As the Boston Red Sox attempted to snap the curse of the Bambino, they nearly completed a trade that would have been the most impactful transaction since selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in December of 1919.
As Jay Jaffe reminded in a piece for Sports Illustrated in 2016, the Red Sox agreed in principle to a deal with the Texas Rangers in December of 2003 that would have sent Alex Rodriguez to Boston, while netting the Rangers Manny Ramirez and Jon Lester, who was just a prospect at that time.
Rodriguez had been other-worldly in three seasons with the Rangers - seasons he would later admit he used performance-enhancing drugs during. From 2001-2003, Rodriguez hit 156 home runs and was worth a staggering 27.0 fWAR. But despite winning three Silver Slugger Awards, making three All-Star appearances and winning the 2003 American League MVP, the Rangers went just 216-254 in Rodriguez's three seasons with the team. Even with historic production from Rodriguez, the Rangers finished last in the American League West - which only had four teams at that time - in each of his three seasons in Texas.
Rangers' general manager John Hart, who wasn't employed by the team when they signed Rodriguez to a 10-year/$252 million deal ahead of the 2001 season, began to shop A-Rod after the 2003 season with the assistance of owner Tom Hicks. The aforementioned deal with the Red Sox was reached, but there proved to be too many moving parts for it to actually be completed.
Gordon Edes, in a 2003 piece for The Boston Globe, says that Hicks wanted the Red Sox to pay over $20 million of the $100 million still left on Ramirez's contract. To make up for that, Rodriguez agreed to a reduced average annual salary, something that the MLB Player's Union ultimately was unwilling to agree to. As noted in Edes' piece, Hicks, Red Sox brass and the MLBPA weren't able to hammer out a deal that pleased all parties involved. So the deal never ultimately happened.
A couple months later, instead of being traded to the Red Sox, Rodriguez and $67 million were dealt to the Yankees for Alfonso Soriano and Joaquin Arias. Rodriguez would shift to third base for the Yankees to accommodate Derek Jeter. In 12 often controversial seasons in the Bronx, Rodriguez made seven American League All-Star teams, won two American League MVPs and helped the Yankees to win their record 27th World Series title in 2009. Allegations of performance-enhancing drug use followed Rodriguez for much of his time in New York, and he was ultimately suspended for the entirety of the 2014 season after he received HGH from Biogensis of America.
Knowing what we now know, it's hard not to imagine what would have happened if the the MLBPA had approved the trade of Rodriguez to the Red Sox ahead of the 2004 season. Without Rodriguez, the Red Sox snapped an 86-year World Series drought in 2004, with Ramirez hitting .350 in their World Series run. That run, of course, included the Red Sox overcoming a 3-0 deficit in the ALCS to defeat Rodriguez's Yankees and reach the World Series for the first time since 1986.
Two of the most infamous baseball moments of the last 25 years involve Rodriguez in games he played against the Red Sox, historical moments that, of course, wouldn't have happened if he had been traded to Boston instead.
In Game 6 of the 2004 ALCS, Rodriguez nearly got away with slapping the ball out of Red Sox pitcher Bronson Arroyo's glove at first base:
A few months before that, Rodriguez was hit in a regular season game at Fenway Park by Arroyo. As he walked to first base, he got into a verbal exchange with both Arroyo and catcher Jason Varitek, one that sparked one of the most memorable brawls in MLB history. Future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez would ultimately throw Yankees' bench coach Don Zimmer, who was 73 years old, to the ground:
If Rodriguez was on the Red Sox in 2004, it's hard to know if the team still would have won the World Series. Though he's often remembered for some of his less-than-iconic postseason moments, Rodriguez did hit .320 during the 2004 playoffs. It's also fair to wonder if the Yankees would have been in the ALCS if Rodriguez wasn't employed by them.
Three years later, Ramirez hit .348 with four home runs, 16 RBIs and 16 walks in the postseason as the Red Sox defeated the Colorado Rockies en route to their second World Series title in four seasons. Even though Rodriguez was the American League MVP in 2007, it's hard to be sure the Red Sox still would have won the World Series that season if you replaced Ramirez with him.
The ramifications of this failed trade go far beyond just Rodriguez and Ramirez, though.
While Lester wasn't a factor yet at the major league level for the Red Sox World Series title in 2004, he overcame lymphoma and made 12 starts for the team in 2007. Lester would throw a no-hitter in 2008, and make three American League All-Star teams as a Red Sox. Lester posted a 1.56 ERA in five starts in the 2013 playoffs, helping the Red Sox to win the eighth World Series title in franchise history that season.
Rodriguez ultimately moved to third base to become a Yankee, but the Red Sox had planned to open up his natural position of shortstop for him if he came to Boston. To do that, they planned to trade six-time All-Star Nomar Garciaparra to the Chicago White Sox in a deal that would net them star outfielder Magglio Ordonez.
But because the Red Sox deal didn't go through, the Garciaparra deal didn't happen. Instead, the Red Sox would ultimately trade Garciaparra to the Chicago Cubs in July of 2004, landing first baseman Doug Mientkiewicz and shortstop Orlando Cabrera as part of a blockbuster deal that also involved the Minnesota Twins and the soon-to-be defunct Montreal Expos. Cabrera drove in 11 runs in the Red Sox World Series run in 2004. Mientkiewicz only had nine at-bats during the 2004 postseason, but he produced four hits and one RBI in his limited exposure.
After playing out the 2004 season with the Chicago White Sox, Ordonez left in free agency to sign a five-year/$85 million deal with the division-rival Detroit Tigers. In some senses, the White Sox got the first laugh, as they won the World Series in 2005. However, Ordonez would send the upstart Tigers to the World Series a season later with a walk-off home run in Game 4 of the 2006 ALCS:
Ordonez would spend the final seven seasons of his 15-year major league career in Detroit. In 2007, he had one of the most dominant individual offensive seasons in recent memory, as he slashed .363/.434/.595 with 28 home runs, 139 RBIs and an 8.0 fWAR. Ordonez finished second in American League MVP voting that season, finishing behind only...Rodriguez.
In many senses, all parties involved - maybe with the exception of the Rangers - ended up better off for the first series of deals not going through. That makes it that much more interesting to imagine a world where Rodriguez and David Ortiz didn't first become teammates on FOX's postseason MLB coverage, but instead hit back-to-back in the heart of Terry Francona's batting order in the mid-2000s.