BOSTON – On an early July flight after a Boston Red Sox loss, a man commandeered the public-address system and introduced himself to the team. His name was Jack Hammer, and he was going to teach them a few lessons about baseball.
Jack Hammer was loud, and sort of obnoxious, but the Red Sox listened to him because what he said made sense. Or made them laugh. Maybe both. Every now and again, he would materialize out of nowhere, sometimes in the Red Sox's clubhouse, sometimes mid-conversation, always lurking as they plowed through the American League East, vanquished the Tampa Bay Rays in the division series and headed into the ALCS against the Detroit Tigers. He taught them about the three F's, something they wouldn't forget. He was their voice, their conscience, unknown to the outside world, the Red Sox's to savor alone.
"He's the best," Red Sox catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia said. "He's done it all. Jack Hammer is the best."
"I don't know if he's a person," reliever Craig Breslow said. "I can neither confirm nor deny that."
"We don't talk about Jack Hammer," outfielder Jonny Gomes said. "We just listen to him. I guess it's like ‘Fight Club.' You don't talk about it. You go to it."
Here's the thing about Jack Hammer: He wasn't like "Fight Club," wasn't like Keyser Soze, wasn't some figment of the Red Sox's imagination. He was a real person, and a soothsayer at that. Because the first time he introduced himself on that flight, when he wanted to give these Red Sox a few lessons, he told them he was going to emphasize three things that would take them all the way to the World Series.
"Fundamentals, foul tips and four-run home runs."
During the celebration that should've been all his, Shane Victorino sat in the trainer's room at Fenway Park. He doesn't drink. He didn't want to get blasted with corks or soaked with beers. For about 30 seconds, he snuck through the revelry spawned by his grand slam – er, four-run homer – that propelled the Boston Red Sox to their 12th World Series with a 5-2 victory over Detroit in Game 6 of the ALCS on Saturday night. Nobody noticed him. He grabbed a red T-shirt – the one featuring silhouettes of the Red Sox's various beards – pulled it over his head and slipped into the back.
For most of the night, Victorino wondered how he was going to explain popping out on a bunt with two runners on base and none out in the third inning. Victorino is a great bunter. This was a prime opportunity. And with the Red Sox trailing 2-1 going into the seventh inning, his flub would stand alongside reliever Franklin Morales' blowing the lead as two of the moments leading to a Game 7 against Justin Verlander.
Bunting usually came easy to Victorino. Of course, he spent most of the second half re-learning how to do everything at the plate. Victorino had learned to switch hit as a 19-year-old, figuring it might help get him to the major leagues. A hamstring injury forced him to bat right-handed almost exclusively.
"It's tough to hit from one side of the plate, let alone be a switch hitter," Victorino said. "It was one of those things that I've worked so hard on to be successful at. And to have the injuries that happened to me this year, with the hamstring and the back, and me saying to myself, ‘Hey, what if I just hit from the right side?' It was a chance I took. The organization let me take a chance."
It's not like the Red Sox were going to say no. Victorino was one of their best players during the regular season. He epitomized fundamentals. He played superlative defense in right field. He lurked over the plate enough to draw hit-by-pitches. He ground out at-bats. And of course he got his fair share of foul tips, as almost all of these Red Sox did in seeing a major league-best 25,667 pitches during the regular season. The only thing Victorino didn't have was a four-run homer. He hit a couple three-run shots, a pair of two-run jobs and 11 solo home runs during the regular season. No grand slams.
After a strong division series, Victorino had come no closer to hitting one during the ALCS. Entering Game 6, he was 2 for 21. It got so bad he took one at-bat in Game 5 left-handed.
"Trust me, I was down and out," Victorino said. "I heard people talking about dropping me in the lineup. It makes me want to go out and be that much better."
His opportunity came in the seventh. Gomes tagged a ball off the top of the Green Monster, about six inches from going over, and stood on second with a double, a better fortune than Dustin Pedroia hooking a ball six inches foul down the left-field line after Victorino's bunt faux pas in the third. Rookie Xander Bogaerts drew a walk on a borderline 3-2 pitch from Max Scherzer, who exited to allow the Tigers to matchup left-handed Drew Smyly with Jacoby Ellsbury. A groundball to sure-handed Jose Iglesias was fumbled, loading the bases for Victorino.
In came right-hander Jose Veras, the supplementary bullpen piece acquired at the trade deadline. He faced Victorino in Game 5 and threw him seven pitches: curveball, curveball, curveball, sinker, curveball, curveball, curveball. The final one struck him out. Veras went back to the curve with the first pitch, and Victorino took it for a strike. He fouled off the next one, another curve. On an 0-2 count, Veras went to his favorite pitch again. It hung over the plate.
When Victorino hit it, he knew he would at least plate Gomes from third and tie the game. The ball kept going, though, soaring toward the Monster, higher and higher and, finally, gone. He pounded his chest as he rounded the bases. He couldn't help himself.
