LOS ANGELES – For a brief moment, the visitors’ clubhouse at Dodger Stadium was empty. Spent corks littered the floor. The plastic sheet protecting the lockers hung by a single strand of tape. A puddle of beer and Champagne and tears rested quietly in the middle of the room, until the first footstep splashed it. Then another. And another. And another. The Boston Red Sox, hiding in the back to avoid everyone who hadn’t contributed to their latest World Series championship, were funneling into the room to celebrate. This was their only unfinished business in a season of finishing everything with authority.
At 10:04 p.m. PT, the first note of an EDM song thumped. An impromptu huddle formed around a blue, industrial-sized plastic waste receptacle filled with water and melting ice. All the usual suspects were there. The hero of the night, and the postseason, David Price. The MVP of the series, Steve Pearce, and the regular season, Mookie Betts. The slugger, J.D. Martinez, and the ace, Chris Sale, and the closer, Craig Kimbrel, and the ironman, Nathan Eovaldi, and the heartbeat, Rick Porcello. There were two dozen more, stars, bit players, everything in between. All names Boston grew to love over one of the finest years ever authored by a baseball team. And in the middle of it stood Dave Dombrowski.
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As Red Sox general manager, Dombrowski assembled the team that won 108 games during the regular season, trounced the 100-win New York Yankees in the division series, overwhelmed the 103-win Houston Astros for the American League pennant and on Sunday night capped a World Series rout of the Los Angeles Dodgers, stifling them 5-1 to win the fifth and decisive game en route to the organization’s fourth championship in 15 years. Gone was the pall of misery that hung over the Red Sox for 86 championship-free seasons, replaced by a room of men jumping to the beat before eyeing their first target and sullying his perfect coif of gray hair.
Dombrowski didn’t object when he was lifted and dumped into the blue bin. He emerged sodden, perhaps a bit shivery, officially christened champion. “Little wet,” he said. “That’s all right. We’ll take it.”
He walked down a hallway adjacent to the clubhouse, one through which Mitch Moreland would trod 10 minutes later. Moreland was looking for someone. He emerged with a man slung over his shoulder. He returned with a purpose. Dombrowski would not be the only one taking a bath. It was Alex Cora’s turn.
Since becoming the Red Sox’s 47th manager a year ago, Cora had left an indelible mark on the organization. Before the season, he flew around the country to meet with Red Sox players and imbue in them the notion that this was a championship team. It wasn’t about Boston carrying a $200 million-plus payroll or featuring an incredible array of talent. He wanted to create a culture of trust, in which he didn’t need to take the temperature of the clubhouse because players would tell him when it was too hot or too cold. And as that faith grew, month by month, it led the Red Sox to October, where he would not need to ask them to do the incredible things they did, because they were the ones volunteering for it.
So at 10:19 p.m., when Cora went second into the dunk tank, it culminated a surreal year, a sublime October, a fulfillment of a promise that he would be the leader they needed. That his ability to massage player egos and delegate to coaches, to confide in his scouting apparatus and depend on his training staff, to manage – manage people far more than strategy, something at which he happened to excel, too – would position the Red Sox to weather the vagaries and foibles of short series in October.
To do so in the autoclave that is Boston necessitates a rare self-assuredness, and for Cora to master that balance in his first season only emboldened him. It’s why, when the world simply assumed he was going to start Sale in Game 5, Cora pivoted elsewhere with conviction. The Boston Red Sox hadn’t gotten to the cusp of a championship relying on convention. They weren’t going to start now.
Game 4 of the World Series, perhaps more than any, exemplified the 2018 Red Sox. The previous day, they slogged through the longest game in postseason history, a 7-hour, 20-minute, 18-inning ultramarathon the Dodgers won, 3-2. When Los Angeles jumped to a 4-0 lead in Game 4, Boston, facing the possibility of a series tie, stormed back. Moreland hit a pinch-hit, three-run home run. Pearce whacked a game-tying shot. The Red Sox put up five runs in the ninth inning. The pitching held up. When Boston locked down a 9-6 win, the bullpen door in right field swung open, and the relief corps jogged in to celebrate.
Among them was David Price. He had started and won Game 2, pitched in relief in Game 3 and loosened up in Game 4 in case Cora needed a left-handed reliever. Never before had a manager so taxed him. When he arrived in the dugout after the Red Sox’s third win of the series, Price high-fived Dustin Pedroia, the only non-rookie left from Boston’s 2013 championship team. Behind Pedroia stood Cora.
“Tomorrow’s you,” he told Price.
Price was surprised. Like everyone else, he assumed Sale was starting. It didn’t faze him. Immediately, Price went into preparation mode. He grabbed dinner, put on his headphones and ate in the office of Red Sox traveling secretary Jack McCormick. Back at the hotel, he hopped on his Xbox, opened Fortnite and teamed with Eovaldi for a few games of duos. This is their custom, with Eovaldi dropping into the war zone of Tilted Towers, Price preferring the safer terrain of Wailing Woods, both keen to forget baseball for a few hours at a time. Even after Game 3, following his herculean six-inning relief effort, Eovaldi said Price “wanted me to get on, but I was a little tired. So I got on that next morning, and we got a couple dubs.”
