Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: The Granite State GM should take a bow
BOSTON --- Ben Cherington managed to stay mostly dry, avoiding the spray of Korbel and Bud Light - and soaking in the moment, instead. While the Red Sox players and some of his staff doused each other in bubbly and beer to celebrate their worst-to-first achievement of becoming American League East champions, the general manager sat in the home dugout with his wife and watched the party as it spilled out of the clubhouse and back onto the infield.
"It's just satisfying to be part of something that's bigger, and that's good. That's what we wanted to do," said the Granite Stater. "I wanted to be part of something special. This is a really important step toward accomplishing something special."
He reiterated that several times over the course of the next few minutes, an acknowledgement of the degree to which the goals have changed since this club first gathered in Fort Myers, Fla., back in February. Then this season was simply about getting past last year's embarrassing disaster. Now the division doesn't seem like enough. Owners of the best record in the American League with a week to go in the regular season, it's now about winning a World Series.
It's a remarkable turnaround, the clincher coming courtesy of the Sox' 94th win - which was already 25 more than they had in 2012, and which speaks to the contributions made by so many along the way, from the clubhouse personnel, to the scouts, to the front office, all the way up to ownership. Everything and everyone has come together for the Sox throughout the organization this season, from top to bottom, and so as eager as Cherington was to point out that the division crown is just a first step, he was equally reluctant to take personal credit for the accomplishment.
But there should be no mistake: These are HIS Red Sox.
This is his team. This is built on his vision. This speedy renaissance is the product of his ability to execute the plan he laid out last fall by incorporating lessons learned during a rough rookie season in the GM role that he'd coveted growing up as a kid in Meriden, and had been groomed to assume. And, for those reasons, this is a team of which New Hampshire can be particularly proud.
Soon after last year's merciful end, Cherington set out to move forward with an emphasis on culture, and chemistry, and character - all of which forged the type of buy-in and belief that could allow the club's inherent talent to shine through. The first step there was hiring John Farrell - the manager they poached from the Blue Jays in exchange for infielder Mike Aviles, who Toronto then traded to Cleveland for Esmil Rogers, who, coincidentally, was the pitcher the Sox beat in Friday's clincher - but the attitude adjustment didn't stop there.
Cherington saw fit to overpay for veterans Jonny Gomes and David Ross. He made aggressive offers to Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster and Mike Napoli. All of them came with reputations for being guys you'd want in your clubhouse. And those were the types of guys Cherington wanted. He targeted them. He prioritized them.
And - maybe most importantly - he convinced them that the Sox were still a first-rate organization.
"We tried to find guys that we felt were the right fit for the team in the roles we needed and the holes we had to fill - that fit the team, the park, the league, et cetera - and who wanted to be in Boston, that were attracted to being a part of this," Cherington said. "We just wanted guys who wanted to be here and especially who were attracted by the opportunity.
"Coming off a year like we had, it was a leap of faith by some of those guys, and I think we all have gratitude and respect."
The GM himself thought all along that his team had a chance to compete. He saw parity across the AL East, and, after more than a decade in the organization, his intimate knowledge of its foundation and its farm system, he had hoped that they weren't as deeply buried as a 69-93 record on the heels of baseball's worst-ever September collapse might've made it seem.
They certainly needed to change course, and he knew that. But he never bought into the notion that he was at the helm of a sinking ship.
"I think at the end of last year, as tough a year as it was, we all still felt very optimistic and confident about the future," he said. "We had a lot of good things in place, including a great ownership group, and players, and young talent in the system, and scouting, and all these things that you need to be successful. Of course, based on how painful a year it was last year, it was hard for people to see that - but we felt that then.
"We just had to put the team together, keep pushing, and get the thing back going in the right direction. I'm happy for a lot of people that were here last year, went through a tough time, and are still here - including some of the players - to have this moment tonight, and hopefully it's the start of a lot more this fall."
Friday's moment in some ways epitomized this Sox club: It was fun, it was shared together, it was about taking care of business, and it was about enjoying themselves and the game. That's just the type of team Cherington set out to build last autumn. "It's a lot of guys for whom baseball is important, and winning is important, and they take it personally," he said. "They understand that when you come together and win as a team, it's a feeling like nothing else."
Collectively they've been motivated since the early days of spring training, Cherington said, driven partially by the desire to put last year behind them, and partially by the chance to do something special.
They've already succeeded in doing the first. And the second, too - although the Red Sox believe the most special things still lie ahead. And that they'll have a few more opportunities to douse their general manager in alcohol.
"The year has been obviously more enjoyable," Cherington said. "It's a great group of guys that love to play together, love to prepare and win. When you're around that, it's more fun. Just proud of this group - but we're not done."
Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.