FORT MYERS, Fla.—Life for the Red Sox without David Ortiz requires group therapy. Nearly every spring training morning, coach Brian Butterfield assembles the players to impress upon them the little virtues of team play by reviewing the previous game with a humorous touch. These sessions are designed to establish the culture of having the right culture, which is why they are known in Red Sox camp as “Culture Culture.”
“I can’t even tell you how funny they are,” second baseman Dustin Pedroia said. “You have to hear it. It’s hilarious. It’s out of control. He’s talking about things that build an environment, but he’s doing it in a way so that guys with zero attention span listen. He’s accomplishing things that are tough. It’s pretty cool. There’s a 100% buy-in. There’s nobody walking away like, ‘How about that rah-rah guy?’ No, no. That’s why he’s the best at what he does.”
Here’s how it works: Players are acknowledged with a raised right fist for smart plays and hustle plays. (You might also see the salute during a game, for instance after a batter moves a runner to third with no outs.) Dumb mistakes, or just silly ones, merit a raised left fist and a word best left unsaid here. It’s a combination of the Instructional League, the old kangaroo court and a night at the Improv. First base coach Ruben Amaro, for instance, gets needled nearly every day, from something he said to the way he wore his uniform.
“Nobody ever credits guys for doing the right thing on the field,” Pedroia said about the way baseball is typically viewed. “If you play well, everybody just high fives you and that’s it. You score a run, high five everyone and that’s it. The next day they talk about, ‘Hey, that guy hit good yesterday.’
“Okay, but hey, first and third, a guy hits a routine double play ball, but the guy on first got his butt down the line and slid hard into second, and the guy running didn’t shut it down. He ran his ass off and beat the play. We get a run, we keep the inning alive. Then he reads the ball in the dirt, gets to second, [there’s a] base hit. We got two runs on hustle plays—and they’re not in the box score. They’re never written about.
“We want everybody to know the reason we won the game. It’s not because of Hanley [Ramirez's]’s three-run home run. It was because Christian Vazquez slid in and had a good secondary [lead] and got on the second baseman to cause the throw to be up the line for the inning to continue. That’s how we won. We didn’t win because Hanley hit a three-run homer.
“And yeah, guys buy into that, because that’s important. Maybe Vazquez went 0-for-4. Maybe he reached on an error. Maybe he’s feeling like [garbage]. But our coach, our team goes, ‘The only we won the game was because of you, and you didn’t do anything in the box score—you’re irrelevant there—but you won us the game.’”
Spring training may be too long and sometimes tedious, but it is the incubator of a team’s culture. Cubs manager Joe Maddon, for instance, likes to say the most important part of spring training is not about the drills and the mechanics of baseball, but about forging one goal: To “think well.”
The Red Sox are holding their first camp without Ortiz since 2002. He became one of the most indispensable figures in the game, not only for his bat but also because of his generosity of spirit. Teammates rallied around him, whether in the dugout during a World Series game, in the clubhouse before a big series or after a bad loss, or in one of his many backyard barbecues at which all were welcome.
“We miss having him around,” pitcher Rick Porcello said, “because he was loud and fun and one of the more polarizing figures in the game. There’s nobody like him, so there’s nobody who can replace him. We don’t expect that from anybody in here.”
The reigning AL East champion Red Sox now belong to outfielders Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi and shortstop Xander Bogaerts—all younger than 26—with Pedroia and Ramirez, both 33, occupying elder statesmen roles. Last year, Boston fielded its youngest playoff team over a full season since 1975, and without Ortiz, this one could be even younger.
None of the young Red Sox regulars are as emotional or as outgoing as Ortiz. So the emphasis in camp is placed on simply playing the game the right way, rather than waiting for a leader to emerge.
“That’s baseball,” Pedroia said about the importance of the Culture Culture meetings. “It’s not numbers. That’s winning baseball. That’s how you win. Everybody talks about intangibles. That’s great. But when they say that they’re really talking about only one or two guys on a team. If you’re talking about all of them? Those are the teams that win.”
As more information enters the game, the more value there is on what can’t be measured. That’s because information has flattened the landscape around baseball. If you do find a proprietary inefficiency, it’s likely to be granular, and it will lose its proprietary value in roughly five minutes.
Information helped the Cubs get to the seventh game of the World Series last year, for instance, but culture helped them win it. They don’t win without their team meeting—called by a struggling, unselfish Jason Heyward—during the 17-minute rain delay after the ninth inning. They literally stood shoulder-to-shoulder in a time of crisis.
