RED SOX: The Improbable Champions

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Shortly after the 2012 All-Star Break, I found myself no longer able to withhold my feelings about the train wreck known as the Boston Red Sox. I didn’t hold back in this space. Players, coaches, front office, owners–everyone was to blame for turning a proud franchise into a laughingstock.

Fast forward 15 months.

The Red Sox find themselves back on top of the mountain, holding the World Series trophy aloft for all to see, this ownership group solidifying itself as the best in franchise history with three titles in 10 years, completing a monumental turnaround and the most enjoyable season of my life.

How did this happen? How did the Red Sox go from a joke to improbable champions? No team in history had ever won the World Series after finishing the previous year with a winning percentage as low their 2012 mark of .426.

It took a commitment to going back to what had worked in the past. It took finding the right players instead of trying to assemble a superteam. And, for sure, it took a little luck to get here too.

BACK TO THE BASICS

The 2012 team was so profoundly screwed up I honestly wondered how many years it would take for them to be simply functional. When the Los Angeles Dodgers came calling to save the Red Sox from themselves last August, suddenly a swift turnaround seemed possible.

What Stan Kasten and Ned Colletti gave the Red Sox was a clean slate. Clearing the salaries of Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez meant Ben Cherington would be free to mold the team in 2013 and beyond the way he wanted.

A lot got made of the team’s 93 losses in 2012 and while they certainly earned every loss, nothing that happened after the stunning waiver trade in August mattered at all. Bobby Valentine was the lamest of ducks and many who played down the 2012 stretch were not around for 2013. The Sox probably would have finished 2012 as about a .500 team without the trade.

Once the season ended and once Valentine was shown the door, Cherington could finally begin the process of creating his team.

When Theo Epstein briefly quit the Red Sox after the 2005 season, it appeared he’d lost a power struggle with Larry Lucchino. Just before spring training in 2006, Epstein agreed to come back in his old role with what appeared to be expanded powers over baseball operations. For the remainder of his time in Boston, Epstein seemed to operate with the autonomy he craved while Lucchino mostly stayed in the background, where he belongs.

Well, Lucchino was much more out front during the 2012 debacle, when it was never disproved that he overruled Cherington’s move to bring in Dale Sveum and wound up instead with a total buffoon as manager.

You wonder if John W. Henry, who always loved Epstein and questioned his own wherewithal to own a big league club when Epstein fled Fenway in a gorilla suit, stepped in during this scenario to make sure that once again Lucchino took a step back to allow Cherington to make all the important decisions.

I’ve got nothing against Lucchino as a businessman; he is, however, miscast as a baseball decision-maker and once again to a needed backseat this year.

With that, Cherington focused his offseason plan on bringing in trusted, character-laden veterans on short-term deals, handing out no contracts longer than three years to any new players. They would join the existing core of Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and John Lackey Cherington wanted to build around.

The first of those signings was a two-year pact for David “Blue Wolf” Ross. When they signed Ross, a longtime National League catcher known for his fantastic defense and game-calling, I knew Cherington was trying to take the club in a new direction.

There was a thread between Ross, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, Koji Uehara, Stephen Drew, Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli: They were high-character players with successful track records both on and off the field whom Cherington believed could handle the pressure of Boston.

Nearly every one of those players lived up to expectations in one way or another, an astounding success rate not likely to be duplicated soon. The signings remind me of those Epstein made before 2003 and 2004 including Ortiz, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, Bronson Arroyo, Mike Timlin, Alan Embree, Mark Bellhorn and others.

Dempster gave the Sox 171 innings of league average performance. Gomes became a spiritual leader of the club, coming up with key hits and posting a .344 OBP. Drew, while maligned by many simply because of his name, was a major piece while healthy, knocking 13 dingers and providing rock-solid defense.

Victorino turned into a fan favorite quickly, assuaging fears that he’d received too much money ($39 million) to justify his performance. He hurt himself early in the season crashing into the right field wall and battled through a myriad of other injuries to club 15 homers, go 21-of-24 in steal attempts and provide sterling right field defense.

Napoli also dealt with his share of injuries and some ups-and-downs at the plate. But he still hit 23 homers, posted his best OBP in years (.360) and made himself into a great defensive first baseman after a career behind the dish.

But then, there’s Uehara. Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey, two “proven” closers, both went down with injuries and the Sox turned to Uehara, who I felt going into the year would be too fragile to pitch on back-to-back days. He sure proved me wrong.

After he was named closer in late June, these were Uehara’s numbers through the end of the regular season: 44.1 innings, 59 K, 2 BB, 2 ER, 14 H, .097 BAA, 0.41 ERA, 0.36 WHIP. Then in the playoffs, Uehara went 13.2 innings, 16 K, 0 BB, 1 ER, 7 H, 0.66 ERA, 0.512 WHIP.

These numbers aren’t just great. They defy logic. Nobody should be this dominant in Major League Baseball. Especially not when all you have is a 90 mph fastball and an 85 mph splitter in your arsenal. His ascendence allowed guys like Craig Breslow and Junichi Tazawa to settle into appropriate roles and the bullpen was a great strength all season.

