Like a flower rising up through the cracks of a dilapidated sidewalk, the Red Sox’ return to the playoffs was born from a state of crumble and disrepair.
There would not be postseason baseball in Boston for the first time since 2009 if the Red Sox weren’t forced to suffer through the humbling, frustrating, embarrassing debacle that was the 2012 season. That’s right, we have Bobby Valentine, Josh Beckett, and Adrian Gonzalez and his cellphone minutes to thank for playoff baseball Friday at Fenway Park.
It was worth it, every loss and head-shaking sideshow that last season’s last-place, 69-win calamity served up, because it led the Sox to this.
Going from worst to first in the American League East and finishing tied for the best record in baseball (97-65) wouldn’t have been possible without 2012. Destruction had to pave the way for redemption.
If the Sox had won 82 games last year, they might have been able to justify and rationalize away their clubhouse rot and their roster. Instead, the worst Red Sox season since 1965 — a campaign of dysfunction, disillusionment, and disdain — forced them to confront reality.
The Red Sox wouldn’t or couldn’t do that after the disastrous collapse at the end of the 2011 season. They chalked it up to bad pitching and bad luck. They said they just had to fix what was under the hood. But there were systemic, intrinsic problems with the team — a bloated payroll, bloated egos, beer-bloated players, a bloated sellout streak, and an organization that had slipped into auto-pilot.
“I think when you underperform or miss your mark by a small margin or some incremental amount, it’s easy to justify in baseball because there is so much randomness,” said Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington. “It’s easy to say that the underperformance was just a function of the randomness of baseball — these things happen, baseball luck will turn the other way next year.
“I think last year didn’t allow us to do that. It was a forearm shiver to the face. There was no sort of ignoring that something needed to change, and we needed to do a better job. I needed to do a better job. There was no explaining it away, based on luck and randomness. More than that was going on.”
The reformation started with the soul-saving megadeal that sent Gonzalez, Beckett, Carl Crawford, and more than a quarter of a billion dollars in payroll responsibility to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Aug. 25, 2012.
That deal coincided with some serious soul-searching and candid conversations between Cherington, principal owner John Henry (who is under agreement to buy the Boston Globe), team chairman Tom Werner, and the man who runs the Red Sox, president and CEO Larry Lucchino.
It continued with the firing of Valentine, an ill-conceived hire who exposed some flaws in the Sox’ decision-making process, one day after the season ended and the hiring of John Farrell on Oct. 21, the single most significant transaction of the offseason.
Cherington and baseball operations then put into motion a plan to build the “next great Red Sox team.”
That meant taking a sort of hardball Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm to the Sox’ core of young prospects. So they brought in veterans with something to prove on palatable contracts to complement a core they still believed in.
That’s how the Sox ended up with brothers-in-facial-hair Mike Napoli and Jonny Gomes. That’s why they ignored the scorn that came with giving a three-year, $39 million deal to Shane “Crash” Victorino or a one-year, $9.5 million deal to shortstop Stephen Drew.
There were other quality pickups such as backup catcher David Ross, whose picture should be next to the word “professional” in the dictionary.
It wasn’t all some grand design. No one, including Cherington, is fooling himself into that notion.
The Joel Hanrahan trade blew up in the Sox’ face. No one knew that Koji Uehara would channel 1990 Dennis Eckersley as the fourth-string closer. No one knew Daniel Nava could hit .303 with a .385 on-base percentage as an everyday player or that hipster first baseman/outfielder Mike Carp would post a .904 OPS against righthanders and a 1.048 OPS as a pinch hitter.
The Sox thought they would be better than 69 wins, but they didn’t project they would never lose more than three games in a row, never slip below .500, spend 159 days in first place, and win their most games since 2004.
“In sports, things can happen in strange ways in different times and different speeds,” said Cherington. “There seems to be a sense out there that we didn’t expect the team to be good. We expected the team to be good. We didn’t know how good. We weren’t making any predictions. We just wanted to get back to our way of doing things.
“We sort of had our foot on the pedal, trying to give it some gas. The guys in the clubhouse in spring training put it on the floor and haven’t stopped.”
Cherington described the job that Farrell has done as “transformational,” lauding him for keeping the clubhouse free of outside interference and the players focused on the task at hand without sacrificing their individuality.
“When you walk down there, there is a lot of work going on, a lot of talk about baseball, a lot of preparation, but it’s a fun place to be,” said Cherington. “It’s not military school. That’s a great credit to him and his staff.”
And a contrast with the previous manager.
Valentine was the classic case of the cure being worse than the disease. But the idea that the Sox simply could have swapped out managers and gone from worst to first is disingenuous.
Being humbled from top to bottom was what was required.
The Sox had to endure a terrible fall to provide us with a fall featuring playoff baseball again.Christopher L. Gasper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @cgasper.