Once upon a time, men sat around the stove in general stores and barbershops discussing what their favorite baseball teams were doing in the off-season to improve. The changes that most sparked debate were trades. The term “hot-stove league” comes from those sorts of discussions in the early decades of the 20th century.

Now, the general store and even the barbershop have largely faded into history, giving way to the supermarket and hair salon, but trading continues, and we pay close attention. We critique the trades that our favorite teams make and lament the trades they fail to complete. This is all rather strange in some ways because the concept of trading employees without their consent exists in this country only in sports.

We do not hear about a paper mill, school, police department or car dealership trading one employee for another. Yet we accept trades in such sports as baseball, football and basketball – even look forward to them, perhaps devising trades in our minds that the relevant general managers, if they were just smart enough, would be sure to pull off.

The recent Johan Santana transaction has especially engaged Boston Red Sox and New York Yankee fans during this wintry interim between the seasons that really matter. Many people call Santana, late of the Minnesota Twins, the best pitcher in the majors, and he may be. In 2004, Santana went 20-6 with the most strikeouts (265) and the lowest earned run average (2.61) in the American League, while earning the Cy Young Award as his league’s top pitcher. Two more excellent seasons followed, including another Cy Young season in 2006, when he led the league in wins, innings pitched, strikeouts and ERA.

But just how great is he? This past year, Santana slipped to 15-13 while his ERA rose from 2.77 to 3.33. He also yielded a career-high 33 home runs, more than any other American League pitcher. Nonetheless, the New York Mets gave up four young prospects for Santana and then signed him to a six-year contract that will pay him $137.5 million (a record contract for a pitcher).

A few months ago, the Red Sox and Yankees were vying for the right to give up a slew of their top young players for Santana, each seeming as worried about the other getting him (perhaps more so) than not actually acquiring the pitcher themselves.

Did they miss the boat? I think not. In fact, the Santana trade may go down in history as one of the best trades both teams never made. First, there is the decline that Santana exhibited last year. Was the season an aberration or the beginning of a sharp downward turn? More than one major league official has expressed concern about Santana’s long-term durability. Paying a heavy price in players and money for a pitcher who may have seen his best days, or if not, may have only a couple of outstanding seasons left, is not good future planning.

Then there is what the Twins were demanding, far more in talent than what they got from the Mets. The Mets gave Minnesota four good prospects – outfielder Carlos Gomez and pitchers Philip Humber, Kevin Mulvey and Deolis Guerra – but none is the equal of Boston outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, one of the players Minnesota sought Ellsbury displaced Coco Crisp in the postseason and figures to be Boston’s center fielder for the next 10 to 15 years. He is going to hit for a high average, has outstanding speed and is strong defensively. He could be the team’s lead-off hitter in 2008. The prediction here – and check it out a couple decades from now – is that he will end up in Cooperstown. No team should trade such a talent.

The Yankees also lucked out, even if they resent their city rival getting a high-profile pitcher. From a Yankee perspective, having Santana with the Mets is better than seeing him pitch for Boston, and at the same time the Yankees keep all of those talented players that Minnesota wanted. The Twins made a final offer to the Yankees before finalizing the deal with the Mets: pitchers Chien-Ming Wang, Ian Kennedy and Jeff Marquez, plus outfielder Melky Cabrera. The deal differed only slightly from what Minnesota was asking for earlier: Wang instead of pitcher Phil Hughes.

Wang won 19 games last year to Santana’s 15. Cabrera is New York’s starting center fielder and only beginning to come into his prime. Kennedy and the pitcher Minnesota originally wanted, Hughes, are outstanding prospects who, along with Joba Chamberlain, give New York its best set of young pitchers in memory. All three are likely to play major roles on the team in 2008.

Red Sox and Yankee fans longing to see Johan Santana in their team’s uniform this year should reconsider. They might just pull up closer to that big iron stove if they can find one, listen to the barber’s shears snipping hair, and think about all those victories coming their way down through the years because of a trade that never was.

Edward J. Rielly is a Westbrook resident, English professor at St. Joseph’s College and widely published author, with three books on baseball and American culture.

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