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Cherington on the ball

Everything in his upbringing, training, and experience indicates that Cherington is the right man for the Red Sox GM job

By John Powers
Globe Staff / October 30, 2011

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So, what’s the difference between Ben Cherington and his immediate predecessor at 4 Yawkey Way?

“Well, I can’t play guitar,’’ the Red Sox new general manager acknowledged when he took the job last week. “And I don’t have a gorilla suit - although I don’t think Theo did, either.’’

What the 37-year-old Cherington does have that Theo Epstein did not when Epstein took the job before the 2003 campaign is two World Series rings, higher expectations, and much more on his To-Do List. Before the ball club begins its 100th season at Fenway Park next spring, Cherington will have to hire a manager to replace the departed Terry Francona, make decisions about retaining iconic veterans Jason Varitek, Jonathan Papelbon, David Ortiz, and Tim Wakefield, and deal with the fallout from the biggest late-season collapse in baseball history.

“The level of scrutiny holds us accountable,’’ said Cherington. “As painful as September was, that will be healthy for us in the long run to be held accountable for it because we may not have been held as accountable were we in a different market.’’

Cherington grew up in that market and has worked in the Boston front office for 13 years under two ownerships and three general managers as coordinator of international scouting, director of player development, and senior vice president and assistant GM as well as acting co-GM with Jed Hoyer during Epstein’s 2005 sabbatical.

“Ben’s paid his dues,’’ said J.P. Ricciardi, the former Blue Jays GM who now serves as a Mets special assistant. “He learned the business from the ground up. He’s been in that high-profile environment for a long time so he’s not going to walk in and say, ‘Oh my God, this is what the job entails?’ ’’

Like Epstein and Dan Duquette before him, Cherington was to the Nation born. He grew up in Meriden, N.H., a village that had only a few dozen more people than the Sox farm system. He made his first Fenway pilgrimage at 5, sitting spellbound in the bleachers in the July heat, and saw subsequent games with his grandmother, a Cambridge resident who would drive up to New Hampshire to bring him down.

“I remember distinctly a couple of Sox-Brewers games against Harvey’s Wallbangers when they had all those big power hitters,’’ said Cherington. “I remember a couple of very lopsided losses back when there was just a net above the Monster. I remember Gorman Thomas hitting balls over it.’’

That was when the town team was en route from third to sixth place, and when first place was a fantasy.

When the 1986 club had its one-strike-away tease in the Series against the Mets, Cherington was in disbelief.

“He was just so mad at what happened,’’ recalled his mother, Gretchen. “I was taken away by how upset he was at the loss. He took it very personally.’’

Aiming for front office

Cherington developed into a sanguine and solid pitcher at Amherst, where the baseball tradition predates the Sox by decades.

“He was unflappable on the mound,’’ remembered Bill Thurston, who coached the Lord Jeffs for 44 years. “Ben was one of the few pitchers I had who was comfortable pitching to contact. He had a lot of confidence in himself.’’

But Cherington’s pitching career ended after he tore his labrum before his junior season, and while he came back as an outfielder for his final year, his playing days were over.

“On the one hand, it was a low moment because it was the first time I couldn’t play baseball in my life,’’ he said. “But out of that low moment came an appreciation for how much I loved the game and how much passion I had for it, because being detached from it was so painful.’’

So Cherington served as a volunteer pitching coach with the varsity and sent letters and résumés to every major league club, looking for a front-office job.

“Fortunately, there was already a bit of an Amherst tradition there, so I had something real to point to where it didn’t seem so impossible,’’ he said. “Harry Dalton blazed the trail and Dan came after him, and by that time Neal Huntington was working for the Expos. So you could end up in a front office without playing professionally.’’

Cherington had spent the summer before his senior year as a Sox intern, most of it holding a radar gun.

“For a 20-year-old who loves baseball, to sit behind home plate for the entire summer and chart pitches was like a dream come true,’’ his mother recalled. “It didn’t matter that Ben didn’t sleep or eat or do anything else. He loved that.’’

When the letters and résumés didn’t produce a job, Cherington enrolled in the sports management program at UMass, earned his master’s degree, and kept working as a varsity assistant with Thurston.

“Bill taught me it doesn’t matter how many people are watching or whether you’re getting paid or not,’’ said Cherington. “You can be a professional.’’

His coach, impressed with his pupil’s maturity, diligence, and candor, recommended that Duquette hire him.

“If you give him a chance, you’ll be happy,’’ Thurston told him.

There wasn’t an opening in Boston in 1998, but there was one in Cleveland, which was looking for a part-time video advance scout. Josh Byrnes and Paul DePodesta, who both became GMs, auditioned him.

“I watched an Indians-Yankees game with them on TV and they asked me to break down the Yankee hitters and talk about how I would go about pitching them,’’ Cherington said. “I don’t know if I got any of them right, but I guess I did well enough so that they hired me.

“My job was to prepare a report for the major league staff before every series, based on a combination of watching games, charting them, and collecting data from other resources.

“It was daunting. It wasn’t any major league staff but the staff of a team that expected to win and had been in the World Series the year before. Looking back, I’m amazed still that they gave me that responsibility, but it was certainly a terrific opportunity.’’

Prospecting in Boston

Cherington was back in Boston a year later with a full-time paycheck and a wider range of duties.

“With executives, like players, there are naturals,’’ said Duquette, who made a point of exposing his former intern to an array of front-office tasks. “Guys that understand it and get it and that do things easily and efficiently. Ben was a natural baseball executive.’’

