Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Laser show

There are all kinds of theories and opinions as to why the Red Sox (remember them?) have reversed their awful start and have -- in the last month and a half -- been the best team in baseball.

Here's mine: The day Dustin Pedroia stood up for David Ortiz, the Red Sox became a team again.

Depending on who you talk to, this whole idea of team chemistry is either vastly overrated or it isn't. That sounds funny, of course, but it's true. Earl Weaver, the who managed the Baltimore Orioles to four American League pennants and numerous other division championships during his tenure, always thought team chemistry could be summed up thusly: "Pitching and three-run homers."

Weaver also hated the sacrifice bunt. He thought giving up an out -- under any circumstances -- was totally defeatist. As he said, you only get three. Why waste any of them?

Weaver notwithstanding, I'm in the other camp. It's hard to do your best, especially in a competitive environment where winning and losing often comes down to self sacrifice and giving yourself up for the good of the team, if you're at odds with the people with whom you are playing. Ask any offensive lineman in football whether he finds it easier or harder to block for a quarterback he does not respect, and whose toughness he questions.

Ortiz got off to a horrible start this year ... and it looked, after the first month, as if this would be a repeat of last year, when he went well into May before he even hit is first home run. Fans, writers, broadcasters, guys in bars, were all clamoring for the Red Sox to make a move ... to release him. He was dead weight.

Pedroia is one of those types of players you could only love if he was on your team. If he's on the other team, you can't stand him. He's cocky, and he has an air about him on the diamond that reminds me very much of Pete Rose (another guy I despised, but would have probably loved had he played for the Red Sox).

Pedroia stood up amid a group of reporters and expressed his belief in Ortiz. Now, it's not necessary for people to think Pedroia meant every word he said, deep down inside. It's tough to believe a guy hitting below the Mendoza Line (which is to say under .200) inspires confidence when he comes up with the bases loaded. And it's tough to believe a guy for whom the manager actually put up a pinch hitter in precisely that situation would inspire much trust either.

The important thing is that Pedroia ver publicly defended his teammate.

"Two years ago," he said, "I was hitting under .200 and everybody wanted to lynch me, too. Then what happened? Laser show."

What he meant, of course, is that he turned it around and ended up being the American League's rookie of the year. A year later, he became the American League's most valuable player. And this year, after a tough stretch, Pedroia is, once more, in the middle of things.

I think Pedroia's words had multiple effects ... all of them good. For starters, they probably took a little of the heat off Ortiz himself, who had to be wondering just where he stood with the rest of his teammates. Ortiz went on a tear after that, and has been somewhat of a facsimile of his former self.

They probably had the hidden effect of settling down some of the newcomers who may have felt like outsiders. And third, it clearly united the team and helped point it in the right direction.

What Pedroia showed was true leadership ... and the Red Sox in the past couple of years really haven't had that -- at least that vocally -- from anyone. In 2004, when the overcame the Curse of the Bambino and won the whole thing, there were a number of players who stepped in and led. Last year's Sox were a quiet bunch who seemed to go about their business more with the seriousness of account executives than with the joi de vivre that players such as Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar showed in 2004.

So good for Pedoria. The Red Sox are heating up just at a time when people are starting to notice. The Celtics are done, and the spotlight is exclusively on them. And it had to help that they swept a team from Los Angeles this weekend ... only days after the Celtics lost to one in the NBA finals.

If the Red Sox continue to get that type of leadership, there's no telling what they can accomplish in 2010.

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