Last Friday afternoon, as they prepared to play their final regular season series of the season in Baltimore, a dozen Boston Red Sox players sat on four couches, arranged in a square, at the center of the visitors’ clubhouse at Camden Yards. In the middle sat a table, on which perched an old cigar-store-style Native American figure, draped in a T-shirt commemorating Boston’s American League East championship, secured just a few days earlier.
“This is Chief, baby!” thundered David Ortiz, who serves as designated hitter, clubhouse epicenter, ray of sunshine and head junk-talker. “He comes with us everywhere!”
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?
“There was a very candid and pointed conversation to restore the expectation, and that is winning,” Farrell said. “In my mind, in Ben’s mind, winning is associated with Boston regardless of the team but certainly with the Boston Red Sox.
“The deeper question was how were we going to do it, and that was where there was a clear-cut vision of how we were going to get there.”
They each plugged into their networks to undertake what amounted to background checks on prospective hires because they wanted “guys that have bought into this team concept, that have set aside any personal agendas,” Farrell said.
The roots of such a pursuit were planted firmly in September 2011, when a 7-20 finish to the season not only turned a sure playoff spot into regional discontent, but it fundamentally changed the franchise. It led to the departures of manager Terry Francona and general manager Theo Epstein, the only pair to bring World Series titles to Boston since 1918. Cherington, a trusted deputy, was promoted. His hiring of Valentine after a drawn-out process was a disaster, and the theories why spread from Fenway Park throughout the majors.
“People said chemistry,” outfielder Shane Victorino said. “People said Valentine. People said this. People said that. Everybody was trying to find an excuse.”
Victorino, though, was on the outside. A Phillie from 2005 until he was traded to the Dodgers in the middle of 2012, he was a free agent who was courted heavily by Cleveland and Boston. And when he looked at the Red Sox, he didn’t look at the picture “like this,” he said, holding his fingers an inch apart. “I looked at it like this,” he said, and he spread his arms wide.
“For me, the pieces were here of a winning team — and of a good team,” he said. “It’s 10 years of winning, not a year and a half — or a year and a month — of losing. There’s a puzzle.”
The Red Sox signed Victorino to a three-year, $39 million contract. They signed Napoli for one year and $5 million (that incentives turned into $13 million). They signed the versatile Jonny Gomes for two years and $10 million. All were reasonable deals without much long-term commitment. And they fit right into a lineup that already included Ortiz, former MVP Dustin Pedroia and leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury, holdovers from the 2007 World Series winners.
Offensively, the results have been undeniable. The Red Sox scored 57 runs more than any other team in baseball, worked pitchers to a .349 on-base percentage that also led the majors, slugged a big league-best .446. When problems arose (such as losing closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey to season-ending injuries) they came up with creative solutions (plugging in Koji Uehara, who saved 21 games with a 1.09 ERA).
“We miss being in the playoffs for the last couple years, especially after what happened last year,” Ortiz said. “Being in the situation that we’re in right now, it’s a good sign.”
And a better vibe. Dismiss it if you like. The Red Sox don’t. By June, a significant portion of the team had stopped shaving, a symbol of solidarity, whether corny, intentional or otherwise.
“You could have big names here, superstars, but if they’re not there for the same thing, it’s not going to work,” Napoli said. “I mean, it shows. There’s a lot of teams out there that were picked to be the top of the division. They’ve got this superstar, that superstar, they’re just going to roll. But if you don’t come together or play together, it’s not going to work. I think they brought in the right guys, the right personalities. That matters, absolutely.”