As the Red Sox prepare to host an ALDS game Friday, it's hard not to marvel at the improbability of this situation. In April things looked bleak, to say the least.
The Red Sox were coming off a disaster of a season, one in which the team sputtered through its first losing campaign since 1997 and finished in last place in the American League East. New manager Bobby Valentine struggled to win over the clubhouse, and at the end of the season the team shipped Adrian Gonzalez, Josh Beckett, Carl Crawford and Nick Punto to the Dodgers. Valentine was fired in October.
As a result of last year's mess, and because A.L. East rivals Baltimore, Toronto and Tampa Bay appeared to be on the rise, the Red Sox struggled to drum up enthusiasm for the 2013 campaign. Their record-long sellout streak came to an end in April.
As it turns out, reports of Boston's demise were quite premature. Led by veterans David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester, the Red Sox not only hung around all season but finished the year with 97 wins, tied for the most in the big leagues. There are lots of factors behind the Red Sox' rejuvenation, perhaps most notably a stellar offense which led the league in OPS (.795), RBIs (819) and OBP (.349).
But ask any of the Red Sox and they'll tell you that what was happening in the clubhouse was just as important as what was happening on the field. After several years of interior turmoil, the Red Sox needed something to bring the team together.
Jonny Gomes, who had played on several playoff teams that had losing records the year before, knew exactly what to do. The 32-year-old outfielder showed up to spring training with some fuzz on his face. Before long, several of his teammates followed suit.
“That stuff is totally irrelevant to baseball," Gomes told the Boston Globe. "But if everybody gets on the same page, maybe it does help. Good teams seem to have certain music or ways they celebrate. Quirky things can bring people together."
The Red Sox won 12 of their first 16 games, and the beards became a mainstay at Fenway Park. Fans embraced the idea, and last month Boston held a "Dollar Beard Night," where anyone with (real or fake) facial hair got into the game for just a buck.
Not only have the beards served as a bonding tool for the team and a rallying point for the fans, they also represent the mentality of the club.
"It fit us because we're representing a blue collar approach," catcher Jarrod Saltalmacchia told the Boston Herald. "We're a bunch of guys who go to work and do the best we can. We're not clean shaven and we want to get our hands dirty."