Alex Verdugo overcomes Mookie Betts trade stigma by thriving for Red Sox

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The song doesn’t hit the same.

Fans don’t shriek when the trumpets blare over the speakers like they did at Dodger Stadium. They don’t sing along once Vicente Fernandez starts crooning. “Volver Volver” doesn’t evoke the same emotion when Alex Verdugo steps into the batter’s box at Fenway Park, where the fan base’s Latino sector prefers salsa and merengue over rancheras.

“It doesn’t get appreciated as it did in L.A., for sure,” Verdugo said in a recent phone interview, “but Boston fans have been coming around.”

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That was the question when Verdugo arrived in Boston last February: Would Red Sox fans ever accept the guy replacing Mookie Betts?

Boston’s decision to trade Betts before he entered the final year of team control last season sparked intense outrage in New England. Betts was a season removed from winning American League MVP and leading the Red Sox to a World Series title over the Dodgers. He was a perennial All-Star. He was a beloved personality. He was a homegrown superstar, a franchise cornerstone for the next decade.

They traded him for two minor leaguers and a 23-year-old outfielder with 144 major league games and a recent back injury on his resumé. People were furious, and that’s putting it lightly. It was widely evaluated as the franchise’s worst trade since Babe Ruth was sold to the New York Yankees.

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“I understood why Boston fans were mad,” Verdugo said. “You can take it however you want. You can dwell on it. Like, ‘Oh, God, I gotta be Mookie. I gotta perform.’ No, for me, it’s just I know I’m a good baseball player. I know I can be an All-Star. I know I can hopefully one day get a batting title. There was no pressure with me, personally, with the Mookie trade.”

Betts immediately delivered in Los Angeles after signing a 12-year, $365-million contract with the Dodgers the day before last season began. He finished second in National League MVP voting and led the Dodgers to their first title in 32 years.

Yet Verdugo left a good first impression on the other coast. He batted .308 with six home runs and an .844 on-base-plus-slugging percentage in 53 games last season. He finished 12th in AL MVP voting. He played with his usual energy and confidence. He was a bright spot in a disappointing season for the Red Sox.

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Alex Verdugo bats against the Baltimore Orioles on May 9.

(Will Newton / Associated Press)

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This year, he’s a key contributor for one of the league’s most surprising teams. Boston entered Monday atop the AL East standings at 43-29. Verdugo, now 25, is batting .289 with nine home runs and an .804 OPS while cycling through the three outfield positions.

“He’s probably the most complete hitter that we have,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora said earlier this month. “He can go the other way, he can hit for average, he can hit for power.”

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Verdugo missed the end of the 2019 season — his rookie year with the Dodgers — because of a stress fracture in his back. He’s sat out games this season with back tightness, but he said he’s healthy. He’s started 62 of Boston’s 72 games. He’s working to establish himself in his current role before tackling another goal: becoming a two-way player.

Verdugo was an elite high school pitcher in Arizona, good enough to draw real interest as a pitcher in the draft in 2014 before the Dodgers chose him as an outfielder in the second round. He thinks he could contribute as a reliever — a closer is ideal — with a repertoire that includes three fastball variations, a slider and a knuckleball.

“That’s how I used to play ball when we were younger, high school, everything,” said Verdugo, who led the American League with seven outfield assists and recently recorded one with a 95-mph throw from left field. “That’s how it was. And I wish we would’ve never stopped that in the minors either. Wish in the minors you could kind of do that too. Because that was fun, bro. That was baseball.”

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Playing in Los Angeles was fun. There was the time fans at Dodger Stadium sang him happy birthday. The times he would show up at In-N-Out Burger and people would shower him with love. He said his time with the Dodgers seemed longer than parts of three seasons.

His walk-up song doesn’t thrill the masses in Boston, but fans are coming around in other ways. He recalled one game at Fenway Park this year. It was “a struggle day.” He was slumping. Nothing was going right. Then he heard from fans while in center field.

“They were just saying, ‘Hey, bro. We love you Dugie. We’re happy you’re here. We love you. Keep balling. Keep going,’” Verdugo said. “It was cool.”

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He isn’t Mookie and that’s just fine.

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