After strange winter, Red Sox gather for camp without Mookie Betts: ‘It’s going to hurt for a while’

FORT MYERS, Fla. — They were on the other side of the country but their presence Wednesday morning at JetBlue Park was overwhelming.

There wasn’t a single Boston Red Sox player or employee who wasn’t asked about Mookie Betts and David Price at their first spring training workout.

“He’s one of the greatest players to ever wear our uniform,’’ new Red Sox GM Chaim Bloom softly said when cornered on a back practice field, “and that makes it really difficult to do something like this.

“We feel that. We know our fans feel that. We know it hurts. We know it’s going to hurt for awhile.’’

New manager Ron Roenicke discussed Betts as if he were mourning the loss of a loved one.

“You can not replace Mookie Betts,’’ he said. “This is one of the best players I’ve ever seen.’’

The Red Sox say they want to move on, trying to tell themselves they can be America’s underdogs, believing they will be cleared when Major League Baseball releases the findings of its investigation into whether Boston was illegally stealing signs.

“I was shocked, shocked,’’ Red Sox catcher Christian Vazquez said. “Mookie is one of the best players in the league. He bought a lot of memories to us. He brought us a World Series ring. He’s a very special player for us. He’s going to be a champion for life, so he’s going to be missed here. …

“It’s tough, but the Red Sox pay us to play baseball, not control that other stuff. We have to keep flighting together as a family, and stick together.’’

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They’ve got no choice.

There’s still a season to be played.

A passionate fanbase to appease.

And skeptics to be proven wrong.

“We can lay in the weeds and have people count us out,’’ Red Sox reliever Heath Hembree said, “nothing to lose I guess. We know the outside expectations may look a little different based on guys that aren’t here this year, but the expectations here are still to win.’’

Still, the pain is too fresh to go away overnight.

You don’t trade one of the greatest outfielders in the game and a former Cy Young pitcher and act like it’s just another spring training opening day.

“Even though I didn’t get a chance to know him,’’ said Bloom, who was hired in November to replace David Dombrowski, “I know how it feels to be that connected to a player. To feel that connected to a great player, and how difficult it is to see that player leave the organization, I fully get all that. …

“We just felt at the end of the day our jobs are to do what’s best for the Red Sox, not just for today, but also down the road. We have that duty to our fans to make sure we’re taking care of the long view of the organization as well.

“So, as tough as it was, we felt this move accomplished that.’’

The Red Sox got outfielder Alex Verdugo and two mid-range prospects in return, but the reality was that it was a money dump, saving them $75 million over the next three seasons, including $43 million in 2020. They could have procured one of the Dodgers’ elite prospects if the Red Sox didn’t include Price in the deal, but they wanted his contract off the books.

Red Sox relief pitcher Darwinzon Hernandez works out in Fort Myers on Tuesday. (Photo: John Bazemore, AP)

Price may not have been the headliner in the deal, but for Bloom, it was just as painful as losing Betts. You see, he knows Price well from their days together in Tampa. Bloom was part of the front-office regime that traded Price from the Rays to the Detroit Tigers on July 31, 2014, and the anguish was just as painful this time.

“David is as fierce a competitor as I’ve ever been around,’’ Bloom said. “There is nothing you’d put past him between the lines. He holds himself to such a high standard. Obviously, he put this team on his back in the 2018 postseason.

“I was not here at the time, but knowing how much he cares and to see him do it on the biggest stage, was really cool.’’

Now, all that’s left are the memories, and the Red Sox’s hopes of carving out a legacy with their new players.

The most comical scene Wednesday surrounded infield prospect Jeter Downs, acquired from the Dodgers, who became an overnight fan favorite and media darling, named after a certain Yankee icon who’s going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in July.

“Hey Jeter!’’ one fan yelled. “You’re better than Derek!’’

If nothing else, one day, there really will be a Jeter cheered at Fenway Park.

“You get bombarded with this whole name thing,’’ said Downs, who grew up a Yankee fan with his father a Red Sox fan. “It’s pretty cool to be traded for arguably a top-five player in the game. I guess my mom knew what she was doing when she named me Jeter. She just liked how he was, the way he played the game, so she gave me the name.

“I obviously have the name, so I know of had to be a fan of his.’’

Strange times, indeed. It’s going to take time for the adjustments to settle in. A Jeter in the Red Sox clubhouse. Longtime Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Kevin Pillar soon to join him. A Rays executive who is now their boss.

And their bench coach, Roenicke, who now is their manager.

Roenicke, who has run the Red Sox spring training camp the past two years, hardly was overwhelmed on his first day on the job, not with 26 years of experience as a coach and manager.

Still, when he showed up for work at his locker in the coaches’ room, he was stunned to find it empty. Sorry, he was told, but his clothes now are in the manager’s office.

“Obviously, it’s cool,’’ Roenicke, 63, said. “But the circumstances are so different on how all of this happened. It’s still pretty quick. It’s still getting used to everything.

“Getting through a normal day was important.’’

Maybe the Red Sox players will be resilient and can put aside the tumultuous winter.

“We can’t believe it happened, man,’’ Red Sox pitcher Martin Perez said, “but that’s baseball. That’s business. What are you going to do?’’

Follow Bob Nightengale on Twitter: @Bnightengale

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