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Dan Shaughnessy

No sideshows as Red Sox go to work

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By Dan Shaughnessy
Globe Columnist / April 6, 2009
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Six months ago they came within one game of making it to the World Series. They have qualified for the postseason in five of the last six seasons, something they could not do even in the glory days of Babe Ruth.

The Boston Red Sox have spawned a Nation with satellite states around the globe. Franchise garb is worn by most school teachers in New England and the ball club has sold out 468 consecutive home games. The Sox today open their 109th season against Tampa at Fenway Park, weather permitting, and another postseason run is expected.

But wouldn't you agree that they've become just a tad . . . bland? Despite all the success and popularity, hasn't some of the color faded from these carmine hose?

Red Sox television ratings were down 20 percent last year. The pregame show ratings fell by a full one-third. This year's spring training was remarkable for its tranquility. No holdouts, no latecomers, no intramural dustups around the batting cage. No long-hair leaping gnomes. It was all about baseball.

Once a roster peppered with divas, blogboys, and Jesus action figures, the Red Sox of 2009 are downright button-down. No more gypsies, tramps, and thieves. With few exceptions (hello, Jonathan Papelbon), members of the local nine are on time and in line. Don't expect anyone in this group to someday fess up about taking shots of Jack Daniels before the big games.

"I think we all want to have that business atmosphere," says Tim Wakefield, who is entering his 15th season with the Sox and who has seen it all. "I don't think we have that personality we used to have. I'm not saying it was bad - that was a lot of fun. It's just different."

Think about it: Would any of you recognize left fielder Jason Bay if he knocked on your door selling candy bars for a school band trip?

Bay doesn't blog, doesn't relieve himself inside the Green Monster, and has not asked to be traded. All he does is play baseball the way baseball is supposed to be played. Which is why he's coveted by Theo Epstein, the general manager/master of the universe who has put his flatline stamp on Boston's once-chaotic clubhouse.

"I think when you have 25 guys working hard, playing selflessly with a common goal, it's anything but boring," says the franchise architect. "I find it meaningful and invigorating when that happens."

Culminating with the jettisoning of Manny Ramírez last summer, the Sox' roster has undergone a radical change since cartoon characters ruled the clubhouse in the magical summer of 2004.

It's not accidental.

"I think the 'Idiot' culture can only exist for so long before it starts to create its own issues," admits Epstein. "We've shifted to players who play hard, care about each other, and focus about winning above everything else in a selfless manner. The more players you have like that, the more cohesive team you're going to have.

"We don't want to be on TV for non-baseball reasons. We don't set out to do that, but that's what happens when you bring in players who are focused on winning. They tend not to surround themselves with too many outside influences or distractions."

The Red Sox are good. They have a pitching staff that is the envy of baseball. Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Daisuke Matsuzaka all are capable of 20 wins and Boston's No. 5 starter (Brad Penny) started an All-Star Game three years ago. The long relief is deep and Papelbon is the best closer in the game. Hall of Fame-bound John Smoltz will be ready in June and there's more help down on the farm. No-hit wonderboy Clay Buchholz had a terrific spring but couldn't make the team.

"You never feel better about your pitching staff than the day before the season starts," says Epstein. "We have a lot of depth. I also think we have a chance to have a lot of elite performers on our staff. On paper we have a chance to have the best staff in baseball."

Hitting won't be a problem. The Sox were second in the league in runs last year. Dustin Pedroia is the reigning Most Valuable Player, Kevin Youkilis has emerged as a solid cleanup hitter, and Bay is a 30-home run guy. Mike Lowell and David Ortiz look ready to return from injuries. The Sox wear out opposing pitchers. They work deep into counts and they get on base.

No Manny? No problem, says Theo.

"Manny helps any lineup, but there are multiple ways to score runs," says Epstein. "You don't generally need an elite, premier cleanup hitter driving in all your runs. Look at the great Yankee teams of 10-15 years ago; those teams often didn't have a 30-home run hitter. Our success offensively has been a lineup full of tough outs, a lineup full of guys who get on base, more so than any one single power threat. Last year we scored more runs per game in the last two months without Manny than we had in the previous four months with Manny. By a healthy margin."

The American League East is the best division in baseball. The Yankees, Rays, and Sox all are capable of 95 or more wins. The Yanks re-loaded over the winter, swiping Mark Teixeira from under the noses of the Sox and committing almost a half billion dollars to new players. The Rays added Pat Burrell to a team that went to the World Series last year. Meanwhile, Theo tweaked. He shopped for bargains.

"I really liked the winter that we had primarily because it fits the model that we've been using to try to build an organization that can sustain success," says the GM, now 35, entering his seventh season as the Sox boss. "We didn't have a ton of holes to fill this winter. And we have a lot of young players that we can plug in, both in the pitching staff and the lineup. It keeps the operation going. I think the winter really reflected organizational ideals that have served us well."

Which brings us back to the notion that the Sox are a little less edgy than they've been. More Paul McCartney, less John Lennon.

"When we first got here I thought there was almost a culture of fear and paralysis in the clubhouse," says Epstein, who joined the club in 2002. "There was so much dysfunction and distrust around that it was dehumanizing to a certain extent.

"The first thing we wanted to do was get people to relax and have fun again and to build a fraternity of sorts in the clubhouse. Players like Kevin Millar and David Ortiz were brought in and really contributed to that. We were loose. We were the 'Idiots', and that was in part the antidote to the dysfunctional culture of fear and paralysis that existed previously."

Now the Sox are the model of professionalism. No hot dogs. No mustard. Just ballpark Franks.

"It's fun to watch," says Epstein. "I don't find Dustin Pedroia boring, I don't find Jonathan Papelbon boring. These guys, day in and day out, battle to win 95 games in the toughest division in baseball. They're trying to win a third World Series in six years. I find that really exciting. And I think most baseball fans in Boston feel the same way. I think people who follow baseball like a soap opera might not appreciate the team quite as much. But in the end I think the reason people like baseball is just the game itself and to watch the team's play."

The Red Sox are all about baseball now. Only baseball. What a concept.

Dan Shaughnessy is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com.

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