On Thursday morning, Mookie Betts contemplated the nature of a player’s legacy in a city where he performs. He’d seen a Fenway lovefest for Carl and Mike Yastrzemski for three days — a nod to the reverence in which the grandfather is held after his 23 years with the Red Sox — and earlier this month, Betts saw the adulation showered upon David Ortiz in his first Fenway appearance since getting shot.
Still, the displays did not suddenly fill Betts with sentimentality as he considered his own potential place in Red Sox history.
“It’s pretty cool that they have their career in one place, but you can be remembered in that same fashion even if you put on a couple different jerseys,” said Betts. “It definitely doesn’t hurt to only put on one jersey . . . [But the Yastrzemski celebration] doesn’t sway me [about the future] one way or the other.”
For many, it was natural to see the comments as evidence that Betts was and is counting down days until he leaves Boston. Yet such a perspective is incomplete. Some context:
■ In the same story, Betts noted his eagerness to return to the lineup despite a sore foot. “I’m not going to quit. I’m just not going to quit on myself or the team no matter where we are in the standings,” he said. Betts is committed, as he’s always been, to being the best player possible for the Red Sox.
■ Betts didn’t rule out a return to the Red Sox on Thursday. Nor has he ever done so. He’s always been consistent: He’s enjoyed and appreciated his time with the Red Sox, and has great and respectful relationships throughout the organization.
■ That said, Betts’s long-term future is a business decision. He believes in the notion of establishing a value for himself and sticking to it. If the Red Sox accept that value and offer it to him, then it seems he’d welcome the opportunity to sign long term for what he deems his worth.
■ To date, every time the subject of a long-term deal has been broached, there’s been a significant gap between what the team has offered and what Betts has believed he’s worth. And at every turn, it seems like Betts has been right (at least in a financial sense) not to sell himself short. Every time the Red Sox have talked about a long-term deal, they’ve shown a willingness to move the goalposts and to offer more money with their next proposal. Betts is following a pattern established by other stars such as Max Scherzer: Don’t be afraid to bet on yourself if you know you’re good. That outlook is often a trademark of the most ferocious competitors and best players.
■ When the Red Sox drafted Betts in 2011, he asked for a $750,000 signing bonus. The Red Sox initially offered him roughly half of that. Betts balked and said that while he appreciated the team’s interest, he’d go to school if they didn’t meet his asking price. Just before the deadline to sign Betts, the Sox made him the offer he’d been seeking, and signed him for $750,000.
■ Betts won his arbitration hearing after 2017. He got a record agreement with the Red Sox for a player with his service time after 2018. Every time he’s held the line in negotiations, he’s gotten what he sought.
■ That history surely informs Betts’s perspective moving forward. Baseball is a business where both sides can seek to maximize leverage — and remain respectful while doing so. The Sox didn’t unilaterally decide to pay Betts $10 million as a pre-arbitration-eligible player in 2017 after he was runner-up in American League MVP voting in 2016. (Nor should they have done so.) Betts understood that.
■ Even so, it’s hard not to see statements such as the one Betts made about being unswayed by sentiment and think that Betts won’t test free agency — unless the Red Sox ask him what he wants in a deal this offseason, he and his agents offer the team terms, and the team more or less accepts them.
■ Yet if the Red Sox do trade Betts because of their belief that he won’t sign, or if they retain him and he leaves in free agency, at first glance it’s hard to think it won’t affect his place in franchise history. Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter wouldn’t have been the same iconic players had they left the Yankees. By contrast, Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs damaged their relationships for a time with the Red Sox fan base. That said, it’s also possible that Betts could be proven right: Albert Pujols just enjoyed a royal welcome home in St. Louis as a member of the Angels. Pedro Martinez left Boston but has reestablished himself as a part of the Red Sox franchise fabric.
■ In most professions, when people change jobs for a reason of their choosing — money, family, geography, or anything else — they’re congratulated for taking advantage of an opportunity to make such a choice, a reflection of career accomplishment. The same is true if, after considering alternate job opportunities, they decide to remain in the same place and role (sometimes with a pay bump).
■ But an athlete’s right to exercise such a choice is typically viewed differently, through a tribal prism. To fans, business and contract decisions don’t necessarily reflect how a player feels about where he’s playing, yet they are almost necessarily viewed as a form of judgment on a franchise or region.
■ Could the Red Sox, a jewel franchise with a multibillion-dollar valuation, afford to give Betts just about anything he wants and remain profitable? Yes. Is it his fault that the team may consider itself hamstrung by the roughly $80 million committed for the next three years to David Price, Chris Sale, and Nathan Eovaldi? Yet the team, like Betts, views this as a business decision, and wants to make what it considers a smart investment, not one borne of sentiment.
■ If both sides view contracts as a business matter, then a player’s commitment to the organization should be viewed as something separate from the question of whether he stays with a team for the entirety of his career. Betts surely could have asked to delay his return to the lineup beyond the Tropicana Field turf, but he was reinstalled atop the lineup on Friday as a designated hitter not because the Sox needed him to but because he believes it is his responsibility. That’s par for the course: Throughout his career, Betts has been committed to the Red Sox on the field and off. He plays hard, plays hurt, and plays well.
■ In fact, he plays very well — always. This year, with a surge since the start of July, he’s once again having a standout year, ranking fourth among American League position players in WAR (as calculated by Fangraphs), just ahead of teammate Xander Bogaerts. For the second time in three years, Betts’s “down” season will nonetheless likely see him land in the top five or 10 in MVP balloting.
■ Betts’s run from 2015-19 will stand as one of the greatest five-year runs in Red Sox history given the overall contributions. If the Red Sox decide to trade Betts or if he leaves as a free agent, it’s probably a safe guess that he thinks that on-field performance — along with a 2018 World Series title — should define his Boston legacy, rather than the possibility (again, not the certainty) that he goes somewhere else.