This story has been corrected. Read below
ANAHEIM, Calif. -- It may have been one of the most significant dinner-table conversations in Red Sox history, one already given a name by Red Sox CEO Larry Lucchino: "The Denver Resurrection."
This was Aug. 14 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Denver, where major league baseball's owners had assembled for their quarterly meeting. John W. Henry, Tom Werner and Larry Lucchino were all there representing the Red Sox. The biggest item on the agenda was approving the sale of the San Diego Padres. But while they were breaking bread that night, Henry struck up a dialogue with Mark Walter, who only months earlier had bought the Los Angeles Dodgers for a record $2 billion.
Walter, a native Iowan, is chief executive officer of Guggenheim Capital LLC, a global company that offers diversified financial services. If Magic Johnson is the public face of the new Dodgers ownership, Walter is the bagman. Henry knew Walter only casually. Lucchino had never met him before that night.
The topic turned to Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, a player coveted by the Dodgers. The teams had engaged in serious talks up to the trading deadline, but could not close a deal. Now Walter had a suggestion for Henry: What if the Dodgers would consider taking outfielder Carl Crawford in the deal as well?
Less than two weeks later, Gonzalez was the centerpiece of one of the most audacious trades in baseball history, one without rival for the largest contracts involved in a single transaction. The Red Sox sent Gonzalez, Crawford, pitcher Josh Beckett and infielder Nick Punto, along with $12 million, to the Dodgers for first baseman James Loney and four minor league prospects. In one fell swoop, the Red Sox shed $262.5 million in payroll, plus three players who had become disappointments to greater or lesser degrees, while acquiring two of the best young arms in the Dodgers system in Rubby De La Rosa (the player to be named later in the deal) and Allen Webster.
"We are not by any means celebrating anything," Lucchino said this week. "What we see is a great opportunity provided us. That's what it is, an opportunity, a unique opportunity to reset our roster and payroll. What we do, and how well we do it, will be the determinant of the ultimate success of the transaction."
On their side, the Dodgers acquired a middle-of-the-order slugger in Gonzalez who, with his Mexican-American heritage and southern California roots, inspired visions of a 21st-century version of Fernandomania, the phenomenal attention accorded the Dodgers' first Mexican star, Fernando Valenzuela. They also acquired a three-time All-Star in Crawford and two-time World Series star in Beckett, though both players had seen their careers go into eclipse in Boston, and a highly respected utilityman in Punto, who had won his own World Series ring with the Cardinals just last October.
"We understand," Johnson said at a news conference in Los Angeles to announce the deal, "that you have to spend money to be good in this league, and we understood that before we bought the team."
This is the story of that deal, and how it came to happen.
The Dodgers and Red Sox had been talking, off and on, about a trade involving Gonzalez for months. Even before the new Dodgers ownership group had officially taken control of the team, incoming CEO Stan Kasten had talked with Dodgers general manager Ned Colletti.
"Think big," Kasten told Colletti. "Think about players that could have a huge impact on this franchise. Even if they may be playing for another team, even if they're signed long-term, think big."
It wasn't long after, in early May, that Colletti placed a call to Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. They discussed a few players, and then Colletti said: "How about Gonzo?" Not available, Cherington said, surprised that Colletti even brought up a player the Sox had acquired only 17 months earlier, surrendering three prospects to the San Diego Padres, and then signed to a seven-year, $154 million extension.
But Colletti persisted. Cherington asked him if he would consider infielder Kevin Youkilis. Colletti had passing interest, but they couldn't agree on players and money. Colletti brought the conversation back to Gonzalez. The Dodgers dispatched scout John Sanders, who previously had worked in the minors for the Red Sox and knew their baseball operations people well, to sit on the Sox for days. Sanders scouted Josh Beckett, but even there, the Dodgers' interest was predicated on Gonzalez as being a part of any deal.
In mid-July, Kasten placed a call to Lucchino. Kasten and Lucchino had known each other for more than 20 years, dating to Kasten's days as president of the Atlanta Braves and Lucchino's as the CEO of the Orioles. Their first deal may have been when Lucchino loaned brilliant stadium architect Janet Marie Smith to Kasten and the Braves to help with their design of Turner Field.
Now Kasten was on the phone. "We're in a unique position," he told Lucchino, "to take on additional payroll."
The new Dodgers ownership was determined to win back a fan base alienated by the chaotic regime of predecessor Frank McCourt, who lost the team in bankruptcy court.
"What is the saying -- you don't get a second chance to make a first impression?" Lucchino said.
Lucchino, as the trading deadline approached, said publicly that Cherington had been empowered to be bold.
Talks intensified. Colletti was no rookie in making a big deal. In 2008, he had a deal in place to acquire ace pitcher CC Sabathia from the Cleveland Indians, only to have McCourt veto the deal, two days before Milwaukee got him. A week later, Colletti was on the receiving end of Manny Ramirez in the three-way trade with the Red Sox and Pittsburgh Pirates. Ramirez led the Dodgers to a playoff spot and, until he failed a drug test, was beloved by "Mannywood." Colletti was left to wonder whether Sabathia would have been the piece that could have taken the Dodgers all the way to the World Series.
Now, the focus was on Gonzalez, and with Kasten and Lucchino engaged on one level, Colletti and Cherington on another, talks intensified. There was speculation at one point that John Lackey, recovering from Tommy John surgery, was involved. He was never offered, or at least wasn't a component of the talks between the general managers.
The teams had some very broad outlines of a deal at the July trading deadline, but it didn't happen. It never really got close. Let's think about revisiting this in the offseason, Cherington told Colletti.
"We never got all the pieces lined up," Lucchino said. "We kept walking back and forth to the end of the diving board, but we didn't jump in. There wasn't enough there for us to pull the trigger."
