When the 1961 season opened, the Red Sox had another hall of famer in the making, playing left field. His name was Yastrzemski
It would be a gross exaggeration for me to suggest that I have been a Boston Red Sox fanatic all my life. It's only been since I was seven years old.
But in that time span of 75 years (gulp) that I have been carrying the team's banner, there has never been a time that the Sox have not had a Hall of Fame player on the roster. Oh sure, you might quibble over that season and a half (1952-53) when Ted Williams was flying air raids over North Korea instead of hitting home runs over the bullpen in Fenway Park, but he was still a Red Sox and we were all sure that he'd be back. (It was only after the fact that we learned how close he came to never coming back.) But Ted was already a sure-thing for the Hall of Fame when I first entered the ranks of Red Sox die-hards and he stayed there, batting third in the lineup, as I grew up, through my grammar school years and on into my junior high, high school, and college years. Even late in his career, when the team absolutely stunk, they still had Ted, and that was reason enough to go to Fenway Park. He even lasted through my first couple of seasons in the real world before finally calling it quits at the end of 1960.
When the 1961 season opened, the Red Sox had another hall of famer in the making, playing left field. His name was Yastrzemski. By the time Yaz retired in 1983, I was in my mid-40s, the Sox had seen another couple of hall of famers, Pudge Fisk and Jim Rice, pass through the ranks, and Wade Boggs had established himself at third base. We all knew that Boggs, a hitting machine, was a lead-pipe cinch for the Hall of Fame but he was for some reason underappreciated in Boston. When he left the team at the end of the '92 season, the Sox had hit a dry spell, but they still had Roger Clemens, unanimously acclaimed as a Hall of Fame calibre pitcher, but one who got caught up in PED controversies after he left the club at the end of '96. It's taking a while, but he'll eventually find his way to Cooperstown.
After a brief one-year hiatus in '97, Pedro Martinez was a Red Sox by the time the '98 season opened, and if ever there was a hall of famer Pedro was it. By the time he was gone after '04, Big Papi had taken over and it's just a matter of time before Ortiz is inducted in Cooperstown. He passed the mantle on to Mookie Betts, who hasn't even played long enough to be eligible for induction into the Hall of Fame, but he's a generational talent and, unless something goes radically wrong, he'll have his plaque there someday.
That streak of successive seasons with at least one Hall of Fame ballplayer in the lineup is unmatched by any other team in baseball. Even the vaunted Yankees spent the years between 1968, when Mickey Mantle retired, and 1974, when they acquired Catfish Hunter, without a hall of famer. The Dodgers went through most of the '80s without one, though they did have Tommy Lasorda, but nobody buys a ticket to see a manager sit on the bench. Baseball fans want to see the great players play.
The Sox streak dates back to even before my time, when the then new owner, Tom Yawkey, in 1935 acquired Joe Cronin from the Washington Senators. Then he got Jimmie Foxx and Lefty Grove from the Philadelphia Athletics and picked up a kid named Bobby Doerr from Los Angeles in the Pacific Coast League. Their careers all over-lapped with that of Ted Williams and the streak was under way. It even sustained itself through World War II; Doerr, married and the father of a young child, was deferred from the draft until late in the war and Cronin remained on the active roster until 1945.
Having a hall of famer on the team is a time-honored Red Sox tradition -- or, I should say WAS a time-honored tradition. I don't know if you heard about it but they traded Mookie Betts last year, thus breaking the streak. There were no hall of famers on the Sox last season and they don't seem to be out shopping for one this year.
To be sure, they've got some fine talent. Xander Bogaerts is a terrific shortstop but his numbers don't compare with what Nomar Garciaparra put up early in his career. Things turned sour, though, when Nomar suffered some injury problems, got traded, saw his numbers fall off, and was given short shrift by the voters once he became eligible. Xander has a long way to go if he's ever going to get there. Chris Sale has had some excellent years, but he has less than half the wins that the great Luis Tiant garnered, and Luis is still not in Cooperstown. Rafael Devers has great talent but does he have the dedication and discipline to go with it? To be determined. Alex Verdugo had an excellent year in 2020. Now, if he can string together another 15 or 20 just like it, he might stand a chance.
The current Red Sox ownership has always operated with the philosophy that you can never have too many star players, and the brighter they glow the better -- especially the hall of famers. There have been spectacular flame-outs along the way, i.e. Pablo Sandoval and Carl Crawford, but by and large the theory has worked. It has led to success in the standings as well as in the stands as the team has built a huge and healthy fan base. There are few nights that Fenway Park is not packed to the brim with rabid Red Sox rooters. But star players can be expensive. The question is, when do their big contracts reach a point of diminishing returns?
Lately, the team seems to have changed its approach. Some observers have claimed that the Sox are now following a model established by the Tampa Bay Rays -- getting rid of star players before they get too expensive. That approach has worked for the Rays in the standings but not in the stands. They annually have one of the lowest attendance rates in all of baseball. Last season, when they appeared in the World Series, the series had its lowest television ratings in history. You can't sustain interest without having some stars in the lineup.
Let's hope that the Red Sox are not headed in that direction.
- 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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