From last to first and now on to the playoffs with a legitimate shot at a World Series title. That is the path the Boston Red Sox find themselves on, and the Berkshire sector of Red Sox Nation surely appreciates how rare the 2013 season is, not just in baseball but in all of sports. Skipping the lengthy rebuilding process its fans were resigned to, the Sox are back among baseball's elite only one year after one of the worst seasons in the franchise's long history sputtered to a conclusion.
The regular season winds down today, and after the wild care game establishes their opponent, the Red Sox will begin their quest for post-season glory. A year ago, fans were trying to forget they ever witnessed a cellar-dwelling team in the American League's Eastern Division that was not just bad but lethargic and quarrelsome. Youthful General Manager Ben Cherington, however, had already begun the team's comeback with a late-season trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers. No one knew it for sure at the time, but the Red Sox renaissance began even before the 2012 season crashed to a halt.
In trading malcontents Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford to the Dodgers (who could possibly meet the Red Sox in the World Series), Mr. Cherington not only rid the team of three chronic complainers, he also shed their massive salaries. With money freed up to bring in fresh faces, the front office went out in search of "character" guys who would not only produce on the field but would bring some sunlight into a clubhouse that had become a gulag. The plan succeeded beyond all expectations.
First baseman Mike Napoli strikes out a lot but also hits massive home runs, drives in plenty of runs and is a far more positive presence than his predecessor, Mr. Gonzalez. Outfielder Shane Victorino, who came over from the National League, runs into and falls over walls, plays hurt, and drives doubles around the ballpark. Part-time outfielder Johnny Gomes can look bad at the plate or in the field before he comes up with a game-winning hit or game-saving catch.
Power-hitting designated hitter David Ortiz appears rejuvenated by his new playmates, and scrappy second baseman Dustin Pedroia is his usual hard-hitting, great-fielding self. Versatile outfielder Daniel Nava, who didn't make his college baseball team but hung around as equipment manager until he did, continues to be an inspirational clutch-hitter.
Then, of course, there are the beards. While the likable 2004 World Series-winning Red Sox team that the current outfit recalls was distinguished by the long hair of Johnny Damon, Bronson Arroyo and others, Mr. Napoli, Mr. Gomes and backup catcher David Ross, another class act, give this team its distinctive House of David, Amish-farmer look. Catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia and Mr. Pedroia also sport impressively ragged beards, and fake beards will adorn men, women and children at Fenway Park this October.
On the subject of Fenway, while Fox TV pontificators will again sing its praises, the ancient edifice is easier to love from the pressbox than it is from the stands. A summer survey by Boston Globe beat writer Nick Cafardo unearthed plenty of fans fed up with narrow seats, awkward angles, obstructing poles, wretched bathrooms and price-gouging parking lots, and yearning for what they have experienced in ballparks in Baltimore, Philadelphia and elsewhere. Fenway resembles a glittering jewel from the Hood blimp on NESN but the closer one gets the more it shows its age, and its age is a century and a year. This new era of good will gives ownership an opportunity to explore options for a new ballpark, perhaps along the harbor, similar to San Francisco's heralded bay-side park.
Now, however, it is on to the post-season, where success often comes down to pitching, which in the Red Sox case means that the gifted, delicate starter Clay Buckholz and the aging, surprisingly brilliant closer Koji Uehara must be dominant. Regardless of what is in store, the 2013 season has been a thoroughly unexpected pleasure for Red Sox fans.