As the stage ceremony broke down, there were still nearly 35,000 people standing in Fenway Park, singing “Three Little Birds,” “Dirty Water” and the “Oh-Oh-Oh” of Shipping Off to Boston, chanting “Papi, Papi” and “This is Our City” and “Boston Strong.”
It had been special in 2004, because it had been 86 years, and it was special in 2007, but this was unique, and not just because it had been 95 years since the Red Sox had clinched a World Series in this curious park carved out of the jagged, angled streets of Boston. This was unique because in many ways it was organic. They do not flash signs begging for “Noise” or “Louder” in Fenway, because in times like these, it is always loud. How Bob Marley became the anthem of a world champion was just something that happened, and by the World Series they could stop the music and the entire stadium would stand and sing, a capella, “everything’s gonna be alright.” There were women and kids wearing beards singing along, none of it scripted by marketers, all a natural outgrowth of the relationship that grew between fans and players in a year in which the city’s most unique holiday event was tragically bombed and a bunch of players of whom, in April, one Boston Globe columnist promised would produce years of last place finishes.
By five p.m. Wednesday, two box seats along the first base line had sold for $24,000, and the average ticket was selling in the agencies for between one and two grand. The bleachers I sat in as a teenager for 50 cents were going for $500. “What’s happened is that the season ticket holders aren’t selling their seats,” said Sam Kennedy, the team’s brilliant C.O.O. “This didn’t happen in 2004 or 2007. But somehow this is different. Because all the season ticket holders want to be here to see us win, it’s jacked the prices through the roof. There is a relationship here between city and a team unlike any we’ve experienced here.”
What happened on April 15 and the ensuing days was not 9/11 or Katrina or Sandy, but it was like an attack on a backyard family Easter egg hunt, and for that week there was a traumatic sense of invasion, horror, fear, anger. The night after the bombings, the Red Sox flew to Cleveland, where at a bonding dinner attended by nearly the entire team, Will Middlebrooks unveiled the design and notion for “B Strong,” the Boston Strong symbol that one sees hundreds of times a day. Will Middlebrooks, with not even a year in the big leagues, a kid from Texas, morphed himself into the old town’s culture. When the bombings and the shootings finally ended late Friday and the police, hospital workers, injured and first responders were honored at a Saturday ceremony, David Ortiz uttered his famous “This is our (—) city and no one is going to dictate to us…” that rang through New England like Ethan Allen at Fort Ticonderoga.
And when Ben Cherington and John Farrell each stepped down off the podium and were asked about their accomplishments, each immediately mentioned the Cardinals. “They’ve been doing this for a long time,” said Cherington. “They’re a great team, and a great organization,” said Farrell. In playing one another in the World Series for the fourth time since World War II, the two best baseball cities in America, the two teams that have won five of the last ten World Series, paid one another their respect. Hey, in 2004, the people of St. Louis and the Cardinals of Bill DeWitt opened the gates in the eighth inning of the clinching game to allow nearly 2,000 Red Sox fans into the old Busch Stadium so they could see the Red Sox end their 86 year drought.
On the field, Jake Peavy, who loves his game, had tears in his eyes. Shane Victorino ran around the outfield track. John Lackey, who became the seventh pitcher ever to start and win two World Series clinching games, choked with emotion, and Koji Uehara, who for his career allowed the fewest baserunners per innings and highest strikeout-walk ratio of any pitcher—ever, danced and ran around hugging teammates.
“It’s not just that this team went from worst to first,” said Jonny Gomes. “It’s who we did it with, who we shared the long grind to standing here.”
Pedroia never complained about the right thumb he tore the first week of the season and played through; surgery now soon to come. Jacoby Ellsbury never mentioned the badly swollen left hand he played with in The Series. Victorino couldn’t even switch-hit. Clay Buchholz tried to fight through shoulder and neck issues. Napoli had a bad foot.
Fourteen months earlier, talk show shouters and some columnists were railing about owner John Henry complaining that his ownership of Liverpool was a drain on the Red Sox, that there was no focus. By then, Henry realized that the Bobby Valentine celebrity hiring was a complete and utter disaster; he had no interaction with players, his undermining of the organization had dispirited everyone. Henry made it clear he would be more active, and the business model that evolved changed the entire organizational culture.