"I hope they understand it was a special moment for me," Victorino said, "for the city."
Inside the dugout, they tried to process what happened. Morales, who gave up a four-pitch walk to the struggling Prince Fielder to load the bases and a two-run single off the wall by Victor Martinez that pushed Detroit ahead 2-1 in the sixth inning, jumped the highest. When Victorino returned to the dugout, Morales pulled him aside.
"Thank you," Morales said.
Daniel Nava couldn't fathom how Victorino even hit the ball. Nava is a switch hitter, too, and the last time he went right-on-right was during an independent-ball tryout in 2007, when a back injury kept him from hitting left-handed. He drew a 2-0 count and licked his lips for the coming pitch. It was a sinker, and it shattered his bat.
"And that was independent ball," Nava said. "This is the major leagues. Righty-right, I would've swung and missed 17 times in a row if the guy told me curveball is coming. I'm not too happy with Shane. He makes us switch hitters look really bad when he just says, ‘Ah, I'm gonna forget left-handed and just hit right-handed.' "
David Ortiz, due up two batters after Victorino, shook his head. He had seen this before. Not just his Game 2 four-run homer that gave the Red Sox life in a series they were about to trail 2-0 headed back to Detroit for three games. The Red Sox love hitting grand slams in vital ALCS games. Remember 2004? Johnny Damon's second-inning dagger against the Yankees. Or 2007? J.D. Drew's $14 million grand slam that pushed Boston ahead of Cleveland. And this. Maybe the best of all.
"I'm getting old, man," Ortiz said. "I don't remember too much. Except that I guess I'm lucky for grand slams. All of them have been to bring us up, so all of them are making history."
The ones in 2004 and '07 carved the path to World Series titles. The only thing standing between the Red Sox and their third in 10 seasons are the St. Louis Cardinals, their foe in '04. Back then, Victorino was a 23-year-old Triple-A outfielder, not good enough to hang with the San Diego Padres the year before, not good enough to crack the Los Angeles Dodgers' roster that year. Philadelphia would pick him in the Rule 5 draft that offseason, keep him on the roster for the year, hand him full-time at-bats in 2006, watch him make two All-Star teams and win two Gold Gloves, and get him a World Series ring in 2008.
All of that, and his four-run homer Saturday, were for the people who said he was too small at 5-foot-9, for the scout who told his mom he'd never be a major leaguer, for everyone who wanted him moved down in the lineup this October, and, most of all, for himself, so he could have that moment in the trainer's room to sit back, smile and savor the thought that, yup, Jack Hammer was right after all.
Deep into October, when every out counts, especially when a Game 7 is nigh, everybody starts calling everything. One person in the dugout says the guy up is going to hit a single, and then someone else calls a homer, and it turns into a game of good juju, where you feel like you're going to will the guy standing in against the 95-mph fastball to hit the damn thing. No sport does superstition like baseball.
In the Red Sox's bullpen, the leftover pitchers bantered as the seventh inning turned into a rally. With the bases loaded and Veras entering the game, bullpen catcher Brian Abraham said aloud: "If he hangs him a curveball, Vic's gonna hit a grand slam."
"Actually," Red Sox pitcher Ryan Dempster said, "I think he said he's gonna hit a four-run homer."
Unwittingly, Jack Hammer had revealed himself with a slip of the tongue. Yes, Dempster, the 36-year-old, the veteran of 16 seasons and five organizations, the one who has never been to the World Series, is Jack Hammer. He grabbed the P.A. on the flight and told the Red Sox they needed fundamentals, foul tips and four-run homers, and they listened good, because that's what you do when Jack Hammer talks. The Red Sox fully expect him to show up sometime before the World Series starts Wednesday.
Before the season began, a hot debate around baseball concerned just how much the Red Sox had improved. Hiring manager John Farrell over Bobby Valentine was an automatic upgrade. But Mike Napoli's hip was bad, and the Red Sox had to redo their original deal with him. And Dempster had struggled in a dozen games after Texas acquired him for the stretch run. And Victorino came off the worst season of his career, on a three-year deal no less. Nobody doubted the Red Sox would improve on their 69-win disaster of 2012. By 28 games? And all the way to the World Series? Only the greatest of optimist could've seen that.
General manager Ben Cherington was that optimist, and if the regular season validated everything he did – the mega-trade last season with the Dodgers that freed up payroll and the hiring of Farrell and the moves that fortified a team with a core that spent too much of last season injured – then October has lionized him. Healthy again, Big Papi and Pedroia and Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz played like their old selves, while Napoli hit home run after tape-measure home run, and J.D. Drew's little brother, Stephen, locked down the shortstop spot, and Gomes played left fielder/mascot to perfection.
And all the while, Jack Hammer lurked in the background. Only there was another secret, one that revealed itself as the season went on. All those times he told the Red Sox what they needed to do and how they needed to do it weren't necessary.
They already knew.