Commentary

'You've got to grind to shine'

Jonny Gomes preaches importance of team mindset as supplement to talent

Updated: October 22, 2013, 3:32 PM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- What the Boston Red Sox already have accomplished in 2013 goes beyond metaphors and statistics.

Pitcher Clay Buchholz described it as plain as could be after the Red Sox defeated the Detroit Tigers in the American League Championship Series on Saturday night at Fenway Park.

Jonny Gomes To be the clubhouse guy with the spark, you still have to perform. You can't just be a rodeo clown … and then go and strike out three or four times, or not run the bases hard.

-- Red Sox outfielder Jonny Gomes

"We're just a bunch of baseball players," he said.

A bunch of baseball players who get it. The 2013 Red Sox can grow their beards and build a certain identity. Scouting, talent and matchups help, but the desire to win for one another has become one of the biggest intangibles in this team's success.

Right in the middle of it all is outfielder Jonny Gomes.

When the Red Sox signed Gomes to a two-year deal worth $10 million, the team knew exactly the type of player it was getting. He's a proven winner. Nearly every team he's played for has won consistently. But the biggest prize -- winning the World Series -- has eluded him.

Gomes doesn't care how much money you make or what your baseball card says. To him, once a team stands on the field, every player is just as important as the next.

Gomes' influence within the Red Sox clubhouse began when he first arrived at spring training. He made no secret of how he plays the game and that he expects the same from his teammates.

[+] Enlarge Jonny Gomes
Greg M. Cooper/USA TODAY SportsJonny Gomes sparked the go-ahead rally in Game 6 of the ALCS, leading off the seventh with a double and scoring on Shane Victorino's grand slam.

Given the rich history in Boston, and his personal experience as an opponent of the Sox, how could Gomes walk into the clubhouse as a newcomer and command his teammates' respect?

"I guess I'm scarred in a positive way, and to me that's important," he said. "Like in [Tampa] in 2008, we went to the World Series with maybe a mediocre team. In [Cincinnati in] 2010, the superstars that are there now weren't superstars then. Last year with the A's, it was a young team that went on that run.

"What do all those teams have in common? Not that good, but where there's a will, there's a way. You've got to grind to shine. I sum up all those seasons, that's what they all have in common."

After the disastrous 2012 Red Sox team that finished in last place with only 69 wins, the atmosphere in Boston needed to change. General manager Ben Cherington and manager John Farrell made sure it did. First-year Red Sox players including Gomes, Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, David Ross, Mike Carp, Jake Peavy, Ryan Dempster and Stephen Drew all have made significant on-field contributions, but their team-first mentality also has paid dividends.

"How do you explain how well this team has hidden individual struggles? Because I've got you and we've continued to pick each other up," Gomes said.

What exactly is the blueprint of the proverbial clubhouse guy?

"When you break down a 'clubhouse guy' or a 'team-chemistry guy,' it's not a guy who goes up and down between the majors and minors. It's a good player," Gomes said. "Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Ryan Dempster, all the 'clubhouse guys' are good baseball players.

"To be the clubhouse guy with the spark, you still have to perform. You can't just be a rodeo clown in the clubhouse and then go and strike out three or four times, or not run the bases hard. You've got to create an identity. You've got to create a culture. You've got to have accountability to what you stress or what you preach. You've got to do that and you can't take a day off from doing that."

As Gomes describes it, the birth of that mentality begins at a young age, in the days when kids play baseball in sandlots, parking lots and backyards.

"Back in the day in the neighborhood, there would be two captains and they would pick the teams," Gomes said. "If you were fortunate enough back in the day to be one of the better ones, you were a captain. You've got all the guys standing in front of you and who do you pick? You pick your buddy. You don't pick the best player. You pick your buddy because that's who you're riding your bike home with. You're going to his house for dinner, or he's coming to your house, and that's who you want to go down with and that's who you want to win with is your buddy.

"If one of your family members is there -- your brother or your cousin -- you're picking him. And if you don't, when you go home your parents are going to yell at you for not picking your brother or cousin because you've got to stick together win, lose or draw.

"When that happens and you get in between the lines and your buddy's on the mound, you're not letting the ball drop, you're grabbing it. When you're on second and your buddy's up, you're scoring to give him the RBI and by doing that you're helping the team.

"It can go the other way, too. If you're in the outfield and some guy you don't like is on the mound and he throws one ball, you're like 'this [f------] guy.' It's not a family game here, so it has to go to friendship and chemistry."

Farrell, a student of statistics, threw the numbers out the window and went with a hunch by starting Gomes in left field against a pair of right-handers in Games 5 and 6 of the ALCS, and it worked.

During the regular season, fellow outfielder Daniel Nava posted a .322 average with 10 homers and 53 RBIs against right-handed pitchers. Gomes posted a .258 average with five homers and 25 RBIs.

As the Red Sox prepare for the St. Louis Cardinals, it appears Farrell will stick with Gomes in left field, despite the National League pennant-winners starting right-hander Adam Wainwright in Game 1.

[+] EnlargeJonny Gomes
Rob Tringali/Getty ImagesJonny Gomes has brought a hard-hat mentality to the Red Sox, including in their celebrations.

"We haven't made out Wednesday's lineup, but can't go away from a little bit of momentum that a certain lineup provided for us," Farrell said. "Daniel Nava is certainly not forgotten, nor is any guy."

Nava would have every reason to complain about not starting in the World Series, especially given his production during the regular season. But like his teammates, his only focus is winning the World Series together.

"I don't think it's a bad thing," Nava said of playing less. "If it's a problem, it's a good problem to have. It's like when you're looking at ice cream. What's your favorite ice cream? I've got two flavors, which one do you want? Is it bad I like both these flavors as much?

"Now, we are not ice cream, but it's the same thing, neither of them are bad and you can go out there with Jonny, you can put me in there and either way we've got an opportunity to help the team win."

Chemistry is not a statistic, and sabermetricians can readily dismiss it. Until this season, the Red Sox had missed the playoffs three consecutive years for a variety of reasons. Everything from injuries and a lack of cohesion to fast food and beer have been talked about as factors. This season is different, and it all began in spring training, when Gomes made it a personal goal to help this team change its fortunes.

Having a strong clubhouse culture is important and can translate into success. Just ask Gomes.

"It's hard to put a number on it. It's hard to put a stat on it," he said. But, Gomes added, "I'm a firm believer in it."

As Gomes sat in the dugout during Monday's workout at Fenway Park, he discussed many reasons why the Red Sox have reached the World Series. He spoke of the importance of chemistry, but then realized something.

"We haven't won on chemistry. We've won with good players who have produced," Gomes said. "But it's nice to know what I stand for and what I believe in, other guys on this team believe in it and stand for it, too."

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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