rangers and Sox still represents a staggering topic, though what it would have meant to Boston looks far different in retrospect than it did as a possibility those 10 Decembers ago.
Still, it is worth recalling what the deal represented at the time: The monumental ambition of the Red Sox to finally win a World Series after a drought that spanned generations, the brashness of the team's decision-makers to move several of the most prominent players in the game, the desperation of Rodriguez to leave Texas -- at a potential cost of tens of millions of dollars in guaranteed salary -- in order to associate himself with baseball's most romanticized (and, at the time, quixotic) quest for a title.
Now, at a time when Rodriguez has become more circus than player, it is almost difficult to recall what Rodriguez was at the time: the consensus best player in baseball. He was young (he turned 28 in August 2003), durable (three straight years of 160-plus games at shortstop), six years into a streak of 40-plus homer seasons, a seven-time All-Star, a two-time Gold Glover at shortstop and the reigning AL Most Valuable Player. The idea of adding him -- on top of the moves to bring manager Terry Francona, starter Curt Schilling and closer Keith Foulke to Boston -- illuminated the urgency at the heart of the Sox' mission to take the next step after a 2003 season that ended in Game 7 heartbreak.
"We have the same primary motivation in most everything, and that's the eagerness to win. We were at that point mired in the 86-year nuclear winter and we were determined to be bold and do what had to be done to break that so-called curse," Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino said Monday. "As to the boldness, the audacity of the deal, we took office planning to be bold. We joked that this was not your father's Oldsmobile, this was not your father's Red Sox. This was going to be a different approach, we hoped a bolder approach, so we were not deterred by that.
"The boldness of it was not something that deterred us, but it certainly was bold to consider something like that. That was a time when we were willing and eager to consider bold moves, not that far removed from the Billy Beane negotiations," Lucchino continued, referencing the team's efforts one year earlier to land the Oakland general manager. "It's hard to go back 10 years and not be influenced by the events of those 10 years, since that time. At that point, [Rodriguez] was generally recognized as the most outstanding player in baseball. He seemed to have a mind of his own with respect to where he wanted to play.
"And," Lucchino added, "I was surprised by the changes brought about to the Players Association both to the deal and to his eagerness."
Ah, the Players Association. The same organization whose defense of Rodriguez this summer in light of his place in the Biogenesis scandal was also a flashpoint in the Sox' effort to acquire the shortstop 10 years ago. The Sox and Rangers had a deal in place. Rodriguez and the Sox had negotiated to rework the superstar's contract so that it would fit into the Sox' payroll structure.
But the Players Association rejected the salary compromises that Rodriguez was willing to make, a decision to which the Sox objected vehemently.
"Theo Epstein and his staff worked diligently and tirelessly and reached an agreement with Alex Rodriguez. Theo had the full support of [Red Sox principal owner John Henry], [chairman Tom Werner], and me along the way. The Red Sox and Rangers had agreed to the players to be involved in this transaction and were working toward an agreement on financial considerations to be included. A lot of time and effort has been invested on all sides to reach this critical point, but the Players Association rejected the agreement Alex took to them and, instead, proposed radical changes," Lucchino said in a press release on the night of the Players Association veto of Dec. 17, 2003. "It is a sad day when the Players Association thwarts the will of its members. The Players Association asserts that it supports individual negotiations, freedom of choice and player mobility. However, in this high-profile instance, their action contradicts this and is contrary to the desires of the player."
Lucchino, looking back on the impetus behind that statement, acknowledged that it was "written at the time when we were stunned by the reversal. … Some momentum had been building. A lot of dialogue had taken place. We thought that we were much closer to a deal. And all of that momentum was erased by the Players Association's intransigence or unwillingness to compromise."
The strong language of the press release, and the fact that Lucchino still speaks of the "stunning" nature of the Players Association's intervention in the deal, points to what the Red Sox felt was at stake in what would have been a transaction for the ages.
Again, there is something staggering about a consideration of the players involved, as the trade for Rodriguez would have toppled other dominoes. The Sox would have followed the deal -- which involved the two highest-salaried players in the majors in Rodriguez (who was three years into a 10-year, $252 million contract) and Ramirez (who was entering year four of his eight-year, $160 million pact) -- with another to move their iconic shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra, to the White Sox in exchange for outfielder Magglio Ordonez and pitching prospect Brandon McCarthy.
So: A-Rod plus Magglio plus McCarthy in exchange for Manny plus Nomar plus Lester -- a drastic change to the composition of a Red Sox franchise that has won three World Series titles in the past decade.
Would the Sox have been in position to enjoy such success -- unmatched in baseball over the past 10 years -- had they made the deal?
"Unanswerable question," said Lucchino, "but I will say that we're proud of the players that have been here for that decade of achievement, and looking back, no, I wouldn't change it."
