Remember when the Boston Red Sox were a dysfunctional, despicable collection of scoundrels?
I know. Seems like a long time ago, doesn't it? It turns out that sour baseball memories are easily buried when there's good baseball being played by a team that's both quite good and quite watchable.
And that's the 2013 Red Sox.
The Red Sox entered Thursday's action with a 14-7 record that has them in first place in the AL East. They've been doing a lot of winning, and they've done much to endear themselves to Red Sox Nation. Unlike the last couple Red Sox teams, the 2013 Red Sox are very much worth rooting for.
How did it happen? How did the Red Sox go from being the least likable team in baseball one minute to being arguably the most likable team in baseball the next minute?
It's a long story, but the action really picked up in 2011.
2011: From Baseball's Best Team to Baseball's Biggest Wreck
The 2011 Red Sox never had a chance to be darlings. They weren't exactly America's team to begin with, and then they went and made like baseball's biggest villains in the 2010-2011 offseason.
The Red Sox made their own version of the New York Yankees' superstar tractor beam, shaking up the baseball world by signing Carl Crawford as a free agent and pulling off a blockbuster trade for San Diego Padres first baseman Adrian Gonzalez.
Thanks to those moves, the Red Sox were anointed as the team to beat in the American League heading into 2011. Because, you know, paper champions never, ever fail.
It all started bad, as the Red Sox began the season by losing six straight and 10 of their first 12 overall. But then they righted the ship and started winning like they were supposed to. They were 20 games over .500 by the All-Star break, and 31 games over .500 heading into September.
Then the baseball gods decided to put a banana peel in Boston's way.
The Red Sox went 7-20 in September and watched a huge lead in the AL wild card race evaporate in an instant. Their failure was sealed on the final day of the season when Jonathan Papelbon blew a save in Baltimore and Evan Longoria hit a walk-off homer in St. Petersburg.
Now, losing is not the worst sin a baseball team can commit. Bad baseball is a terrible thing to behold, but it can be forgiven if it at least happens with some dignity.
Yeah...there wasn't a whole lot of that to go around in Boston late in 2011...
Gonzalez got the ball rolling by complaining to Pete Abraham of The Boston Globe about how tough the Red Sox's schedule was thanks to all the national TV games the team had to play.
"We play too many night games on getaway days and get into places at 4 in the morning," Gonzalez said. "This has been my toughest season physically because of that. We play a lot of night games on Sunday for television and those things take a lot out of you."
Take note, kids. That's not how accountability is done. That's just how whining is done.
It got worse. The Globe's Bob Hohler published his infamous behind-the-scenes report in October of 2011, and that's when New England and the rest of the union learned just how dysfunctional the 2011 Red Sox really were.
The highlight was the revelation that star pitchers Josh Beckett, Jon Lester and John Lackey had developed a habit of drinking beer, eating fried chicken and playing video games in the clubhouse while their teammates were out on the field trying to win games.
That sort of behavior is typically only seen among fraternity bros on a Thursday night, not among star players on a star-laden team in the middle of a pennant race.
The actions of those players were portrayed as a symptom of a bigger, more pressing reality: that manager Terry Francona had lost control. Apparently, this had something to do with personal issues and pain medication.
A low blow if there ever was one, and Francona didn't appreciate it too much.
“It makes me angry that people say these things because I’ve busted my (butt) to be the best manager I can be,’’ Francona said. “I wasn’t terribly successful this year, but I worked harder and spent more time at the ballpark this year than I ever did."
Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com opined that the Red Sox were behind that part of the report, writing that Francona was the victim of the latest Boston smear campaign:
[Francona] is through with Boston, even if "team sources" may not be through skewering him. Francona in the end took it from all sides—from the players who violated his trust, from the players who did not intervene like they do on winning teams and call the miscreants to account, to the highest levels of management whose sense of decency apparently went on hiatus at the end.
Red Sox owner John Henry came out and denied that there was a smear campaign going on, but nothing he could have said would have changed the public perception of his organization.
With Francona leaving and then general manager Theo Epstein after him, it was clear the Red Sox were a sinking ship that nobody with any brains wanted to accompany to the bottom.
The Red Sox could have saved face. They could have gone into damage control and made themselves pretty and respectable again.
But they didn't.
2011-2012: Worst. Soap Opera. Ever.
It didn't take long for the Red Sox to find a general manager to replace Epstein, who had bolted to the North Side of Chicago to try and send the Curse of the Billy Goat the way of the Curse of the Bambino. Ben Cherington was tabbed as Epstein's successor in late October of 2011.
Finding a manager to replace Francona wasn't so easy, in part because the Red Sox made it more difficult than it had to be.
