PHOENIX — It was on Aug. 14, 2015, when Red Sox manager John Farrell, his voice trembling with emotion, announced he had cancer and would step down for the remainder of the season.
Only four days later, the Sox hired Dave Dombrowski as president of baseball operations. General manager Ben Cherington immediately resigned.
The Red Sox, hopelessly in last place, were an organization in disarray. Nobody knew what Dombrowski would do, only that he had come from outside the organization and had wide-ranging power to make changes.
Meanwhile Farrell was getting treatments, a big bear of a man growing weaker every day from chemotherapy.
What happened over the remainder of that season helps to explain why so many of the Red Sox players were wrapping Torey Lovullo in hugs at Chase Field before Friday’s game against the Arizona Diamondbacks.
It’s not hyperbole to say Lovullo, then Farrell’s bench coach, held the organization together over the final seven weeks of that season. The Sox were 28-20 under Lovullo, his communication skills and empathy helping guide the players through what was a difficult time.
Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, Brock Holt, and Jackie Bradley Jr. were among the young players who flourished during that time.
“Torey did a great job that year, really the whole time he was around us,” Bogaerts said. “He was somebody you could sit down with and have a good conversation about baseball or anything else.”
Lovullo still keeps in touch with Bogaerts, Bradley, and other players from that team. He also watches Red Sox games on television when he can.
“It’s always fun to go back and watch first-hand some of the young players I was around for so long,” Lovullo said. “One of them arguably was the best player in the league last year; I’m excited to see Mookie. But the list doesn’t end there. There are some really exciting young players I’m excited to watch from the other end of the field.”
Many of the players would have welcomed Lovullo becoming the manager with Farrell moving to the front office. But Farrell beat cancer and returned to manage in 2016. It was the right thing for the Sox to do at the time.
Lovullo went back to his role as bench coach then left after the season to manage the Diamondbacks, joining former Red Sox executive Mike Hazen in Arizona. At the time, it seemed like the Sox had missed a chance to retain a potentially very good manager.
“For me it couldn’t have worked out any better,” said Lovullo, who led Arizona to the playoffs in 2017 and in January agreed to a two-year extension.
Farrell was fired after the 2017 season and replaced by Alex Cora. Much in the same way Lovullo did in ’15, Cora brought energy to an underachieving group almost immediately.
Cora is from Puerto Rico and Lovullo from Southern California. They have different backgrounds but the same sensibilities about baseball and what their roles should be as leaders.
“Torey was my manager in Triple A and I knew he’d be a big league manager,” said Jarrod Saltalamacchia, the former Red Sox catcher who’s now working with NESN. “He knows how to relate to players and talk to players and get the best out of his players.
“He made sure everybody was in a good position to succeed. It reminds of the way Alex manages the Red Sox.”
Lovullo and Cora first crossed paths in during spring training in 2005 when they were with the Cleveland Indians. Cora was a backup infielder and Lovullo the Double A manager.
“Having baseball conversations with him at that time told me that was very well-versed on what was going on during the game,” Lovullo said. “He thought like a coach; he thought like a manager.
“He showed me unbelievable respect as a Double A manager. There were a couple of situations that I still remember where he basically told a couple of guy who were chatting over me to shut up and listen because he’s got something good to say. I was a young, dumb manager at the time and I thought he was a stand-up guy. I never forgot that.”
Lovullo offered Cora a position on his coaching staff in ’17 but Cora decided to become the bench coach of the Astros instead. There’s still mutual respect.
“Alex has done a great job in Boston,” Lovullo said. “I thought that he would.”
As the Sox and Diamondbacks meet this weekend, there will be plenty of pregame hugs.
“Torey’s a good guy,” Bogaerts said. “We’re happy for him and we know he’s happy for us.”