*This column was originally published in The Inkwell and on its website.
In my first grade school picture for the yearbook, I wore a pinstriped Babe Ruth, New York Yankees jersey. For Halloween that year, I was Ruth and wore the jersey with a Yankees hat, white pants with blue pinstripes pulled up to my knees and long blue socks. This year I find myself loving the enemy and feeling like Benedict Arnold to Yankee fans. But…I can’t help it. The bearded Boston Red Sox are good for baseball and a joy to watch.
When the Red Sox collapsed in epic proportions in September of 2011, I loved every moment of watching Jonathan Papelbon walk off the field in Baltimore after blowing the season against the Orioles. They were too busy eating fried chicken and shooting back beer in the clubhouse than making the playoffs. Last year, they deserved to come in last place and sent three All-Stars in Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett along with about a half-billion dollars in contracts to the Los Angeles Dodgers. New manager, Bobby Valentine was more embarrassing coaching the Sox than his commercials in Japan. Another season of misery seemed inevitable.
Instead of going out and buying star players, Boston invested in high-character, blue-collar players and the consensus was that they overpaid for them. They threw two years and $10 million to left fielder/designated hitter Jonny Gomes, a player who kills left-handers, but is a dud against righties, three years and $39 million to 32 year old outfielder Shane Victorino, who just came off the worst year of his career, and one year and $13 million to first basemen/catcher Mike Napoli, who has a bad hip and plantar fasciitis in his foot.
While the experts thought the Red Sox would finish in last place of the highly competitive American League East with these signings, my first thought was, “Oh no, they get it now.” As a Yankees fan this sounds ridiculous as the Yankees throw out money as much as Miley Cyrus sticks her tongue out, but in today’s game that is what wins. The Giants won two World Series in the last three years without giant contracts, the Oakland A’s have won back-to-back AL West championships with one of the lowest payrolls in baseball, and the money-crunching Pittsburgh Pirates have finally made the playoffs for the first time since Barry Bonds didn’t look like a cartoon character and wore a Pirates jersey.
The Red Sox had tough luck in bad injuries and a team-crushing manager last year. They had the talent, then they brought in the right attitude.
Gomes is the heart and soul of the Red Sox. Not Dustin Pedroia, not David Ortiz, but a part-time player who hit .247 with 13 home runs in the regular season. When the Tampa Bay Rays became relevant in 2008, manager Joe Maddon and All-Star Evan Longoria said it started with Gomes. Oakland A’s manager Bob Melvin, who coached Gomes last season, praised the clubhouse leader when the Red Sox signed him: “He’s just a guy that’s respected [in the clubhouse] based on the fact that he’s there to win. He’s been some places where their teams weren’t expected to do well and did.” Gomes started the team beards and “Boston Strong” shirts that the team always has in the dugout with them. Just his presence alone makes him worth every cent of his two-year deal.
Two other players that get little recognition have made me love the Red Sox this year. The two are: outfielders Daniel Nava and Mike Carp. Nava was 4-foot-8 and under 80 pounds as a freshmen in high school, didn’t make his junior college team the first time he tried out and was later signed for $1 from the Chico Outlaws, an independent team, after going undrafted out of the University of Santa Clara. Yes, $1 is right too. This season, Nava has played in the most games of his career, 134, at 30 years old and hit .303 with 12 home runs. He barely makes over the league minimum, $506K. Carp was traded to the Red Sox from the Mariners in the offseason after being designated for assignment. He hopped on the beard movement, has played in a career high 86 games, and hit .296 with nine home runs. Carp is making slightly more money, at $509K.
The return of the Boston Red Sox is a delight for Boston in a time when they needed them the most during the Boston bombings. Not only are they a delight for Boston, but they should be for all of baseball. Aside from the PED scandals, another big problem in baseball is the new world of statistics. Every season is supposed to be won on paper with sabermetrics, but the Red Sox have won on ZZ Top beards and playing the game hard. They went from lazy and grumpy, to masters of the late-inning heroics.
I will always love Aaron F’in Boone for hitting a walk-off home run in Game 7 of the 2003 ALCS to beat the Red Sox and always hate Dave F’in Roberts for stealing second base in Game 4 of the 2004 ALCS to spark the Red Sox’s rally to win four straight games to beat the Yankees. As much as I don’t want to admit to loving the enemy this season, I respect the hell out of them.