On the field at Dodger Stadium, on a night when Mookie Betts’s first career playoff home run offered one of many punctuation marks to a Red Sox championship, Ethan Faggett laughed at the memory of Betts’s first game in professional baseball. The team’s assistant director of Florida operations was present at the extended spring training complex on Aug. 26, 2011, when Betts fielded a ball at shortstop and fired to first.
“He had a ball hit to him, a ball in the hole, fielded it, set his feet, threw it a little wide of first,” recalled Faggett. “It should have been caught – it was catchable. [The first baseman] didn’t catch it. And he stares him down and throws his hands up.
“Our field coordinator calls him over and says, ‘Hey, bud, this is pro ball. We don’t do that. You’re supposed to uplift your players, not show them up.’
“Ever since then, he did a wonderful job of adjusting. But it was interesting.
“I just remember that play. It was kind of startling because he was so good, so talented. The way that it developed, it was interesting that it happened that way, and that he sort of was pulled by the collar a little bit.”
Betts was just 18 at the time; early this month, as the playoff run was beginning, he turned 26. He has grown up in the Red Sox organization, absorbing those early-career lessons and emerging as a leader of a championship team, one who does indeed uplift teammates (he was a mentor to Rafael Devers, for instance) and who blossomed into the best player in the game this year.
For so many in the Red Sox organization — scouts, coaches, front office members — the World Series brought up similar memories of the early-career moments of a homegrown core, and with good reason. The composition of this team was drastically different from the ones that preceded it this century.
The 2004 team pulled together mostly players who’d been acquired by trade and free agency. The pillars of the 2007 team likewise were paired with outside talent, but they were complemented by a homegrown wave (Rookie of the Year Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester).
In 2013, the team had a few homegrown veterans in their last run together but otherwise was built chiefly on a raft of free-agent signings while waiting for the next championship core to form.
In that sense, 2018 was very different. While the signature offseason acquisitions of the last three years — David Price in December 2015, Chris Sale in December 2016, and J.D. Martinez in February 2018 – all had enormous impact, the foundation was laid by a still-young homegrown core that grew up together.
In 2012, the Red Sox featured a wildly talented team in High A Salem. Xander Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Christian Vazquez, Matt Barnes, and Brandon Workman all were teammates on that club, just as they were on the 2018 major league team. That season, at a time when the Red Sox were on the road to a train wreck of a last-place finish in the big leagues, team officials drew some solace from what they were seeing in Salem.
The same was true of the Double A Portland Sea Dogs in 2014 (a team that featured Betts and Blake Swihart) and the Single A Greenville Drive in 2015, where it wasn’t hard to see big leaguers everywhere, with Andrew Bentinendi and Devers the holdovers from a group that included several high-ceiling prospects who were traded for key pieces of the 2018 club (Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech went to Chicago in the Sale deal; Javy Guerra was part of the package for Craig Kimbrel; Jalen Beeks landed Nathan Eovaldi).
The 2018 Red Sox were the most homegrown Boston championship club this century. It was not a group thrown together but one that has grown up together, was supplemented with a few key players, and now has won it all together.
“It’s awesome,” said Barnes, who was drafted in 2011 along with Betts and Bradley. “It makes it a little bit sweeter when you’re doing it with guys you’ve been with for years and years, guys you were drafted with or you kind of come up with.
“Those are my boys. Those are the guys you’ve been through the grind with.”
Members of the organization who watched the core grow up took a special joy in this group. They’d seen the acute growing pains in 2014 and at times 2015, which gave way to steps forward in 2016 and 2017, and then the final leap this year.
“I don’t know if you can have any stronger sense of gratification or feeling of pride than when you see the guys who you knew as really kids — 16, 17, 18 years old — working their way, seeing their struggles, then develop as players and as humans, maturing, getting families, meeting their families, and then having them put together a year like this, it’s hard to put into words,” said assistant general manager Eddie Romero, who has known Bogaerts since he entered the organization as a 16-year-old and who first met Devers as a 14-year-old, two years before signing him. “There are special feelings. It goes further than baseball.”
Vice president of amateur scouting Mike Rikard can recall the scouting work done by Danny Watkins in Tennessee to follow Betts, by Quincy Boyd following Bradley at the University of South Carolina, by Willie Romay in identifying Santiago Espinal — the player traded to Toronto in June for World Series MVP Steve Pearce — in the 10th round of the 2016 draft.
“I always think back to the scouts, the guys that don’t make a whole lot of money, put 70,000 miles on their cars each year, spend 150 nights away from their families,” said Rikard. “Each one of them played, in some form or fashion, a role in this as well. Those are the guys that I’m thinking about right now.”
Through scouting and player development, the Red Sox built something solid upon which they saw an opportunity earlier this decade to anchor their future. Then-GM Ben Cherington committed to it through the last-place finishes of 2012 and 2014 (and during the championship campaign of 2013), and his successor, president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, recognized it when he arrived in Boston in August 2015.
“[Former GM] Mike Hazen, Ben Cherington, [former VP of amateur scouting] Amiel Sawdaye, you tip your cap to all of them and everybody else that’s part of the organization,” Dombrowski said.
After he joined the Sox in 2015, Dombrowski said, “It was easy to see that Mookie Betts was a good player, Jackie Bradley Jr. was a good player. You look at Bogey as a good player. It looked like we might need some pitching at the big league level, but you had a chance to do that.
“It didn’t take long to look at those guys [and see championship potential]. It’s a tribute to everyone who’s been here.”
So many of the Red Sox who celebrated on the field Sunday night were players to whom the organization was willing to entrust the future. It proved a winning proposition in 2018, and will remain one, the team hopes, for seasons to come.
“Hopefully,” said team president Sam Kennedy, “we can keep these guys together for a few more years.”