You can call it luck, you can call it magic, you can call it a sense of purpose or determination or alchemy or chemistry -- but know that it was something.
Make no mistake -- talent wins. And the Red Sox compiled a roster of players with established track records that represented the sort of skill sets the team believed would contribute to the restoration of some (unknown) degree of success in 2013.
But by their own admission, they didn't expect THIS. Statistical models that looked at the stats of the Red Sox roster in a theoretical vacuum and used them to project a potential wins total never would have come up with a reasonable likelihood that the team could claim either the 97 victories it forged in the regular season or the 11 additional ones in the postseason.
The Sox, after all, just wanted to be better than they were in 2012. They were confident that they would be, but no one in the front office at the end of the offseason anticipated quite the nature of the turnaround that awaited them.
"We expected the step would be in the right direction. We just didn't know how big a step it would be," said Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino. "[The 2013 season was] surprising [for] everybody and ourselves a bit."
So how did the surprise occur? For starters, nearly every player -- most notably, those coming off of down years -- performed at something close to the upper limit of what their careers suggested they were capable of accomplishing. Players like Shane Victorino and John Lackey and Jon Lester and Jacoby Ellsbury returned from struggles in 2012 to turn in outstanding years in 2013.
Yet the fact that so many members of the roster performed at something approximating their best merely serves to raise another question: How did that happen? Why, after a 2012 season in which the majority of players on the Red Sox performed at or near career-worsts did the exact opposite happen this year?
Ultimately, the 2013 Red Sox gained strength and were better for something that they shared as teammates, in a fashion that made believers out of hardened skeptics.
John Henry was one such skeptic. The Red Sox' principal owner made his fortune in quantitative analysis. He believed in the truth of numbers and had bought into the notion that chemistry more often followed winning than created it. But this year, a team that pursued a relentless march to a championship offered something different.
In the moments that followed the Red Sox' 6-1 victory over the Cardinals at Fenway Park that clinched the third triumph of the current ownership group's tenure, an observer suggested to Henry that this championship team had altered drastically his view of the potential impact of chemistry.
"You and me both," Henry pronounced. "The last two years would make a believer out of you, wouldn't they? It had an impact. It had an impact."
It wasn't merely theoretical. To Henry, there were times when it became palpable, even visible. It made a difference, foremost down the stretch and into the postseason.
"This was such a special group of guys. You almost didn't want to see the season end, because the force of will of these players and the affection they had for one another just seemed to drive them forward," said Henry. "Other teams get tired in August and September. They just seemed to kick it up a notch, and you felt like it was because of their affection for each other, the determination…I think they did it through sheer force of will and the fact that they wanted to win so much for each other."
It is easy to dismiss or minimize the significance of what took place off the field. After all, it can't be quantified in a way that makes it as digestible as, say, a pitcher's strikeout rate.
Yet for those who play the game, the notion that the character of a team can have an impact on its individuals is gospel. Red Sox uniform personnel raved about the fashion in which John Farrell helped to restore the focus of every day to the field, to the game, with a baseball-obsessed group of players finding like-minded teammates.
The effect was a culture of excellence. Red Sox players loved coming to the park early and finding several teammates ready to go to work with them to refine the subtle details of their games. They practiced together to improve their execution. And when they did not practice, they discussed their execution so that they could do a better job of preparing for game situations.
The result was a team striving for greatness in the details. And as the players sensed that shared purpose, they recognized the logical conclusion of the undertaking. The players felt empowered to set critical standards for each other, foremost to play the game with maximum effort and intensity, with perfection of execution.
This soon created the identity of a team that believed it could do something extraordinary.
"We all went to work everyday knowing that we're here to win a championship, we're here to actually change a culture, win a championship and perform together," said bench coach Torey Lovullo. "People who are outside of it are the last to buy in. Obviously it takes talent and hard work, and that speaks for itself. Then when you put a group of guys together who have each others' backs and will lock arms, it becomes a pretty powerful situation. That's really what goes on there. You see guys have an off-day, and the next guy will pick them up. There's no mystery to the importance of chemistry. It's what drove us. It's what motivated us each and every day and led us to this point."
Manager John Farrell spoke of what it was like "to come in and see the energy and the commitment that they had, the buying into a team concept every single day, and the one thing that really stands out more than anything is just their overall will to win, and that was no more evident than in this entire postseason."
Farrell was (kind of) new to the Red Sox in 2013, having been away during the 2011 season that ended in collapse and the 2012 season that proved dizzying from wire to wire. The team had likewise imported a number of free agents with sterling clubhouse reputations (and the on-field talent to justify the commitments to them).
Immediately, there was a sense of liberation for the holdovers, and of promise for newcomers and returning players alike. The players liked each other, enjoyed spending time with each other and wanted to succeed not just for themselves but for their teammates. There was thus a culture of accountability, players wanting to be good in order to reward the efforts of their teammates who were likewise doing everything in their power to maximize their abilities.
The result was felt by those around the club on an everyday basis.
"I can't compare it to anything else. I just know that this is a unique group," said GM Ben Cherington. "I think once we got into the season, of course you don't know what the outcome is going to be, but it felt like this was a different group of people -- the way they were coming together, the way they were giving up for each other was completely selfless. For a team with this many talents and established players to be as selfless as they were, it was just a lot of fun to be around, a lot of fun for us to be around."
