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Team in need of toughness

By Nick Cafardo
Globe Staff / December 8, 2011
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DALLAS - Indians manager Manny Acta recalls being in Boston when he witnessed a scene that illustrated the accountability Red Sox players had for one another.

David Ortiz was taking infield practice when Tim Wakefield came over to him and said, “David, you still have the earrings on.’’ Ortiz promptly took them off.

Unfortunately, though, nobody went up to Josh Beckett or Jon Lester or John Lackey to say, “Uh, it’s the fifth inning, you shouldn’t be having a cold one.’’

As general manager Ben Cherington moves forward with player acquisition, he must, more than ever, factor in the intangible aspects that make a team a team. He must weigh toughness, meaning he needs players who won’t miss significant time if they have a little soreness. He needs players who won’t openly break rules. He needs to improve team chemistry.

The Sox need players who monitor themselves and their teammates - when they feel they’re out of line. That seemed to be missing last year. There were no real leaders who would kick teammates in the pants.

It wasn’t lost on a guy such as Kevin Youkilis, who saw things that bothered him and who cared enough to be unhappy about them.

Acta, one of the best motivators among managers in the game, said, “Ultimately, it comes down to the manager and the coaches. The leadership has to come from us. But if you can have two or three guys in the clubhouse who put out the fires, that means a lot, because players respond to their peers.

“If their peers are telling them, ‘You’re messing up, stop it,’ then that sometimes means more and is more effective than if the manager or the coaches are saying it.

“Every team needs those guys.’’

Whether the Red Sox need it less now that Bobby Valentine is the manager remains to be seen.

Valentine is a strong personality, and whether players like him or hate him doesn’t matter as long as they perform. He hopes the players have enough personal pride and professionalism that they can police themselves, and while Terry Francona had that quite often during his tenure, the players were out of control by the end.

Francona pointed out that veteran players who were with him for so long seemed to jump off.

Valentine said yesterday he probably will not appoint a captain if Jason Varitek is not back with the team.

“If he’s not back, I doubt that,’’ Valentine said. “Maybe. But I don’t know. I haven’t given that a consideration, and it hasn’t been a priority for me.’’

Asked if he believed in liaisons between the manager and the players, he said, “I believe in a lot of liaisons. And to try to designate it to one person - that’s his job, to do something that is really everyone’s job to do - I think is sometimes unfair to that person.

“I’d like to have communication lines with a lot of the guys, you know?’’

There’s a certain toughness the Sox have lost. Too many players took too long to recover from injuries. Too many players wouldn’t play unless they were 100 percent.

Part of the problem is industry-wide, because agents are advising their players that if they’re not 100 percent, their stats will suffer and therefore their earning power will be reduced.

“You have to set a mind-set as the manager that we need to have you playing,’’ said Mariners manager Eric Wedge. “You can’t tell a player that he needs to go out and play when he’s hurt, but if the mentality is, ‘Yeah I’m hurt, but I want to help my team,’ that’s what we’re all striving for.’’

There’s a reason the Sox didn’t want to re-sign Erik Bedard.

Cherington offered the politically correct answer: “We enjoyed our time with Erik, good guy and talented guy, but it didn’t go the way he wanted or the way we wanted.’’

But it was obvious the Sox were frustrated by Bedard’s unwillingness to pitch when he didn’t feel 100 percent. At the most crucial time during September, Bedard wasn’t able to go.

They need more guys like Marco Scutaro, who plays hurt. Look at the example Josh Hamilton sets for the Rangers. He played in one World Series with broken ribs and another with an abdominal injury. Was Hamilton 100 percent? Of course not, but he played and got tough hits.

The Sox have a chance to obtain players who can energize their team. Ryan Kalish seemed to be on the verge of doing that in 2010, but then he missed most of 2011 with injuries.

With Ortiz in the fold, it appears the Sox will downscale their sights for right field a tad. Where it might have been Michael Cuddyer or the oft-injured Carlos Beltran, maybe now it’s Cody Ross or Ryan Ludwick.

They are high-energy guys who bring spark and life to teams. Maybe they won’t be vocal leaders, but they play tough.

There is no Johnny Damon or Kevin Millar to bring the clubhouse together. Varitek always has been a leader by example, but what Damon in particular did for the Sox was off the charts. He was instrumental in the success of the Red Sox, the Yankees, and then the Rays last season.

What the Sox need is for some of the big-name stars to step up.

Carl Crawford was that guy in Tampa Bay, but he was so awful his first season here that his leadership never emerged. Adrian Gonzalez always has been a quiet guy, and he needs to be more vocal. Jacoby Ellsbury seems too aloof for a leadership role. A guy like Jarrod Saltalamacchia could emerge as he establishes himself.

Dustin Pedroia is certainly someone who could set a tone and lead vocally. He very well could emerge as the captain. Ortiz has the respect of his teammates and the power and cachet to make things right.

There is hope that Lester - even though he was a part of last year’s shenanigans - can show more accountability and make others accountable, because he has a presence to him.

This is no small topic for this team. This is a big issue, given the demise in September. Nobody could stop it. Nobody. And that’s frightening.

Which is why Valentine was the right guy at the right time.

Now it’s the players’ turn.

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.

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