The first emotion was anger, because of course it was. The Mookie Betts trade was, in one sense, robbery. What we were robbed of was the chance to see a generational talent become the greatest Red Sox player of the 21st century. There are few things more rewarding in baseball fandom than aging along with a hometown star, riding the roller coaster with a player you love from the minors all the way to the Hall Of Fame. But with Mookie, the collective memories that would have come from watching him gracefully patrol right field for a decade, challenge Shohei Ohtani for MVP awards, chase 3,000 hits and 500 homers, and have his #50 hung on the right field facade as we debated where he fell among Teddy Ballgame and Yaz— were destroyed before they had a chance to form.
The next emotion was wistfulness. We were once again going to see Mookie pepper the Monster and fly around the bases in the baseball cauldron that is Fenway Park. It was so much fun the first time, and here was a chance to briefly relive the early days of his career, which looked for all the world like the early days of a dynasty.
And then the third emotion was, very unexpectedly, happiness. I did not see that coming.
Throughout this weekend, as Mookie Betts finally made his return to Fenway with the Dodgers, a contingent of Sox fans insisted that it was “time to move on” from what happened in February 2020, that those of us who were still complaining about the trade that sent Mookie to LA in exchange for Alex Verdugo, Connor Wong, and Jeter Downs were living in the past. What those fans misunderstand is that the Mookie trade isn’t even in the past yet. As I stated up top, what the trade did was rob us memories that we would still be making today. So I didn’t want to be told to move on, not when the events of February 2020 were still clearly with us. I was angry.
What made me surprisingly happy was this:
What made me so happy about this moment wasn’t the ovation itself, but how Mookie responded to it. I was happy because he was happy. And I found that feeling returning all weekend.
Prior to the first game of the series, Mookie gave an interview that, in my opinion, was one of the more insightful and honest interviews you’re likely to see from a contemporary athlete. It was difficult, he said, to find closure and deal with the emotions of returning to Boston. But then he realized something important: the Mookie he was in Boston isn’t the same person as the Mookie he is now.
He went on to mention some of the tangible and obvious differences the two versions of himself: he’s married now, he’s a father now, and he’s branching away from baseball with a production company, podcasts, and everything else that being a star in LA can entail. But those are only the outward differences. What I kept thinking all weekend was that Mookie appeared to be carrying himself differently, too. He had more confidence. He was more comfortable and engaging with the media. He was the unquestioned leader of one of the most star-studded collections of talent in recent memory.
This isn’t to say that he wasn’t confident and warm and all those things during his time in Boston. He was. But he was also a kid, still finding his way in the game. There were times when he appeared to be downright shy with the media. There were times when he appeared uncomfortable with the intensity of Boston fandom (I will forever remember how concerned he was about fans tossing beer and alcohol up to his parade float in 2018, and how different his reaction was from athletes like David Ortiz, Kevin Millar, and Rob Gronkowski, who were all born to play here). Despite all he accomplished in Boston, I sometimes got the sense that he struggled to let his guard down.
But I didn’t get that sense this weekend. This is not to say that I think he’s lying when he says he wanted to stay in Boston. I take him at his word, absolutely and without reservation; between Betts and the Red Sox front office, only one side has an actual financial stake in making their narrative about the failed contract negotiations stick, and it isn’t Betts. But I do think it’s possible that leaving Boston may have ultimately been good for him. He left Boston a precocious kid still trying to harness his talents. He returned as one of the faces of the game, only just starting realize his potential off the field, as well as on.
I’m happy for him, whether I’m ready to move on or not.