It was more than fun, however. The culture was one that produced success and minimized failure, the Sox managing to go an entire year without a single four-game losing streak. That was a claim that the star-studded championship teams of 2004 and 2007 could not make. The 2013 Red Sox followed a different roster script from those predecessors.
"We probably don't have the talent that we had in '07 and '04, but we have guys that are capable of staying focused and doing the little things," said David Ortiz. "And when you win with a ball club like that, that's special."
A CULTURE THAT EXTENDED BEYOND THE CLUBHOUSE
Yet the shared purpose was not just limited to the likemindedness of players.
The hiring of Farrell resulted in something that felt very different from the previous year. Then, Cherington was often forced to manage conflicts between players or coaches and Valentine, the result of which was a natural tension between the GM and manager.
Not so in 2013. Instead, the working relationship between Farrell and Cherington was most notable for its ease and common purpose, even when there were disagreements.
"There was a connectedness [between Farrell and the baseball operations department] that was really very great, and that was another important lesson," said Lucchino.
So, too, was the improved cooperation between different parts of the front office. Whereas Cherington's tenure as GM got off to an awkward start when the team's owners sent the baseball operations department back to the drawing board after a second-round interview with Dale Sveum in November 2011, there was no such discomfort with the hiring of Farrell. Indeed, starting late in the 2012 campaign, the groundwork was laid for greater understanding with the franchise-altering deal that permitted the organization to regain its footing.
"Everybody in the organization functioned as one," said Lucchino. "This was not just a great team in the clubhouse. This was a great team in the front office. That's particularly satisfying for someone in my position.
"I don't want to go into [what it took to get to that point], but I'd start everything with the Dodgers trade and the harmony that was evident as we worked through that trade and then the collaboration that took place throughout the offseason."
An organization that seemed to be sagging under its own weight en route to a last-place finish in 2012 seemed to represent something very different in 2013. Members of different departments once again seemed to work well together, resulting in productive dialogue rather than suspicion.
Farrell, in an interview on WEEI on Wednesday afternoon, referred repeatedly to the notion that the organization functioned "in lockstep" throughout the season. Again, that development helped to return the players' focus to what was transpiring on the field on a nightly basis, something that could help to restore not only the team's success on the field but also its community standing off of it.
THE RESTORATION OF A TRUST
The harmonious vibrations that spread across the organization in turn recaptured the enthusiasm of a fan base that had grown weary of infighting. The team had hoped to prove itself worthy of its partisans during the offseason. Lucchino recalled conducting an ad campaign centered around the notion, "That which is broken can be fixed."
"We knew that something broke," said Lucchino, "and we had to fix it."
The Sox had the right group to do just that. The players understood their responsibility to a baseball culture and region. And then, when the Marathon bombings left a city shaken, the players on the Sox displayed a sincere empathy that proved meaningful in multiple ways.
It wasn't simply that the players understood that they could offer a momentary reprieve to some of the people most directly affected by the tragedy -- though that was certainly important.
"They get it," said Farrell. "They get that there's, I think, a civic responsibility that we have wearing this uniform, particularly here in Boston. And it became a connection initially, the way our guys reached out to individuals or to hospital visits. And it continued to build throughout the course of the season. I think our fans, they got to a point where they appreciated the way we played the game, how they cared for one another. And in return, they gave these guys an incredible amount of energy to thrive on in this ballpark.
"I'm sure that everybody in our uniform, whether they are here going forward or elsewhere, they'll look back on the events that took place and the way things unfolded as a special year. There's no way we can say it any other way."
The players ultimately found even greater meaning on the field in the idea that they were not just playing for themselves, not just for their teammates but also, in a very genuine way, for Boston and the region. The 2013 Red Sox made themselves a part of their community, reinforcing the purposefulness with which they pursued excellence.
“I don’t think a win/loss record sums up how much we care about this city,” Gomes said. “I’ll tell you what, I don’t think we put Boston on our back, I think we jumped on their back. They wouldn’t let us quit. This World Series isn’t icing on the cake, this has turned into a lifetime.”
In that sense, the culmination of the year felt, for many members of the Red Sox, fitting. This team, which had embraced and popularized the notion of "Boston Strong," won a championship at Fenway Park -- the first time the Sox had hoisted baseball's ultimate prize at home since 1918.
The experience of players jumping atop each other in recognition of a shared triumph represented, in the words of reliever Craig Breslow, "an unbelievable feeling -- total selflessness and just complete buying into winning and putting the team first."
For the members of the organization, the experience of this championship was about being a part of something larger than themselves on an individual basis -- something felt between a group of players and, even more broadly, between a team and a city.
"[Winning at Fenway] feels very satisfying," said Lucchino. "It also is a perfect culmination for the connection between the team and the town. We didn't just win it. We won it at home for you guys to sort of soak it in as well."
There will be one more soaking, one more moment of connection between the players and the fans. And that will be the most triumphant conclusion of all, when the team parades its newly won trophy across a city.
“I really don’t know how to sum it up," Gomes said impishly, "besides, it’s time to cue the duck boats.”