MIAMI — Carl Crawford noticed the difference his first day of spring training with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
“You just walk in the clubhouse and you got a positive feel. Immediately,” Crawford said.
That wasn’t the feeling he had during two injury-plagued seasons with the Boston Red Sox, where he sat out more games than he played. So when Crawford came to Los Angeles in a blockbuster nine-player trade last August, he got more than a change of scenery.
He got a change of attitude as well.
“That was just a bad experience,” Crawford said of his time in Boston. “I definitely felt like I had a chance to get a fresh start. With a team, new atmosphere, new environment.
But if the trade has given Crawford’s career new life, it also helped turn the Dodgers around while sparking a Red Sox renaissance that has helped Boston to the most wins in the American League entering this weekend’s three-game interleague series at Dodger Stadium.
Sunday will mark the anniversary of the trade, the largest in Los Angeles Dodgers history and the most expensive in baseball history. In addition to Crawford, the Dodgers got former All-Stars Josh Beckett and Adrian Gonzalez and valuable utility man Nick Punto while taking on more than a quarter-billion dollars in salary.
The Red Sox got first baseman James Loney, slugger Jerry Sands, infielder Ivan De Jesus and promising young pitchers Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa while saving enough cash to sign nine free agents last winter.
“It was the right time for Boston, in their mind, to do something. It was the right time for us to do something,” Dodgers General Manager Ned Colletti said. “Both cases were dramatic.”
The foundation for the blockbuster deal was laid in the days before the Dodgers passed from Frank McCourt to new ownership headed by Mark Walter and team President Stan Kasten.
Colletti said his new bosses at Guggenheim Baseball thought the Dodgers needed to re-establish their credibility after four seasons of mostly stagnant spending under McCourt. So in its first three months, Guggenheim reinvested in international scouting, spent $42 million to sign Cuban defector Yasiel Puig and approved a trade with the Miami Marlins for Hanley Ramirez.
Colletti was also told that if there were players he had previously wanted but couldn’t get, he should circle back and see what it would cost to get them. So he called Red Sox GM Ben Cherington and asked about Gonzalez and Punto, two guys he had long coveted.
“We were talking about other players and I said I’ve got one more thing for you. If you ever get around to thinking about moving Adrian, keep us in mind,” Colletti remembered telling Cherington. “Then we talked again at the trading deadline and I said it again. But his answer at the end of July was different than it was at the end of April. That helped push it along to make it as big as it became.”
Initially Boston wasn’t interested in trading either player. But as the team slipped further and further behind — the Red Sox would eventually lose 93 games, their worst finish since 1965 — it became obvious cosmetic changes wouldn’t be enough to turn the team around. And by unloading the salaries of Gonzalez, Beckett and Crawford, they were able to re-sign David Ortiz and Jacoby Ellsbury, work out a contract extension with Dustin Pedroia, add, among others, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes and Ryan Dempster as free agents and lower their payroll by $21 million.
“At the time things weren’t going well for us and we simply weren’t who we wanted to be,” Cherington said. “Though there were many reasons for that, we felt a significant reallocation of money might allow us to re-shape the team more quickly and get us started down a different path.
“It wasn’t about the players we traded. It was simply an acknowledgment that things weren’t working.”
There was one final detail that had to be worked out before the deal could go forward, though. Although the Red Sox relented on letting Gonzalez go, Punto, a 34-year-old with a .247 lifetime average, was a guy the Red Sox wanted to keep.
But he was one the Dodgers insisted on getting, belying reports that he was just a throw-in in the trade.
“When you’re talking about hundreds of millions of dollars and my little salary to go along with it, you’re just going to be a throw-in,” said Punto, a switch-hitter with a $1.5-million salary who has played solidly at three positions for the Dodgers. “That’s OK. I’m happy to be here.”