Before long, Cherington was commuting to Latin America, checking out prospects in the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, and Curacao, learning beisbol Spanish on the fly.

“It was a really rewarding experience, an opportunity to learn about a new culture,’’ he said.

A highlight was a dinner with a part-time Dominican scout at a two-room, tin-roofed house in a village outside of San Pedro de Macoris.

“I’ll never forget that night because his wife made this feast,’’ Cherington said. “Fish and vegetables and a bucketful of Presidente on ice. It was a great night, and they couldn’t have been more proud to have me there.’’

What struck Cherington was that he and the scout both were Red Sox employees doing the same job - finding and evaluating the talent that eventually would wear the uniform of Young and Speaker, Cronin and Williams, Yastrzemski and Rice. What sets Cherington apart from his 10 predecessors is his extensive background in scouting and player development.

“There’s no substitute for that,’’ said Ricciardi.

Scouting teenagers, particularly in foreign countries, decidedly is more art than science but Cherington had the requisite qualities.

“Ben’s a great listener,’’ said Thurston, who now does video analysis of pitching prospects for the Pirates. “He takes everything in, he really observes things. He’s not a psychologist but he can really read people.’’

When the Red Sox were sold in 2002, Cherington was one of a handful of front-office veterans who were retained.

“Ben’s very bright, very deliberate and decisive and thorough,’’ said Mike Port, who served as interim GM that year.

Writing the book

When Epstein was hired, Cherington was a natural baseball soulmate and sidekick. They both were what club president Larry Lucchino calls “hybrids,’’ baseball executives who are conversant with statistical analysis while respecting old-school observational scouting.

Epstein and Cherington spent considerable time pondering what the farm system should look like and came away with “The Red Sox Way,’’ a comprehensive manual covering everything from scouting to development to playing in the middle of a pennant race before 35,000 of the frenetic faithful.

Beyond the fundamental tools and the “makeup’’ intangibles, the front office wanted prospects with passion.

“If you watch a player over a period of time, no matter what level they’re at, you get a feeling for how much the game means to them,’’ said Cherington. “People can come from all sorts of backgrounds but if the game means something to them, more often than not when they hit that first period of adversity they’ll push through it. The game needs to matter.’’

The game mattered enormously to Epstein and Cherington, who were part of a nightly beer-fueled spring training symposium before the 2004 season at the eight-bedroom house they rented at Cape Coral where baseball was the sole subject. Everyone from Francona, who’d just signed on as skipper, and stats guru Bill James came by to hang out with the passionate post-grads who peopled the front office.

“There definitely were a lot of nights of argument that spring,’’ recalled Cherington. “That’s something that Theo encouraged all the time. He’d walk in your office and challenge you on something and he’d usually do it in a fun way and that was good for everyone.

“Sometimes it was in a not-so-fun way, but you knew that afterward he still wanted you here. It wasn’t personal.’’

Epstein made it clear that he thought Cherington should be his successor and said last week that he wouldn’t have left for Chicago otherwise.

This job, especially at this time, requires someone who knows the system, the people, the culture, and the history and who can endure the year-round hot seat. Naming Cherington was a major announcement, said Lucchino, but not a major surprise.

His attributes were obvious to his employers and Lucchino ticked them off at last Tuesday’s press conference: “his trademark diligence and competitiveness, his remarkable work ethic, his commitment to excellence and to getting the job done well, his balance and fairness, his humility and selflessness.’’

Better still, Cherington has served an unprecedented on-site apprenticeship.

“It’s not a matter of someone else coming in and getting up to speed,’’ said Port.

The man goes back to the days of Jimy Williams. He knows the unrelenting spotlight that once prompted his predecessor to adopt the King Kong escape route.

“My eyes are open to that and I know that’s part of what comes with this job,’’ Cherington acknowledged. “I’m not naive.’’

Duquette, who received belated credit for laying much of the foundation for the curse-ending championship, can empathize.

“Ben will get a lot of help,’’ he said wryly. “There are a lot of assistant general managers he can depend on for their opinion. That’s just the nature of this market. They follow it from dusk to dawn.’’

That’s what Ricciardi, a Worcester native, used to warn his Toronto players about before their visits to the Fens: “Half of the people yelling at you I probably went to high school with.’’

Restoration project

If anything, the job has only become more pressurized during the last decade as sports talk radio and the blogosphere make for a daily dissection of every decision.

“These jobs are not fun,’’ said Ricciardi. “There’s not a lot of guys who enjoy it. It’s become that kind of job because of the intense scrutiny from everybody. It’s just like the society is. Instant gratification, has-to-happen-now.’’

Red Sox Nation, which celebrated a renaissance seven years ago, now demands a restoration. What more suitable overseer than the man who was in charge of developing the Ellsburys and Pedroias and Papelbons and Lesters, who had a hand in acquiring the Gonzalezes and Crawfords and Lackeys and who co-wrote the cultural manual that evidently was misplaced last month.

“It’s a lot easier taking over at a place than it is going to a place,’’ observed Ricciardi. “Ben’s not coming in there trying to change a philosophy. Theo going to Chicago, he has to incorporate a philosophy and get people on board.’’

These are not his grandmother’s Red Sox, but that’s where what Cherington calls the “incredibly fortunate path’’ that led to his fantasy job began on a hot summer day in the bleachers in 1979.

“There’s a picture of him at that game,’’ his mother said. “All the other kids are running around and not paying any attention and Ben is sitting there riveted to the game. That’s the beginning of how he got here.’’

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.

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