The Boston Red Sox are going to the World Series.
To say that they were built for this – all desire and heart and never-say-die toughness – would be an understatement. But the fact that they have done it is also nothing short of astonishing.
This is not merely one of those worst-to-first stories, in which fans warm their hearts around the fire of a familiar narrative. Yes, the Red Sox did finish last the American League East division last year. And yes, they did win the division this year, and – on Saturday – advanced to the World Series with a 5-2 win over the Detroit Tigers in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.
But that does not speak to who this franchise is, or why its ascent is so amazing.
The Red Sox are, in one sense, a revolution – a team that was built in a very different way from the Red Sox World Series champions of 2004 and 2007, yet might just join them in Boston lore.
In fact, of all the Red Sox teams of the past decade, this was perhaps the only one that began with almost no expectations of glory. The 2013 Boston Red Sox were seemingly a medicinal dose for a baseball town desperately in need of one.
After a late season collapse in 2011 that was accompanied by everything short of locusts and frogs, and then a last-place finish in 2012 that forever linked the words "Manager Bobby Valentine" and "clubhouse revolt," this 2013 team was seemingly meant to be a salve.
No fried-chicken-eating malcontents here. No Bobby Valentine, either. But also, aside from the legendary David Ortiz, not so many superstars, either.
"They might not win much, but golly gee, you all sure will root for 'em," could have painted on Fenway's Green Monster.
After spending more than a decade trying chase the success of the Evil Empire (a.k.a. Yankees), this seemed as close to capitulation as the Red Sox could get. Gone was the obsession with OPS and WHIP and WAR – stats known only to baseball geeks and venerated by the previous regime. Instead, the 2013 Red Sox did something that, by the measure of the advanced stats revolution ushered in by "Moneyball," was extraordinary.
They built a team based on character. They brought in Shane Victorino and David Ross and Ryan Dempster and Jonny Gomes – none of whom made the front page of The Boston Globe, but all of whom simply loved to play baseball the right way.
Of course, there is no way to measure character. In the stat-obsessed world of modern American pro sports, "intangibles" has almost become a four-letter word. True greatness can always be triangulated by pioneering new ways of looking at data, the advanced stats revolution suggests. By that measure, the idea of "intangibles" is just a crutch for analysts too lazy to dive into the numbers.
But then there is Gomes. By any statistical measure, the Red Sox outfielder is average. Average batter, average fielder, average speed. For a team with aspirations like the Red Sox, he would seem a bit player, if not a waste of money.
Yet to watch Gomes is to watch the human will personified.
He plays as if he gnawed through iron chains just so he could be an eighth-inning pinch-runner. When he slides into second, the bag is visibly afraid. Even his awkward batting swing, which looks vaguely like Lou Ferrigno playing Whiffle Ball, is more a matter of raw desire than skill. He hits the ball (and hard) because he refuses to admit that he can't, it seems.
If the Red Sox teams of 2004 and 2007 were built in the image of slugger Manny Ramirez, enormously talented and among baseball's elite, then the Red Sox of 2013 are made in Gomes's image. They are a team of "glue guys" – players whose contributions come as much off the field as on. How they conduct themselves. How they put in the extra work. How they have a deep passion for the game.
In short, they are a team built on "intangibles." The 2004 and 2007 versions had their share of character guys, too. But this team is defined by them. And after eight remarkable days in October, it is undeniable that those intangibles were vital in bringing a flawed Red Sox team to the World Series again.
Of course, they're clearly a talented bunch. But for long stretches of the series against the Tigers, they looked overwhelmed. They went into Game 4 leading the series 2-1. They could easily have been down 3-0. The only difference between the two was what defines these Sox. The team ground out wins as though it was Boston Steel Workers Local 8751. This was blue collar baseball – John Lackey pitching a teeth-gritted gem in Game 3, Gomes hustling out an infield hit to set up the winning run in Game 2.
Then, in Game 6, Victorino broke out of a 2-for-23 hitting slump – and some fans' calls for him to be benched – to hit the game-winning grand slam.
Yes, a potential World Series championship awaits if the Red Sox can beat the St. Louis Cardinals as they did in 2004. And that would certainly be gratifying for a bunch of players largely who were written off at the beginning of the season. But perhaps for this team, the greatest reward is simply getting to play another week of October baseball.