It is truly a "worst to first" makeover for the Red Sox, though not as amazing had it been accomplished by a small market team such as the Rays or Brewers. Though looking at where they came from and how this was achieved, it is still a remarkable feat.
In 2011, after posting one of the best records in baseball, the Sox were 8 1/2 games up in early September. But something happened in or around a game against the Blue Jays (a one-sided win for the Sox, btw) that changed everything. No one has specifically mentioned the event(s), but then manager Terry Francona and GM Theo Epstein were both moved to call separate closed door meeting with the players subsequent to that game. What followed was the worst collapse in baseball history as the Sox fell out of first place and out of the playoffs losing nearly every game for the rest of the month.
Francona left the following season and Bobby Valentine was brought out of the broadcast booth to manage the team. A dismal last place season ensued. And both Valentine and Epstein left the team. Promoted to GM was Epstein's assistant Ben Cherrington. And what Cherri has done has been nothing short of remarkable.
After last season, I wrote a post suggesting (in my frustration) that management go through the locker room with a signed stack of release forms, telling players to get the f*ck out of Boston if they didn't want to play there. Astonishingly, that's pretty much what Cherrington did. He released clubhouse cancers Josh Beckett, Kevin Youklis, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. Not only lightening the mood around the team, Cherri also cleared about $140m in salary. Then he went shopping.
Unlike George Steinbrenner's Yankees, Cherrington didn't spend a quarter of a billion dollars buying every free agent on the planet to return the Sox to respectability. He instead went out and got a bunch of gutty, gritty players known for their character and ability to be team first guys. Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster and David Ross all came on board and instantly renewed the attitude on the Sox.
But perhaps most importantly, Cherrington got the manger he had his eyes on from the year before. John Farrell was pried away from the Toronto Blue Jays for some cash and a bench reserve. That may turn out to be the steal of the decade if the Sox win the Series this year. In Farrell, the Sox got a good baseball guy who operates on an even keel and who, as a former pitching coach, has a good feel for managing the fragile psyches of the pitching staff. Blue Jay concern trolls heaped lots of scorn on Farrell on his way out of the door, but who's laughing now boys? The gazillion dollar Jays are in last place and Boston's in the post season. Even a good manager can't do anything with a bad team. Which brings me to Bobby V.
I advocated bring Valentine to the Sox. His reputation as a brilliant baseball mind is well known. But no one was going to manage that mess of a team last year. A combo pack of Joe Torre, Phil Jackson and Billy Martin couldn't have done anything with that collection of whining self-obsessed prima donnas. And yes I know that Jackson is a basketball coach, but he's known for dealing with overblown egos and it's my blog, so my rules, so anyway . . .
Valentine was a sacrificial lamb, a seat warmer for the guy Cherri and the team really wanted at the helm. So I say thanks for taking one for the team, Bobby. You'd think maybe at some point the team might say the same thing to Valentine publicly.
With a new attitude on display early in Spring Training, Jonny Gomes crashed into a fence making a routine catch, the team took off and sported a gaudy 20-8 record to start the year. When they stumbled, the choice of Farrell as manager was evident. Despite calls to make changes to the team, Farrell pointed out that the same guys came out of the gate smoking and he'd give them the chance to work out the kinks. The team responded to Farrell's support and climbed into first place in the East and never looked back. Time and again, Farrell showed calm decisive support for the guys and they responded on the field.
And there's been some luck too. In a 162 game season, you're going to have to have some good fortune to be successful. With closers dropping like flies, the Sox were in danger of having no one to rely on in the ninth inning. Once again, Farrell's experience as a pitching coach came in handy. Ageless 38 year old Koji Uehara was thrust into the high pressure role as closer with his 80mph fastball and became one of the most effective closers this season posting a 27 inning scoreless streak that was only just broken.
Though he has struggled to get talented but enigmatic Felix Doubront to pitch consistantly, Farrell's previous relationship with moody Jon Lester has the team ace pitching confidently and dominating as the team heads to the playoffs. John Lackey has rebounded from his Tommy John surgery and for lack of run support would probably be a 20 game winner out of the five hole this year. For the first time in his career, Mike Napoli isn't playing behind the plate and feels better than he has ever felt. And it shows in his tape measure home runs. A streaky hitter, Napoli has also benefited from Farrell's patient attitude as the coach publicly supported Nap during a few slumps and said, correctly, that the big bearded first baseman always comes on in September and October.
I don't know if the guys can go all the way. They've got the players and the character to do it. But stuff happens, so we'll have to see. But as a lifelong Red Sox fan, this has been one of the best years to watch these guys. Here's hoping it goes all the way to Game 7.