Still, it's an interesting act of revisionist history to think What if:
RED SOX HAVE
Rodriguez: 155 games, .286/.375/.512 with 36 homers for the Yankees
Ordonez: 52 games, .292/.351/.485 with 9 homers for the White Sox
RED SOX DO NOT HAVE:
Ramirez: 152 games, .308/.397/.613 with 43 homers
Garciaparra: 38 pre-trade games for the Sox, .321/.367/.500 with 5 homers
Ramirez was huge for the Sox that year -- both in the regular season and again in the postseason, when he won World Series MVP honors. Yet the Sox would have gladly dealt him before 2004 based on his constant expressions of displeasure in Boston. Garciaparra was little happier, given that the Sox were ready to trade him -- and ultimately did so at the July 31 deadline.
"Certainly Manny expressed his unhappiness to us the very first month we were in town. He felt he made a mistake in his free agency decision and was eager to rectify that mistake," said Lucchino. "It turns out, of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it's clear that we would not have won in 2004 without Manny's massive contribution and the trade of Nomar, which gave us some reinforcements for the stretch run."
Still, while Ordonez (like Garciaparra, an impending free agent) would have represented the same non-factor as Garciaparra due to injuries, the Sox would not have been looking to acquire a shortstop (Orlando Cabrera) at the trade deadline. Moreover, Ramirez was viewed as the clearly superior player at the time based on defense, baserunning and position. So, the Sox might well have been a better regular-season team, but whether that would have been the case in the playoffs is anyone's guess.
RED SOX HAVE
Rodriguez: 162 games, .321/.421/.610, 48 HR
Brandon McCarthy: 12 games (10 starts), 3-2, 4.03 ERA, 6.4 K/9, 2.3 BB/9
RED SOX DO NOT HAVE
Ramirez: 152 games, .292/.388/.594, 45 HR
Fallout: The Sox almost surely would have had a better team in 2005 -- in a year when they got swept out of the first round of the playoffs, and when Ramirez's efforts to get traded nearly gave manager Terry Francona a heart attack -- and McCarthy might have provided some much-needed depth to a rotation that struggled all year. But start to think through the implications of a non-deal: The Red Sox probably would not have signed Edgar Renteria, which in turn would have meant no deal for Coco Crisp the following offseason. The team would have been in the market for an outfielder. Whereas the team offered Cabrera salary arbitration to recoup a pair of draft picks (Jacoby Ellsbury and Jed Lowrie), the uncertain health of Ordonez might have made the team disinclined to extend arbitration to him. (The White Sox did not make such an offer to Ordonez.) So conceivably, the Sox might have compromised their titles of 2007 and 2013 if they hadn't had the draft pick compensation from Cabrera after 2004.
RED SOX (LIKELY) HAVE
Rodriguez: 154 games, .290/.392/.523, 35 HR
McCarthy: 53 games (2 starts), 4-7, 4.68, 7.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9
RED SOX DO NOT HAVE
Ramirez: 130 games, .321/.439/.619, 35 HR, quit on team in late August
Lester: 7-2, 4.76, 6.6 K/9, 4.8 BB/9
Fallout: The Red Sox didn't make the playoffs in 2006, so in a vacuum, the Sox might well have wanted to roll the dice on a different roster. But in all likelihood, Rodriguez wouldn't have been enough to make a difference to a team whose pitching staff was ravaged by injuries. One asterisk on Rodriguez: In his renegotiated deal to come to the Sox, he had the right to opt out of the deal after 2005, so conceivably, he could have explored the market after an MVP 2005 season -- though the game's revenues had taken something of a downturn at that juncture, so he might not have felt compelled to hit free agency even at a point where his leverage would have appeared to be exceptional. One other asterisk: If Rodriguez had shown diminishing range at short in 2004 and 2005, would the Sox have dealt Hanley Ramirez or kept him as their future shortstop? Josh Beckett, Mike Lowell, Anibal Sanchez … lots of dominoes.
RED SOX (LIKELY) HAVE
Rodriguez: 158 games, .314/.422/.645, 54 HR
McCarthy: 23 games (22 starts), 5-10, 4.87, 5.2 K/9, 4.2 BB/9
RED SOX DO NOT HAVE
Ramirez: 133 games, .296/.388/.493, 20 HR
Lester: 12 games (11 starts), 4-0, 4.57, 7.1 K/9, 4.4 BB/9
Fallout: Ramirez was a monster in the postseason, a game-changer particularly in the ALCS against the Indians, and so it's fair to wonder whether the Sox could have won even with Rodriguez having his third MVP year. If the Sox didn't have Ellsbury as a result of the fallout from the Garciaparra/Cabrera deal, their shot at the title that year likely would have been compromised as well.
RED SOX (LIKELY) HAVE
McCarthy: 5 games (5 starts), 1-1, 4.09, 4.1 K/9, 3.3 BB/9
RED SOX DO NOT HAVE
Ramirez: 100 games, .299/.398/.529, 20 HR before trade to Dodgers
Lester: 33 games (33 starts), 16-6, 3.21, 6.5 K/9, 2.8 BB/9
Fallout: Rodriguez opted out after the 2007 season, and the Red Sox probably would have let him walk. Ramirez played at a high level for the Sox in 2008, but he started to show signs of decline from his peak. Moreover, he became a clubhouse problem who tried to force resolution to his uncertain contract status beyond 2008 (the Sox had options on his deal for 2009 and 2010), ultimately necessitating the three-way deal that sent him to the Dodgers and brought back Jason Bay. Lester, of course, emerged as a front-of-the-rotation presence for the Sox that year, a status he's owned ever since.