Earlier this season, when Price missed a start with carpal tunnel issues, his love of Fortnite grew into the latest talking point to crucify him. Ever since he signed a seven-year, $217 million deal as a free agent Dec. 4, 2015, Price had seen the worst of playing in Boston. He flopped in his first postseason start in 2016. He didn’t make the playoff rotation in 2017. He lasted five outs in his Oct. 6 division series start against the Yankees. His first ALCS start wasn’t much better. In his first 10 career postseason starts, Price’s team didn’t win once.
For Cora to call on him Sunday was a decision informed by strategy, sure. Boston would give Sale extra rest in case it needed him for Game 6. More than that, it was faith, in what Price had shown with six shutout innings in the Red Sox’s pennant-clinching win and his first World Series start in another victory and the two-thirds of an inning he offered on one day’s rest in Game 3. Cora believed in Price because Price believed in himself.
All postseason, Cora has used his phone as a de facto decision maker. Those hours, days, weeks, months of forging relationships – they comforted Boston’s staff to the point that almost every night during the postseason Cora would hear from his pitchers postgame via text. Ready for tomorrow, one message would say. Put me in, another would. It wasn’t just Price. It was everyone. The Red Sox embraced the all-hands-on-deck mentality of modern baseball in October, and nobody exemplified it like the highest-paid pitcher in history.
Price showed no signs of wear in Game 5. Both of his fastballs, the high four-seamer and sinking two-seamer, sizzled. His changeup plummeted. Staked a 2-0 lead on Pearce’s first-inning home run off Clayton Kershaw, Price yielded a solo homer of his own, to leadoff hitter David Freese. And then he cruised. Yasiel Puig singled in the second inning. Freese tripled in the third when Martinez lost a flyball in the lights. After that, nothing. Price dismissed 14 consecutive Dodgers, with an array of groundouts and flyouts and strikeouts. When Price walked Chris Taylor to lead off the eighth, Cora pulled him. Exactly 30 minutes later, he ran back onto the field, square into the revelry forming around Sale after he struck out Manny Machado for the final out.
Following the presentation of the Commissioner’s Trophy, Price hugged family members and wiped away tears and chased his 1-year-old son, Xavier, around the outfield. His father, Bonnie, hoped this would change the perception of Price in Boston, where in his initial news conference he said he was saving his playoff wins for the Red Sox and wanted to bring the city a championship.
“He got a ring. He fulfilled his commitment,” Bonnie said. “The day they signed him, he said he wanted to win a World Series. He’s done that. Now they can leave him alone. Fans can.”
Bonnie doesn’t think they will. He knows baseball. He knows Boston. He knows the marriage of the two supercharges emotions. He knows his son will have bad games, bad stretches, and that loyalty goes only so far. He’s cynical because he saw what baseball and Boston had done to his son. “Wouldn’t it have worn on you?” Bonnie asked. “Yeah. It did. But he’s a good man. He’s a good man.”
To Price, this was about more than being a good man or even a good pitcher. It was about the questions, the skepticism, the doubts, the words, the hatred, all of which he harvested, dry-milled, ground up, fermented and turned into the fuel that drove him Sunday.
“I hold all the cards now,” Price said. “And that feels so good. That feels so good. I can’t tell you how good it feels to hold that trump card. And you guys have had it for a long time. You’ve played that card extremely well. But you don’t have it anymore. None of you do. And that feels really good.”
It was vengeful and it was petty and it was perfectly his. Although it wouldn’t be fair to say it was David Price’s alone, because without the work of others in the Red Sox organization, his triumph in the second half of October would not have been possible.
In the 2018 postseason, the rampant hunt for the tiniest advantage emerged as a defining story. It wasn’t just the obvious cases, like the Houston Astros dispatching a gofer to spy on the opposing team’s dugout while wielding a cellphone camera. It’s the thirst for information. Not necessarily statistical, either. Every team employs analysts. Most use the same data set. The best teams succeed by playing the right angles.
For Price, it turned out, that angle was first base. Unbeknownst to the Red Sox, the Yankees believed Price was tipping his changeup. Only it wasn’t visible to the hitter. The first-base coach could deduce when Price was throwing a changeup and would signal the hitter. With his cut fastball becoming a pitch he used less and less, taking the changeup out of the equation made hitters’ jobs even easier. The Yankees jumped him.
Houston also knew about Price’s tipping and did the same in Game 2 of the ALCS. Over the four days between then and Price’s Game 5 start, the Red Sox cracked the tell. They also eliminated his cutter almost entirely, making the changeup even more important. Price threw a career-high 39 changeups that night. The Astros swung and missed a dozen times after doing so once in Game 2.
His wasn’t Boston’s only on-the-fly fix. As the postseason wore on, the Red Sox feared runners on second base were seeing the unique grip Kimbrel and others use on their curveballs. With a so-called knuckle curve, pitchers bend their index finger and put pressure on the fingertip, exposing the knuckle. Upon seeing the grip from behind, the runner at second can relay the pitch type home – a disaster for Kimbrel, who throws only a fastball and curveball.
