Worst-to-First Red Sox Win the Bigger Game

The players won. And I mean, the players WON. This wasn’t just about the Red Sox taking a memorable series that included four one-run games and two epic grand slams in Fenway, the last and mightiest by Shane Victorino, who wasn’t sleeping at night in fear of becoming a Boston pariah — never, ever want to be that — and wasn’t helping his cause amid a 2-for-22, nine-strikeout stinkbomb slump exacerbated by a botched third-inning bunt.

No, this was about the Red Sox players revolting against management for an entire season, finishing in last place with 93 losses, then rebounding one year later to reach the World Series. That is what just happened here, shrinks, professional and amateur alike. We’ve seen baseball teams have bizarre and complex mood swings, but never one this pronounced, never one this easily medicated, never one this overloaded with dissension and dysfunction and never one in a place like New England, where the Red Sox and their business are naked to the world under full-blown scrutiny. I don’t want to say the players tanked the 2012 season, nor do I want to say they laid down. But they were not in any sort of mindframe to produce optimum results during a 12-month period starting in late September 2011, when they collapsed down the stretch and missed the postseason, and this time last season, when management ended the Bobby Valentine disaster and eyed John Farrell as the next field manager.

You’ll recall the chicken-and-beer story that was leaked not long after the collapse. It was a management-planted seed intended to place blame on manager Terry Francona, who was run out of town despite two World Series titles because, the Boston Globe story reported, he wasn’t himself through marital problems and a prescription-pills issue. The clubhouse wasn’t right, either, with the same Globe expose naming pitchers Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Jon Lester among those enjoying fried chicken and beer during games instead of focusing with teammates in the dugout. If all of this sounds a little convoluted, it’s Boston. I mean, the Globe is now owned by the Red Sox, as journalism continues to march on.

Which makes it just a little more convoluted that everyone could be so happy after the Game 6 elimination of the Tigers — players and owners and manager and general manager, all in a Sweet Caroline, Dropkick Murphys, love-that-dirty-water euphoria — not long after sharing 18 months of finger-pointing loathing and misery. How did this happen?

Every time I have Valentine on my radio show, I ask him about the flip-flop. It’s clear the players never wanted him there, still brooding about the ouster of the popular Francona, and they went out of his way to dislike him publicly, with team leader Dustin Pedroia among those voicing disapproval early and David Ortiz chiming in later. Valentine was brought in by one of the team owners, Larry Lucchino, to change the culture and ramp up the pressure, which he is known to do via media hints and other mind games. The players weren’t having it. The season was a joke from the start, and Valentine mercifully was fired before someone punched him out.

So how could the entire scene become so joyous and wildly successful so damn quickly?

“They changed the players,” Valentine said when I asked.

Well, not exactly. Pedroia is still there, front and center, armed with a$110-million contract extension and making the heads-up play in Game 6 to double up a belly-flopping Prince Fielder, an absolute waste of $23 million and the symbol of Detroit’s latest postseason demise. Ortiz? With his latest October primo moments, he has ascended in Boston sports legendhood to a place inhabited only by Larry Bird, Tom Brady, Bobby Orr and precious few few others. Lester and Lackey are still in the clubhouse, sans chicken and beer, 1-2 in the starting rotation. Jacoby Ellsbury, Clay Buchholz, Jarrod Saltalamacchia — sorry, Bobby V, but a lot of the same players and leaders are there.

I’d say this was an example of those players getting what they wanted all along in Farrell — like Francona, a players’ manager who is chill and very respectful of the men in uniform. Pedroia and Ortiz approved of Farrell, whom they knew as the team’s former pitching coach. He also could do much-needed mental work on Lackey and Lester and provide a mentor’s guidance to the rest of the staff, including a largely overlooked, 38-year-old reliever named Koji Uehara. But in one sense, Valentine is right: The Red Sox changed some of the players, though this time, unlike the splurges resulting in high-level frustration in the years after the two championships, they went about the big budget pie in a smarter, more efficient way. Rather than throw monster contracts at Zack Greinke and Josh Hamilton, neither of whom wanted to be in Boston anyway, they divided the pie into middle-range pieces, and the maestro this time with GM Ben Cherington, who, like predecessor Theo Epstein, is a New England-bred baseball geek who crunches numbers and is at his best formulating instead of splurging.

They wanted character. They wanted camaraderie. They wanted dirt, sweat, eyeblack. They wanted people with something to prove, not people with a bank account to pad. They signed Victorino. And Uehara. And Mike Napoli. And Jonny Gomes. And Stephen Drew. And David Ross. Stunningly, every moderately priced piece worked. And the new, refined Red Sox brought a grit that always plays well in Boston and any sports town, with crusty batting helmets that led to a team rally cry.

