Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: What will be Mookie Betts’ legacy?

The idea of legacy is vague. The kind of vague that struggles to be defined, yet you know it when you see it. Like a pitcher with “good stuff,” legacy is both impossible to quantify and incredibly valuable.

The sports world has been rife with debates about what constitutes being a “legacy” in the past week: from former Boston Red Sox manager Alex Cora’s now-tainted legacy as a cheater, to the annual conversations surrounding the National Baseball Hall of Fame results, to discussions about the late Kobe Bryant and his complex legacy. 

For better or for worse, sports fans and writers care a whole lot about this intangible, unquantifiable indicator of one’s impact and reputation.

All of which brings me to Mookie Betts. In a hectic — yet quiet — offseason in Boston, everything seems to come back to the Red Sox star.

In the past couple days, rumors have swirled about a possible trade between the Sox and the San Diego Padres, with the Padres offering two young major leaguers, a prospect, as well as outfielder Wil Myers in return for Betts and some money, according to The Athletic. This comes after a winter full of speculation about a potential landing spot for Betts, including reports about the Los Angeles Dodgers making a strong bid. 

At 27 years old, the 2018 American League Most Valuable Player is parked at a crossroads, and at the moment, the keys are in someone else’s hands. Betts has been vocal about his desire to test his value on the open market as a free agent, but it remains to be seen what uniform he will be wearing when he enters that stage.

New Sox Chief Baseball Officer Chaim Bloom has many factors to consider as he deals with this conundrum: financial implications, roster construction, the Sox farm system and emotions. Luckily for me, I can focus on the last one and let Bloom handle the rest.

So what will Betts’ legacy be in Boston?

I understand that to some extent the question is unfair. As long as Betts is under contract, his destiny is in Bloom’s hands. If he heads to San Diego tomorrow, the right fielder will not be to blame. Sure, he could have expressed a stronger desire to stay in Boston, signed an extension this offseason and put the whole episode to rest. But as an elite talent entering his prime, we can’t blame Betts for wanting to explore his options and earn the massive contract coming his way.

Caveats aside, let us address the possible paths Betts’ legacy could take. 


Path One: Betts is traded, either now or at the Trade Deadline

After six stellar seasons in Boston, Betts takes his talents to the West Coast, where he excels ahead of his free agency. Boston fans are outraged, and #FireBloom trends on Twitter for weeks.

Betts’ legacy is left largely as a “What if?” Fans regard him as a once-in-a-generation five-tool player who dominated in all aspects of the game and served as one of the sport’s greatest and most popular ambassadors off the field. His departure is difficult to swallow. Fans wince at the thought of seeing Betts don Dodger blue or Yankee pinstripes as he enters the open market. Though it is possible Betts could re-sign with Boston, most fans have reluctantly moved on. They are left to ponder if the Red Sox could ever find a player of Betts’ caliber again.


Path Two: Betts stays, then signs elsewhere

The trade rumors fizzle out as Betts suits up for the Sox on Opening Day. He plays nearly all 162 games, producing an excellent season. He makes his case ahead of free agency, and the season ends with as much uncertainty as it began.

After some negotiations with Bloom, Betts decides to follow the money. He publishes an advertisement in the Boston Globe to thank Sox Nation, and quietly makes his exit from the spotlight. And the fans? They are sad, conflicted and grateful. Some will remain angry at Betts, Bloom, or both, but most will be appreciative for the six years they got to witness the beginning of a Hall of Fame career. Betts is remembered as one of the best, most beloved Sox of all time, but fans come to terms with the fact that Betts will choose a different hat for his plaque in Cooperstown. Boston is where his story began, but it’s only the prologue.


Path Three: Betts stays, for good

This is the path most Red Sox fans hope for. And for Boston, it’s the best one.

Betts ignores the rumors, and stays with the Sox for the entire 2020 season. He puts up eye-popping numbers, and enters free agency with more suitors than any other player on the market. He meets with several teams and fields offers from both leagues and coasts, but ultimately signs a long-term deal to remain in Boston.

This is where his legacy has the most potential. 

After a 15-plus year career in Boston, Betts retires as the best Sox player of the decade. He’s a lock to have his number retired, and his case for the Hall of Fame is strong. He’s as popular as David Ortiz, as dominant as Pedro Martinez and some argue he belongs on the Red Sox Mount Rushmore. Fans wear his number, 50, for years after he retires, and all look back on the day he was almost traded with nothing but a chuckle. “Imagine trading a generational star in the prime of his career?” they joke, while driving down Betts Boulevard on their way to Fenway.


Back to today

Nobody knows which path Betts will take. I don’t, he doesn’t and even Bloom doesn’t. All we know is that in our society — especially in sports — we often focus more on how someone will be remembered when they’re gone than pay attention to them in the moment. Legacy is everything. 

It will be years before we know Mookie Betts’ true legacy in Boston. It could be none of the above, or a combination. As the rumors continue to swirl and the questions continue to outnumber the answers, all that’s left to do is to enjoy the supremely-talented and joyous player while we still can.

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