Uehara was also hopefully dispelled the notion, at least locally, that you need a “proven” closer to win. In fact, the last three World Series winners have now ended their championship runs with a different ninth inning man from their Opening Day closer.

The Red Sox also may have dispelled the notion you need a proven manager to win it all, too.

THE RIGHT MAN FOR THE JOB

John Farrell’s tenure in Toronto was obviously rocky. I don’t know how else the asking price to negotiate with Farrell went from Buchholz to Mike Aviles in one year.

But Cherington knew Farrell was the right fit here. Familiarity with many of the players was one thing, but Farrell’s education at the feet of Terry Francona ensured he would know the right way to handle a winning ballclub in a rabid market.

At the time of his hire, I didn’t think Farrell was any more or less special than guys like Brad Ausmus who’d interviewed for the job. But Farrell had something the other candidates didn’t: the approval of every important decision-maker in the organization. When recent history suggested discord throughout the franchise, stability in the manager’s office and a voice everyone could agree on was not to be underestimated.

Farrell still has a ways to go as a field manager and tactician. But he learned from his struggles during the playoffs, including throwing a useless Franklin Morales to the wolves in ALCS Game 6 and the out-and-out catastrophe of World Series Game 3.

But unlike his direct predecessor, Farrell handled the ins and outs of the job extremely well during his first year as manager here. Sure, the manager’s job is easier when the club is stocked with talented players who come to play every night. Yet it was clear from the first day of spring training this was his team and his commitment, intelligence and communication skills permeated through the organization. Heck, not only did Farrell actually talk to all of his coaches, they were all extremely important assets to the final result this year, with Brian Butterfield, Juan Nieves and Torey Lovullo in particular making big contributions.

There’s been a lot of debate in baseball in recent years about the importance of managers, with general managers increasingly having a bigger say in what happens on the field on a day-to-day basis.

As the Red Sox disproved conventional wisdom about bullpens this year, can they too stand as a shining example that managers do, in fact, matter in the modern game? If Valentine were still around, do we really think this club wins the World Series? I sure as hell don’t.

With Farrell providing that stability and the undeniable fact he will continue to improve, the manager won’t be an area of concern moving forward.

WHAT THEY MEANT TO ME

The achievement of the 2004 Red Sox will always be the most amazing experience a baseball fan could have and something I know I’ll still look back on with the same fondness at 87 that I now do at 27. Three years later, a different Red Sox team mowed down the competition as a wire-to-wire champion with a memorable playoff run of its own.

But 2013 was different, and more personal, for me. I moved to the Boston area in January, a move that gave me more opportunities to be at the park when spring arrived.

I went to 10 games at Fenway in 2013, starting with the second home game of the year which actually marked the end of the vaunted “sellout” streak and ending with ALDS Game 1, when Wil Myers forgot how to play outfield and the Sox trounced the Rays to take their first step to the title.

I was in the park when Victorino came up with his first big hit in a Red Sox uniform, when Gomes sent us home happy with an interleague walkoff, when the Sox put up 20 on the Tigers and David Ortiz cracked his 2,000th career hit. I was there for Jake Peavy’s first start after the “controversial” trade of Jose Iglesias (that any smart baseball person would do 100 times out of 100), for Napoli’s grand slam to ice an April win against Oakland, for a seven-run second inning against Toronto in June, and for an amazing September start for the ace, Jon Lester, against the Yankees (I saw Lester start five games this year and the Sox won each game).

Then on Saturday I got to attend my first championship parade after watching my favorite teams win eight titles since 2002. It was a phenomenal experience, seeing the joy on everyone’s faces on Boylston Street, where just a few months before the horror of the Marathon bombings jarred the region.

I watched as Ortiz hopped off his duckboat and started jogging towards the Marathon finish line, an incredible sight that made the entire day unforgettable in and of itself. (PS: Guess what, terrorists? You lost.)

More than any other year of my life, I felt connected to this Red Sox team. That’s why the 2013 campaign and playoff run will always be the most special to me as a fan.

Next year’s team might be very different, with Jacoby Ellsbury likely to funnel a solid contract year into the lucrative deal he wanted when he got Scott Boras as an agent. He’ll be tough to replace unless he agrees to take a shorter term deal here, but I expect Napoli, Drew and Jarrod Saltalamacchia to all be back. There’s a surplus of starters, as well as young talent, so be prepared for a move that will net the Red Sox a big bat.

Xander Bogaerts, the 21-year-old Aruban inserted into the postseason lineup who displayed poise and maturity in all phases of the game, has potential to be a franchise cornerstone. I can’t wait to see him progress and eventually form a formidable double play tandem with Pedroia.

But the future can wait. For now, this team deserves to be celebrated for its amazing accomplishment. They exorcised the demons of their immediate past to stand taller than all comers by being a team and playing together.

In short, the Red Sox got back to what made them great when Henry & Co. came to town. Here’s hoping that will continue to make them great in the years ahead.

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