When Tom Yawkey was the owner, and Willie Mays played in the Negro Leagues, Mays’s Birmingham Black Barons shared a stadium with a Red Sox minor-league club, which infamously passed on the chance to sign the man who would become an enduring icon of the sport. Just as infamously, the Red Sox would be the last American League team to integrate its roster with the addition of Pumpsie Green in 1959, 12 years after Jackie Robinson made his debut for the Brooklyn Dodgers.
From that point until what would become the Fenway Sports Group bought the team and put it in direct competition with the Yankees, the Red Sox would bumble their way through decades and close calls without getting over the hump under caretaker owners great and small. In the two decades of John Henry and Tom Werner’s ownership, there have been some embarrassing moments, but nothing embarrassing enough to obscure the on-field product, and the four World Series titles earned under their stewardship, until last January, when efforts to make up for lost time began, apparently in earnest.
First came the aborted trade of Mookie Betts to the Dodgers for Alex Verdugo and Brusdar Graterol, a deal that was scratched over alleged health concerns that arose only after a long weekend of Sox fans expressing their extreme displeasure with the move. Next came a similar, but better, deal that included Jeter Downs and Connor Wong in Graterol’s place, a trade that several beat writers insist to this day wasn’t influenced by the fans’ visceral hatred of the initial Betts deal, a fact I’d like you to keep in mind as I examine two, uh, relatively historic moments in FSG’s recent ownership of the Liverpool Football Club.
The first came in 2016. As James Pearce of The Athletic reports, Liverpool fans, outraged with continually raised ticket prices, walked out of a game en masse, prompting Henry to release a statement apologizing for his role in the scheme and promise that the ticket price increase would not happen. Specifically, he said “We believe we have demonstrated a willingness to listen carefully, reconsider our position, and act decisively.” If that doesn’t yet sound familiar, flashback all the way to yesterday, when Henry released a video statement apologizing for Liverpool’s dalliance with the European Super League, a paradigm-changing pan-continental idea that lasted a solid 50 hours or so before being manifested out of existence by, effectively, a billion screaming voices.
Henry is effectively an apostate in the soccer community, and he clearly doesn’t like it—the owners of the other English Premier League teams were not quick to post groveling video messages, and whatever message can be inferred about their absence of remorse, we can certainly infer that Henry doesn’t want to be seen as the bad guy he plainly is, in a soccer context. You can’t attempt, as Henry has, to upset the world order of the most popular sport in human history and escape ridicule. You can only hope to manage it. To Henry’s extremely limited credit, it seems like he’s uncomfortable playing the heel right now even as his colleagues brush it off as a speed bump in the road to world domination, and he’s trying to get in front of a problem of which he’s still very much a part.
Which brings me back to Graterol, and the Betts trade, and the insistence by the wised-up beats that, in fact, health concerns were the motivating factor in renegotiating what was a done deal, announced and everything. Maybe that was the case. Maybe. But Henry’s pattern of behavior—make a colossal error of judgment, try to fix it on the back end, repeat—suggests otherwise. “We believe we have demonstrated a willingness to listen carefully, reconsider our position, and act decisively.” For those Red Sox fans who want me and my ilk to shut up and get over it already, with Verdugo playing as well as he is, this is a big reason why I refuse to do so. The flagrant lies and half-truths are exhausting, and they are why when I hear the Sox say they made good-faith efforts to keep Betts around, I believe the exact opposite on principle.
The last few days have showed the likely wisdom of such an approach. The major difference between the Betts and Super League debacles, from our perspective, is that the Betts trade happened in a closed system in which Henry wields all the real power and the Super League happened in an open system in which he does not. The major similarity is the depth of the antipathy to the experiment, which, in Liverpool’s case, doesn’t get to be redeemed by the cleansing power of the games themselves. This is good. Henry said, albeit while over a barrel, the fans have the ultimate voice in these matters, and while the idea of the Super League cuts directly against this to the point that a flip-flop of this magnitude over the course of a long weekend is unfathomably embarrassing, it’s nice to see the fans have some power in action.
The silver lining here is that I increasingly believe that the Sox would have made an even worse Betts trade if the fans hadn’t been ready to revolt, justifiably, at what they correctly viewed as an affront to the sport’s values on both an economic and wins-and-losses level. The Red Sox, as good as they are, would be better with Betts than Verdugo. For as good as Verdugo has been, Betts’s OPS+ is still 10 points higher, because Betts is a top-5 player in the game and Verdugo is not, which is not Verdugo’s fault, but still true. It very obliquely reminds me of an interview with Vlade Divac, a very good basketball players who was traded from the Lakers for a draft pick, when he reflected on the circumstances of the trade with an interviewer years later, who was surprised that he was cool with it. Divac got very real about spelling it out: Would I trade me for Kobe? Kobe was, of course, the pick. His answer was an emphatic yes. “If they trade you for a Kobe, that means that you’re not bad,” Divac said.
Special players are just special, and all the players know who is special and who is not. The Red Sox may win without Betts around and I’ll be very happy about it. Verdugo is currently no worse than his 90 percentile projection at the time of the trade and, context-free, is one of Chaim Bloom’s great acquisitions. (It is my belief, for what it’s worth, that trading Betts was an implicit or explicit condition of Bloom taking the job, and that he may have liked the challenge, but I do not think his first thought was “Let’s trade Mookie,” because that’s clearly foremost an owner’s decision.) Bloom is clearly very good at the job. But, and this is to Henry’s credit, virtually every Red Sox GM has been good. Theo Epstein and Dave Dombrowski spent a lot of money on good players and the Red Sox won a lot of games and titles, and the idea behind Bloom’s hiring is clearly to do the second part without necessarily doing the first.
In some senses I get it: Henry did what he came to do and now he wants a new challenge. In theory, that sounds good. But when you listen to a cowed Henry on a day like Wednesday, saying the fans are ultimately in charge… to put it less than eloquently, boy, I don’t know. It seems like the decisions are in Henry’s hands until they are forcibly ripped away, at which point he is surprised anew at the force of the reaction. And look, I kind of understand it. He’s richer than Betts, for one, by a factor of about 20 at the very least. His world is not ours. To a large degree he realizes this, and puts competent people in charge of his team-building operations, especially in England, where manager Jürgen Klopp is top of class. I do not think of the Patriots’s Robert Kraft as a particularly brilliant owner, but when he realized the key to running the team after you hired smart people was to leave well enough alone and stop meddling he did the smartest thing he could. It was likely when he went against this tack, and insisted the team let Antonio Brown go, that caused him to ultimately to lose Tom Brady. That’s a whole ‘nuther can of ethical worms, but we don’t have enough words to get to that today.
What we can definitively say is that the people who sign the checks should stay out of the teams’ operations for a simple reason: They are not the owners of the team. We are. The owner should stop us from getting involved, and little more, because the owner is little more than a bought kingship. You are in charge until someone decides you’re not, be it you, a judge, or the people, and your power is ultimately reliant on us. You will win most of the time, yes. But you are not the nation. No one will remember you, really. You’re just a man, taken for all in all, a ghost in the making. We shall see look upon your like again, and the Red Sox will still be there.