By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — Listening to the Boston Red Sox as they celebrated winning the World Series on Wednesday, two themes emerged: John Farrell’s first year as a manager; and roster moves that included dumping off several high-salary players in 2012 and bringing in “character” guys like Mike Napoli, Johnny Gomes and Shane Victorino.
The Red Sox began the 2013 season with few players who could be considered “superstars,” and those who could were veteran Boston players who’d earned that status long ago.
In winning the World Series, the Red Sox proved that the right manager and the right locker room atmosphere can turn a bunch of nobodies into champions.
How else do you explain it? How do you explain how the worst baseball team in the American League in 2012 became the best team in 2013?
It can’t be just personnel alone. Gomes led the above-mentioned trio with an underwhelming .262 batting average in 2012, and not one of those signings seemed to carry the game-changing weight of a move like Carlos Beltran going to the St. Louis Cardinals or Albert Pujols going to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2012.
Sox super-closer Koji Uehara, meanwhile, came off a 2012 season in which he pitched just 36 innings, recorded one save and got into one postseason game. He didn’t even emerge as the Sox’s closer until two months into the 2013 season.
Uehara’s innings more than doubled in 2013, ballooning to 74.1 in the regular season and 13.2 in the postseason. He set career-highs in earned runs average, saves, wins and strikeouts.
The 2013 Red Sox loved playing with each other, and they loved coming to work every day. Those borderline-hideous beards many of them grew symbolized everything that made this team remarkable: a fun-loving attitude and a sense of camaraderie that made players want to play for each other.
This newfound attitude was a breath of fresh air to Sox fans who had to go through the melodrama of the previous two seasons. Knowing the team needed a makeover, general manager Ben Cherington dumped two players who didn’t contribute to a productive workplace: outfielder Carl Crawford, who never looked comfortable in a Red Sox uniform, and Josh Beckett, who by the end carried himself like he no longer wanted to play baseball.
Cherington got the Los Angeles Dodgers to take the two troublemakers away midway through the 2012 season, and he threw in power-hitter Adrian Gonzalez to sweeten the deal.
With the locker room cleared of those bad apples, Cherington then brought in the perfect manager to run his new clubhouse: Farrell.
Bobby Valentine, a snake oil salesman who tried to mask a lack of managerial talent with volume, had utterly failed in that role in 2012, so much so that many players went to the Sox owners in August 2012 to voice their frustrations.
Never one to get talked down, once the season ended Valentine accused David Ortiz of quitting on the team.
A year later, Ortiz became the team’s elder statesman, rallying everyone together with speeches in the dugout and contributing a historic World Series performance that ended in an utterly unsurprising Most Valuable Player trophy.
With a new manager and a new clubhouse atmosphere, Dustin Pedroia returned to being a .301 hitter. Pitcher John Lackey cut his ERA nearly in half, all the way down to .352, and out-dueled pitching phenoms Justin Verlander and Michael Wacha in the postseason. Pitcher Jon Lester won six more games and took a run off his ERA compared to 2012.
Some of that no doubt came from Farrell’s background as a former pitching coach with the Red Sox. And some of it came from the same supportive, motivating atmosphere that propelled the entire clubhouse.
But some of it came from Farrell himself. Unlike Valentine, Farrell never publicly called out his players. Farrell treated his players with respect and professionalism, and his players did the same.
Farrell’s class showed itself even as his team played a potential championship-clinching game, with him ending his mid-game interview to congratulate retiring Fox baseball commentator Tim McCarver.
Seriously, how often do professional athletes or coaches actually take time to thank the press?
Because fans still pay a portion of players’ salaries — ticket sales, merchandise sales, advertising revenue, etc. — they want to believe just making millions of dollars is enough to motivate players to fight through adversity and give their best effort. But anyone working in almost any industry knows that a bad boss or a bad atmosphere at work can drain productivity faster than Jacoby Ellsbury stealing second base.
The Sox didn’t bring in the highest-profile players or coaches — they brought in the personnel best-suited to creating a new atmosphere at Fenway Park.
Even at the highest levels of sport, the team concept still matters. The Red Sox proved that Wednesday night at Fenway.
Contact Matt Goisman at email@example.com.