Columns, Sports

Firn ’16: Jump on the beardwagon

By
Sports Columnist

 

Back in March, rhetoric surrounding the upcoming 2013 MLB season was uncharacteristically pessimistic in Boston. Coming off their worst season since 1965, the Red Sox had slashed $33 million in payroll during the offseason and seemed poised for a second consecutive year in the cellar of baseball’s toughest division. The phrase “rebuilding” was tossed around Fenway Park for the first time in many years. At a point in the season when every team is undefeated and every fan typically radiates optimism, the Red Sox already appeared destined for mediocrity. Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy wrote a piece titled, “It’s hard to get excited about these Red Sox.” With a spring training roster composed partly of aging question marks (i.e. John Lackey, Shane Victorino) and partly of fresh-faced prospects (Jackie Bradley Jr., Xander Bogaerts), Boston was a team caught between rebuilding and contention — committed to neither. All in all, it seemed pretty fair to write off the 2013 Red Sox.

But when April rolled around, the Sox started to win. And to the surprise of many, they kept on winning. After compiling an MLB-best 97 regular season wins, the Red Sox stormed into the playoffs, having reestablished themselves as a powerhouse of the American League. The rest of the tale has been well-told in the sports world as of late. Behind a show of bearded solidarity, the Red Sox wrapped up their season by clinching the World Series Wednesday night at Fenway Park for the first time since 1918. No other World Series champion in history has ever rebounded from such a dismal winning percentage the previous year.

The unprecedented one-year turnaround of the Boston Red Sox has been nothing short of astounding. In the Moneyball era of Billy Beane and Bill James, the analytics guys would have you believe success always boils down to a formula. They’re not wrong — any examination of the Red Sox’ worst-to-first journey must include a discussion of statistics. By the numbers, it’s easy to see how they did it. Boston bats scored 119 more times in 2013 than in 2012. The pitching staff allowed 150 fewer runs. Hitters slugged, starters delivered and the bullpen shined. The improvements were reflected in the scoreboard and the standings: Boston’s run differential spiked from -72 in 2012 to +197 in 2013. But in the case of the 2013 Red Sox, numbers don’t tell the whole story. Why did the team take such quantitative leaps despite fielding what scouts generally agreed was a less talented roster?

Underlying the transformation of the Red Sox has been a profound change in clubhouse culture that stems from the leadership of first-year manager John Farrell. Every sports team has a distinct identity. For the successful ones, this identity binds the clubhouse together and manifests as camaraderie that elevates everyone’s play. In 2003, the Red Sox were unified under the rally cry of “Cowboy Up.” The curse-busting 2004 squad built momentum as the “Idiots.” In 2011, the lack of team chemistry culminated in an epic September collapse marked by disunity, distraction and fried chicken. The disastrous 2012 Red Sox were defined by manager Bobby Valentine, who alienated all of his players and created an entitled team at war with itself. Sure, a successful season results directly from the combination of stellar hitting and pitching. But talent often falters in the absence of a unifying sense of brotherhood.

Unlike their immediate predecessors, the 2013 Red Sox had no shortage of brotherhood. For the first time since the era of Terry Francona, Boston’s manager had the full support and respect of his team.

“This has been a team that’s come in every day with a very consistent approach, a positive attitude,” Farrell told the Boston Globe in August. This quote may sound like a cliche declared by every manager in the big leagues at some point or another, but in context of last year’s train wreck, it rings true for the 2013 Sox.

While Farrell served to minimize distractions and keep the team even-keeled, rejuvenated veterans provided mentorship and a renewed sense of motivation. No one exemplified Boston’s grizzled leadership more than David Ortiz.

No moment summed up Ortiz’s intangible contributions more than his pep talk during Game Four of the World Series. In an effort to rally the troops, Ortiz huddled up his teammates in the dugout and delivered some powerful inspiration. As Jonny Gomes told ESPN, “it was like 24 kindergartners looking up at their teacher.” Unlike the Red Sox of 2011 or 2012, this was a team full of players who wanted badly to win for each other and for a city beset by tragedy. This season was about redemption.

But this tale isn’t just about the Red Sox. It’s about what it takes to build a successful sports team. The Sox have epitomized the importance of team dynamics on one of the biggest stages in sports, but the notion holds true in every locker room of every sport. Teams win games because of performances — not friendships. But as the 2011 and 2012 Red Sox proved, talent is only one variable in the formula for success. The road to a championship is always grueling, both physically and mentally. Chemistry and unity are crucial catalysts for a team slogging through the playoffs with one collective ultimate goal.

It is in this regard that the 2013 Red Sox stand in starkest contrast to the 2011 and 2012 versions. Gone are the egos, the rebellions and the scapegoating. In their place is the World Series trophy.

 

Mike Firn ’16 wishes he could grow Mike Napoli’s beard. Celebrate with him at michael_firn@brown.edu.

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  • Anonymous

    Great article Mike! Which do you think is the better squad, 2004 or 2013 Red Sox?