The Boston Red Sox aren’t just good right now. To steal a line from the breakfast cereal tiger, they’re great.
It wasn’t long ago, say nine months, that the Red Sox were not only the laughingstocks of Boston sports but were also a distant fourth in terms of prestige among the Big Four -- including the Patriots, Bruins and Red Sox.
Now the other three frachises are in a state of flux or mired in controversy, with character issues, trades and blown opportunities.
Nobody could have predicted this, your Boston Red Sox and all of their good guys, turning it around so quickly, literally going from worst to first. And it was directed, no less, by another kid general manager, Ben Cherington -- he’s not yet at Boy Wonder status as his predecessor Theo Epstein was for much of his tenure here.
After a few months with six or seven thousand empty seats, Fenway Park is filling up again, almost as it had for a 10-year stretch.
Baseball is officially back.
The day, Oct. 25, 2011, marked a joyous celebration for Cherington, a young New Hampshire native who had worked countless hours to ascend to the job he had targeted since first accepting an internship with the Boston Red Sox in the late ’90s.
Red Sox President/CEO Larry Lucchino named Cherington, then just 37 years old, to the second most pressure-packed job in New England sports -- general manager of the Red Sox (manager, of course, is first).
Cherington’s mother, Gretchen, was at the introductory press conference and assured, “He’s been preparing for this job for a long time. Ben is ready.”
Everything was perfect on Day 1. Then came Day 2, 3, 4, 5 ... not such joyous occasions.
Cherington was left with a core of underachieving, entitled superstars and an out-of-control payroll, which made it virtually impossible to add the necessary free agent pitchers to improve the team.
Worst of all, Lucchino meddled in baseball operations, regrettably pushing manager Bobby Valentine on Cherington.
Cherington’s first year in his dream job ended in a 69-win, last-place disaster.
But two good things happened:
1. The Red Sox were able to swing an August megadeal that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto and their bloated contracts to the Los Angeles Dodgers. The deal provided crucial payroll flexibility.
2. Lucchino, whose overly hands-on approach was a major reason former GM Theo Epstein left for the Chicago Cubs, left Cherington alone to handle the baseball decisions.
Cherington did a fine job this past offseason, picking the right manager, respected and sometimes intimidating John Farrell, and adding considerable depth and a new core of fun-loving, high-character and talented players.
They have changed the culture of the clubhouse and made baseball fun again in Boston.
The newcomers have helped return the Red Sox to their once very successful philosophy of grinding out at-bats and making pitchers work hard.
Cherington should stand proud. The guys who are helping this team win are his players. This group, which entered the weekend with the best record in the American League, is his team.
They are on a pace to win 99 games, a whopping 30 more than during the ill-fated 2012 season, which came on the heels of the infamous chicken-and-beer-fueled late 2011 collapse.
“I’ve never thought about it as my team,” Cherington told The Eagle-Tribune. “This is the Red Sox. It belongs to the players. It belongs to ownership, It belongs to the fans. We (baseball operations) are just here trying to do the best we can to put the best team on the field.”
The GM’s imprint is all over this year’s club. Cherington is the likely frontrunner for MLB Executive of the Year.
“He’s always had sort of a low ego,” said Padres GM Josh Byrnes, who worked with Cherington in the Indians and Red Sox organizations. “So I think his ability to build consensus and work through a decision as the leader would lead to good decisions. ... And he grew up a baseball guy.”
Resembles Epstein turnaround
The players Boston acquired this offseason not only are talented but also have embraced playing in this city, with its demanding fandom and wall-to-wall media.
When asked the grade he’d give himself for his busy offseason, the second-year GM replied, “Incomplete.”
“We’re halfway through the season,” he added. “I don’t think there’s a grade yet.”
Byrnes pointed out that Cherington is doing something similar to what former GM Epstein did a decade ago, when Boston added leaders like Kevin Millar, Bill Mueller, David Ortiz and Mike Timlin and also simultaneously built considerable depth.
Byrnes said depth and strong clubhouse character are essential for winning.
“Especially here (in Boston) because there’s obviously more scrutiny,” Byrnes added.
Cherington insists he considered players’ talent first before their character. That character, or lack thereof, is often cited for the 2011 collapse, when the club improbably blew a 9-game wild-card lead in the last month of the season.
“You can have a room full of good guys but if we’re losing every game in May, then probably by the middle of May it’s not going to be a very fun place to be,” Cherington said. “So I think it has to start with talent. Talent wins games.”
Picking players is an imperfect science. As Cherington noted, “Baseball is too hard.”
“But if you get more right than you get wrong and you’re able to build from within and bring young guys up from the minors, you have a chance to win games.”
Cherington added several clubhouse leaders, including Mike Napoli, Jonny Gomes, Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster and David Ross.
But questions lingered. Was Victorino on the downside of his career with declining bat speed?
Was it wise to sign Gomes to two years when the outfielder struggles to hit against righties?
Could Ryan Dempster and his ordinary 89-mph fastball handle the offensive juggernauts of the rough-and-tumble AL East?
It appears Cherington hit on most of his acquisitions.
Victorino has produced while batting second in the lineup. Dempster entered his start yesterday with a respectable 4.11 ERA and is second on the team in innings pitched. Gomes hasn’t been the everyday starter in left field, but he has provided tremendous clubhouse leadership and has been Mr. Clutch, with two walk-off homers, including one at Fenway on Wednesday.
Cherington didn't hit on every move (closer Joel Hanrahan was a bust, needing Tommy John surgery), but for the most part, he deserves high grades.
“I’m not as good as the collective intelligence of the people around me,” Cherington said. “I think one of the things we tried to do last winter was to get back to a process and fundamentals that we care about the most.”
The process included being wise in terms of the length in years of contracts. So no more deals like Gonzalez' (seven years, $154 million) or Crawford's (seven years, $142 million).
Also, Boston is putting an emphasis on building from within -- drafting and developing talent.
Cherington and his staff also targeted free-agent hitters able to grind out long at-bats and work starting pitchers to get them out of games early to get to bullpens.
“The offense we have right now is in a lot of ways reminiscent of many Red Sox teams in the past,” Farrell said. “Lot of deep counts. ... This goes back to a lot of conversation in the offseason on who we were going to target.”
‘By no means done’
The Red Sox are in first place but don’t expect them to part with any top prospects as the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline approaches.
“We’re trying to do what we can to help this team right now in any way that we can while not fundamentally getting in the way of what we hope is a really good team for a long time,” Cherington said.
“We’re always going to focus first on whether we can find those solutions from within (in the minor league system). That’s always the best way to do it.”
The Red Sox are winning, and the minor league system looks better than it has in years, especially with the additions of right-handed pitchers Rubby De La Rosa and Allen Webster, who were part of the blockbuster trade with the Dodgers.
Webster has already contributed in a big way. With ace Clay Buchholz on the disabled list, Webster pitched six strong innings Thursday to earn his first big league win.
“We had an opportunity after last year to try to put things back on track and we’ve taken a good step towards that,” Cherington said. “But by no means are we done. We have a lot of work left to do.”