FORT MYERS, Fla. — David Ross became a free agent the moment the World Series ended last fall. But he was more concerned at the time with getting his family packed to go on vacation.
A 35-year-old backup catcher with a well-earned reputation for his work behind the plate, Ross was confident there would be a market for his services. But he assumed it would take several weeks to develop and a few weeks after that to make a decision.
“I wasn’t one of the big names out there,” Ross said. “I understood that.”
Then his agent, Ryan Gleichowski, called the next morning with the news that Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington was interested in speaking to Ross as soon as could be arranged.
Two weeks later, Ross had signed a two-year deal worth $6.2 million.
“It was surprising to me how quickly it happened,” Ross said. “But once I spoke to Ben, I understood what they were doing. It was interesting.”
When the Sox fell out of contention in August, the trade of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, and Adrian Gonzalez to the Dodgers gave Cherington the opportunity to change the roster of a last-place team in a fundamental way.
Talent mattered most. But the Sox also recognized they needed to do a better job of identifying players who wouldn’t shrink from the challenge of playing in Boston. A team driven for so many years by data was ready to add character into the equation.
“It has to start with talent. There were areas we had to upgrade. But there was a layer below that,” Cherington said. “We weren’t trying to create chemistry. We were trying to get as many guys on the team that would embrace playing in Boston.”
Team chemistry is impossible to define or quantify. Successful teams don’t always have it and bad teams don’t necessarily lack it. The 2004 Red Sox, a championship team that has come to represent the virtues of togetherness, didn’t find it until close to the end of that season.
What the Red Sox settled on was the idea of finding players who combined the needed talent with the personality to successfully manage the stress that comes with playing for a large-market team with a passionate fan base.
“To me, you have a choice whether you’re a player, a manager, or an executive. You embrace the opportunity that comes along with working in Boston or youfocus more on the challenge of working in a place like Boston. We were trying to the fill the team as much as possible with guys who would do the former,” Cherington said.
“How that changes the clubhouse, I don’t know. I feel like if we set out to create chemistry, we would fail because I don’t know that anybody knows how to do that. But I do know that over time we’ve seen more often that guys who embrace Boston and everything that comes with it tend to thrive here. Having a majority core that buys into that does have value.”
The plan the Sox executed created great debate within baseball, and in some cases, derision.
The Sox gave outfielder Jonny Gomes, who earned $1 million last year as a platoon player with Oakland, two years and $10 million.
Shane Victorino, an energetic and outgoing outfielder, received a three-year, $39 million contract after the poorest season of his career. ESPN analyst Keith Law called it one of the worst contracts of the offseason.
Ryan Dempster, a durable mid-rotation starter with little experience in the American League, was lured to Boston for two years and $26.5 million.
The shorter-term deals at a high annual rate maintained long-term flexibility. Spreading the money out also allowed Cherington to fill more holes.
“I like what they did and I wish I didn’t,” Rays manager Joe Maddon said. “It’s a different team now and probably a much better one.”
Cherington cringes at the idea that the Red Sox looked more at spirit than statistics. He can make a cold-blooded, fact-based case for every player they acquired. But the Sox readily acknowledge they had to dig deeper than what they saw on a spreadsheet.
“We saw vivid evidence of it in recent years that some players adapt better to the crucible of Boston baseball than others,” team president Larry Lucchino said. “It’s always been something that we focus on, it’s just a matter of degree. Ben was particularly determined to bring in guys he thought would be great teammates. We don’t put that in front of talent, but it’s a very strong second.”
It was a three-step process. Even before last season was over, the Sox identified free agents who would fill their needs before narrowing the list to those they felt would consider short-term deals. Then came the process of delving into their backgrounds.
“Lots of phone calls,” assistant general manager Mike Hazen said. “We tried to find out as much as we could.”
Cherington said the Red Sox relied on manager John Farrell, his coaches, and the incumbent players as resources, encouraging them to contact friends in the game who knew the players they were targeting. Little scraps of information about their personalities were taken into account.
Cherington also sought the opinion of former team captain Jason Varitek, one of his special assistants.
“What Jason has brought to me is a deeper level of understanding how players think and operate, not just in any big league clubhouse but in our clubhouse,” Cherington said. “I ask Jason how what I do as a GM will register in the clubhouse.”
After Ross was signed, the Sox landed Gomes, Victorino, and Dempster. Joel Hanrahan and Koji Uehara made the bullpen stronger. Mike Napoli added power and Stephen Drew a veteran presence at shortstop.
The Sox did not land every player on their list. But they believe they succeeded in creating a team better suited for Boston than they have in recent years.
“I don’t think we did any less work in the past on trying to get to know who the people were,” Cherington said. “I think we may not have emphasized the desire to be part of the market in some cases enough in the past and maybe emphasized other things more.”
This was Cherington’s way of diplomatically acknowledging the Red Sox failed to properly assess how Crawford would fit in. He was signed to a seven-year, $142 million contract as a free agent based almost entirely on his skill as a player and history of success.
That Crawford was largely shielded from criticism in Tampa Bay and sensitive of public scrutiny was brushed aside. He was uncomfortable from the day he arrived in Boston and it showed in his performance.
To a lesser degree, the same was true of Gonzalez, a gifted hitter with a swing seemingly made for Fenway Park. But he also had a talent for making excuses and since joining the Dodgers has complained about his time in Boston.
“Listen, this place is not for everybody,” Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester said. “I think we found that out.”
Yankees general manager Brian Cashman said identifying players who can handle New York has long been one of his priorities. It’s one of the reasons the Yankees chased CC Sabathia as hard as they did and traded for Nick Swisher.
“Sometimes you learn that the hard way,” Cashman said. “The reality is that it’s different in some cities than others.”
But being lauded for good character can be a little insulting for a player.
“Ross and I were talking about this. We don’t take offense by it or anything. But we’re always described as being good guys,” Gomes said. “It’s like calling a fat guy ‘big-boned.’ Hopefully people consider us being good players.”
Ross does like the approach Cherington took.
“What happened to them last year wasn’t cool. Baseball needs the Red Sox,” he said. “They were doing a lot of character checks and I was obviously OK with that. It felt good for me knowing I was coming into a situation where some other good guys would be. Ben said they wanted to work from the clubhouse out. I’m a huge fan of that idea.”
The question now is whether it will work. Did the Sox get a sweet mix or another toxic brew? Farrell believes the plan was sound.
“There’s a lot to be said for the people in our clubhouse. Guys want to be here; they like being around one another and they work well together. From what we’ve seen so far, that side of it has been outstanding,” he said.
“The character of the individuals is equivalent to their talents. That was certainly by design.”
Farrell has noticed players policing themselves in the clubhouse and veterans talking about the finer points of the game with younger players during games.
“Those conversations, those small moments, that is what chemistry is,” he said. “A player saying to another one, ‘Hey, man, this is what we’re expecting here.’ To see that go on like it has been, that is how we want to play as a team. My belief is that will pay off with success on the field.”