The Least Favoured Best Team Ever?

22nd October 2018

The nearest my baseball cap collection gets to the World Series line up is this Brooklyn Dodgers cap

The Boston Red Sox have reached the World Series and I can honestly say I’ve not enjoyed saying that as much since 2004 – but that’s a long story for another day.
At the start of the 2018 post-season Boston was one of 8 teams vying for the World Series title and who, by virtue of their record had the advantage of playing the key games of each round at home. But despite this, a poll among baseball writers rated the Red Sox seventh out of the eight teams left.

The scale of the achievement of this year’s Red Sox needs to be put in context in order to understand what an achievement this is. So as a brief reminder. FSG took over an ailing baseball giant in 2002, took them to the verge of the World Series in 2003 and “won it all” in 2004.  Even more remarkable given that the Red Sox had not won baseball’s ultimate prize since 1918. Having won 5 titles in 15 years up until 1918 the Red Sox had become not just perennial losers but managed to do so in the most tortured ways the baseball gods could conjure.
The agony of that 86-year drought was made all the worse as Bostonians had to watch their hated rivals won 26 championships in that time. The New York Yankees dominated the sport from the 1920s building dynasty after dynasty under the autocratic leadership of George Steinbrenner. Ask any baseball fan who they support the answer will more often than not be whichever team they root for “and whoever is playing the Yankees.”
But since 2004 the Red Sox have won three World Series to the Yankees one and, this week have a tilt at a fourth. The balance of power would appear from these facts to have shifted to New England but at the start of this season New York, having spent extravagantly in the off-season, were widely expected to dominate the American League East (the division both they and the Red Sox occupy) hence making Boston’s task of reaching the qualifying rounds for the World Series, the post-season.
But, from the outset Boston, under a new young manager, were the pace setters in the AL East and owned the best win-loss record in all of baseball. Despite a resurgence by the Yankees in mid-season the Red Sox qualified comfortably as division winners, having the luxury of playing the reserves for the last two weeks of the season.
The Red Sox ownership had addressed the glaring weakness that prevented them from competing in the post-season in 2017 signing free-agent hitter JD Martinez.
The key attribute that attracted Martinez to the Red Sox owners was, they believed, his ability to help realise the potential a number of the young Red Sox hitters possessed but had not been realised. Martinez possesses a James Milner like work ethic which has paid dividends taking outfielder Mookie Betts to MVP candidacy and helping the likes of youngsters Bogaerts, Benintendi and Bradley to best ever seasons.
On the back of stellar hitting led by Martinez, by the end of the regular season the Red Sox ended with the best record in all of baseball, a scarcely believable 108 wins while the Yankees scraped through as the “wild card” – the best runner-up.
At the start of the 2018 post-season Boston was one of 8 teams vying for the World Series title and who, by virtue of their record had the advantage of playing the key games of each round at home. But despite this, a poll among baseball writers rated the Red Sox seventh out of the eight teams left.
The answer to this paradox lay in the view that in the best of five or seven play-off rounds the Red Sox’s inferior pitching depth would not be strong enough to keep the opponents scoring within reach of even the Red Sox’s stellar batting line up. Add to this the opposition that faced the Red Sox in the American League play-offs, defending champions the Houston Astros, the Cleveland Indians led by the manager who had delivered Boston’s championships in 2004 and 2007 and those pesky Yankees.
But succeed the Red Sox did. First against the Yankees 3-1 in the best of five series winning both games played in Yankee Stadium and then, this week 4-1 over the Astros with 3 straight wins in Houston. Demonstrating in both series shrewd and disciplined tactical hitting supported by pitching outperforming Red Sox supporters’ expectations. So Boston head to the World Series with a record of an incredible (in the word’s most literal sense) 7-2 in the post season having vanquished the teams rated the two most likely to lift the 2018 World Series on the way.
The new Red Sox manager, Alex Cora, one of the new breed in baseball of recently retired players taking up the top jobs. Cora played for the Red Sox between 2005 and 2008 and retired in 2011, he was an average player who appeared for six teams without ever hitting the heights of performance but was always seen as having a shrewd baseball brain well in excess of his abilities.
Cora was Bench Coach (assistant manager) last season for the Astros and was an integral part of that team’s championship win but was still seen as a gamble when the Red Sox hired him at the end of last season.
Cora is player’s manager, a man who appreciates the superstars for the talent they have, a talent which he never possessed and is able to relate to them and get the best out of them. Cora has also demonstrated that he is a shrewdly media savvy man a necessity in Boston which possesses a demanding media and supporters hungry for success, both are places where many players and managers have found the shirt too heavy to wear.
I felt at the time he was recruited that FSG had seen in Cora much of what they admire in Klopp and saw in him a man who could move Boston in the direction they needed. Cora is less demonstrative than his Liverpool counterpart but no less passionate. He has built a squad this season which contains a substantial element of homegrown talents, developing each and every one of them through the season to the point where they have risen to the challenge of the post-season.
But Boston’s squad is not all homegrown products of the farm system. It also contains a number of marquee signings, evidence that FSG’s willingness to spend is undiminished if the price and player profile is right. Cora has demonstrated he can get the best of these superstars despite his past as a man of lesser talents to those he now manages.
It has long been a lazy narrative around FSG that they are frugal with their cash and adhere to the “Moneyball” model of sports management. This is patently no longer the case, The Red Sox are among the clubs with the highest payroll in baseball and, as demonstrated by their investment in JD Martinez continue to look to add where the fit is right.
So, starting on Tuesday the Red Sox face the Los Angeles Dodgers in the best of seven World Series. The Dodgers, who were beaten in last season’s World Series losing 4-3 to the Astros are the Chelsea of baseball. Originally based on Brooklyn they were transplanted to the West Coast in the fifties by an ambitious owner who felt little for the fans. The Dodgers are a team like the Yankees who feel a sense of entitlement to winning. A win for the Red Sox in the Series would be seen as further vindication for FSG’s model of baseball ownership which is very different from that of the Yankees and Dodgers.
In 2014 the highly respected Forbes magazine called FSG, “the most sophisticated, synergistic player in the coming age of international sports management.”

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