Every now and then a baseball team comes along and steals your heart. This year’s Red Sox have stolen thousands.
Don’t let that demean the St. Louis Cardinals. I have the greatest respect for the Cardinals’ organization and the team they’ve put together.
Or, rather, the team they put together virtually every year. One that’s highly entertaining, plays the game the right way and gives its millions of fans across the Midwest myriad reasons to visit their ballpark each summer.
They build their teams from within, disdaining expensive free agents (listening, Frank Wren?). They’d rather let one of the game’s best hitters walk away than field an incomplete team hamstrung by a big salary.
And here they are again, two years after the egress of Albert Pujols, back in the World Series. And deservedly so, with the National League’s best record and a team that’s solid throughout the lineup, rotation, bench and bullpen.
Ah, but these Red Sox. They posted the best record in the American League against all odds. They went far beyond fashioning baseball’s latest worst-to-first magic.
They ended August 2011 with an 83-52 record in first place in the AL East. Then they slogged through a 7-20 September, lost a playoff spot on the season’s final day and endured intense media scrutiny into player dysfunction.
They even managed to cost Terry Francona his job. Francona, the only man to manage the Red Sox to a World Series triumph in the past 90 years. And he won two!
Then came 2012. The Bobby Valentine Nightmare. A season that saw the Red Sox sink into last place before April ended, play uninspired ball throughout the summer and rally not to save Valentine’s job by going 16-42 in August and September.
Those are the humble beginnings of this year’s Sox.
They did purge some large salaries during the Lost Summer which allowed the Sox to bring in some new faces this year. But who knew you could build a pennant winner around the likes of Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew and Jonny Gomes?
Ben Cherington, that’s who. The Sox general manager knew that every one of the new faces was someone with character, someone who would be great in the clubhouse. But a trip to the World Series?
"We weren’t really thinking about it," Cherington told Gordon Edes of ESPNBoston.com. "But once we got into the season, saw this team come together, the personalities in this room, you stop getting surprised.
"Every time they were tested, they stepped up and met the test. They want to win, they want to win together, and they find a way to win together."
The tests were plenty. David Ortiz missed all of spring training and didn’t play until April 20 due to an Achilles problem. The team’s sparkplug, second baseman Dustin Pedroia, tore a thumb ligament on Opening Day.
In May, closers Joel Hanrahan and Andrew Bailey were lost for the season, along with promising set-up man Andrew Miller. Then the league’s best starter, Clay Buchholz, was lost for three months.
The adversity just made Saturday’s pennant winning all the sweeter. As Ortiz told Edes, "The one thing that I like most about this year, what makes it more special, is that nobody thought we were going to go this far."
New manager John Farrell kept the Sox on an even keel all summer. They led the division at the end of each calendar month. They went 18-8 in April, 15-15 in May, 17-11 in June, 15-10 in July, 16-12 in August and 16-9 in September.
Steady consistency. What was the key?
As Ortiz said during Saturday’s trophy presentation ceremony, nodding at Farrell, "He was more like a father to us than a boss. He let us know from the first day of spring training that he had our backs."
Farrell, the Sox pitching coach from 2007-2010, brilliantly installed Koji Uehara as his closer. Uehara proved almost flawless, eventually winning the ALCS MVP award. That came despite Uehara’s admission that when he entered Saturday’s game with the pennant on the line, "I almost threw up!"
Farrell coaxed great comeback seasons from starters Jon Lester and John Lackey. Lester pitched two strong games in the ALCS, and Lackey outpitched Justin Verlander for a series-turning 1-0 win in Game 3.
Farrell inspired a team-first spirit, reflected by Daniel Nava when Jonny Gomes got the start in left field for Game 6.
"I was talking to Jonny before the game, and we both echoed the same thing," Nava told Joe McDonald of ESPNBoston.com. "We don’t care if we’re in the lineup or not in the lineup. People are making a big deal about it, but all we want is a chance to win the ring."
Everyone stepped up and did their part. Like rookie third baseman Xander Bogaerts, who worked Tigers ace Max Scherzer for three full counts in Game 6, garnering a double and two walks. Or Stephen Drew, who went 1-for-20 in the ALCS, but made several crucial plays at shortstop.
"People go through skids sometimes," Buchholz told McDonald, "but he’s the guy that stands out in my head as the guy who makes a big play whenever we need it.
"We’re just a bunch of ballplayers."
Just a bunch of ballplayers who’ll steal your heart.