Entering the 2008 All-Star break, Edinson Volquez – the just-turned-25-year-old Cincinnati right-hander armed with a lightning quick, hopping fastball, swiftly-veering slider, and seemingly-stopping- once-it-gets-to-home-plate- while-concurrently-screwing- down-to- below-the-knees changeup – had checked off the following “to do in the NL” items: he led in ERA (2.29), had the second-highest strikeouts/nine innings rate (9.90), owned the second-lowest OPS-against (.606), had struck out the third-most batters (126), and had earned the second-most wins (12). Over in the AL, about 834 miles away in Texas, displaying some of the Grand Canyon-vast talents that once dropped the mouths of scouts, Josh Hamilton was tied for third in home runs (21), placed second in total bases (218), and had driven in 95 runs – the fifth-highest total since 1933, when something called the All-Star break came into existence.
Before the 2008 season began, Edinson Volquez had made 17 big league starts (over three seasons), had allowed 111 hits in 80 innings, and had given up runs with enough abundant frequency to acquire a 7.20 ERA. Before Daisuke Matsuzaka threw his first pitch in Japan on March 25 to welcome in the new season, Josh Hamilton had played a total of 90 games in the Majors, and despite his promising rookie campaign with the Reds in 2007, most of us – colored by the saga of his past, yet hopeful of the promise just uncovered – still really didn’t know what to expect from the ridiculously talented yet troubled and somewhat unproven outfielder.
On December 21, 2007, Edinson Volquez – un unestablished pitcher with a wealthy arsenal and a healthy ERA – and Josh Hamilton – a five-tooled, once-in-lifetime-former prospect still finding his way after a viciously meandering journey with multiple stops in hell – were traded for one another. The transaction at the time did make news, but then again, any move by any of the ballcubs during the hot stove season receives its share of attention and deconstruction. Regardless of the amount of words aimed toward speculation, cost-benefit analysis or projecting future performance, no one could have imagined that the trade (and subsequent performances) would command so much of our attention and daily amazement throughout April, May and June.
In a way, trades resemble the hope, expectancy, and promise of spring training. (Baseball) life begins anew and the slate beams back at us: clean, polished, willing and ready to be etched and drawn upon. The outlooks and surroundings are similarly refreshed, and endless combinations of numbers stand excitedly by, waiting to align themselves in line scores, box scores, and encyclopedia pages. We never know what will happen following a trade, and the meshing of the hope with the resultant reality serves to always color what will transpire in the future. Challenge trades (Scott Rolen for fellow third baseman Troy Glaus), swapping prospects for established veterans during the pennant race (C.C. Sabathia for Matt LaPorta), multi-player exchanges to patch holes and eliminate redundancies (Jason Bartlett and Matt Garza for Delmon Young): trades come in all shapes and sizes and cause myriad permutations of subsequent success (or failure) cycles. The trade. The simple consideration of possibilities during the offseason stands as enough reason to claim the back pages of the sports tabloids, the acquisition of a star at the trade deadline generates a palpable energetic charge, and sometimes, a simple move from one city and franchise to another provides an instant impetus for the blossoming of stardom.
More than a half-century ago, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio stood as the nonpareils of their sport. DiMaggio – a stoic, graceful, magnetic presence – patrolled centerfield for a Yankee dynasty whose dance card seemingly always carried them deep into October. The only portion of the DiMaggio presence which remained imperfect was his choice of home ballpark, for the vast left centerfield, 460 feet away from home plate at its greatest distance, swallowed up countless fly balls which otherwise might have been home runs for the right-handed hitting Yankee Clipper. Williams – a lanky, brash, brilliantly adept scientist with the bat – stood in the shadow of Fenway’s Green Monster for the team that stood in the shadow of the Yankees. The only element of the Williams’ batting story that remained outside his masterful control was that the perfect home for his sweet swing resided approximately 215 miles to the southwest, in the home of DiMaggio. Fenway Park was made for the artful, scythe-like swing of DiMaggio, with the tantalizingly close Green Monster just a shade over 300 feet away from the plate; in turn, the short right field porch snuggled into the corner of Yankee Stadium, if once constructed for the Babe, presented a sweet and easily reachable destination for the Splendid Splinter.
With these two models of near perfection so easily perceived, one night, more than a half-century ago, a couple of executives – one from the Red Sox and another from the Yankees – under the influence of perhaps a number of drinks, decided to remedy this imperfection, and agreed to trade Williams for DiMaggio. Of course, they never consummated the trade: the next morning brought clear heads to both, and struck with the knowledge that the trade would unleash a fury of commentary regarding the corresponding departure and entrance of two baseball icons, the two dreamers decided to let sleeping dogs lie. Or so the story goes.
Baseball trades never end with the handshake. The litany of deals – some good, some bad, some disastrous, some golden – punctuate the baseball storyline each season and the breaks between campaigns. They live long after the fact, for each spurs another transaction, another need for a piece, another potential what if. Trades pull us in, for we all recognize the possibilities of the fresh start, and none of us are immune to the possibilities of what that fresh start can foster. For Josh Hamilton and Edinson Volquez, the results have been splendid – each commanded the stage for the better part of three months, each took an extra bow in the All-Star game following their first half performances, and each has displayed some of the illuminating talents that made a trade so desirable in the first place. On December 21, 2007, very few (if any) baseball fans could have imagined Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton could have inspired such magic. But as long as there are five-tooled outfielders and thunder-packed pitchers, trades will imprint their own stories on the game, and Edinson Volquez for Josh Hamilton will be someday be overshadowed by another game-altering exchange.
Thanks to baseball-reference.com and mlb.com for information that helped with this piece.