“Grind, then shine,” Gomes said in the post-game celebration, per ESPN.

Let it serve as the latest lesson to the big-money teams — Yankees, Angels, even the NLCS-eliminated Dodgers — who will be watching the World Series from home. Think before you spend extravagantly.

“When you’re doing these things in the off-season, nobody knows exactly what it’s going to turn into,” Cherington said, per the Los Angeles Times. “You have thoughts — `If we do this and this and this we have a chance to contend.’ But nobody knows for sure until the games start. The success of the team has been fueled by the other people in uniform — the players, coaches and John Farrell. The job they have done has brought us here and put us in position to be here. They have given the organization a tremendous lift. They breathed life into the organization and we have been able to feed off that.

“I’m particularly happy for players here through the tougher times — Pedroia, Ortiz, Lester, Jacoby , Buchholz and (Saltalamacchia). These guys who have persevered through that, and off the field too. Our ownership and the people in the front office, we had to pick ourselves up and dust ourselves off and get back to hopefully something that was more positive and successful, and this team.”

In other words, the players won.

“You’ve got to take your licks,” said Red Sox chairman Tom Werner, per ESPN.com “I thought some of them were a bit over the top. We were the same people that not only brought two World Series here but a bunch of playoffs, too.

“There’s one more hill to climb. Then we can say something.”

As for the facial hair, it’s a facade. Please stop dwelling on it. Yes, you have seen homeless people with better manicured beards than the Red Sox, who look like a scary-scraggly hybrid of ZZ Top meets Zach Galifianakis meets Brian Wilson meets Joaquin Phoenix meets Saddam Hussein. But they are not in the World Series because of jungle-brush fuzz that gives them the fearsome look of paroled lumberjack mashers.

The hair is the outgrowth of their unity. When Boston was devastated by the Marathon bombings, Ortiz and Pedroia led the charge of a higher purpose — Boston Strong, dedicating the season to a wounded city. It was a mature setting, largely because of Farrell, with Ortiz saying, “When I’m talking to my manager, I feel like I am talking to my brother. I’m not dealing with someone who is a dictator.” That would be a Valentine reference. Here was another, from Pedroia: “All I know is when John Farrell walks into our clubhouse, everyone listens.”

The winning came easily, in a division where the Yankees faltered. Then came the male bonding and the beards. Even midseason pickup Jake Peavy felt the kinship, deciding to contribute with the purchase of a cigar-store Indian statue in a San Francisco thrift shop. “I looked at him and he looked at me. And I just kept walking,” said Peavy, noting that he has Native American heritage in his blood. “I took a few more steps, and I kind of looked back, and he was still looking at me. And he said: `Am I not one of the boys? Look at me, I’m your people.’ I said, `You know what, you are one of the boys.’ ”

Weeks later, the statue is still with the Red Sox in their clubhouse. “He’s
going to ride on my Duck Boat if we win the World Series,” said Peavy, referring to the Boston method of celebrating a Series title, with the Red Sox working on their third in 10 seasons after 86 previous years of woe.

Said Farrell, who should be the AL Manager of the Year: “This team’s unity, the tightness, the willingness to have one another’s back … continued to grow throughout the year.”

And the food-and-booze flap? “All that beer and chicken bull(bleep)? Well, we have chicken and beer whenever we want now, and look how it’s going,” Ortiz said, adding to USA Today, “This team is like nothing I’ve seen. We are so close. We have the same goal in mind. Man, we want that World Series.”

They just may get a third championship while wearing their “Fear the Beard” and “Blood, Sweat and Beards” t-shirts. New England always has been quick to immerse itself in the personality of a championship team, and, sure enough, bushy beards are growing throughout the region. “It just shows how tight-knit a group it is. Guys in here love playing baseball, like a bunch of baseball junkies,” said Gomes, per the AP. “It says a lot about the chemistry and the guys inside here. We don’t grade beards — you either have one or you don’t.”

“It’s become one of the personality traits of this team,” Farrell said of the facial fuzz. “As much as the helmet-slapping can be commonplace, this is ours. I can only imagine it doesn’t feel real good.” According to the Grantland website, Pedroia’s wife, Kelli, asked her husband to shave his beard recently when their child was turning one. “You can’t have that beard in the photos,” she told him.

Pedroia still has his fuzz. “When they win the World Series,” she told the site, “the beard comes off.”

When you see scenes such as Boston police officer Steve Horgan raising his arms in joy after Ortiz’s slam last week, as Detroit outfielder Torii Hunter tumbled into the bullpen beside him, you tend to think the Red Sox might win again.

I’m happy to report Horgan had no facial hair. He probably didn’t like Bobby Valentine, either.