FORT MYERS, Fla. — Only a handful of reporters spoke to Jonny Gomes when he arrived at spring training last season. On a team loaded with new players, he was a heavily tattooed footnote. The expectation was for Gomes to be a part-time player in left field.
He proved to be that and so much more. On a team thirsting for purpose, Gomes became one of the leaders. He also embraced his new city after the Boston Marathon bombings, playing a prominent role in the team’s response.
Gomes hit a modest .247 with 13 home runs and 52 RBIs. But two of his hits were walk-off home runs and he made a habit of leaping catches, amusing comments, and bold pronouncements. Even his scraggly red beard turned into a team-wide bonding mechanism that helped define the World Series champions.
“One of a kind,” teammate Shane Victorino said. “Jonny helped make us what we were.”
Gomes started anew Tuesday, arriving at JetBlue Park clean-shaven with the exception of a small soul patch beneath his lower lip. The wild man of 2013 looked years younger.
“A double take actually when he walked in the room,” manager John Farrell said.
Gomes entertained a few questions about shaving before rolling his eyes.
“I mean, it’s a friggin’ beard. No one died,” he said. “We’re going to be all right. The beard didn’t hit or throw a fastball all year.”
Yes, Gomes is eager to be finished with the trappings of 2013.
“This group of guys, from the players to the coaching staff to up above, is not willing and not wanting to sit on this title,” he said. “It’s cool right now, championship shirts and hats and whatnot. But I’ll tell you what, once that first pitch of the season starts, it’s pretty much thrown right into the archives. It’s old news coming up pretty soon.”
Gomes had played for three teams over a span of two seasons before the Red Sox gave him a two-year contract. They valued his ability to hit for power against lefthanders.
Gomes also was one of the players general manager Ben Cherington felt would improve the team’s chemistry. Farrell admitted he underestimated how powerful that effect would be.
“When you live with it for seven months, he makes people around him better through confidence, through conversation [and] through conversation about the game,” Farrell said. “He’s a strong believer in himself and there’s a way that he imparts that in others.”
Count Farrell as a willing follower. He departed from season-long convention in the World Series, putting Gomes in the lineup five times against righthanded starters and leaving the productive Daniel Nava on the bench.
“When he was in the lineup, I felt he enabled our team to have a different feel from across the field,” Farrell said. “There was an edge that we had a little bit more.”
It was the rare occasion when Farrell thought intangibles mattered more than statistics. Farrell said he would not have made such a move in July. But in the cauldron of the postseason, it made sense.
“You use all the information you have available to you,” Farrell said. “But to be a slave to it might cause you to be blinded by some things that are readily apparent and in front of you.”
Outside of Mike Napoli, the Red Sox have abandoned their woolly beards and made changes to the roster. How this team defends its championship and develops a new personality will emerge in the coming weeks and months. Gomes is sure to be involved.
“How do you do it? If there was a way that book will be written,” Gomes said. “You can’t bring back all 25-plus guys. You can’t practice all those magical walk-offs. There has to be a whole new chapter, a whole new blueprint. We’ll do what we can to build a new identity.”
Gomes, 33, spent parts of 10 seasons in the majors before winning the World Series. That was his goal from the day he was drafted out of junior college in 2001.
The accomplishment merited a new tattoo on his torso, a cartoon-like drawing that included all the symbols of last season.
The ink is dry and the beard is gone. Now it’s time to think ahead.
“The goal was met; the goal was conquered,” Gomes said. “I guess I was extremely hungry to win a World Series title. Once you take a bite of it, that’s definitely what it’s all about.
“I guess my hunger turned to starvation now because I’ve got to do what I can to start collecting them.”