After two months of spring training, a six-month season and a month long march through the playoffs that culminated in the Red Sox’s first World Series coronation on Fenway Park soil in 95 years, Kristi Gomes figured she had finally regained her husband’s undivided attention.
If only she could pry the phone from his hands.
The first text messages began flying almost from the moment the duck boats were sheltered after the championship parade. The players had scattered, like birds migrating south for the winter, but nearly three-quarters of the Sox’s roster was engaged in daily dialogue via a chain of texts that everyone agrees was likely instigated by Jonny Gomes, the outfielder who might as well have a Ph.D. in team chemistry. The chatter, most of which is not fit for print, ranged from workout advice and encouragement to hot-stove gossip and trash talk.
Gomes shared pictures of the new tattoo that branded the right side of his torso and served as his most permanent memento from the 2013 season. A few days after Christmas, motor-mouthed second baseman Dustin Pedroia urged, “OK, go run it off! Keep working!” And everyone begged slugging first baseman Mike Napoli to simply sign a new contract already and end the suspense of his free agency.
“It was every f—-ing day, all day,” Jonny Gomes says of the texts. “Any time some guy signed somewhere else, any time someone got traded, advice, invites here and there, checking in with each other, wishing ‘Merry Christmas,’ ‘Happy New Year,’ it was like a friggin’ frat house. I mean, I don’t think there’s one person’s wife who wasn’t sick of it.”
And if there are a few reasons to believe the Red Sox can become the first team this century to win back-to-back World Series, those messages—and what they represent—might be the biggest.
It doesn’t sound like much, teammates staying in touch during the offseason, but Gomes had never seen anything like it.
A veteran of 11 big league seasons spent with five teams, Gomes has hundreds of former teammates and friends in the game, many of whom work out at the same training facility in Scottsdale, Ariz. In baseball, everyone knows everyone, so much so that journeyman infielder Brent Lillibridge (briefly a member of the Red Sox in 2012) once memorably dubbed the majors “a sorority of guys.” Loyalties can be fleeting, especially with mercenary free agents hopping from team to team, but Gomes still shakes his head whenever he bumps into a player who doesn’t have the first clue what any of his teammates are up to.
“I’ll talk to a guy and be like, ‘Hey, how’s so-and-so?’ ” Gomes says. “And they’re like, ‘I don’t know.’ I’m like, ‘You don’t know? That’s the guy who hits behind you. You’ve got no idea?’ It happens all the time. But we were like, literally, 15 guys deep [on the text chain]. I wrote a few times, ‘Don’t take this for granted. This s—- does NOT happen.’ ”
Gomes was referring to the bond that has developed in the Red Sox’s clubhouse during the past year. After the beer-and-chicken flap that symbolized the historic collapse of September 2011 and ushered in a miserable 2012 season—one that featured a disconnect between ownership and the front office, as well as a player mutiny against out-of-touch manager Bobby Valentine—the team needed an attitude adjustment. The Sox hired even-keeled manager John Farrell and signed free agents Gomes, Napoli, catcher David Ross, pitcher Ryan Dempster and right fielder Shane Victorino, all of whom are known for their character and baseball IQ as much as their physical talent.
In a matter of months, the Sox morphed from Animal House into Band of Brothers. They grew bushy, runaway beards to mimic Gomes, wore American-flag boxer shorts in the locker room and organized team meals on the road, a routine that began on the night of April 15, when two dozen players showed up for an impromptu steak dinner at Morton’s in Cleveland to discuss how they could help after the Boston Marathon bombings.
Although the bombings may have accelerated the bonding process, these Red Sox didn’t need an overwhelming sense of civic duty as an excuse to grow close. They liked talking baseball almost as much as they enjoyed one another’s company. So as Farrell and his coaching staff focused on each day’s game and stressed attention to detail in compiling scouting reports that were thicker than War and Peace, the players lapped it up, spending hours scanning video or talking shop in the batting cage. There was a pervading sense of accountability; nobody wanted to let his teammates down.
“Guys would be like, ‘Hey, let’s go meet in so-and-so’s room tonight. We’ll hang out and talk baseball,’ ” Victorino says. “It’s just a bunch of guys that love the game. That’s the culture of this team.”
Owner John Henry’s internal projections suggested a win total in the 80s, but the players were more ambitious. On their first day as teammates in spring training, Dempster casually asked Gomes how he was doing. “Just another day closer to the parade,” Gomes said, and he wasn’t kidding. The rejoinder became popular among teammates en route to 97 regular-season wins, an AL East title and, sure enough, the Red Sox’s third World Series championship in 10 years.
Perhaps the best measure of the Sox’s astounding consistency: They never lost more than three games in a row.
