Commentary

The power of redemption

From management to players, Red Sox thrived on having something to prove

Updated: September 30, 2013, 2:50 PM ET
By Jackie MacMullan | ESPNBoston.com

It was the ideal confluence of personalities, and not just because they succeeded, in concert, at sprouting mounds of facial hair.

Long before that, there was an underlying vibe percolating among ownership, the front office, the manager and the players.

They had been champions, most of them, idolized and adored by a faithful brethren. But when it started breaking bad, the fallout was swift, vicious, unforgiving. Disappointment evolved into outrage, which led to the unkindest cut of all -- indifference.

And so the Red Sox were left with an ownership that was viewed as disingenuous, a roster that was dismissed as entitled, a general manager who was perceived as undermined and a manager who limped back to Boston nursing the wounds of a two-year stint in Toronto that was both underwhelming and disconcerting.

[+] EnlargeGomes-Napoli
Jim Rogash/Getty ImagesJonny Gomes and Mike Napoli came to Boston at a perfect time. "I knew those guys were going to have a huge chip on their shoulder. I knew the way they were going to approach the season, and I wanted to be part of it," says Gomes.

Together they shared a glittery portfolio, yet they also shared the burden that comes with squandering sustained excellence: something to prove.

That sentiment was also a common thread among the new faces. There was Gold Glove winner Shane Victorino, spurned by his beloved Phillies and swapped to the dysfunctional Dodgers, where Victorino floundered. Mike Napoli came as a free agent from Texas, where he batted a paltry .227 the season before. A hip issue nullified his 3-year, $39 million deal, leaving him with a one-year $5 million contract and a resolve to show the Sox he was worth every penny of the original contract. Stephen Drew came in the wake of a lackluster season split between Arizona and Oakland, where he batted .223 with 7 homers and 28 RBIs.

GM Ben Cherington said adding personnel that had redemption in mind was not by design; he was focused on specific skill attributes and players who looked at Boston and "saw it as an opportunity and not a burden.''

Jonny Gomes was one such player. He said a primary reason he inked with the Sox was the number of accomplished veterans on the roster who were under fire and motivated to re-establish themselves (you can safely assume the 2-year, $10 million contract had something to do with Gomes' decision as well).

"I told my agent, 'Call the Sox. We need to go there,' '' said Gomes. "Because I knew those guys were going to have a huge chip on their shoulder. I knew the way they were going to approach the season, and I wanted to be part of it.''

Nobody fit that profile more snugly than Jon Lester, who had morphed from one of the most feared left-handed pitchers in the game to a symbol of everything that was wrong with the Boston Red Sox. Lester was pegged as a card-carrying member of the chicken-and-beer fraternity that contributed to the stunning collapse in 2011. His struggles on the mound continued in 2012, and his career appeared to be at a crossroads.

Catcher David Ross came to Fenway last summer with the Atlanta Braves. Lester threw against them on June 22, giving up 10 hits and three runs in seven innings of a 4-1 Sox loss.

"It didn't make sense to me," Ross said. "He was throwing hard, he wasn't injured ... I figured, 'He needs someone to point him in the right direction.' "

Lester went winless in his last five starts and finished with a 9-14 record and a 4.94 ERA.

When the Red Sox began courting Ross, he inquired about Lester and his ineffectiveness, about Lackey and his surgically repaired arm, about Clay Buchholz and his durability. Farrell said all three needed some mechanical adjustment as well as a reboot mentally.

SportsNation

Out of the following, who redeemed themselves the most this season?

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    61%
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    2%
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Discuss (Total votes: 3,675)

"The first time I caught Lester's bullpen, I told him, 'Hey man, when your ball is up, it's flat. When it's down in the zone, it jumps out of your hand,' " said Ross.

Lester listened closely. Ross found him to be earnest, disciplined and humble.

"I caught him in spring training and he threw five innings of no-hit ball," Ross said. "I went back and told my buddies, 'We've got nothing to worry about.' ''

Indeed, what was overlooked amid the bitterness toward the downtrodden 2012 Sox was the one undeniable mantra in baseball: Pitching cures all.

Lackey, who was recovering from Tommy John surgery, rededicated himself to his craft and reported to camp with a svelte physique and a steady diet of rejuvenated fastballs and sliders.

Lackey insists he did "nothing different, nothing special" in preparation for 2013.

"Everything is a little overblown here,''  Lackey said. "We've got guys who have done it for a long time with a pretty good track record.

"People were giving Lester hell, and he had the best winning percentage in the history of baseball. That's kind of ridiculous.''

Yet Cherington, born and raised in New England, understood exactly where the criticism stemmed from.

"When a pitching staff performs the way ours did last year and the end of the previous season, I think it's more than fair to critique and to have a skeptical eye,'' Cherington said. "We knew we needed to be better. We knew we had the pieces, but there were certain technical things that needed to be rectified, as well as other issues.

"What John and his staff have done so well is … [they have] allowed everyone's energy to be focused on the field. It sounds easy in December, but it's harder to implement during a long season," Cherington said.

"It's had a great impact on the team, to have all our mental energy focused in a productive way.''

Ross picked up on the "redeem team" vibe from the moment he stepped into the clubhouse.

