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Thursday, October 31, 2013
Red Sox cap total turnaround

By Jackie MacMullan
ESPNBoston.com

BOSTON -- They each had their own reasons for wanting -- no, needing -- to transform themselves into champions.

Nobody likes to be demonized, to be doubted or to be dumped.

And yet, the Red Sox clubhouse was littered with players who had experienced some (or all) of those things.

Mike Napoli
The Red Sox came together as a team from the start of spring training to the time they celebrated a world championship.

"People were motivated to rewrite their own story," manager John Farrell confirmed. "There was a tremendous amount of embarrassment last year."

As Boston general manager Ben Cherington assembled his 2013 roster, he bypassed the superstars and carefully selected a group of veteran baseball players who had something to prove. Some key guys were already here, while others lugged their baggage from other teams, each of them sharing an unspoken yet determined resolve to alter their narrative.

They joined a manager, John Farrell, whose brief and rocky tenure as the Toronto Blue Jays skipper left him roundly criticized by a future Hall of Famer (Omar Vizquel).

Their paychecks were signed by an ownership group that had once had its finger on the pulse of Red Sox Nation but had lost touch with the very qualities that had endeared the team to its fan base in the first place. Their suddenly skeptical customers wondered aloud why the Red Sox were manufacturing bogus sellouts and devoting so much time to a "football" team overseas. 

Boston's pitchers disintegrated into a punch line -- have some more chicken and beer! -- a symbol of arrogance and excess. They came to symbolize everything that was wrong with the entitled ballclub.

"There were some times here that haven't been a whole lot of fun," John Lackey said in what should qualify as the understatement of the baseball season.

That is no longer true. The Red Sox, losers of 93 games last season, are world champions. They crushed the St. Louis Cardinals 6-1 in Game 6 on Wednesday night, locking up their third championship in the past 10 years and their first World Series clincher at Fenway Park since 1918.

Boston clinched its title because Lackey, a man who was booed off the mound repeatedly just two short seasons ago, battled his way through 6 2/3 rugged innings, limiting the Cardinals to just one run while his teammates pummeled previously untouchable rookie Michael Wacha.

When Lackey finally was lifted after a walk to Matt Holliday in the seventh inning, he gazed at the sea of red and blue in the stands, squinted, then appeared mildly stunned as they chanted his name over and over.

Lackey. Lackey. Lackey.

The righty tipped his Red Sox cap, a gesture of forgiveness, his journey from pariah to clutch postseason performer complete.

"I got chills watching it," Farrell admitted. "It's almost fitting he is the guy on the mound tonight to close this out. Lackey mirrors the remake of this team and this organization."

It was fitting also that the biggest hit of the night was delivered by Shane Victorino, a former World Series hero with the Phillies who had dreamed of finishing his career in Philadelphia. Instead, Victorino was jettisoned last summer to the Los Angeles Dodgers, where the dispirited "Flyin' Hawaiian" lapsed into the worst slump of his career.

Shane Victorino
Shane Victorino showed his flair for the dramatic with a bases-loaded double in the third that sent the Sox on their way.

Victorino told me in June that his goal was to inject the Red Sox clubhouse with passion and emotion.

"I told the guys, 'If you want them to love you here, then we've got to win it all,'" he said.

Wednesday night, after missing the previous two games with back tightness, he showed how that was done.

When he strode to the plate in the third inning with the bases full and two outs, Victorino was 0-for-10 with a walk in the series against the stout Cardinals pitching.

But, just as he did in the previous series, Victorino delivered in the clutch, lofting a double high off the Wall that was a few feet from becoming another grand slam, just like the one he unloaded on the Tigers in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

"He's got a little flair for the dramatic," Farrell deadpanned.

Three runs came across as Victorino pounded his chest and screamed toward his dugout. Don't worry ... 'bout a thing.

From then on, every little thing was all right.

A Cardinals lineup that struggled throughout the series was unable to inflict damage on Lackey in spite of gathering nine hits against him.

The Red Sox added three more runs in the fourth, with RBIs from Mike Napoli, Victorino and -- wait for it -- the much maligned Stephen Drew, who drilled a Wacha fastball into the Red Sox bullpen for a home run.

Stephen Drew was 1-for-16 before that, his lone hit a pop-up that fell between Adam Wainwright and Gold Glove catcher Yadier Molina in Game 1.

It was impossible to imagine that this night would belong to anyone but the Red Sox once "Dirt" hit a dinger.

Brandon Workman, the young pitcher who began his season in Double A, pitched a clean eighth, and Koji Uehara, the third choice of his manager to be the closer, knocked them down in order in the ninth, just as he's done all season.

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That led to fireworks and hugs and tears and bottle after bottle of champagne. The game ball was secured by catcher David Ross, whose own back story included the recovery from two career-threatening concussions.

Asked where the game-winning World Series ball was, Ross replied, "It's in my back pocket. Whoever wants it can have it. I don't care. I have a world championship in my pocket. That's all I care about."

When Ross was examining his options as a free agent last winter, he picked Boston, he explained, because he knew there were some veterans who had "some pretty big chips on their shoulders, so I figured they'd be pretty motivated." He wanted to play in a place where the pitching staff was beefy and the general manager would pull the trigger on a big deal to put the team over the top.

He was surprised how quickly the players jelled, how few flare-ups there were in the clubhouse, how seamlessly they all connected with each other and Farrell.

"It works because we just know each other's background," Ross said. "We know what people have been through and everyone has had to overcome. Everyone has a different story, but we all worked together for the same ending."

As the melody "Redemption Song" wafted through the park, the manager talked of the "unique circumstances" that brought him back to Boston. Napoli and Victorino spoke of their instant connection with this city, while pitchers Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz and Lackey celebrated together, knowing they will no longer be chided about fried food and suds.

Boston has fallen in love again with its baseball team, a team that, in face of a unfathomable tragedy on Marathon Day, reached out to the community and did its small part to try to start the healing.

April seems so long ago and far away that it's easy to forget that World Series MVP David Ortiz started the season on the sidelines, hampered by a persistent heel injury that left his detractors wondering aloud if he was through, and skewering the Red Sox for overpaying for the 37-year-old slugger.

Ortiz batted .688 in the series (11-for-16) and was so feared by the St. Louis pitching staff he drew three intentional walks Wednesday night. Big Papi's career World Series average is .455 (20-for-44), the best average by any player with at least 50 plate appearances.

The face of the Red Sox franchise has now won three World Series in Boston, but, he said Wednesday night, this group that started with a win at Yankee Stadium and never looked back, that never lost more than three games in a row, that abandoned their razors as a show of solidarity, might just be his favorite.

"We probably don't have the talent that we had in '04 or '07," Ortiz said, "but we have guys that are capable to stay focused and do the little things. And when you win with a ballclub like that, that's special."

When you win with a ballclub like that, you are champions.

The past is magically erased.

The here and now, with fireworks and champagne and a shiny, spiked trophy, is all that anyone remembers.