With Ben Cherington out west with his team, it seems like an appropriate time to acknowledge the Red Sox general manager who, to this point, has blended quietly into the background of an historic season in the making.
The last time the GM visited Seattle was September of 2012. Boston had dropped 14 of 19 games to fall to 11 games under .500 for the first time since July 1997, and it was widely thought he was there to fire embattled manager Bobby Valentine. The team’s principal owner, John Henry, was also in attendance on what both claimed to be a previously planned trip. The two called it a “fact-finding mission.”
The fact was they stunk and had a lot of work to do.
Valentine somehow survived the trip and his team went on to finish a miserable 69-93 to mark the franchise’s worst record since a 100-loss campaign in 1965. Those two World Series championships in the previous decade couldn’t have been farther from our minds.
Ten months later, the Red Sox are in first-place. Not simply in their division. Try the entire American League. In fact, at 55-37, the scrappy overachievers rank second in the majors behind the St. Louis Cardinals by mere percentage points and pace all of baseball in wins.
You didn’t see this coming. Nobody saw this coming. The Sox were projected to win 85 games at most. It helps that the AL East appears more watered down these days than it has in years past but the numbers don’t lie: every team sits above the .500 mark with the exception of the Blue Jays, who are 43-46. No other division boasts that kind of parity.
So, how did it happen? That’s where we owe a tip of the cap to Cherington.
In what was considered by many to be a make-or-break year for the GM, despite it only being his second on the job, he first had to take out the trash. Fortunately, Magic Johnson and the Dodgers pulled up to Lansdowne Street last August with a dump truck full of money and seating for four. At the time, Cherington freed up a quarter-billion dollars in payroll and sagely declared, “We are not who we want to be.”
Fast-forward to spring training – with the likes of veteran contributors and role players Ryan Dempster, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and David Ross in tow – Cherington built on that thought. It was clear he wasn’t interested in having a similar conversation a year later.
“We’re trying to put 2012 behind us and try to move forward and talk about something new – which we’ve been trying to do all winter,” said a rejuvenated Cherington with perhaps some lingering exhaustion. “I’ve said it before, it’s a collective failure, but I take more responsibility than anyone for it. Last year, we were a long way from living up to what we should be on the field and off the field. It’s up to us to make the Red Sox what they should be again.”
The notion of Cherington taking more responsibility than anyone is laughable. The fiery, self-absorbed manager who steered the ship straight into the rocks last season wasn’t his first choice, if he had a say at all. A clubhouse filled with entitled and misguided whiners – some of whom remain but have found their happy places under new leadership – was almost entirely inherited by the rookie GM.
Virtually every move Cherington has made since achieving some autonomy within the organization has panned out in one form or another, and it started with the managerial hire he wanted to make a year earlier in John Farrell.
The team’s former pitching coach of five seasons was already beloved by many of Fenway’s unhappy inhabitants, and he brought a new direction, hope and confidence to a squad that had lost its way. Despite some skepticism surrounding the hire given the skipper’s reported troubles running a clubhouse in Toronto, he’s proven to be a firm boss whose players are motivated by and for whom they look forward to taking the field.
Together, Cherington and Farrell have built a club that’s fun to watch, filled with character, appears to be overflowing with chemistry (cliché as that may be when a team is winning), and any and all distractions or controversies that have popped up have remained in-house. A novel thought after watching the preceding manager publicly stir up issues with at least a handful of players by the end of his first month.
Entering the season, even with the right man in charge, a proper attitude in place, and a few former stars hanging around the front office, the idea was simply to be competitive while giving the organization’s future stars time to develop in the minors. It wasn’t a Celtics-like rebuild but, make no mistake, it was a “bridge year,” regardless of how management wanted to term it.
The Red Sox didn’t target prized free agents like Josh Hamilton or Zack Greinke; they added short-term solutions to provide long-term flexibility.
Staying the course has worked, even when it hasn't.
- Many of us mocked the team for handing a 37-year-old David Ortiz and his bum Achilles a two-year contract after he appeared in only 90 games last season. We really blasted the club when he couldn’t go for a jog in spring training and it looked like he’d miss at least a month of the regular season. As it turns out, he was out only 15 games and has since crushed the ball. The All-Star’s hitting .318 with a 1.003 OPS and team-highs of 17 home runs and 61 RBI.
- Would the offense be good enough? The Sox pace the majors with 462 runs. Sure, Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Napoli have all performed well, but the clutch or season-long performances of others have stolen the show. It was a question, for instance, how much time Daniel Nava would see in the field. The answer, so far, is 81 games. At the plate, he’s been pulled from the scrap heap to hit a shocking .296 with an. 827 OPS, 10 home runs and 51 RBI, which trails only Ortiz and Napoli. Utility outfielder Mike Carp’s been a surprising contributor with a .304 average and 25 RBI in 49 games. Gomes may not have the most attractive stats on the surface, but the fun-loving veteran is hitting .357 as a pinch-hitter with three long-balls in those pressure situations. For everyone who criticizes Stephen Drew, at least acknowledge that he’s batting .286 with a .629 slugging percentage and 18 RBI with two outs and runners in scoring position.
- Will Middlebrooks was supposed to build on his stellar rookie season, but instead he was shipped to the minors because he couldn’t hit his weight. So, of course, Jose Iglesias and his career .135 average has hit .388 in his absence. We all saw that coming. AL Rookie of the year, anyone?
- As good as Clay Buchholz has been when healthy (9-0, 1.71 ERA in 12 starts), he can’t stay on the field. Jon Lester, terrific to start the season at 6-0 with a 2.75 ERA, has been miserable since at 2-5 with a 6.49 ERA. Fortunately, a thinner, happier, and flame-throwing John Lackey – who was projected to be the team’s fourth or fifth starter – has recovered from Tommy John surgery and a subsequent biceps strain in April to be arguably the team’s best pitcher. He’s 6-6 with a 2.80 ERA and the best WHIP (walks plus hits per inning) of his career at 1.146. Dempster and Felix Doubront have found success as well and the rotation that ranked 27th in baseball in 2012 with a 5.19 ERA now has a new look and sits ninth in the game with a 3.73 ERA.
- New closer Joel Hanrahan suffered multiple injuries early this year, including a hamstring strain and a right flexor muscle strain, which ended his season. Secondary closer Andrew Bailey has struggled with both his health and productivity as well, but a bullpen led by the high-fiving, All-Star hopeful Koji Uehara has still managed a 4.30 ERA to rank in the top-third in baseball. Anyone seen Daniel Bard?
We were told before the 2013 season started that, as it pertained to the Red Sox, “What’s broken can be fixed.” The organization promised “162 chances to restore the faith.” We all continued to mock.
Months later, the Sox are on pace for a 93-69 finish – the precise reversal of last year’s failures – and their first playoff spot since 2009. The same team that was supposed to finish fourth or fifth in the division.
The shame of it all? With each clutch hit, big catch, and walk-off win, we remain fixated on the three other teams that aren’t even playing right now. Ben Cherington and his Red Sox deserve better.
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Adam Kaufman is a writer and broadcaster who can also be heard regularly on 98.5 The Sports Hub, WBZ NewsRadio 1030, the national CBS Sports Radio Network, and broadcasting Boston College hockey games. The Massachusetts native is a Syracuse grad and a pop culture fanatic who offers a unique and entertaining look at your favorite Boston sports teams. Please don't hold his love for Jean-Claude Van Damme movies against him.
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