Much has been made of the Red Sox team chemistry during a three-year playoff run that resulted in a 2004 World Series Championship. That run was unprecedented in team history, and saw the club average 95 wins per season.
We all know about the "Idiots", and "Cowboy Up!" Now many fans are sorry to see the likes of Johnny Damon, Bill Mueller, Kevin Millar, and Doug Miribelli leave Boston for other cities.
But what's often overlooked is that the clubhouse chemistry wasn't all good, all the time.
Toward the end of last season, a Sox player who chose to remain anonymous (meaning he's a coward) suggested that Curt Schilling had unfairly escaped the same public criticism that other Sox players had endured for their lackluster performances.
After Schilling sacrificed his health, and potentially his career, to pitch on a severely damaged ankle during the 2004 playoffs and World Series, his cowardly teammate said, ''When he comes into the game, people cheer him like he's the Pope? You think they'd let Pedro [Martinez] get away with this? Why does he get a free pass?"
Though the player chose to remain publicly anonymous, Schilling seemed to know who it was, calling him "somebody who's not wired right." And there's a good chance that player is no longer on the team.
Thirteen days after the Sox won the World Series, Schilling underwent three hours of surgery on his right ankle to repair a dislocated and torn tendon, a bone defect, and cartilage damage, among other problems. Other than when he used crutches for several public appearances, the next eight weeks were spent at home in a wheelchair. By the time Schilling was out of the wheelchair, spring training was little more than four weeks away. Even if his ankle had healed perfectly, which it clearly hadn't, there wasn't sufficient time to get in game shape.
But Schilling had deservedly earned a free pass from the fans, the media, and most of his teammates. His poor performance was warranted, and had a legitimate excuse. The same could not be said of Kevin Millar, Mark Belhorn or Alan Embree. All of them tanked for, seemingly, no good reason.
Schilling realized that the fans were very appreciative of his on field exploits and his personal sacrifices, and last fall he was quick to credit his teammates for the 2004 Championship.
''I've been given a long leash this year by the fans, which I'm very appreciative of," he said at the time. ''But my teammates were just as responsible as I was for helping to win the World Series last year, and it has been really, really uncomfortable for me to see them go through what they have gone through this year," he said in reference to teammates like Millar, Belhorn, Embree and Keith Foulke.
But that wasn't the first crack in the facade. In July, when Schilling returned from the DL to take over the closer's role after Foulke made his own trip to the injured squad, the sniping began almost immediately. Johnny Damon aired his opinion loud and clear.
''I don't think he's ready to be our closer," Damon said of Schilling.
''He's never done it. He throws 60 pitches to get loose for a game. He needs to get loose.... He can't do it."
But Damon saved his best zinger for last. "Schilling's a little too old and it takes too long to get loose to be in that closer role."
Clearly, opinions like that should be discussed internally, and left in the clubhouse - not in the media. Not to mention that the guy Damon was lobbying for, Mike Timlin, was even older than Schilling.
So not everything was so honky dory in Red Sox Land. Maybe it was more than just team defense and pitching that needed an overhaul this off season. Perhaps the team chemistry needed a shot in the arm, and a little manipulating to rid itself of any malcontents, snipers, or overly outspoken players who liked the camera and the microphone just a little too much (read, Millar and Damon).
To that end, extend a welcome to a group of dignified professionals such as Mark Loretta, Mike Lowell, and JT Snow. These guys do their talking on the field and have earned the respect of their teammates wherever they've played. Schilling, for one, is looking forward to playing with the new guys.
"It certainly is a different team. It’s going to be tremendously different team chemistry wise, and I’m not really sure that’s going to end up being a bad thing."
Referring to Lowell and Loretta, Schilling said, "(You) could not find two more quality human beings. I’ve never heard a bad word said about either one of those guys. In this day and age, that’s rare. I fully expect Mike Lowell, given what I know about what happened to him last year, to have a Mike Lowell-type season this year.
Mark Loretta is a guy that fits right in with the philosophy here. He’s an impossible out. He makes productive outs when he does make outs. Fantastic ballplayer that’s exciting, but I think I look at it more as a whole.
Those two guys are what you call professional players on and off the field. They handle themselves in both places. They’re both fantastic people and they can play the game. Boston is merciless if you suck, and I don’t see any of the guys coming in here as being guys that are going to suck."
That sounds like a ringing endorsement. And as far as those are concerned, Schilling gave another to his own health and preparedness to pitch this spring.
"About 14-17 days ago, I woke up and my foot was normal. Going through workouts and doing the stuff I’m doing here, and I don’t know what the combination was, but it feels right again. It feels normal. It feels like it’s always felt. I have some aches and pains early in the morning, but it’s felt normal for the first time in a long, long time."
"I don’t know what it was, but I really noticed it more throwing than anything."
"I just started noticing everything changing about three weeks ago."
"Being able to run, and being able to move extensively to do workouts has changed my body comp dramatically in the last month, month and a half. And that’s something I haven’t been able to do for almost a year, so I knew that was going to have a dramatic impact on how I felt, how my foot felt, how my body felt going into spring training."
With a healthy Schilling and a rehabilitated Foulke - who is said to be in his best shape in years - back in the bullpen, the new additions to this year's roster should make the Red Sox a very competitive team once again. Pitching and defense will be their strengths, and they should be a similar offensive squad as well. They should be able to count on more offensive production at first and second, more power at third, and something similar at short. If the Coco Crisp trade is finally consummated, the 2006 Red Sox will be a very competitive team indeed.
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