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Baseball 101: Tricks of the trade

They treat us year-round to the deals that impact the game. 

Brodie Van Wagenen (left) made a big splash

Brodie Van Wagenen (left) made a big splash as the Mets' new GM by trading for Robinson Cano (center) and Edwin Diaz. Photo Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

All through the first week of this past December, New York was consumed with baseball. It was the talk of the town, dominating social media, newspaper back pages and talk shows on TV and radio. The Mets had made the kind of major trade that has been baseball’s lifeblood, in season and out, for a century.

How fitting that the big splash was made by Brodie Van Wagenen, who had just traded his status as agent for that of general manager, in a deal with Mariners general manager Jerry Dipoto, a former player who was traded both to and from the Mets. The acquisition of Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz for former first-round picks Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn and other players reflected and continued one of the sport’s great traditions.

Baseball deal-making has long fueled the Hot Stove and enlivened late July. It captures interest year-round, eclipsing sports that are active during late fall and early winter. It is essential in improving a team and, during this era of tanking, in deliberately making a roster worse.

Even when the free agent market moves slowly, as it did this offseason, the trades made, anticipated and dissected all keep the sport moving. That rings true in 2019, which is the 100th anniversary of the most influential baseball deal of all time: the Yankees acquiring Babe Ruth from the Red Sox for cash.

The Ruth sale made baseball history and elevated transactions forever. It gave rise to players being moved here and there in exchange for other players, money or various and sundries (such as an announcer or a hearty dinner).

With that in mind, school again is in session and “Deals” represents the topic for this year’s Baseball 101. That is Newsday’s annual seminar on baseball, looking at the sport through one particular lens and using 101 examples. This spring, we present 101 memorable (or forgettable) transactions over the years.

Other sports do have trades, of course, but not with the same volume and impact that baseball does. Author Shawn Krest writes in his 2017 book, “Baseball Meat Market: The Stories Behind the Best and Worst Trades in History,” that in the four seasons leading up to publication, the major leagues witnessed an average of 88 trades a year, involving 247 players.

In baseball trades, it is not just the marginal player who goes. It is not surprising that a prospective Hall of Famer such as Cano would be dealt. Krest pointed out that, as of 2015 there had been 205 trades involving players who wound up in Cooperstown.

Trading has become increasingly pricey, nuanced and statistically analytical over the decades. But in many ways, it has stayed the same. Executives still try to put spin on a deal, as Red Sox owner Harry Frazee did on Jan. 5, 1920, when he formally announced the Ruth sale. Although history has shown it was thoroughly driven by Frazee’s financial situation, he insisted at the time, “I should have preferred to have taken players in exchange for Ruth, but no club could have given me the equivalent in men without wrecking itself, and so the deal had to be made on a cash basis.”

And now, just like then, observers assert that some teams take advantage. The New York Times weighed in on the Ruth deal with an editorial on Jan. 7, 1920, saying: “It marks another long step toward the concentration of baseball playing talent in the largest cities, which can afford to pay the highest prices for it. This is a bad thing for the game.”

Yet the game has survived. The only thing more exciting than a deal is the promise of another one. As Van Wagenen said back in December: “I will state it very clearly. We did not make this move to have this be our last move.”

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