Alex Verdugo swung at the first pitch he saw from his former team — the organization that drafted him and developed him and gave him his first shot in the major leagues — Friday night at Fenway Park. It was a moment he’d been waiting on for almost four years. It couldn’t have gone much better.
He was already strutting when the ball landed over the short right-field wall for a leadoff home run. He spun around to yell something to the Boston Red Sox dugout, motioning as if to say this was his house, after rounding first base before continuing his unhurried trot, taking his time to enjoy his taste of revenge against the Dodgers.
“It felt good, man,” Verdugo said. “It felt really good. You always just want to play good against somebody who traded you, right?”
It felt good again the next day when he led off Saturday’s game with another home run. It was his third straight day with a leadoff home run. He could’ve tied the major league record in Sunday’s series finale. Instead he grounded out to the second baseman. The second baseman? Mookie Betts. Fitting.
This weekend’s three-game series between the clubs was tightly contested with a heightened atmosphere filled with reunions for people on both sides. But nothing resonated more than Betts’ return to Boston.
He received rousing standing ovations all three days. He tallied seven hits over the three games, including a two-run home run over the Green Monster in the sixth inning in the Dodgers’ 7-4 win Sunday to continue his push for National League MVP. He made plays in right field and at second base. He conjured nostalgia and resentment from each sellout crowd.
“Being that it was four years, it wasn’t so bad,” Betts said. “But it did act as closure and I’m glad I got it.”
The lingering resentment, of course, wasn’t directed at Betts. It was for the people upstairs who chose to trade him for Verdugo and two minor leaguers in February 2020, less than two years after he won AL MVP and led the Red Sox to a World Series title. The trade was met with scorn in Boston when it happened and remains a lightning-rod topic today. Verdugo knows. He hears about it just about every day.
“I know what I can bring to the game and bring to a team and it's just one of those things,” said Verdugo, who went 0 for 5 Sunday and struck out to end the game. “I just happened to be traded for him and it's like, [expletive], it is what it is.”
Verdugo and Betts were just two of the players with old teammates and friends on the other side this weekend. Crossover exists between every club nowadays. Trades, free agency, the waiver wire, player movement are constant. But this series was extreme.
Five Red Sox players, including Justin Turner and Kenley Jansen, were once Dodgers. Five Dodgers players, including Ryan Brasier and Kiké Hernández, were once Red Sox. Even the managers were involved. Red Sox manager Alex Cora broke into the majors with the Dodgers and spent parts of seven seasons with them. Dodgers manager Dave Roberts will always be revered here for his steal in the 2004 American League Championship Series.
Is the crossover a coincidence? Roberts doesn’t think so. He pointed to the connection between the men running the two front offices; Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, gave Chaim Bloom, Boston’s chief baseball officer, his first full-time job in baseball with the Tampa Bay Rays.
“I think those two and their operations think similarly,” Roberts said. “So I think they value players similar. So I think that in this case [that’s] why there’s so much crossover.”
It all started with a trade that’s on a path to being one of the most lopsided in recent history.
Verdugo debuted with the Dodgers as a top prospect in 2017 and was considered a building block for the future. He became a fan favorite by the 2019 season, for his Mexican background and having Vicente Fernández’s “Volver, Volver” as his walk-up song.
Then he became the centerpiece in the three-player package the Dodgers gave the Red Sox for David Price and Betts, who was entering his final season before free agency. With that, the lens through which his career is judged changed. He’s the guy the Red Sox obtained for Mookie Betts.
“It ain't as washed of a trade as what people try to always make it seem,” Verdugo said. “But it's all good.”
In a vacuum, Verdugo is a good major leaguer. He’s a plus defender with a strong arm in right field. He possesses elite bat-to-ball skills. The tools are there.
But he hasn’t hit more than 13 home runs in a season since joining the Red Sox . His 109+ OPS — 100 is average — in Boston suggests he’s been a slightly above-average hitter. He’s never been chosen for an All-Star Game. This season, he’s batting .278 with 12 home runs and a .788 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. The potential scouts envisioned when he rose to become a top prospect hasn’t materialized.
Off the field, the maturity concerns that dogged him in Los Angeles haven’t dissipated. He’s been benched twice this season; once for a lack of hustle running the bases, the second time earlier this month for reporting late to the ballpark for a game.
“I wanna get better at every little thing,” Verdugo said. “Each year you learn new things.”
Connor Wong and Jeter Downs were the two other players Boston received for Betts and Price. Wong is a good defensive catcher batting .250. Downs, a former top-100 prospect, was designated for assignment in December. The Washington Nationals optioned him to triple A on Saturday. He’s a .182 career hitter in 20 major league games.
Betts, meanwhile, is putting together another MVP-caliber season for a team cruising to another National League West title. He’s won a World Series and been an All-Star three times in Los Angeles after signing a 12-year, $365-million contract extension in July 2020. He’s become the franchise cornerstone the Dodgers wanted and the one player people in Boston didn’t want to see leave.
“This guy can do anything he wants to do,” Roberts said.
Verdugo showed he can do some things this weekend too. But he isn’t Mookie Betts.
“He's a great player and I'm always going to be tied down to it,” Verdugo said. “It's not like I feel any type of way with that trade. I just so happened to be traded in the Mookie one. I'm just going to go out here and I still feel like I'm going to have a really good career."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.