From 2009-13, among the principals in the deal, the legacy of the Rodriguez trade likely would have been reduced to a question of Lester vs. McCarthy and whatever efforts the Sox made to find someone of the caliber of Lester.
One intriguing outcome of the failure of the trade: Lester suggests that it made him better equipped to handle the business of baseball, to be a ruthless competitor on the mound, able to tune out what has happened off of it, whose makeup has propelled him to the top of a rotation.
"I didn't know about it, I only knew about it for like two days before it got squashed. I didn't know anything back then. A buddy of mine called me and was like, what's this deal?" Lester recalled this summer. "I called my agent. He said, 'Yeah, this is possibly going through.' He called me back the next day and said, 'Yeah, it's gone through, we're just waiting on the approval.' Then he called me about an hour later and said, 'You're still with the Red Sox.'
"It was a weird deal, especially after my first year, to wonder what was going on. I was just, like, 'Let me figure out how to throw strikes, let alone what team I'm on.' But I'm glad I went through it. It was like a wake-up call early. It was like, 'This is how it is. This is what you have to deal with.' I think that helped prepare me for getting here. … I think it really helped prepare me for the business side of baseball."
Lester suggested that he has been able to draw on that lesson at subsequent times in his career, as when his name made it into the rumor mill (in a potential deal with the Royals) following the 2012 season. He learned as a 19-year-old to dampen the emotions of a trade rumor and to perform; he did the same in 2013, en route to a postseason performance that established him as one of the greatest October pitchers ever.
In many respects, dealing Lester would have represented the greater miscalculation than dealing for Rodriguez. While some Sox officials regarded Lester very highly and as a future top-of-the-rotation presence in 2003, when he was coming off his first full pro season in Single-A Augusta (going 6-9 with a 3.65 ERA, 6.0 strikeouts and 3.7 walks per nine innings, showing more stuff than results), there was not yet clear consensus on that as his future. Certainly, if the Sox knew what he would have become, they never would have considered moving him, even for a landmark player like Rodriguez.
Had the Sox made the deal with the Rangers in 2003, they would have been left to spend years trying to conjure a front-of-the-rotation starter (preferably a southpaw) in his absence, forcing a more aggressive pursuit of pitchers like CC Sabathia, Cliff Lee, Roy Halladay, etc. Given the cost of such a player -- as opposed to the team-friendly deal that Lester has been playing on since signing a five-year, $30 million contract prior to the 2009 season -- the entire payroll structure of the Sox would have been altered drastically, to the point where the deals for both Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez likely would have been impossible, which would have meant no Dodgers deal, which would have meant no seven free agents in 2012-13 … In short, the Sox would feature a roster that might have verged on unrecognizable compared to the one that has been in place over the past few years.
So, would the Red Sox have enjoyed three titles had the trade gone through?
It can't be dismissed completely. The Sox have made a lot of decisions that have put them in position to enjoy more glory than any other franchise in baseball in the past 10 years. The totality of those decisions must be considered in assessing what might have been.
Still, given the chaos that has engulfed Rodriguez with the Yankees, and the fact that in contrast to Ramirez he has struggled for most of his postseason career (except in 2009, when Rodriguez was absolutely dominant), and the fact that Lester was a pivotal contributor on one championship team and Ellsbury (who can be considered, somewhat liberally, as a benefit to the Sox of the non-deal) was a key member of two title winners, it becomes difficult to imagine the Sox enjoying any more success than what they've experienced.
Perhaps the 2005 team would have had a better shot at winning a championship, but a team with Rodriguez wouldn't have had any greater chance of winning in either 2004 or 2007 (since the team won both years), and in all likelihood, he couldn't have salvaged the Sox' 2006 campaign. So, it's not unreasonable to imagine a Sox team that won a championship team or two with the Rodriguez deal, but it becomes difficult to imagine that the Sox would have been the gold standard for championship success over the last decade in a world where the trade was made.
Put another way: Good luck finding anyone with the Red Sox who regrets that the trade fell through. The Red Sox have had some regrettable moves and non-moves over the past decade. The inability to land Rodriguez does not count among them.
"It was as vivid a reminder as one could have about the old cliche: The best trades are often the ones that never happen," said Lucchino. "It was also a bit of a reminder of the power and influence of the Players Association. I can't say how it would have influenced our operating practices going forward. It would be purely hypothetical. I'm not going to try. All I can say is we wanted to win, we were in it to win it, and we wanted to win it right then. We didn't want a long period of time to pass. Having won three in 10 years, we feel a sense of satisfaction and pride in what has developed in place of an A-Rod-led Red Sox."