When a beloved player or downright legend takes his game elsewhere, the fan base left behind never entirely gets over it. I’d offer you the perfect example of this, but do we really want to discuss Bobby Orr, No. 4, Chicago Blackhawks right now, or ever again? Did not think so.
There are other annoying examples pocking Boston sports lore. Carlton Fisk is forever the backbone of the 1970s Red Sox to me. When I think of him, the first image that pops to mind is … well, all I have to do is repeat Dick Stockton’s line, “If it stays fair …,” and I’ll bet the same image pops to mind for you too, one so familiar and delightful that it requires no further explanation. It’s already in your mind’s eye. Always has been.
The second image is Fisk slugging one Yankee or another at home plate in one of those oh-the-hate-is-real brawls from the rivalry’s heyday. It will always be difficult to fathom that he spent more years with the White Sox (13) than the Red Sox (11, including cameo appearances as a prospect).
The same goes for the greatest kicker in NFL history, Adam Vinatieri, who has now been splitting the uprights for 14 seasons as an Indianapolis Colt, four more than he spent in New England. When I think of Vinatieri, the all-time leading scorer in Colts history by more than 500 points and second to successor Stephen Gostkowski in the Patriots annals, I’m reminded of Bill James once writing that if you split Rickey Henderson’s career in half, you’d have two Hall of Famers.
Vinatieri could kick another five years for the Colts — hey, don’t put it past him, he’s only 47 years old — and the man who has hit at least four of the biggest kicks in NFL history would still be forever a Patriot in our minds.
I bring this up for reasons that I presume are pretty obvious. This has been a particularly tough year for departures in New England sports. Tom Brady is a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, and no matter whether he wins a seventh Super Bowl, turns into the Chiefs version of Joe Montana (still very good and periodically magical, but injury-prone), or collapses into that sad Joe Namath/Rams or Johnny Unitas/Chargers shell, seeing him in pewter is never going to look right. Same goes for sidekick Rob Gronkowski, whose famous final scene should have been the beautiful catch in triple coverage that set up the only touchdown in Super Bowl LIII.
I’m not sure Mookie Betts quite qualifies as a legend yet, since he spent just five-plus seasons with the Red Sox before being dealt to the Dodgers in February. But he was well on his way to such status, having won a Most Valuable Player award and becoming the most complete player the franchise has developed in the draft era.
Now that baseball has its protocols in place to begin the season, we can refocus on just how lame it was that the Red Sox traded him, even going into his contract year. It’s apparent now that he’s not going to get a contract in the $400 million range given the embarrassing state of baseball and the still-unknown full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the game’s finances. Turns out, he may end up being someone’s bargain. He always was one for the Red Sox.
It’s disappointing to see Betts in Dodger blue, and it’s downright disconcerting to see Brady and Gronkowski in those strange Bucs uniforms that have no history. But I still can’t help but wonder, given the increasing evidence that the virus is not going to cooperate with the wishful restart-sports-and-everything-will-be-normal folks, if we’re going to end up in odd circumstances where we don’t see these guys play for their new teams at all.
Betts, of course, is a free agent after this season — whether or not there is a season. Owners implemented a 60-game schedule this week after months of shameful bickering with the players’ union, and Spring Training 2.0 is supposed to start July 1 in teams’ home ballparks. That’s next Wednesday, which is soon, yet so much can happen between now and then.
Multiple Phillies have tested positive for the virus. Rockies star Charlie Blackmon has too. And the real games don’t even begin until around July 24. The virus is going to have its say about these hastily laid plans, and count me among the skeptics that we see a season at all.
We have seen Betts play for the Dodgers — a total of eight games this spring, which feels like about nine years ago — but it is possible we never see him in a game that counts. It’s a minor plot point, but how weird would it be if Betts never plays a real inning for the Dodgers? It seems unrealistic to me that he’d return to Boston as a free agent, but it is a nice thing to dream on, and that trade would suddenly look like a gift.
As for Brady, he has a two-year deal with the Bucs, so even if this NFL season is canceled — an unlikely outcome at the moment, perhaps, but one that looks possible when you ponder the impossible logistics of a football team trying to socially distance — he’ll still have 2021 to wear all of his new swashbuckling gear. But he’d be 44 entering that season, and his skills will erode soon, if they haven’t in a subtle way already. We may see him as a Buc. But we may never see him thrive as a Buc.
I miss sports. But I’m not sure I miss them as much as I’ll miss watching Betts and Brady, and Gronk too, do their thing for the local teams. I hope there is a way for all of the leagues to proceed, safely and smartly, in these unprecedented times. In the meantime, I’m OK with other cities having to wait a little longer to co-opt our favorites.