First came the Aug. 25 divine intervention of the new Dodger ownership, which, eager to make a splash, got the Red Sox out of debt to a couple of mercenaries and a veteran pitcher whose arm was shot, no matter how hard he tried. The idea was to get out from $262M worth of contracts, add a couple of young power arms from the Los Angeles system and use the cash to rebuild the roster.
Then came the willingness to try to get Farrell out of Toronto, and when they got him, Henry realized how Cherington wanted the business run. Essentially, at the top of Henry’s business was a triumvirate—Cherington, Mike Hazen and Farrell, all of whom had worked together, all of whom respected one another, all of whom did not have the egos that required constant credit, all of whom fit the criteria for leadership—authenticity, trust, intelligence.
Henry allowed them to go spend the money on the best of coaches, starting with Brian Butterfield, Juan Nieves and Torey Lovullo. The owner, as he did with Theo Epstein when there was no hard draft or international cap, allowed the freedom to try to develop their own talent rather than any more mercenary disasters, and gave them the wherewithal to spend what they felt they needed on development.
They signed one free agent that turned out to be a star—Uehara, especially considering that Andrew Miller, Joel Hanrahan, Andrew Bailey and Daniel Bard got hurt. In some eyes, they overpaid on the AAV end for Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Jonny Gomes, David Ross, Stephen Drew and Mike Napoli, but they avoided longterm commitments.
Then Henry went along with a Cherington priority—sign Pedroia longterm and make him the face of what Ben wanted this team to be-and got the deal done. On a lesser note, he allowed his baseball people to pick up John McDonald for the last month, first to mentor Bogaerts, second to allow a New Englander who dearly loves putting on the uniform the opportunity to ride the post-season waves, and Wednesday night John McDonald looked like the happiest man in uniform.
With hitting coaches Greg Colbrunn and Victor Rodriguez, they re-established the grinding, on base hitting culture and saw more than 700 more pitches than the next team. Butterfield tirelessly drilled the defenders. They plotted shifts like Joe Maddon.
Baserunning became an obsession. Not only did they steal 123 bases, but their 87% success rate is the second best (to the 2007 Phillies) of any team since caught stealing entered box scored 70 years ago. Their scouting and video staffs broke down how outfielders fielded balls to their rights and their lefts and how they threw from each position. They wanted to know how each middle infielder liked to come across the bag on double plays and baserunners tried to aggressively go after them, cleanly; ask Ben Zobrist in the ALDS, or Peter Kozma in Game One of the World Series.
Nieves and assistant pitching coach Dana LeVangie carefully monitored bullpen pitch counts, and kept Uehara to two times all season when he got up and did not enter a game.
Six outs from the Game Six victory, Farrell had two players in key positions that three months earlier were playing for the Portland Sea Dogs—Brandon Workman pitching, Xander Bogaerts playing third. “That’s what the Cardinals always do,” said Farrell. “That’s one of many reasons why they are so great an organization and team.”
What they built in a short time is a culture. They built exceptional depth to withstand the season. “They assembled a team with no gaping holes,” says one GM, “and in every series had the capacity to expose the other teams’ holes.”
It was close to 2 a.m. when I was walking down Brookline Ave. towards Leverett Pond and my home, and a car stuffed with college kids, two with fake beards, pulled alongside, rolled down the windows and, a capella, sang “every little thing’s gonna be alright.” It was their night and the players night and a night and season that belongs to people like advance scout Steve Langone as well as the injured Andrew Miller and a guy on rehab in California like Ryan Kalish and every one of their scouts and minor league employees who were brought in and honored in Game One.
Out of the ashes of Sept., 2011 and the entire 2012 season rose an adjusted business model, a re-energized culture that made the notion of years of last place finishes foolery, and bonded the people who live and die with the Olde Towne Team with the people who played on through the greatest thing a player can do, namely fight for the right to be at the bottom of the pile.