These Red Sox understood that they had to be better than the previous edition, which went off the rails like an errant Riverside trolley.
“We knew that the fans deserved a lot better than what they got,” acknowledged general manager Ben Cherington, “that we could not go through another year like that.”
But who would have predicted that this year’s bearded wonders would go from worst to first? That a club that came out of spring training as 30-1 long shots to win the World Series would run away with the American League East and have the mayor dreaming about one final duck boat parade before he leaves office?
What it took was the inspired blend of a handful of veterans who’d tasted autumn champagne, a few newcomers who’d been on winning clubs elsewhere, several productive call-ups from Pawtucket, and a new straight-shooting skipper who already knew his way around the home clubhouse.
“Over the course of the season, we’ve come together,” said John Farrell, a favorite to be voted American League Manager of the Year after directing the overachieving Sox to only their second divisional title since 1995. “We’ve galvanized as a group.
“Whether that’s the personalities, whether that’s the Boston Marathon events, whether it’s how we respond to the challenges in between the lines, those all contributed to the group and how tight they are right now.”
It was the most startling surprise since 2004, when the self-styled “Idiots” came back from the dead to snatch the pennant from the Yankees, then swept the Cardinals to win the World Series for the first time since 1918, when Babe Ruth was still a bambino.
The surprise was that the turnaround happened so quickly and that the town team went from loathed to loved with a flip of the calendar. The club hadn’t made the playoffs since 2009 and was coming off its most dismal season since 1965, when it lost 100 games and routinely played before 30,000 empty seats.
The Sox have driven generations of their fans crazy (see: 1948, 1978, 1986, 2003) but last year’s group, following the 2011 beer-and-chicken bunch, disgusted them, and the front office realized that. “What’s broken can be fixed,” it declared on billboards around the city.
“Good, smart fans understand that mistakes happen and sometimes a year doesn’t work out and things can get off track,” said Cherington. “But if that continues for any period of time, you’re not going to hold their attention.
“Our sense was that perhaps their expectation in terms of wins was less than it would have been in 2008 and 2009, but there was an expectation to get things back on track.”
Getting the right mix
The first step was about exorcism, and it came in late August of last year when the campaign had been given up for lost. By shipping pitcher Josh Beckett, first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, and left fielder Carl Crawford, all former All-Stars, to the Dodgers, Cherington not only rid the clubhouse of a few maladaptives but also freed up a quarter-billion dollars in salaries that could be better spent on fresh faces.
“We felt that what made sense for the team was to target good players who wanted to be in Boston, who would embrace the opportunity and be attracted to the upside of being in Boston, guys who had been in meaningful situations,” said Cherington.
Outfielder Shane Victorino had won a World Series ring with Philadelphia. First baseman Mike Napoli had played in the Series for Texas. Shortstop Stephen Drew, outfielder Jonny Gomes, relief pitcher Koji Uehara, and catcher David Ross all had been on playoff teams.
“Ben wanted to build a team on chemistry, he wanted to build a team on character, getting guys who’ve been on winning teams,” said Victorino, who has enjoyed his best season since 2008. “A lot of people questioned those signings. They said, ‘What is Ben doing? These guys he’s bringing in are not top-tier free agents.’
“It’s not about that, and that’s what this team needed to show. That it’s about attitude, having the right personalities.”
The club still had a core of former champions — Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester — plus reliable regulars like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, experienced starting pitchers in Clay Buchholz and John Lackey (back from elbow surgery), and minor leaguers on the rise like Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts, Drake Britton, and Brandon Workman.
And in Farrell, who’d managed the Toronto Blue Jays for two years, they had a candid and consistent leader who’d been drawn back to what he called “the epicenter of the game.”
Farrell had been Boston’s pitching coach for four years, including the 2007 championship season, sitting close enough to manager Terry Francona to have a sense for the hot seat and to know a number of the veterans whom he would inherit — unlike Bobby Valentine, his ill-suited and short-lived predecessor.
“When relationships are already in place, it does allow for a quicker takeoff,” said Cherington. “The runway isn’t quite as long. We didn’t want to wait until the All-Star break for people to start to get to know each other.”
Given that mix, the potential was there for a redemptive rebound.
“The guys who were coming back were the guys that were about the team,” said Saltalamacchia, “that were about winning and doing it as a team.”
The newcomers sensed that the previous season had been an outlier for a franchise that had won two championships in four years.
“I definitely had this team very high on my radar this offseason,” said Gomes, who played in Oakland last year and signed as a free agent. “I knew the core guys who were here, played against them over the years. The chip they were going to have on their shoulders this year, I 100 percent knew and I definitely wanted to be a part of it.”
Fans were still wary
The front office and Farrell felt that the essentials were there to make a postseason run, that the club would score runs (major league-high 853) and that if the starting pitchers stayed healthy, the Sox would be in the chase, as they customarily had been for a decade.
“We were confident that we were going to be pretty good,” said Saltalamacchia. “Obviously we may not have felt we’d be right where we’re at now, but we knew we were going to be contending.”
An 8-2 Opening Day drubbing of the Yankees in the Bronx April 1 was no April Fool’s joke, and a 13-0 plucking of the division favorite Blue Jays six days later raised eyebrows around the league. There were occasional tailspins, such as a 2-9 stretch in early May, but the Sox were in first place for all but 19 days of the season.
Yet for much of the summer, there were thousands of empty seats in Fenway Park, where the 820-game sellout streak ended during the first homestand.
“Fans are passionate, but they’re human beings also,” mused Cherington. “They were hurt by last year, and when you’re hurt, it probably takes you a while to get over it.”
The 2011 swoon and the 2012 surrender made Red Sox Nation wary about pledging its heart again.
“We’ve heard a lot lately about the last couple of Septembers,” Farrell observed after the club had clinched a postseason place. “But seemingly that has never penetrated the minds of anybody in our clubhouse.”
Soxtober, the magical month when hardball still is played in the Fens, has returned after four years off the calendar, beginning with Friday’s Game 1 of the American League Division Series against Tampa Bay.
“People are going to say, if we don’t win the World Series, is it a bust?” said Victorino. “I look at it as, you know what, we did something that was special and we still have a lot more to go to make it even more special.”