The Red Sox prescribed a tricky antidote: Sometimes, as they prepared to throw a fastball, the knuckle-curve-throwing pitchers would flash a knuckle to deke the runner at second. As they went into their windups, the pitchers surreptitiously slid their index fingers onto the ball and pumped a fastball to unsuspecting hitters expecting a curve.
“It can be tough, but that’s part of this game,” Kimbrel said. “You’ve got to switch things up. You’ve got to change it at times. Especially if the other team’s picking it up. If that was what it took, it’s what we had to do. You’re always trying to hide your pitches. You either do or you don’t.”
Once Price and Kimbrel started to, the execution of the plan Boston hatched during spring training went even more flawlessly. The Red Sox vowed at the beginning of the season to manage their starters’ innings and pitch counts. For Price to stay fresh, they tried to keep him below 100 pitches per game. In six of his seasons, Price had exceeded 100 pitches at least 25 games. This year, he did it nine times.
It wasn’t just him. After Boston let its starters go 100-plus pitches 15 times during June, they ramped down as the season progressed, with seven such outings in July, five in August and just three in September. No Red Sox pitcher went beyond 116 pitches in a game all year.
“We understood that we have a chance to get to this point,” Red Sox pitching coach Dana LeVangie said. “We want to make sure when we get here, David Price is well. Everything we did, starting in spring training, was to lead up to this point. Everything we did with everyone was for this.”
They saw it during spring training. They started to understand it was real when they won 17 of their first 19. They took a division lead July 2 they wouldn’t relinquish. They swept the Yankees to start August, by which point they had acquired Pearce and Eovaldi in a pair of brilliant trades. They jammed the gas pedal, even in September, because relentlessness is not a trait with an on-off switch.
That’s who these Boston Red Sox are. They are Pearce taking Kershaw deep in the first and Pedro Báez out in the eighth, just another insurance run in a postseason where they outscored opponents 84-51. They are Betts hitting his first postseason home run off Kershaw in the sixth, when every pitch from Price was courting a tie game, and Martinez tagging Kershaw an inning later with a shot out to dead-center field. They are Joe Kelly relieving Price after the eighth-inning walk and striking out the side. They are Sale appearing in the ninth and blowing away the game’s final three batters, including Machado, who waved through a slider so badly he wound up on one knee, as if this was the kind of team worthy of genuflection.
Back near the dunk tank, they weren’t talking about legacy or history or how the 2018 Red Sox stack up to the 1998 Yankees or the Big Red Machine-era Reds or the Cardinals of the 1940s or the ’39 Yankees or ’27 Yankees. Only the Yankees of two decades ago logged more wins in a championship season than Boston’s 119.
The questions about where these Red Sox belong in the annals could wait. Before the baseball world can consume this team, before the city of Boston feasts on them during a parade, they wanted to appreciate this and enjoy it among themselves. Any prickliness was a defense mechanism, like a sea urchin trying to protect the delicate uni inside, lest anyone contaminate this perfect moment.
As the players pursued more ice baths to give – athletic trainer Brad Pearson, whose treatments kept Boston’s arms fresh as Cora and LeVangie consistently used starters in relief roles, got drenched after Dombrowski and Cora – Pearce stood outside the clubhouse, his face almost straining not to smile. He was shirtless and wet and giddy.
“I’ve been working toward this for my entire life,” he said. “For this moment. I don’t know how to feel. It’s like I’m not inside my body right now.”
That went for so many. Year after year, as the Chicago White Sox failed to make the postseason, Sale lamented his place in the baseball world. All he wanted was to pitch in the playoffs. And then last year, when he did, he allowed the home run that knocked Boston out in the division series. That the Red Sox won as handily as they did all October with Sale pitching only 15 1/3 innings makes the championship all the more incredible. Coming into Game 5, his most memorable contribution was the mid-game tirade that preceded the Game 4 comeback – which, Sale admitted, “I look like an idiot if Mitch doesn’t hit that home run.” He envisioned starting Game 5, doing what Price did. He was given something just as good.
“I got to throw the last pitch of a World Series,” Sale said. “I can’t complain.”
Nobody could. Not Pearce, who will enter free agency this winter having joined Babe Ruth and Ted Kluszewski as the only players 35 and older with a multihomer game in the World Series, and not Eovaldi, who will join Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel and Charlie Morton as this offseason’s most sought-after free-agent starters. Not Alex Cora, who became the fifth rookie manager to take a team to a championship, and not Dave Dombrowski, who gutted the Red Sox’s farm system and doesn’t have a single regret, not with the ring coming his way.
Least of all David Price, who, when he left the field, amid the picture-taking and embraces and general merriment, chucked his hat over the safety netting into the morass of Red Sox fans left over among the 54,367 who packed Dodger Stadium. Hopefully, he said, someone rooting for Boston got it. He wanted to give the person a story to tell for the rest of his or her lives. And perhaps it was just the gravity of this all, of the Boston Red Sox winning another World Series, of David Price being in the center of it, but in that moment he seemed to forget something.
He already had.
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