The 2003 and 2004 baseball seasons were two of the best years in recent memory to be a fan of the game. The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry was as hot as it's ever been and the bad blood carried over to the offseason. Following an excruciating game 7 loss to the Yankees in the ALCS the Sox were more determined than ever to get over the hump. In late November they traded for Curt Schilling, whom the Yankees were also trying to acquire. Next they set their sights on the best player in the game, who at 28 years old was on pace to become the greatest shortstop of all time. Their efforts to acquire him, and brief success in acquiring him, will go down as one of the greatest "what if"s in baseball history.
The story is that A-Rod was watching the 2003 ALCS and when Aaron Boone hit his infamous 11th inning homer, A-Rod jumped off his couch and told his wife he wanted to be a part of the rivalry. Although he wasn't a free agent Alex was likely to be traded that winter, due to the Texas Rangers' inability to build a team around his record setting 10 year, $252 million contract signed in December of 2000. The deal was exactly twice as much as Kevin Garnett's $126 million contract, which at the time was the largest in professional sports. He had been with the Rangers for three losing seasons now and they were looking for a rebuild.
The Yankees were actually called first but told Texas they weren't interested. Why would they be? Derek Jeter wasn't going anywhere and it wasn't yet a thought that A-Rod, who again was on pace to become the greatest shortstop ever, would be willing to change positions. So the Sox were called next. They were interested. A-Rod was interested. Nomar had just one year left on his deal, so Boston could deal him and keep A-Rod at short. It was beginning to look like a perfect match.
At this time A-Rod had seven years and $179 million left on his current contract. The Sox were a financial superpower but couldn't afford to take on the entirety of that deal. They had to offset the money by sending Manny Ramirez back to the Rangers. Following the 2003 season Manny was beginning to wear out his welcome in Boston, which made him expendable. After weeks of negotiations Boston had two deals in place. One would send Manny and pitching prospect Jon Lester to the Rangers for A-Rod. The other would send Nomar to the White Sox for Magglio Ordonez and pitching prospect Brandon McCarthy. This is what their lineup would have looked liked entering 2004:
CF Johnny Damon
3B Bill Mueller
SS Alex Rodriguez
LF Magglio Ordonez
DH David Ortiz
1B Kevin Millar
RF Trot Nixon
C Jason Varitek
2B Mark Bellhorn
SP Pedro Martinez
SP Curt Schilling
CP Keith Foulke
But there was one problem. Even with shedding Manny's contract the Sox could not afford to take on A-Rod. So they did the unthinkable and asked him to take less money, which is something athletes (especially in baseball) virtually never do. And he said yes! In return he would receive the rights to his likeness and opt out flexibility. To this day it is insane that he never gets credit for this, for willingly taking less money to join a contender. But the players union said no. Their argument was a fair one. Taking less money would set a precedent of reduced player salaries, which is something they had been fighting for decades to increase. The way the union viewed it was Alex taking less money would impact the financial futures of players to come.
So that was it really. The deal was dead. Rangers owner Tom Hicks sent a letter to season ticket holders saying A-Rod would be the team's shortstop for 2004. But then Aaron Boone hurt his knee playing basketball. And then Yankees GM Brian Cashman found out Alex would be willing to play third base (which again is something he never gets credit for). And then the Rangers were willing to trade for Alfonso Soriano. And all of a sudden A-Rod was about to become a Yankee. New York agreed to pay $112 million of the $179 million remaining. The Rangers also received a prospect from a list of five to six players, who turned out to be Joaquin Arias. Luckily for New York they didn't pick Robinson Cano, who was also on that list. On February 12, 2004 the deal was official.
In his initial Yankee press conference A-Rod said he felt he had one foot in a Red Sox uniform. With everything that has happened since it's weird to look back and think how close that was to actually happening. So much of baseball history would be different. A-Rod would have stayed at shortstop, where his 208 home runs from 2004-2008 would have been more valuable than they were at third base. There would be no 2004 ALCS comeback from down 3-0. No Manny being Manny. Maybe he wins more than the two MVP awards he won for New York in '05 and '07. Maybe he wins less.
The PED allegations about him still would have come out. But the Sox would never have had Lester, who was a key factor in the 2007 and 2013 championships. Either A-Rod would have broken the curse of the Bambino for Boston, or they would still be as tortured of a fan base as the Cubs. So much would have changed. Most Yankee fans would probably say they would do the trade over again, for his performance in the 2009 World Series run alone. But as entertaining as it would have been, virtually all Red Sox fans agree that the trade getting vetoed was a good thing. Sometimes the best trades are the ones you never make....