Part of the reason for Boston's hesitation, Lucchino acknowledged, was that the Red Sox still had hopes of reaching the playoffs. On July 31, the Red Sox had a record of 53-51. They were 7½ games behind the Yankees in the AL East, but just 3½ games out of a wild-card spot. Crawford was playing and only four days earlier had hit his first home run, against the Yankees, whom the Sox had just rallied to beat twice in their last at-bat.
And then came dinner in Denver. The Sox had lost eight of their first dozen games in August. They were now 11 games behind the Yankees, 5½ games out of a wild-card spot, and five teams were ahead of them. The Sox also were reeling from a Yahoo! Sports report that broke the day of the owners' meeting, one in which it was reported Gonzalez had sent a text message to Henry, resulting in a meeting four days later between the team and its owners in New York in which players voiced their concerns, many of which revolved around manager Bobby Valentine. Henry tried to deflect the attention from Gonzalez, but the first baseman had indeed been the one who sent the text.
Lucchino acknowledged that things had changed because the Sox had dropped out of contention. "You operate," he said, "from two different negotiating positions."
Now, Crawford was in play. Under McCourt, Colletti time and again had had to make deals where his trading partners had to eat most, if not all, of the players' salaries, including the Sox with Manny Ramirez. Now he was working for bosses willing to take on more salary than any team had ever absorbed in a single trade.
Afterward, Henry described his conversation with Walter to Lucchino. Henry and Kasten also spoke at length, with Henry driving home the point that the Red Sox would not assume as much of the contracts as the Dodgers had sought -- at one point, the Dodgers wanted the Sox to eat $75 million. Henry whittled it down to $12 million.
The next day, Lucchino ran into Kasten, and the two agreed: Game on.
That night, the three Red Sox owners -- "The gang that couldn't shoot straight," Lucchino said, sardonically referring to the way their critics portrayed them -- flew on Henry's plane to Baltimore, where the Sox were wrapping up a series with the Orioles, and strategized.
"It gave us plenty of time," Lucchino said, "to talk over and consider what it would take to make this trade, what he would fully agree to and not agree to. John was quite assertive and insightful in the process."
It galls Lucchino to no end that Henry and Werner are viewed as disengaged from the Sox, that they are distracted by their ownership of the Liverpool soccer team and other pursuits.
"We're talking about a quarter billion dollars here," Lucchino said. "It would be front-office malpractice not to engage ownership and baseball operations and finance departments in a deal of this magnitude. Baseball operations played a key role in decision-making, but John and Tom did as well."
The Dodgers had not committed to taking Crawford at the Denver dinner; Walter had said only that they would be open to it. Now came the hard negotiating. Henry, Werner and Lucchino placed calls to Walter and Kasten. Colletti and Cherington parlayed back and forth.
Even with the salary relief involved, Cherington made it clear to Colletti that he could not make the deal without getting quality prospects in return. The Sox had given up three top prospects to acquire Gonzalez; the idea of a straight salary dump was a nonstarter. Colletti understood. He refused to part with his best pitching prospect, Zach Lee, but De La Rosa and Webster were put in play.
The sides were closing in on hammering an agreement, one that began to fall in place at the beginning of the week, when the Dodgers finally agreed to take both Crawford and Beckett. But there was considerable uncertainty. Crawford and Punto had already cleared waivers earlier in the month, but Gonzalez and Beckett still had to go through the waiver process. Last Friday, the Dodgers claimed both.
Lucchino declined to speak about the waiver process, but said that he received an email from Cherington last Friday afternoon that the waiver process had concluded, and the teams were free to proceed. "That may have been the 'Eureka' moment," Lucchino said. "It was then we thought we had a helluva shot."
Tying up loose ends
Now came the review of medical records. Crawford the day before had just undergone Tommy John elbow reconstruction. Beckett, however, was a pitcher who had thrown more than 2,000 innings, and had a history of back and shoulder issues. "There's always uncertainty," Lucchino said, "because there is subjectivity involved in interpreting those records."
Meanwhile, Cherington had to undertake the process of obtaining permission from Beckett and Crawford to proceed with the deal. Beckett was a 10-5 man and could veto any deal. Crawford had a limited no-trade clause; the Dodgers were one of the teams to which he could block a trade.
On Friday night, Cherington spoke with Gonzalez and Beckett at the ballpark, and Crawford by phone. He also placed calls to their agents.
"Both players were extremely professional," he said, "and were open to considering something if it was in the best interest of all parties."
On Saturday, the deal became official. Cherington spoke to the Sox players involved, and by late morning, they were on a private plane headed for Los Angeles, tweeting out a picture in which they were all smiles. That afternoon, Cherington sat alone at a podium in the interview room in Fenway Park, announcing the deal. An hour later, Colletti, Kasten and Magic Johnson did the same at Dodger Stadium.
Privately, the Dodgers calculate that all the attention they are receiving because of the trade will spike the terms of their local TV deal, currently the object of intense bidding between Fox and Time Warner, to a point that will probably pay the salaries they took on in the Gonzalez deal.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox were left to ponder how in less than 20 months, they had dismantled the primary pieces of the foundation that was supposed to carry them through this decade. The new general manager, Cherington, now is faced with the daunting task of reconstructing a team that for a full decade has been a contender.
"This was a great team effort," Lucchino said, "given all the elements that came together. It could not have been done if not for that kind of conversation and collaboration that went on between baseball operations and ownership and senior management."
An Aug. 31 story incorrectly indicated Red Sox owner John Henry's had a dialogue in Denver with Dodgers owner Mark Walter. Henry later informed ESPNBoston.com that the conversation was actually with Dodgers CEO Stan Kasten.