ANAHEIM, Calif. – It would be wonderful, so much simpler, and certainly cheaper, if an overachieving ballclub were merely a reflection of the chummy relationships in its clubhouse. If a group dinner at Applebee's was worth a few wins. Hold the elevator: a quality start. Aim your spit politely downwind? That's a walk-off gapper.
Of all the immeasurable stuff in baseball that's now sort of measurable, including a man's worth as compared to a fictional player with skills relatable to a quadruple-A standard, which does not exist either, there is no metric for getting along. Yet.
So, when the Boston Red Sox deconstructed a spectacularly dysfunctional 93-loss team, their first last-place team in two decades, and rebuilt it with what had become known as "character guys," there were misgivings. While some among Red Sox management believed the club could be "sneaky competitive," most of the world saw an earnest, hard-working and poised last-place team whose players would, nevertheless, root hard for each other to succeed. Because that's what character guys do.
Well, turns out, the Red Sox are good. Barring something very ugly on a West Coaster through Anaheim, Seattle and Oakland that brings them into the All-Star break, they'll open the second half leading the AL East and with the best record in the American League. Anyone who saw that coming had conveniently ignored the immediate past, which came with an erratic bullpen, a worse starting rotation, David Ortiz's heel, Mike Napoli's hip, Jacoby Ellsbury's various X-rays, Shane Victorino's second half, Jose Iglesias' bat, Daniel Nava's glove, Jonny Gomes' splits, Stephen Drew's career arc, the Baltimore Orioles' 2012, the Toronto Blue Jays' winter, the Tampa Bay Rays' heart, and a lot of other signs the Red Sox just might get worse before they got better.
After missing so badly on Bobby Valentine, they'd hired John Farrell. They'd moved out Josh Beckett, along with Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis. They'd loaded up on Gomes, Victorino, David Ross, Napoli, Drew and Ryan Dempster. They'd hoped for more out of Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester. They'd maybe get their clubhouse back, their manager's office back. They'd exhale, retake their dignity, work at that sneaky competitive thing, and get back to playing the game.
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It's worked. You know why? Not because they're exchanging Beanie Babies on their birthdays. Not because Gomes can tell a joke. Not because Dempster does a great Harry Caray during rain delays.
"It's not really a secret with what we're doing," Dustin Pedroia said. "We're playing the game better. It's not like we're trying to do anything everybody else doesn't do."
No amount of camaraderie would make the Red Sox the best offensive team in the American League. Which they are. Or knock nearly a run off their 2012 ERA. Which they've done.
You know what brings a team together? John Lackey coming back from Tommy John surgery, knocking off 25 pounds, adding velocity and command, and posting a 2.80 ERA.
You know what else?
And Pedroia resuming his scrappy MVP-ness. Ortiz coming back to bat .313 and lead the team in home runs (17) and RBIs (61).
Yes, Farrell is a consistent, soothing voice. The players trust him, because he is direct and honest, and because he harbors no hidden agendas, and because he's not Bobby. His coaching staff – the likes of hitting coach Greg Colbrunn, pitching coach Juan Nieves, bench coach Torey Lovullo – is working-class smart and loyal.
So, yeah, everybody likes each other, laughs with Gomes, is inspired by Pedroia and believes in the manager.
The Red Sox don't happen, however, if, for example, Daniel Nava hadn't gone home, worked endlessly on his defense, become a capable outfielder and first baseman and given the club a reason to have his bat in the lineup every day. In what's looking like his first full big-league season, at 30, Nava is hitting .294 with 10 homers and 50 RBIs.
They don't happen if Jose Iglesias, the defensive wizard, hadn't gone home, hooked up with hitting coach Leo Posada (Jorge's uncle) in Miami, then Pedroia in Arizona, and come away with new ideas regarding his approach, plate discipline and pitch selection. In 44 games, he's batting .403.
"It's a pretty good feeling, you know what I mean?" Iglesias said. "It's hard work. It's dedication. The bottom line, the most important thing is, you want to get better."
They don't happen if Lackey had remained soft, both in body and fastball. If Buchholz hadn't been determined to be Buchholz again. If Mike Carp hadn't shown up and covered important innings in left and at first base, and then hit .414 with runners in scoring position.
In the end, no matter how much tummy rubbing and hand holding, it's about the baseball. Even as Farrell talks about how this team's spirit reminds him of the '07 club, let's also remember that that team – a world champion – scored a ton of runs and had the best pitching in the league.
That's not to say the rest of it isn't important, especially in a clubhouse that had its share of crises – of personality, of confidence – last season. But, first, they had to play well. They had to make the plays. They had to show up, in both body and mind. If they got along, too, well, that'd make for a grand time at Applebee's.
"Gosh, it's been a fun year," Nava said. "The tone was set from the beginning. Then, you combine a good player with a great teammate and it has a good chance to breed success."
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