Gordon Edes reported in November that Cherington had wanted to hire Dale Sveum to be Boston's new manager but that ownership overruled him because Bobby Valentine was their preferred choice.
This despite the fact that, according to Joe McDonald of ESPNBoston.com, a team official had told at least one player that the Red Sox "weren't going to hire Bobby Valentine or someone like that."
Indeed, not hiring Valentine made too much sense. He had enjoyed success managing in Japan, but he had last managed in the major leagues in 2002. His current post was as an ESPN analyst.
According to ESPN's Buster Olney, Red Sox players were none too happy when Valentine even emerged as a candidate to be their next manager:
As Valentine emerged as a managerial candidate, some Red Sox players have been upset; they've been grumbling to each other, through texts and phone calls...And the fact is they had no power to do anything about it, because the September collapse completely undercut the credibility of the Red Sox players. If one of them had called the front office to register concerns about Valentine, they might've heard laughter on the other end of the line. The Boston players had complete control of the clubhouse in 2011, and we know what happened.
That there's a portrait of one big happy family (tone: sarcastic).
Olney may have had a point about the players not having the right to have a say in the matter, but a source hit the nail on the head with this remark to McDonald about what would happen if the Red Sox hired Valentine: "They're going to have a mess on their hands."
The Red Sox hired Valentine anyway. The drama started, oh, pretty much immediately.
At Valentine's introductory presser, Cherington had to answer questions about whether or not Bobby V wasn't his first choice and Bobby V had to answer questions about criticisms he had made about Crawford and Beckett as part of his ESPN gig. Because the Boston media is like that sometimes.
Bobby V's rocky introduction gave way to a rocky spring training. One of his first acts was to ban beer in Boston's clubhouse, and he also ran things in a way that wasn't very agreeable to the players.
Again: one big happy family.
When the season finally began, the Red Sox picked up where they left off. The losses started to pile up right out of the gate: 1-5 through six games and 4-10 through 14 games.
Now, it bears repeating that losing isn't such a crime so long as it's done with dignity. The Red Sox didn't have much of that down the stretch in 2011, but maybe it could have been there early in 2012.
But there was none. The controversies began to pile up just as rapidly as the losses.
In April, with the season barely two weeks old, Bobby V decided to throw Kevin Youkilis under the bus by questioning his commitment. That inspired a snappy response from Dustin Pedroia, who backed Youkilis and implied that Valentine's tactics were better off being used back in Japan.
In May came the report that Beckett had played golf on an off day before missing a start due to an injury. Instead of admitting that hitting the links wasn't the brightest idea, Beckett took a mind-your-own-damn-business approach.
"We get 18 off days a year," said Beckett, via ESPNBoston.com. "I think we deserve a little time to ourselves."
...Said a pitcher who only works every fifth day.
In June came Buster Olney's report that characterized Boston's clubhouse as "toxic," which prominent members of the Red Sox took as a fighting word.
“It’s not like that, dog,’’ said David Ortiz, via The Boston Globe. “We all get along here. There’s not one guy here that has a problem with the other."
But then there was the other comment that Big Papi made right around that time. You'll recall that he said of Boston, via WEEI.com: "It's starting to become the [bleep]-hole it used to be."
Nothing toxic here, folks. Move along.
The Red Sox actually played decent baseball in May and June, but the losing continued in July. The Red Sox lost six of seven before the break, and then went on another losing binge later in the month. With the trade deadline looming, hope was fading.
It was also right around this time that a mutiny almost happened.
Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports reported in August that Gonzalez, Pedroia and other Red Sox players had met with ownership in late July for the sole purpose of blasting Bobby V. Some players said they no longer wanted to play for him.
The Red Sox's season didn't get any less rotten after that meeting. The team kept right on losing, and Cherington decided to rage-quit the season altogether at the end of August when he shipped Beckett, Crawford and Gonzalez off to Los Angeles in one of the biggest trades in baseball history.
It was a good trade for the Red Sox, as they arranged a ton of payroll flexibility while getting two solid young pitchers—Allen Webster and Rubby De La Rosa—back in return. But it was also a clear white flag, and the Red Sox started playing accordingly.
Boston went 7-22 in its last 29 games, a stretch of futility that was marred by a feud between Bobby V and Alfredo Aceves, who also sparred with Pedroia at one point. Bobby V also offered to punch a radio host right in the mouth, just because the Red Sox truly needed another controversy.
I also assume Bobby V knew by then that he wasn't long for the job, so what the heck.
