Lessons we can learn from the Red Sox

Oct 31, 2013

The Boston Red Sox, New England’s most beloved sports team, are the world champions of baseball. RIPR political analyst Scott MacKay wonders what we can learn from these men who played a boys game with joy.

Fifty years ago, the French-born cultural historian Jacques Barzun wrote a lyrical paean to baseball. His most noted passage was that ``whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules, and reality of the game.’’

Modern day commentators are not as florid as Barzun; much hand-wringing nowadays is devoted to the supremacy, as measured by television ratings, of professional football to our national pastime..

But in the warm afterglow of the Red Sox improbable victory over the St. Louis Cardinals, there are lessons to be learned. Especially for those of us who live in New England, the beating heart of Red Sox Nation.

The first takeaway from our team is that leadership matters, from the top down. When the group led by John Henry bought the team 10 years ago, there was lots of kvetching around our parochial part of New England because he beat out a local group of Boston investors to get the team. Yet, at the time, a few smart people who actually know a lot about baseball, famously baseball writer Peter Gammons, said that fans would be surprised at how well this would turn out. It has, because Henry has invested in the franchise, brought in new executives, beefed up the minor league operations and hired wisely.

The results: the Sox, a team known for futility in the 20th Century, are now the most successful franchise of the 21st. Henry has hired good people and stuck with them. Yet he has also followed the maxim of another famous New Englander, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who said that a ``foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of a small mind.’’

When things didn’t work out, Henry embraced change. He fired manager Terry Francona two years ago after a September swoon knocked the Sox out of the playoffs. And Henry canned the self-centered Bobby Valentine after last year’s disastrous season. To Fenway came John Farrell, a former Sox pitching coach. His low-key manner  quickly earned the respect of his players.

Another lesson is that in every organization, morale matters. Whether in business, politics or education, it is almost impossible to be successful without everyone buying into the program and contributing. In sports, this has come to be known as chemistry.

The Sox of yore were known as a team of 25 players that took 25 cabs home after games. This year’s team ate meals together. They grew ZZ Top-length beards. Where the players’ clubhouse was once a den of rumors and leaks to reporters, the 2013 edition was remarkably cohesive and focused on winning. Like tourists in Vegas, what happened in the clubhouse this season stayed there.

Many organizations are brought down by prima donnas. Talent, of course, is necessary in any successful endeavor. But checking egos at the door helped this team immeasurably. All season, different players stepped up to push the Sox to victory. One night it was Jonny Gomes, the next Mike Napoli, Jon Lester, John Lackey or Shane Victorino. Most of these players were coming off down years, but all of them rose to the occasion. Players knew their roles; even when a man was benched in favor of a teammate, there was no grousing to the media.

Graciousness in victory was another hallmark. The first words Farrell’s uttered Wednesday night after his team vanquished St. Louis, was to congratulate the Cardinals on their fine  season and talk about what a great team they have.

Another value instilled by the Sox organization is that loyalty and sentiment have a place, but winning comes first. Thus, late in the deciding game, when pitcher Lackey was clearly running out of gas, manager Farrell came to the mound with the intent of removing him for a relief pitcher.

Lackey talked his boss into letting him stay in the game to pitch to slugger Matt Holliday. But when Lackey walked Holliday to load the bases, Farrell was quick to yank him.

Our leaders in Washington have slogged through endless debates over immigration reform. But where would our Sox be without such foreign-born players as Japanese closer Koji Uehara, the Dominican slugger David Ortiz and rookie sensation Xander Bogaerts, a native of Aruba. This team is proof that the freest nation in the world can assimilate newcomers with talent.

New England is often seen by outsiders as America’s attic. We value and respect the past. Is there any greater historic preservation project anywhere than  Fenway Park? Less than a generation ago, there was a serious conversation about tearing down Fenway and building a new stadium.

But the Henry ownership took another route, investing millions to restore and upgrade America’s oldest  major league stadium. The result: other cities have Giant Telecom Park or Huge Bank Bailout Stadium. We have 101-year old Fenway, still humbly named for its surrounding neighborhood.

Rhode Islanders are luckier than most of the Sox nation. We have the PawSox, the top farm team, where tomorrow’s Fenway stars can be seen today for less than the cost of a first-run movie. The only regret here is that longtime PawSox owner Ben Mondor, the man who saved professional baseball for Rhode Island, did not live to see the Red Sox clinch their first World Series since World War I at Fenway. (He died two years ago).

Yet the biggest lesson of this season is  all those experts who think they know what’s going to happen before the games are played. Well, they don’t. Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe, arguably the region’s top baseball writer, wrote in spring training that ``it is difficult to pick them anywhere but last.’’

Our politicians ought to think about that one before they have an anxiety attack over the next public opinion poll.

Why is baseball a better game than football? Here we heed the words of George Will, the conservative political writer. ``Football,’’ says Will, ``is too much like modern life – violence interrupted by committee meetings.’’

We’ve all had enough baseball for now. Rest up over the holidays: Spring training begins in 15 weeks.

Scott MacKay’s commentary can be heard every Monday on Morning Edition at 6:35 and 8:35 and on All Things Considered at 5:50. You can also follow his political analysis and reporting at our `On Politics’ blog at RIPR.org