Mookie and J.D.? J.D. and Mookie?
Which will it be?
Of the Red Sox two superstars, who will end up with top billing? The votes aren't in yet, and the issue remains in doubt. Hopefully it will remain a topic of discussion for years to come.
When the 2018 season began, it was Mookie Betts who seemed to have a lock on Red Sox fandom's affections, and he certainly has done nothing to change that. He's having a career year, batting .350, hitting with power, and playing a Gold Glove right field. And yet -- there is J.D. Martinez, with his lunch-bucket mentality and his ability to rise to the big moment, in hot pursuit. He is on track for a 50 home run season with about 140 runs batted in, and he trails only one hitter for the major league lead in batting average, that hitter being -- guess who?
What a delicious problem to have. Do we give number one ranking to Mookie, who one night a week or so ago hit for the cycle? Or do we go with J.D., who just a night or two later put a game away with his second four-bagger of the evening? Let's just bask in the moment and enjoy it. Right now they are the two best players on the planet, and we got 'em.
The Red Sox have been blessed over the years in having multiple hitters of extraordinary ability on the same team. The last such tandem the team had came together 15 years ago when Davd Ortiz and Manny Ramirez began hitting back to back. For five years they combined to put up astounding numbers. In 2005, for example they had 92 home runs and 292 runs batted in between them. They broke the Curse of the Bambino in 2004 and won another World Series in 2007. But nothing lasts forever. The very next year Manny, figuring he could do better money-wise with another team, claimed that his knee hurt too much to play (although he seemed to have trouble remembering which knee it was that hurt). He got himself traded to the Dodgers where the balky knee -- whichever one it was -- had the most miraculous recovery this side of Lourdes, France. So ended the Manny-Big Papi partnership.
Forty years ago Jim Rice and Fred Lynn, the Gold Dust Twins, arrived in the big leagues together and took the baseball world by storm. They were a team much more in makeup like Mookie and J.D., with Lynn the smooth fielder who hit for average and power and Rice the big basher. They complemented each other perfectly and there was no sense of there being a rivalry between the two. Besides, that team had some other players who were pretty good, too: Dwight Evans was the third outfielder, Carlton Fisk was the catcher, and Carl Yastrzemski was the team's designated hitter/first baseman and spiritual leader. But contract issues got in the way, and free agency was still a new thing. Lynn was soon off to the Angels and Fisk to the White Sox. Rice, Evans and Yaz stayed on but the Red Sox weren't the same.
You want to talk about rivalries you have to go back half a century when Yastrzemski and Tony Conigliaro shared the spotlight, not always comfortably. Yaz didn't particularly like all the attention but put up with it. Tony, on the other hand, was attracted to it like a moth to flame. In his spare time he even became a rock and roll singer of some note. The team in those days belonged to Yaz, but Tony was moving up on the outside. People tend to forget that he was only twenty-two years old when the horrific beaning that changed everything took place fifty-one years ago, on Aug. 18, 1967. He had already been the youngest player in American League history to lead the league in home runs and to reach 100 homers. There is no telling what he could have accomplished had he stayed healthy, and there is no telling how the Yaz/Tony C. rivalry would have played out.
There was one other great two-hitter tandem the Red Sox had, but it goes back to before my time and before the time of almost all of us. In 1939, that's 79 years ago, when Ted Williams broke in as a rookie, he quickly captured the attention of all baseball by batting .327 and hitting 31 home runs. But the Red Sox had another pretty good hitter that year, too. His name was Jimmie Foxx, and he hit 35 homers that year while batting for an average of .360. Foxx had the numbers but it was Ted, possessed of an animal magnetism unlike any player before him or since, who attracted all the attention. Foxx, an easy-going type, had been putting up those kinds of numbers for a decade and a half. But he was approaching the twilight of his career, and when the sun went down on his baseball life, it went down in a hurry. His numbers were off a bit in 1940 and then more in '41, the year that Williams amazed the baseball world by hitting .406. In 1942 the lights went out on Jimmie Foxx's career, and though he hung around for a while, he was all through as a force. The Williams/Foxx tandem would be a short-lived one.
There were great hitters who made up those combinations. Four of them, Williams, Foxx, Yastrzemki and Rice, are in the Hall of Fame; one, Ortiz, will be as soon as he's eligible; another, Ramirez, would be if he didn't get caught sprinkling funny sugar substitutes on his Cheerios; and Tony C. might well be in the Hall had it not been for what happened on that fateful night in August of 1967.
As great as all those hitter cominations were, though -- and they were great -- the Mookie/J.D. show (or is it J.D./Mookie?) is as good as any of them. We're lucky to be witness to it. Let's hope it lasts for a while.
Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox “Poet Laureate” and The Pilot’s recently minted Sports’ columnist.
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