Valentine was fired the day after the Red Sox finished the season with a record of 69-93 that put them in last place in the AL East. Through it all, they occupied more headlines than any 93-loss team has any right to occupy.
In addition to the sheer awfulness of their play on the field and their apparently constant bickering off of it, that the 2012 Red Sox were so ubiquitous was a big part of what made them so darn unlikable.
Most losers are easily ignored, but the spotlight was on the 2012 Red Sox at every turn. Like the Philadelphia Eagles or the New York Jets over in the NFL, the Red Sox were an awful team that nobody would shut the hell up about.
It's not easy for such a team to become likable again, much less good again.
2012-2013 Offseason: The Detoxification of the Red Sox
What do you do when you have a lousy team with a lousy clubhouse that nobody can bare to watch?
Easy. You go about finding the right guy to clean up the clubhouse, and then you go about bringing in players with both talent and the right personalities.
The first step for the Red Sox involved hiring former pitching coach John Farrell away from the Toronto Blue Jays. Unlike there supposedly was when Valentine was hired, there was no griping among Red Sox players.
"He has that instant respect when he walks into the room because it's leadership, and it's going to be nice," Pedroia told ESPNBoston.com.
“I love John. John is my main man, even when he was the pitching coach," said Ortiz, also to ESPNBoston.com.
Via Twitter, Lester also voiced his approval:
Welcome back John!!Can't wait to get back to work!! #RedSox— Jon Lester (@JLester31) October 21, 2012
Once they had their new manager squared away, it was time for the Red Sox to address their roster. To that end, their first order of business was to make sure that the longest-tenured member of the team stayed put.
The Red Sox re-signed Big Papi to a two-year contract in early November. In the kind of heartwarming PR move that the organization could have used a year prior, the Red Sox also signed Ortiz's eight-year-old son, D'Angelo, to a $5 contract.
For the first time in a long time, it felt like the Red Sox actually did have the makings of a big happy family. And that was just the start.
Next came Jonny Gomes, a player with a powerful bat and a reputation as a great guy to have in a clubhouse. After him came Mike Napoli, a guy who had starred for a Texas Rangers team that went to the World Series in 2011 and who was widely regarded as a good teammate. Then came Shane Victorino, another World Series veteran with a good reputation.
When Victorino was signed, he made a promise that Red Sox Nation probably needed to hear.
"I'm going to be fun. I'm going to be loud. I'm going to talk a lot. You're going to get what you get," he said, via ESPNBoston.com. "It's going to be me. I'm going to go out there and play 100 percent."
The last big-name player the Red Sox added was Ryan Dempster, a much-needed veteran starting pitcher who came to Boston with a reputation as one of the league's ultimate good guys.
Jeff Passan remarked in December:
This is as much an overhaul of a poisonous clubhouse atmosphere as it is a restocking of an organization in desperate need of talent. Boston wants to turn the old winning-creates-chemistry adage on its head and hope chemistry creates winning.
These are the new Red Sox…friendlier than the old ones.
The issue with team chemistry, obviously, is that you can't just make it appear out of thin air. That's what the Red Sox were hoping to do with their offseason dealings, but the possibility existed that their efforts were going to be for naught.
It didn't take long for that very concern to evaporate.
The good vibes started to build as soon as spring training began. Clay Buchholz told Joe McDonald at the outset of camp that things were "more relaxed already."
He added: "As far as coming into camp, and being relaxed and everybody knowing what's going on, the new coaching staff, I can see from Day 1 getting here how relaxed everybody was."
The good vibes continued to build, to a point where John Tomase of the Boston Herald wrote in March that the clubhouse atmosphere was "eleventy-billion times better than it was over the last two years."
Despite the good vibes in Red Sox camp, nobody was expecting them to do much when the spring season gave way to the regular season. None of ESPN's experts picked them to win the AL East.
Two years earlier, the Red Sox were the can't-miss beast of the American League heading into the season. Heading into 2013, they were something they hadn't been in years: an underdog.
And who doesn't love a good underdog?
So Far in 2013: You've Gotta Love These Red Sox
When the Red Sox opened the 2013 season on April 1 at Yankee Stadium, they did something on Opening Day that they hadn't done since 2010: Win.
It felt like a statement win, too. Lester looked like his old self again in a strong five-inning effort, and the Red Sox knocked around lefty ace CC Sabathia for eight hits and four walks in five innings. They collected 13 hits and eight walks in total and won 8-2.
"There's a tremendous amount of energy with this group," said Farrell, via ESPNBoston.com. "The word we've been using is relentless."
The Red Sox took two out of three from the Yankees, and then they went to Toronto and took two of three from the new-look Blue Jays as well. Boston's start to the season had people singing the club's praises.