"There was a whole lot of motivation in this room,'' Ross concurred. "Lester had something to prove. Lackey did too -- big time. Buchholz, even Pedey... when I got here, Dustin told me, 'I've never been on a losing team in my whole life.' He took it personally. He was going to do something about it.''

Pedroia bombarded Farrell daily with texts, emails and phone calls. He made suggestions on everything from personnel to locker placements.

For Farrell, the backing of the former MVP was a welcome change. By the time he left Toronto, he was portrayed as a manager who had lost the respect of his clubhouse. A stinging public rebuke from Omar Vizquel questioning his leadership didn't help.

[+] EnlargeDavid Ortiz
Greg Fiume/Getty ImagesDavid Ortiz credits John Farrell for changing the culture in the clubhouse. "When Im talking to my manager, I feel like I am talking to my brother," Ortiz said. "Im not dealing with someone who is a dictator."

Yet the overwhelming goodwill he developed during his years as Boston's pitching coach was still intact when he walked into Fenway Park.

"All I know,'' said Pedroia shortly after his new manager was hired, "is when John Farrell walks into our clubhouse, everyone listens.''

The sampling of pitching coach-turned-managers is sparse. Farrell said he gained valuable insight during his tenure in Toronto on how to deal with the everyday player.

Gomes is a huge Farrell backer but concedes, "It's been unique here. I'm used to being at my manager's hip -- Lou Piniella, Joe Madden, Dusty Baker, Davey Johnson, Bob Melvin. Here it's a bit different. John is a great guy, but I don't want to talk about pitching all day. He does.''

David Ortiz publicly stood by the controversial Bobby Valentine during his brief stint as the Red Sox manager, yet was enraged following Valentine's dismissal when he insinuated that Ortiz quit on the team late in the season. Ortiz admitted the experience left him a little gun-shy, but, "within minutes" of Farrell's arrival, he said, he remembered why the Sox held him in such high regard.

"When I'm talking to my manager, I feel like I am talking to my brother,'' Ortiz said. "I'm not dealing with someone who is a dictator. I'm not dealing with someone who calls me into the office to remind me that people are watching me. I'm not dealing with someone who calls me into the office only when I'm doing something wrong.

"This manager calls me into the office when I'm doing something right and says, 'Keep on going.'

"I don't want to talk about last year. That is in the past. I want to talk about here -- now.

"If your head is all over the place, then your body will be all over the place too. We've had a head since day one here that is the same -- calm, steady. All that beer and chicken bull---? Well, we have chicken and beer whenever we want now, and look how it's going.

Ortiz All that beer and chicken bull---? Well, we have chicken and beer whenever we want now, and look how it's going.

-- David Ortiz

"John walked in letting us know the rules. He asked us not to violate them. At the same time, he promised, 'I will be here for you.'

"I haven't seen him argue with a single player. Not once. There's no negativity coming from him, even when we screw up.''

The "Farrell Factor,'' as Larry Lucchino coined it, has positioned the Red Sox as one of the favorites to win the World Series. Such a notion was unfathomable a few short months ago, yet Ortiz said the prognosticators misjudged the resolve of the pitchers who were so maligned in the wake of their behavior.

"Our pitchers knew the challenge," Ortiz said. "People talked to them like they were a piece of paper you throw in the garbage. It was, 'Oh, they are going nowhere.' They are great athletes with great pride. You think that didn't bother them?"

When the Red Sox dealt malcontents Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett last summer, they opened up salary room to make a run, if they chose, at a big name like Josh Hamilton. They opted for Gomes, Victorino, et al. instead.

"I learned a lot last year with the A's,'' Gomes said. "People say this team is going to be great and this team is going to be awful, right from jump street.

"Think about Toronto this year. Everyone was wrong. You truly can't predict results solely on talent -- not in this game.

"You can in the NBA. Three-quarters of the teams are eliminated on Opening Day. Same with football. There's a few teams right off you know aren't going to the Super Bowl.

"Baseball is different. If you are in the big leagues, you are good. There's no one here who sucks. So everyone has talent and the tools to win.

"But there's something to be said for 25 guys with one goal -- that's winning. Not free agency, not Cy Young, not Gold Glove, not MVP, not 'let me get my 25 homers and 100 RBIs.'

"I keep joking with everyone, 'Man, we're all having a down year individually, but as a team, we're rocking it.' ''

They have survived the loss of not one, not two, but three relievers. They have forged on even though their sellout streak came to a halt and paying customers still aren't quite "all-in." They grow beards and wear matching stars-and-stripes boxers and enjoy baseball so much, they've been compared to the 2004 "Idiots" of World Series fame, which is the ultimate Boston compliment.

Cherington agrees that Farrell deserves plaudits for his impact on the clubhouse, but adds, "The players should give themselves some credit, too.

"They've endured, they've taken a lot of arrows, many that we deserved.

"But they've worked their tails off to be good individually and better as a team.''

There is still work to be done. And, as Ortiz correctly points out, chemistry can be fleeting.

Yet the mounds of facial hair keep sprouting. It may or may not prove anything, but this Red Sox team plans to find out together.

Jackie MacMullan

ESPNBoston.com columnist

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