Earlier this week, Major League Baseball’s Boston Red Sox made one of the most controversial trades in recent memory. While not official just yet due to the medical examination of another player involved in the transaction, the team will send star outfielder Mookie Betts to the Los Angeles Dodgers in what can essentially be described as a cost-cutting move: moving on from Betts allowed the Red Sox to get under the MLB’s luxury tax.
Trading away the 27-year-old certainly qualifies as a [enter adjective of choice] decision for a team just two years removed from a World Series title, and is the latest shoe to drop in what has been a tumultuous offseason for the region’s second most successful organization of the 21st century. Betts is Red Sox’s biggest star and best player, after all, and just yet entering his prime while already being one of pro baseball’s most prolific hitters.
This brings us to the top organization of the region in terms of success, the New England Patriots. They never had their own Mookie Betts moment since being founded in 1959, but there are a few trades that do come close in terms of shocking nature or the reasoning behind making them — and that does not even include surprising cuts such as safety Lawyer Milloy, who was released for salary cap purposes just five days before the 2003 season opener.
The first example that comes to mind is the late Leon Gray, who was a key member of the league’s premier offensive line after joining the Patriots in 1973. Playing alongside Hall of Famer John Hannah, the left tackle had arguably his best season in 1978: he was voted first-team All-Pro and made the Pro Bowl, and helped New England rush for a then-record 3,165 rushing yards. The following offseason, however, Gray was traded to Houston.
The reason for the move was simple and similar to the Red Sox parting ways with Betts: money. The then-owners the Patriots, the Sullivan family, had never been among the league’s wealthiest which forced them to part ways with their stalwart offensive tackle — a move criticized by Hannah when he spoke with Sports Illustrated in 1981: “When the Patriots traded Leon... well, I never wanted to sign another contract with them. I still haven’t gotten over it.”
Gray was the best example of a player falling victim to the Sullivan’s lack of financial liquidity, and arguably the one that compares closest to Betts when it comes to the motives for making a trade. When it comes to Betts’ status as one of the team’s most productive and popular players, however, others come to mind as well — although only two men had the same “face of the franchise” qualities as the soon-to-be Dodger: Jim Plunkett and Drew Bledsoe.
Of course, there are still a few major differences between the two quarterbacks and Betts. At the time they were traded to the San Francisco 49ers and Buffalo Bills in 1976 and 2002, respectively, they had both already lost their jobs (to Steve Grogan and Tom Brady) which in turn made the moves less surprising. Both Plunkett and Bledsoe were once drafted first overall, yes, but they were also older at the time of the trades with the former heading into his age-29 season and the latter having just turned 30.
For a short time in the 1970s and the 1990s, however, Plunkett and Bledsoe were for the Patriots what Betts was for the Red Sox: foundational players around whom to build a roster. Other players traded away in surprising fashion like Richard Seymour in 2009 and Logan Mankins in 2014 came close to the Betts trade due to the financial aspect involved and their previous production, but they never reached that same status as Plunkett and Bledsoe even in their heyday.
Ultimately, however, the Red Sox trading away Mookie Betts still stands alone when compared to moves made by the Patriots throughout the years. Yes, trading Gray to save money was surprising. Yes, Plunkett and Bledsoe once were the faces of the franchise. Yes, Mankins and Seymour were still capable of playing at an All-Pro level. But the combination of all those factors was never found in one of the Patriots’ trades — even the most shocking ones.