Wrote Jon Morosi of FoxSports.com:
It’s time to put away the hazmat suits at Fenway Park. The cleanup from the Great Collapse of 2011 is complete. The Red Sox have regained likability among their own fans — which feels almost as significant as making it back to the postseason.
The Red Sox ended up losing their first home series of the season, dropping two of three to the Orioles to drop to 5-4. They shrugged that off with three straight wins against the Rays, two of which were of the walk-off variety.
The second of those came on Patriots' Day when Napoli chased Pedroia home from first base with a double off the Green Monster. The Red Sox celebrated on the field, and the fans went home happy.
It wasn't that long after that that the bombs went off on Boylston Street. Scenes from the finish line of the Boston Marathon showed the stuff of nightmares. Three were dead. Hundreds were injured. A festive day had turned into a chaotic day, and an entire city was weeping.
The Red Sox were on their way to Cleveland when they heard the news, and it consumed them like it did everyone else.
"I was in shock, along with everyone else," said Will Middlebrooks, via MLB.com. "We were on the bus waiting to go to the airport waiting to come here. I got a call from my dad. He saw it on Twitter. He wanted to see if I was all right. I hadn't heard anything about it."
What's a baseball team to do when something like that happens?
There's not a whole lot a baseball team can do. There was nothing Middlebrooks or any of the Red Sox could do to revive the fallen or heal the wounded. About all they could do was show their support, and resolve to do whatever they could to help the people of Boston move on.
They threw themselves into doing just that.
According to Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal, about two dozen Red Sox players gathered for dinner in Cleveland the night the bombings took place, and that's when Gomes and Jarrod Saltalamacchia came up with an idea to hang a jersey in the dugout.
"We as players needed to do something," Saltalamacchia said. "I talked to Jonny about doing the jersey. We were like, 'What number are we going to put?' He came up with the 617 (Boston's area code)."
I can't wait to put on my jersey today... I get to play for the strongest city out there. #BostonStrong— Will Middlebrooks (@middlebrooks) April 16, 2013
Then the Red Sox tweeted:
And when the game began, there was the jersey:
The Red Sox won that game. And the one after that. And the one after that as well. When the time came to pack up and go back to Boston, the Red Sox were riding a six-game winning streak and very much looking forward to doing some good where some good was needed.
"Part of our job is to live out childhood dreams for people who aren't able to do that, give people a couple hours out of the day to check out of reality," said Gomes, via ESPNBoston.com. And with it happening in our backyard, we've got a lot on our shoulders. But I couldn't pick a better 25 guys or staff to do that with."
Buchholz added, "This will be something to remember."
The Red Sox were originally scheduled to play their first home game since the bombings on Friday, April 19. But the entire city of Boston was on lockdown following the events that had unfolded in Cambridge and Watertown the night before. One of the suspects of the marathon bombings was dead, but the other was still on the run.
The entire ordeal didn't end until Dzhokar Tsarnaev was taken into custody Friday evening. The cloud had been lifted. Boston was still a long way from being fully healed, but at least it was safe to go outside again.
And on Saturday, it was time for the Red Sox to finally welcome everyone back to Fenway Park. They did so with a moving pre-game ceremony that paid tribute to both the victims and the heroes from the past week, and then David Ortiz took the mic and said what everyone was thinking.
There's an art to dropping an appropriate F-Bomb. And in that (bleepin') moment, Big Papi might as well have been Michelangelo.
That deed done, the Red Sox went out and beat the Kansas City Royals in the only way the day's script would have allowed: by coming from behind courtesy of a three-run homer off the bat of Daniel Nava, easily the team's biggest underdog, in the eighth inning.
It doesn't matter what team you owe allegiance to. Maybe you're a Yankees fan. Maybe you're a Dodgers fan. Maybe you're the rare Marlins fan. What you have to admit is that your usual allegiance didn't matter when you saw Nava's fly ball land in Boston's bullpen. In that moment, you were as big a Red Sox fan as every single one of the 35,000 souls packed into Fenway Park.
In that moment, the Red Sox were America's team.
Nava's homer was certainly a cathartic moment for Red Sox fans. It also felt like the kind of moment that wouldn't have happened if 2011 or 2012 Red Sox had been on the field. Those teams just didn't do "moments."
The 2013 Red Sox are different. They're a good team. They're a likable team. And when tragedy struck Boston last week, the 2013 Red Sox revealed themselves to be the right team to deal with it. They revealed themselves to be as much civil servants as ballplayers.
The Red Sox should be proud of that. The people of Boston, meanwhile, should rejoice that they can be proud of their Red Sox again.
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