The players on the couches, 10 of them with beards that made them look more like survivalists than ballplayers, chuckled, then turned back to their phones — and each other — stroking the hairs on their chins. They were undoubtedly comfortable on those sofas and comfortable with each other and their unruly manes.
This is Boston’s clubhouse, 2013: a den that combines individual rebelliousness with team-building uniformity and one that roars into what appears to be a wide-open postseason as a potential favorite. It’s a million miles from the clubhouse of September 2011, which produced both a historic collapse and gossipy tabloid fodder, and the room from all of 2012, when then-manager Bobby Valentine oversaw an unhappy bunch that posted the franchise’s worst record in 47 years.
A full-on turnaround in a year? It seems so. Consider that since divisional play began in 1970, the Red Sox are just the 11th team to reach the playoffs a year after failing to win 70 games. Landing in the American League Division Series that begins Friday against Tampa Bay took adjustments in personnel, sure. But it took an environment overhaul, too.
“We can’t wait to get to the field, because we want to see what’s going to happen that day, what funny thing, who’s going to get pranked on,” said first baseman Mike Napoli, among the most hirsute Red Sox. “No one’s safe in the clubhouse. We’re on each other nonstop. If you do something stupid in the clubhouse, someone’s on you. We can’t wait to get here because we love being together. And we’re not just together in the clubhouse; we’re there off the field, too.”
Before we get all kumbaya about this group, understand that there are plenty of examples of teams that all but brawled their way to championships, that baseball is the most individual of team sports and that chemistry is best left to laboratories. That said, the Red Sox know what happened last year, when they lost 93 games, and what happened this year, when they won 97 — more than in any season since 2004, when a team dripping with stars finally brought a World Series title to New England.
The first change: Valentine was fired and replaced by John Farrell, then the manager of the Toronto Blue Jays, who had served as Boston’s pitching coach from 2007 to 2010 and had helped develop important pieces of the rotation such as Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz. If interpersonal dynamics and camaraderie are the most nebulous and debated factors in baseball success, then the impact of a manager isn’t far behind. But Farrell and General Manager Ben Cherington knew the kind of player they wanted. Forget skill sets for a moment. What kind of people were they planning to employ?