What a Difference a Year Makes

This time last year, the Boston Red Sox were pathetic. The was absolutely nothing to like about the team. From their clown manager to their entitled, funeral-skipping players to their out-of-touch owners, the BoSox were failing in every aspect of the game. It seemed that we, as Red Sox fans, had been spoiled by winning the World Series in 2004, and we got cocky after winning so soon after in 2007. This week, the nightmare of 2012 feels a million miles away as the Sox clinched their first playoff berth since 2009 and their first American League East Division title since 2007. With just a few days left in the regular season, they are fighting for the best record in the American League. On top of that, the team is genuinely likable for the first time in years. These Red Sox get it. It’s not about punching the clock and collecting paychecks for these guys. This is a baseball team, and not just a collection of baseball players wearing the same uniform.

A lot of factors can be credited for the change in culture at Fenway, but who has made the biggest contributions to the 2013 turnaround?

John Farrell and Ben Cherington.

Ben Cherington. After a first miserable season as the Red Sox general manager under his belt, Cherington had more power to make the team his own. He got to choose his own manager in Farrell this time around, and the two have proven to be an effective team. Building this team really started when Cherington dealt the expensive contracts of Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, and Carl Crawford (as well as the more affordable contract of Nick Punto) to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Getting rid of those overpaid malcontents was just the restart the franchise needed. After that, Cherington went out and signed established veterans of high character to short term deals, which put the team in contention in the short term and gave the young players in the system positive role models to emulate.

John Farrell. It’s refreshing to see a manager who isn’t a complete buffoon like Bobby Valentine was. Valentine was by far the most famous candidate for the Red Sox skipper position after the team decided to part ways with Terry Francona, but he hadn’t managed a big league game in a decade, had gotten comfortable in front of the cameras at ESPN, and was overrated even when his teams were winning. In 2012, it was clear that the game had passed him by, and the Sox now had a stubborn old man who wouldn’t listen to the GM or communicate effectively with his players and coaches. Farrell might not be a great manager–we will find out in time–but he’s at the very least a competent manager who has been able to set a good tone in the clubhouse. Yogi Berra was the one who said the good players make a good manager, and so the list continues…

Koji Uehara. As I’ve written before, Uehara has been the biggest story for the Red Sox this summer. The way he has locked down the back of the bullpen is amazing. Since assuming the closer role in late June, the only way to fairly describe his performance is “dominant.” Signing Keith Foulke after the Red Sox 2003 playoff debacle was one of the biggest reasons they reversed the Curse in 2004, and Koji makes John Farrell’s job easier every time he steps on the mound. As long as he keeps throwing strikes, Red Sox fans will have little to be worried about late in the game. When the games come to an end, Koji will be the first to celebrate.

Shane Victorino: The Flyin’ Hawaiian

Shane Victorino. A guy like Victorino, on paper, strikes me as the type of veteran player who would mail it in and focus on getting paid, but Shane is not your typical veteran outfielder who already has a World Series ring. After being a key contributor to the 2008 Philadelphia Phillies World Series victory, and National League Pennant the following year, Victorino established himself as a household name in Major League Baseball, but he does not play as if he’s satisfied with his past accomplishments. Victorino runs around the vast expanses of Fenway’s right field with little regard for his own safety, like a wide receiver running over the middle of the field just to grab a ball no one would blame him for not catching. That mentality is what separates the okay from the pretty good, and the pretty good from the great. I get nervous that he’s going to get himself killed out there, but he needs to play that way to be as effective as he is. I love seeing guys play hard all the time. It’s a lot to ask over the course of a 162 game regular season, but Shane Victorino is a shining example of a gritty, winning ballplayer.

John Lackey. I’m not going to lie. Before this season, I didn’t like Lackey at all. I thought he was lazy, overpaid, and untalented. I thought he, along with Beckett, was the face of Fried-Chicken-and-Beer-Gate. This year, he’s slimmed down, pitched well, and has started to earn the money the Red Sox pay him. It reminds me a lot of Barry Zito, who signed with the Giants for a lot of money and a lot of years, and was the target of a lot of scrutiny as a result, but Barry was a major part of two World Series championship teams in San Francisco, which made his bad contract worth it. This is Lackey’s chance to redeem himself.

Jonny Gomes knows how to party.

Jonny Gomes. Last decade, the Red Sox had Kevin Millar. Now they have Jonny Gomes. Where ballplayers like that lack in polish, they compensate with a combination of intensity and swagger. Gomes was on the Cincinnati Reds when the won the National League Central Division in 2010, and on the Oakland Athletics when they won the American League West in 2012. Now he’s won a third division title in four years and is looking for an illusive World Series ring. The way Gomes and Millar helped develop the personality of their respective Red Sox teams has had an even bigger impact on the team’s success than their actual play on the field. Millar was was the guy behind Cowboy Up in 2003, and the Idiots in 2004. He was a loud, trash talker who dared the Yankees to close them out in Game 4 of the ALCS because he knew winning one game would make the Yankees that much more nervous. Gomes’ love for punting things like batting helmets and beer cans should put him in the running for the Ray Guy Award, but maybe it will translate to other team awards this fall.

Mike Napoli. He either strikes out or crushes the baseball. There’s no in between with this guy, but that’s why we like him. He swings for the fences every time he’s up there like a cleanup hitter in an adult softball league, which is refreshing to see out of a guy who gets paid millions to play baseball. I guess the theme of the season has been going back to basics, being scrappy, and finding a way to win no matter what. Mike Napoli is a good example of that mentality.

The Red Sox have also gotten big contributions from guys who have already established themselves in Boston. David Ortiz still hits the ball well. Dustin Pedroia has committed to being on the Red Sox for a long time, and remains one of the two or three best second baseman in the game. Jarrod Saltalamacchia (I hope I spelled that right) has been steady behind the plate, and is no slouch in the batters box, either. Jon Lester has returned to form after Bad Influence Beckett left town. Clay Bucholz is often injured, but when he’s healthy, he’s really good. Jacoby Ellsbury is in a contract year, and will probably be playing for the Mets, Cubs, Astros, or Mariners this time next year, but that doesn’t mean he can’t produce for the Red Sox this October. Hopefully, there is still a lot of Red Sox baseball to be played in 2013, but for now, it’s good to look back at how bad it was and see how far they’ve come.

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