‘For this to happen is very special’: How the Red Sox pulled off this unprecedented season
It has become a spring training ritual for the Red Sox to gather every player and coach in a room before the first full-squad workout to be introduced to staff members and hear a few speeches designed to set the tone for the coming season.
When new manager Alex Cora presided over what he called the “company meeting” on Feb. 20, he changed the usual agenda.
Instead of the people who work in community relations, fan services, media relations, and other ancillary departments being asked to leave once they were introduced, they were invited to stay.
Cora’s message was that the Sox were more than 25 players, that every person who worked for the team would be needed for the franchise to win the World Series.
“That day resonated with a lot of people,” right fielder Mookie Betts said. “He wanted everybody to take ownership of what they did. We were all part of the same crew. Everybody was working toward the same goal.”
That meeting was one of the first examples of how Cora brought change to the Red Sox and turned what was a good team under former manager John Farrell into a historically great one.
The Red Sox won for the 106th time Monday, breaking a team record set 106 years ago. For the first time since 1946, they will enter the postseason with sole possession of the best record in baseball.
Betts is a leading candidate for Most Valuable Player of the American League, a legitimate challenger to Mike Trout as the best player in the sport.
J.D. Martinez hit for average and power, his numbers reminiscent of David Ortiz in his prime.
Recalcitrant lefthander David Price found favor with the fans with one of the best seasons of his career, carrying the rotation when ace Chris Sale spent much of the summer on the disabled list.
The Sox ultimately will be judged by how they perform in the postseason. But it’s already a season worth celebrating.
The last time the Red Sox were this dominant in 1912, the Titanic sank the first week of the season, Fenway Park was brand new, and their manager, Jake Stahl, was the son of a Civil War veteran.
“It’s something where we should call time out and enjoy this one,” Cora said after the record-setting victory Monday. “For this to happen is very special.”
It is what the Sox were seeking when they made the unusual decision to fire Farrell after back-to-back AL East championships and 93-win seasons.
President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski felt the atmosphere around the team was stifling the young players and a new manager and coaching staff were needed.
Cora, the 42-year-old Houston Astros bench coach, had the inclusive personality to pull the team together. That he had played for the Red Sox and worked as an analyst for ESPN made him an even better fit for the job.
Cora had never managed in the majors, but that was almost incidental. More importantly, he would be the first minority manager in team history. The Sox were ready for significant change.
“People feel comfortable around him,” Dombrowski said. “He’s been very good. It’s a tough job, it’s a big job, and he does it very well. The communication is there with everybody.”
It wasn’t only the clubhouse that changed. Cora transformed how the Sox played. A team that once valued working deep into counts and making the opposing pitcher work became more aggressive at the plate.
The Sox lead the majors in runs and slugging percentage. They’re even tied for second in stolen bases.
Cora and new hitting coach Tim Hyers prodded shortstop Xander Bogaerts into hitting for more power, convincing the modest 25-year-old that he is one of the best players at his position in the game.
The coaches revamped the approach of center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. and a more consistent hitter emerged.
The Sox also became more cognizant of the need to give their best players more days off. Throughout the season, the basis of many decisions was to make sure the players would have energy left for the postseason. The team was eliminated in the first round the previous two years.
“I am very proud of the way we have done things,” Cora said. “I don’t like talking about myself. I have a job to do, and one thing’s for sure: I delegate. There are a lot of people who have done an outstanding job.
“When we put together a coaching staff, I wanted people I could trust. When the game starts at 7, I have no doubts the team will be prepared. They’re ready to play.”
The Sox lost on Opening Day at Tampa Bay, then won nine in a row.
They were 17-2 by late April, the talk of baseball.
The season could have taken a different turn on May 24, when the surprise decision was made to drop first baseman Hanley Ramirez from the roster. Cora decided Mitch Moreland would get more playing time and feared Ramirez could become a disruptive presence.
The Sox won five of the next six games, any controversy quickly pushed aside. After the rival Yankees challenged them in June, the Sox moved back into first place by themselves on July 2 and held that spot the rest of the season.
Through it all, the Sox have yet to lose more than three games in a row.
“We turned the page — good, bad, or indifferent — from one day to the next,” righthander Rick Porcello said. “That’s what allowed us to maintain what we’ve been doing.
“When we needed it, Alex would talk to us. Everything he said to us was with a purpose. It wasn’t something out of a book about leadership, it was genuine.”
The Red Sox are certainly not an underdog story. Their payroll is close to $235 million, approximately $28 million more than any other club.
They boosted payroll during the season, trading for righthander Nathan Eovaldi, second baseman Ian Kinsler, and first baseman Steve Pearce to fill needs.
But that did not guarantee success. The San Francisco Giants, Washington Nationals, and Los Angeles Angels all started the season with high payrolls and failed to make the playoffs.
The Sox made it work. Nobody roots for Goliath, but this team is undeniably likable.
“How can you not respect them?” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said. “They play the game the right way and they play hard. Alex did a great job with them.”
Cora pushes back on such praise. He was a bench player for much of his career and still views the game through that prism.
“There’s no Cora Magic,” the manager said. “There are good players; there’s a lot of talent. It takes a whole organization to be successful. That was the message from the get-go.
“Try and be as close as possible, share information, and be together. As of now, we’ve been able to do it. The goal now is for us to keep doing it all the way to the end of October.”