Jake Peavy saw it right away. The veteran pitcher was acquired in a July 30 trade with the Chicago White Sox; a few weeks later, Gomes saw a picture of Peavy’s 5,000-acre ranch, “Southern Falls,” along the Alabama River. “When we win the World Series,” Gomes said, “you’ve got to buy the duck boat you rode on and bring it [home] with you.”
“He’s talking about a World Series parade. They all were,” Peavy says. “It’s August, and they’re talking about it like it’s going to happen. It was crazy. To be traded into that atmosphere and have a chance to play with those guys, and such a special group, it was a dream come true. It doesn’t happen very often.”
It’s equally rare for teams to win back-to-back championships.
It used to happen all the time. The New York Yankees won five World Series in a row from 1949 to ’53, and even in the decade after expansion, the Oakland Athletics captured three straight from 1972 to ’74, Cincinnati’s “Big Red Machine” won in 1975 and ’76, and the Yankees overcame their “Bronx Zoo” infighting to win in 1977 and ’78.
But since then there have been only two championship streaks. The Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back crowns in 1992 and ’93, and the Joe Torre-guided Yankees reached dynastic heights with four World Series titles in five seasons, including three in a row from 1998 to 2000. In the past 20 years, the only other organizations to even reach the World Series in back-to-back years were the 1995-96 Atlanta Braves, the 2008-09 Philadelphia Phillies and the 2010-11 Texas Rangers. Six of the past 11 World Series champs missed the playoffs entirely, one season after popping champagne. It’s no wonder Pedroia calls repeating “the toughest thing to do in sports.”
The odds are stacked against the 2014 Red Sox before they even play a game.
The Sox came tantalizingly close to back-to-back World Series appearances a few years ago. After sweeping the Colorado Rockies to win the 2007 World Series, they returned to the AL Championship Series in 2008 and took the Tampa Bay Rays to a do-or-die Game 7 before dropping a 3-1 nail-biter that Pedroia still recalls as “a huge letdown.”
“Shoot, I think we were four, five innings away, winning in the fourth or fifth,” says Pedroia, the Sox’s de facto captain. “You don’t want that feeling. Once you win, you want to stay there and be on top all the time.”
The era of free agency, which began in the mid-1970s, has only increased the challenge of defending a title, and with shortstop Stephen Drew, catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and, most significantly, center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury not returning from the championship roster, the Red Sox aren’t immune to that reality.
Although there’s confidence from the organization that young third baseman Will Middlebrooks and prized 21-year-old shortstop Xander Bogaerts will be able to pick up some of the offensive slack, Ellsbury’s defection to the rival Yankees leaves a void atop the batting order and uncertainty as to whether rookie Jackie Bradley Jr. or injury reclamation project Grady Sizemore will succeed in center field.
But while the Red Sox don’t look as good on paper as they did six months ago, they prefer to read from their phones anyway. And whenever a player on the offseason text chain brought up last year’s success, he was inundated with an off-color rallying cry that caught on so fast that Gomes had it printed on the front of T-shirts that were worn in the locker room during spring training: “Turn the f—-in’ page.”
“That’s been a slogan of ours in the text messages we exchanged with the guys—hey, let’s turn the page; it’s a new year,” Peavy says. “It’s 2014. We haven’t done anything.”
Every season presents unique challenges. Save for the shoulder strain that sidelined pitcher Clay Buchholz for three months, and various maladies that ailed relief pitchers, the Red Sox stayed remarkably free of long-term injuries last year. They also avoided a potential crisis when Koji Uehara emerged from the bullpen ranks to become as dominant as any closer in history.
Odds are, they won’t be so lucky again.
But Victorino, the strong-armed right fielder from Hawaii, suggested the Sox have developed a winning culture that will help them overcome whatever adversity awaits. He came within two wins of repeating with a Phillies team that possessed similar clubhouse harmony centered on a core group of players who were in the prime of their careers. When he looks at Pedroia, David Ortiz, Buchholz and ace lefty Jon Lester, he sees 2008-09 Phillies cornerstones Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins and Cole Hamels.
“In Philly, no matter who we got—if it was a Cy Young winner, someone at the trade deadline—when they came into the clubhouse it was one idea, one identity,” Victorino says. “Same here. No matter if you’re Jake Peavy with 12 years in the big leagues or a rookie like Xander Bogaerts who’s a young phenom, we’re all checking that at the door. It’s easy to buy into what we’ve got here.
“There’s a lot that goes into [repeating]—injuries, keeping everybody healthy, guys doing exactly what they did the year before. But if there’s one team that I’m confident has the exact ingredient and the exact chemistry that you need to do it, it’s this team.”
And so, while the Red Sox turn the page, as their chain of texts demands, they must take care not to go too far. After all, if they’re going to achieve the rarity of the repeat, they will need to rely on their greatest resource—the chemistry forged last year.
Scott Lauber covers the Red Sox for theBoston Herald.