From worst to first, Red Sox return to postseason
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.
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 of 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.
Middlebrooks has yet to spend a full season in the major leagues.
''I'm still learning,'' he said. ''But from what I saw, there were big guys like Adrian and like Carl - big-time guys. They're great players. They're on their own program with what they're doing. Here, everyone's kind of like working together. I think that's a lot different than most clubhouses, and ours was last year.
''That was the biggest thing I've seen.''
Napoli was signed as a free agent, and so was Shane Victorino - a happy-go-lucky sort nicknamed ''The Flyin' Hawaiian.'' Newcomers Mike Carp, Jonny Gomes and David Ross, along with holdovers Dustin Pedroia and Jarrod Saltalamacchia, form the nucleus of the beard brigade.
''The guys they got cared about winning,'' outfielder Daniel Nava said, ''and they cared about the guy that's to their left and to their right.''
The Red Sox clinched a playoff berth on Thursday and upgraded it to an AL East title the next night with a 6-3 victory over the Toronto Blue Jays. With 94 wins, they had the best record in baseball.
Did they expect things to turn around this far, this quickly?
Not by the hair on their chinny chin chin.
Lucchino said he felt the Red Sox should have been better last year, if not for bad luck and bad health that cost a record number of games to injury. Henry noted that the team had one of the highest payrolls in baseball in 2012 and is in the top five again this season.
''To me,'' the owner said, ''last year was an anomalous year.''
But winning at least 94 games was unexpected, even to Lucchino.
Henry credited Farrell and general manager Ben Cherington for bringing a ''presence and stability'' to a team that had been through a tumultuous 13 months. Lucchino said that the relationship among the team's brain trust is also more stable now than it was even during much of the time that Francona and GM Theo Epstein had their mostly successful run in Boston.
And the love affair with the fans is on its way back to where it was a decade ago, when the allegedly accursed team began a sellout streak that lasted through the team's collapse in Game 7 of the 2003 AL championship series against the New York Yankees and the redemptive World Series victory the next year. It took them through a second title in 2007 to the September collapse of 2011 and Fenway Park's 100th anniversary last year.
It ended this April, when the good feelings and season ticket renewals born of the two titles finally ran out.
''The goal here was to change the performance, the personality and the perception of the team,'' Lucchino said as he looked out over the crowd of 38,540. ''I think we've succeeded in doing that.''
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AP freelancer Ken Powtak contributed to this story.