- Gordon Edes, ESPN Staff Writer
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BOSTON -- They talked about it, sure, when he was here the first time, because it wasn't a stretch to imagine him as manager of the Red Sox.
But it was usually in the context of, "When Tito eventually gets tired of this job, and wants to become a special adviser or something -- you know, 10 years from now -- we've got just the guy to replace him."
No one, Ben Cherington said, anticipated that change, when it came, would come with hurricane force. The team disintegrating on the field in September, Theo Epstein suddenly pulling up stakes for Chicago, and Terry Francona beaten down and certain he was being pushed out of a job he wasn't even sure he wanted anymore. And heaping servings of disgrace and ridicule ladled on for good measure.
By then, of course, John Farrell was in Toronto, as manager of the Blue Jays. The Red Sox had a plan in place for Epstein's eventual departure -- Cherington was next in line -- but losing their manager, when they did, the way they did, and at the same time that Epstein left, no one was prepared for that.
And John Farrell was in Toronto.
It would take another wrenching year of "suffering," as majority owner John W. Henry called it, before the team found its way back. A year of 93 losses, a roster-shattering series of disabling injuries, a polarizing manager in Bobby Valentine, large pockets of clubhouse discontent, a disaffected fan base, and finally, a transformational trade that signaled a decision to press the reset button.
But even amid the wreckage, Cherington said, he saw reason to believe better days were just ahead.
"We knew we had a lot of work to do in 2013 to get the organization going in the direction we wanted," Cherington said. "Maybe I'm naïve, but I really felt there was a very positive future in the organization, because despite our problems and performance on the field, a lot of elements you have to have to be successful in the long term were in place, even at the end of last year.
Cherington ticked off those elements.
"A stable ownership group, very committed, active, competitive and experienced. They'd done a lot in the game with success. Scouting and player development in place, with a talented farm system we thought had players getting close to the big leagues. And although the big league team was not good at the end of 2012, we still had a core of guys coming back that we could build around."
There was one piece missing. John Farrell, whose obvious attributes for the job included the trust and respect he had developed with players, management and ownership during his four-year term here as Red Sox pitching coach, was in Toronto.
Sox CEO Larry Lucchino worked on Jays CEO Paul Beeston. Ben Cherington worked on his Blue Jays counterpart, Alex Anthopoulos. The Sox wanted Farrell. He wanted the Sox. The Jays, after two desultory seasons under Farrell, had some ambivalence about bringing him back. The sticking point was obvious to all parties: How do the Blue Jays preserve their dignity while allowing Farrell to go to a division rival?
Maybe it couldn't be done, but the effort was made by all parties. The Red Sox essentially traded infielder Mike Aviles for the rights to Farrell. The Jays, preseason favorites to win the division, never were in contention. The Red Sox won 97 games and won the division going away.
"What happened to the Blue Jays this year was unexpected," Cherington said. "Nobody expected it. I didn't expect it, and I don't know that it had anything to do with what happened, as far as their deciding to work with us on John.
"I thought, and still feel like, it was a professional, respectful process. You know how this stuff works. One person can be the right fit in one place, and not be the right fit in another. Each circumstance is different."
On Friday, the Red Sox will play the Tampa Bay Rays in their first playoff game since being swept by the Angels in the first round of the American League division playoffs in 2009. They missed the playoffs altogether the next three seasons. From the day he took the job, Farrell has been the right fit.
From the outset, Cherington said, Farrell was involved in every decision regarding the players they were looking to add. He made calls. He helped to recruit the players they agreed they wanted. Much has been made of character. Maybe it's all in how you define your terms, but Cherington said he was looking for more than guys who were good in the clubhouse.
"It's a subtle difference in my mind," Cherington said. "I suppose someone could say it's the same thing. But I was looking for the type of guy who wants to be here, who was attracted to being in Boston and saw it as an opportunity and not a burden. If you have success, it's an incredible town to work in baseball and be a player in. If you fail, there are things that go along with it. Even when you're having success, you have more to deal with. That's what we were looking for: Guys who wanted to be here."
But then there was this: Cherington was one of those who argued most forcefully for signing Carl Crawford, a player who wound up loathing Boston after signing a seven-year, $142 million contract to be a foundational piece. How could the Sox have whiffed so badly on CC?
"Who knows?" Cherington said. "Maybe in a parallel universe somewhere, under different circumstances, he would have succeeded in Boston.
"I don't know that we misevaluated talent. What we thought we knew about him is that he was an incredibly hard worker, which proved accurate. We thought he didn't have to be the lead horse on a team. Also accurate. He would work hard and wanted to be good, etc., etc.
"Obviously, it didn't work out. Whether it was the environment or the burden of the contract or that we talked him into something he didn't want to do, those are all fair questions. I don't know for certain the answer. I don't know if he knows the answer."
What Cherington did know, is that he needed to hear the right answer when he asked Shane Victorino and Mike Napoli and Ryan Dempster and Stephen Drew and David Ross if they wanted to play in Boston. Sure, the Sox did their homework on all their prospective imports. But Cherington took it a step further.
"Ultimately I'd get on the phone with a player and say, 'Hey, you saw what happened here last year, what do you think?' I felt comfortable telling guys I was not going to predict what we were going to do next year, but that we're not going into this rebuilding phase; I told them, 'We want to win and want you to be a part of it.'
"And to have guys here like [Dustin] Pedroia, [David] Ortiz, [Jon] Lester, Buch [Clay Buchholz], those are guys players respect and want to play with. Sure, there were negotiations that still had to take place and money matters, but I didn't sense any significant reservations on the part of players we were talking to about not wanting to come here. They saw it as an opportunity."
Cherington was present when Farrell held his first full-squad meeting with the team in Fort Myers, Fla., in February.
"The message was consistent with what he had said before and has said since," Cherington said. "'We're going to make the focus the game that night. We're going to be as well or better prepared than anybody. We're here for you. The staff's here for you.'
"It wasn't real long. It was strong and simple, to the point with a lot of conviction. When he talked about putting the focus on the field and game, that's easy to say in February. It's harder to actually do, and for the most part, they have done it. That's a credit to him."
Here is a list of all the drama Farrell has created this season:
"That means a lot," Cherington said. "I think the notion that players are not open to criticism or direct feedback, in my experience 99 percent of the time that notion is wrong. In fact, they crave it. It just depends on how it's done.
"In this day, when information goes from Point A to Point B just like that, players want to feel protected. They want to feel, it's OK to get in my face and tell me I'm wrong, but I don't want the world to know about it. If the world knows about it, then there's something wrong. I think that's mostly it."
The Red Sox finished with the best record in baseball for the first time since 1946. The Sox won 28 more games than they did the year before, the biggest turnaround since Williams, Doerr, Pesky and others came marching back from war in '46. They never lost more than three in a row all season. The last Sox team able to say that played 110 years ago, in 1903.
What Cherington feared, during the dark hours of 2012, might be a naïve faith that the Sox could be, would be, much better in short order proved true, beyond anyone's expectations. So did his belief that hiring John Farrell would have a redemptive effect on the entire organization.
"He was able to come into a job and say, 'This is what we're going to do,' say it to the players, then actually do it," Cherington said. "The focus has been on the field. We have been very well prepared. That has helped us win games we should win, and win some games that maybe we shouldn't have.
"And while this has been happening, he allowed this team to develop its own personality. This is not military school. You do certain things, but you can have fun, too."
And when all breaks right -- and even when it doesn't, like losing two closers and a premier left-handed setup man -- you can win, too. That's the sweetest part of all.
19hInterview by Buster Olney
12hDanny Knobler, Special to ESPN.com