September 21, 2013

From worst to first, Red Sox return to postseason

By JIMMY GOLEN, The Associated Press

BOSTON — The Boston Red Sox were one win away from clinching a playoff berth, and Fenway Park was packed with its biggest crowd of the season.

click image to enlarge

Boston Red Sox GM Ben Cherington, right, is embraced by one of his players after the Red Sox clinched the AL East title with a 6-3 win over the Toronto Blue Jays in a baseball game at Fenway Park on Friday night.

AP

The fans didn't just come to this midweek game against Baltimore hoping to celebrate their team's return to the postseason. It was also "Dollar Beard Night," which drew more than 4,000 – with still more turned away – sporting real or phony facial hair to honor the hirsute heroes who turned a last-place and unlovable team into the best in baseball in just one year.

"Werewolves of London" played over the ballpark speakers while the scoreboard video cut from men with long-curated shrubs on their chins to women and children with fake facial hair glued or painted on. Even the team's mascot, Wally the Green Monster, slapped on some felt to get in on the Whiskers Rebellion.

"The beards are part of the camaraderie. It's almost intense," Red Sox owner John Henry said shortly after first baseman Mike Napoli homered to tie the game and set off the now-traditional beard-tugging celebration. "I, for one, underestimated – potentially have always underestimated – the effect of camaraderie."

A throwback to the times when the Red Sox had to hustle to sell tickets, "Dollar Beard Night" also brought back memories of the beloved Boston teams of the not-so-distant past – the "Dirt Dogs" of the 1990s, the "Cowboy Up" team of 2003 and the "Idiots" who in '04 ended the franchise's 86-year championship drought.

Since then, though, the team fell back into some of its less-celebrated traditions. The checkbooks were opened for big-name, marketable free agents – without regard for how they would respond in the lineup, the clubhouse, or the Fenway atmosphere.

That strategy collapsed along with the ballclub in September 2011, when the team went 7-20 to blow a nine-game lead in the AL wild-card race. The following season there was no sudden breakdown: The Red Sox stumbled to a 69- 93, last-place finish that was its worst in almost half a century.

"It was a 13-month reboot," Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino said in an interview in his suite this week. "Thirteen months ago, we were down and out. And maybe something like that can be, in this perverse way, can be a positive thing for an organization that had a lot of early and sustained success. An opportunity to reassess what we were doing and how we were doing it."

The opportunity presented itself in the form of the Los Angeles Dodgers, who were willing to take Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez and more than $250 million in future salaries off Boston's hands – in one transaction cleansing many of the bad feelings, the bad contracts and the bad karma. Bobby Valentine, who had been brought in to bolster clubhouse discipline after Terry Francona's regime ended in the unprecedented collapse, was replaced by former Boston pitching coach John Farrell.

And when the team arrived for spring training this year, it could do more than talk about a fresh start. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks said players do more together off the field, and instead of sitting around the clubhouse drinking beer and eating fried chicken during games, they stick around before and after to talk baseball.

"In no way am I saying there were a lot of bad guys in here. It's just camaraderie and the way these guys have meshed together is a lot different," Middlebrooks said. "I felt like last year it was a bigger group of like superstars and a whole lot of guys that kind of do like their own thing."

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