These Red Sox Are Idiot-Proof
BALTIMORE The Idiots are gone. Just two seasons after finally winning a world title, the Boston Red Sox already need a completely new nickname to go with their radically altered team.
The moniker can't be catchy or cool. Most of the crazy guys with the goofy hair, like Johnny Damon and Bronson Arroyo, are gone. The fellow who invented that "Cowboy Up" catch phrase has left town, too. Pedro's barely a memory.
Everywhere you look there's a new face, like rookie closer Jonathan Papelbon or top-tier starter Josh Beckett. The infield is all new this season, with Kevin Youkilis, Mark Loretta, Alex Gonzalez and Mike Lowell.
Yet with all the change and the continuing search for a new identity, Boston still finds itself in first place. Somehow, these New England dudes abide. Shake them up, shuffle the roster, misplace General Manager Theo Epstein, then coax him back into the fold again and yet, at least for the moment, the Yankees still aren't in front of them. Every day, the way the Red Sox see it, New York seems to find more problems, like Hideki Matsui's broken wrist or Randy Johnson's imitation of The Lost Unit, while the team from Fenway Park learns more about itself and begins to discover its future.
"We're getting a personality. We're developing loyalty toward each other," Manager Terry Francona said of his 23-15 team. "You'll see eight or 10 guys go to dinner together. When you have players who want to do it, when they want that atmosphere, it's a big part of becoming a team. I saw six or seven of them in a bar together last night. That's good."
Cover your eyes, kids. It was probably the hotel bar, before midnight and they were all drinking diet sodas.
The Red Sox were once the team that was famous for leaving the ballpark in 25 separate taxis. Now they bond, they communicate, they talk things out. Boston is one place you go if you want to see a true team in the making. Who are the keys to that process? Several players all qualify, but none more than catcher Jason Varitek and David Ortiz.
"Jason is our leader. David has one of those unique personalities that pull people together," Francona said. Though it's seldom mentioned, baseball is at least as cliquish as it was 30 years ago. These days, no ill is generally intended. But no good purpose is served, either. "We're in good shape there," Francona said. "Ortiz transcends races, cultures, languages."
So where are Varitek and Ortiz, the linchpins, the leaders? Two hours before playing the Orioles, Ortiz can't find just the proper bat and Varitek thinks he has just the right model. Together they scrounge the clubhouse and come up with the perfect implement. "Look, it wobbles," says Ortiz, rolling the bat on the concrete floor. "It's not perfectly straight." And the pair of sluggers are off on a discussion of why maple bats often seem just an iota warped while their ash bats roll properly.
Now, if you are going to have a club that breathes the game, you need core players who consciously fight all the forces of wealth, modern distraction and cultural division that turn teams into mildly dysfunctional mini-corporations.
"Communication is the key. Before the '03 season, I started to make a conscious effort," Varitek said. "Terry's right, we'll get a bunch of guys to go out to dinner tomorrow [on a day off]. We've learned that you need to know your teammates better. Get to know them as people. I once heard Bill Russell talk about that," meaning the team unity of the old Celtics.
"But the point really got across to me watching the U.S. women's soccer team [in 1999]. They'd played together so long and knew each other so well. They hung out together and enjoyed playing together. Their communication with each other led to their dominance of their sport," Varitek said. "I listened to Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain when they were interviewed. Before I ever met Mia [who married Nomar Garciaparra, the former Red Sox shortstop], I knew women tended to be better communicators than men."