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Proud PAPI

Red Sox GM Cherington assembled quite a family to make Boston strong

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BOSTON -- Only moments after the Red Sox had completed one of the greatest one-year turnarounds in baseball history, clinching their first World Series title at Fenway since 1918, David Ortiz broke free of a crowd of teammates and planted a giant team flag at home plate.

"I was born for this," Ortiz had said the other day.

That he was. Yet the truth is, few others are. Few are as blessed with such hand-to-eye coordination and powerful bat. Few are blessed with the spirit of joy and ability to strike fear into an opposition that can carry all 24 teammates, if needed, on his back.

There is only one Big Papi. Yet for this remarkable turnaround, this great baseball redemption, to come to pass in one year, there also had to be a little papi. Let's face it. Few are born to do what Ortiz has done. The others must be gathered like baseball stepchildren and orphans, pieced together to fill the individual needs of a club.

Ben Cherington is little papi. And as his Red Sox gathered in one huge dog pile of celebration on the Fenway Park infield at 11:22 p.m. Wednesday night, after one of those stepchildren named Koji Uehara had finished the job by striking out Matt Carpenter, there was no prouder papi than the Red Sox general manager.

"Ben Cherington deserved all the credit in the world," manager John Farrell said.

On this final night, the Cardinals decided they would not let a god beat them. After going 11-for-15 and hitting a slow-pitch softball league .733 in the first five games, the Cardinals walked Ortiz four times, including three times intentionally in Game 6. In being named the World Series MVP, Papi reached base 19 times in 25 plate appearances. On this final night, the Cardinals decided they would try to beat mere mortals.

That plan didn't work, either: Red Sox 6, Cardinals 1. That makes three world titles in a decade and that is enough to make Yankees fans green with envy and nausea.

"I still feel like I'm in a dream," Uehara said.

"Crazy!" his little son Kaz said.

After the 93-loss embarrassment of 2012, Cherington needed to fill a long list of needs. And although the aggregate of his moves over the winter was met by a collective yawn at the time, his words from a press conference of the previous August continued to echo throughout Fenway Park on Wednesday night. If you listened closely enough, you could even hear them above the deafening sound of the crowd in the third inning when Shane Victorino drilled a three-run double off the left field wall and went to third as Jonny Gomes slid under Yadier Molina's tag at home. Victorino and Gomes were two of those allegedly nondescript signings, and when closer Uehara, another one of them, ended it to start the party, the road to redemption had led Boston to baseball euphoria.

You certainly could hear Cherington's words from last August as the Fenway Park fans, some who paid thousands of dollars for a chance to witness this night, nearly fainted when no-hit, all-field Stephen Drew, another of the nondescript signings, homered into the Red Sox bullpen. Hey, Babe Ruth didn't hit a home run in the 1918 World Series.

When the Red Sox sent Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez and Nick Punto to the Dodgers in August 2012, I remember writing that there was such glee around New England over the addition through subtraction that Bill James was creating a new sabermetric just to quantify the euphoria. To this day, the fact the Dodgers' ownership took on almost all of the $270 million due those guys to allow Cherington the freedom to rebuild remains mind-boggling. For that, Magic Johnson should get a Red Sox world championship ring and a spot in one of the Duck Boats for the parade.

Still, dumping all that bad salary and bad karma isn't the same as filling a void that would lift a proud franchise back into World Series contention. It would take a keen baseball mind, and it figured it would take a ton of patience from some of the game's most impatient fans. You had to figure that the rebuilding would take at least two or three years. Well, now you know redemption only took months.

"This ownership group knows more than others how quickly things can change," Cherington had said that August day. "At the end of 2001, it wasn't a great time. A few months later, everybody wanted to be in Boston. This is still a great place to play."

"We have to be disciplined. We have to find good value. We have to find good fits. We can't go out tomorrow and fill up the payroll flexibility we just created. We're going to continue to have a significant payroll and be committed to building the best team we possibly can."

Cherington lived those words. No, he never grew a beard. No, he isn't a rock star like his buddy and predecessor, Theo Esptein. Yet he loved the Red Sox growing up in New Hampshire every bit as much, memorizing baseball cards, devouring Peter Gammons' work in The Boston Globe. His grandfather was a Pulitzer Prize-winning poet. Ben would go to Amherst, pitching there until he blew out his arm. He was barely more than a kid when Dan Duquette hired him as an intern in 1997. He would put a lot of time in the scouting department, working up through farm director, nurturing guys like Dustin Pedroia, Jon Lester, Clay Buchholz, Jacoby Ellsbury. Larry Lucchino forced Bobby Valentine on Cherington for the 2012 managerial job. It was a colossal mistake. Nothing was funnier this month than when Valentine told the Globe, "I'd like to think that if I came back for my second year that, given the changes and improvements, I would have been able to do the same thing."

Right.

Given his chance, Cherington, knowing that a strong, calm hand was the way to go, made his best move first by hiring Farrell as manager last October. When it came to reshaping the club, filling in a full third of a new roster, Cherington was interested in character, yes, but more than that he wanted to know if they wanted to play in Boston's demanding environment. For this, little papi gets an A-plus in family chemistry.

Cherington signed catcher David Ross, who clouted that double to win Game 5 and provided sanity behind the plate after he recovered from his concussions. He signed Gomes to a two-year, $10-million deal. He signed Victorino to a three-year, $39-million deal that had critics saying he badly overpaid for a fading player. Well, the Flyin' Hawaiian looked to be worth every penny in hitting the grand slam that won the ALCS and the three-run double that clinched the Series.

"I'm a fan of the game," said Victorino, who was awarded a Gold Glove for his work in right field. "Even though they were in last place last year, I knew this was a first-class organization. They're about winning. They want to be on top."

Cherington signed Koji to a two-year, $9.25-million contract and who on earth knew that the setup man would eventually became the premier closer in baseball in 2013? Ryan Dempster signed a two-year, $26.5 million contract. Drew signed a one-year, $9.5-million contract. Napoli signed a one-year, $13-million deal amid questions of a degenerative hip, but would provide all sorts of pop in the middle of the lineup. He got Mike Carp in a trade after Seattle had designated him for assignment. And, finally, when Buchholz looked as if he might be out long term, he acquired Jake Peavy at the trade deadline.

"Ben set out to execute his vision and his plan and the players that he was able to identify that matched that vision," Farrell said. "A lot of guys were embarrassed by what happened last year."

Not every move worked out perfectly, but in the end the moves collectively did. The players grew beards. After the Boston Marathon bombings in April, they grew a special, inseparable bond with the city, one that became known as Boston Strong.

"If there was a moment in time that galvanized us, it was the Marathon bombing," Farrell said.

Said Pedroia, who got a deserved seven-year, $110-million deal from the millions saved on the August 2012 trade: "We love each other. That's why we're here."

"Ben went out and got baseball players who care about winning. That's why we're here."

So here they were partying at Fenway, atop the baseball world. This time last year, Red Sox fans' eyes were still stinging from a 69-win stinker. On this night, with redemption total, they stung from tears of joy.

-- The Hartford Courant

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 3, 2013 A1

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