Last spring training, upon seeing the Cubs' outstanding culture in action, I identified the five best cultures in baseball—culture being loosely defined as a stable, positive workplace environment in which every person has the best chance to reach their potential. Here were my top five then:
And here’s how I rank the top five this year:
4. Red Sox
Culture is the reason why, over the past two seasons combined, the Rangers have been 18 games better than their expected record based on run differential suggested they should be. It's also given them a key edge on an in-state and division rival, according to one general manager.
“The reason Texas is better than Houston is the culture there,” said the GM. “It’s the biggest difference. Now, give [Astros GM] Jeff [Luhnow] credit for going out and getting character guys like [catcher Brian] McCann and [outfielder/DH Carlos] Beltran. I don’t know if the Astros are much better on paper with the moves they made—maybe marginally, yes—but they paid attention to character.”
The Royals slipped because of the instability of too many players entering the last year of their contracts. The Pirates dropped out because they’ve marginalized their star, outfielder Andrew McCutchen, and as I warned last year, they saw a window close without spending on finishing pieces. The Cardinals, who played tight last year, took one step back while missing the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
If you’re looking for a sleeper team, pay attention to the Diamondbacks. They’re probably a year away from being a postseason contender, but general manager Mike Hazen and manager Torey Lovullo—both brought in from Boston—have this team on the right track because they get both the analytical and the human side of the game. I loved what Hazen told me about the sloppy way in which the media puts people and teams in “camps” of either stats or scouting—this after they put his club into the “stats” camp after he replaced longtime pitcher and coach Dave Stewart (“scouts”).
“First of all, I find that kind of lazy,” he said. “It’s an oversimplification, and really, it’s not true. It’s just not. We have some of the best scouts in baseball. That’s one of the attractive draws—the amount of scouting experience that is here. I guess there’s no new story to write about that because it’s been around since the dawn of time. It’s just as important as it was 15 years ago, and in a lot of cases sometimes more.
“It helps us to decipher a lot of the objective information we’re getting. You can’t make a decision on every piece of information that you get. You have to identify what’s most important. Nine times out of 10 it’s those people, those scouts with those experiences to say, ‘This is what’s real.’ I’m telling you I don’t see that [split] at all.”
The Dodgers, under manager Dave Roberts and with the win-obsessed professionalism of second baseman Chase Utley, have shed a poor culture to now be just outside of my top five.
In Boston, Pedroia has the tenure there to be thought of as Ortiz’s “replacement,” but he’s not buying it.
“I mean, we can’t replace him,” Pedroia said, “so I think once you realize he can’t be replaced than we have to try to move on. He’s one of a kind. We’re just focused every day that we’re doing the same thing we’ve always done every year. It’s just that he’s not here. That’s it. We don’t get to enjoy him every day.”
Culture, as Pedroia sees it, is another word for camaraderie.
“You don’t play to win, you don’t play to compete, you play for your teammates,” he said. “You don’t want to let your teammates down. That overrides everything else. If you don’t want to let them down you play with a sense of urgency from the start. That’s how you should play. We’ve got a good group. Our young guys all get it. It’s pretty cool to see. Everyone kind of falls in line.”
In recent years, baseball has undergone a major change around clubhouses. It has become a young man’s game, with older players pushed out and younger players becoming stars right away. That has meant the death of the old-school culture of making rookies “pay their dues” by mistreating them or making sure they were seen but not heard. The days of Mel Hall mocking a young Bernie Williams in the Yankees clubhouse are over.
Said the Cubs’ Kris Bryant, “I’ve heard everybody telling their stories about when they were coming up, and I think if that happened to me I’d curl up in a ball. I don’t feel like I have to walk on eggshells around here. And Joe’s big thing is be yourself, and I’m 100% myself here.”
Added Pedroia, “I think it’s different because there are a lot more young guys. To get on them all the time you’re getting on half your team, you know what I mean? And you need them to win.”
The Red Sox may get even younger as the season unfolds. First baseman Sam Travis, 23, is blocked for now by Mitch Moreland, but he has a major league bat and can’t be held back much longer. Third baseman Rafael Devers, 20, has impressed manager John Farrell with his bat, but there is some concern that he has a bad body for such a young player and must stay on top of his fitness.
Boston is a loaded, deep team, probably a win or two better than Cleveland as the class of the American League. The elbow of ace lefthander David Price—which we are supposed to believe simply healed itself after he flew halfway across the country to have it examined by two renowned doctors—is one possible trapdoor to the season. But at the moment, the Red Sox have no obvious vulnerability.
“We feel like we have a great team,” Pedroia said. “Talent-wise we feel we’re right there with anybody.”
It’s been seven years since Boston reached back-to-back postseasons. Each of its past three 90-plus win seasons (2009, '11 and '13) was followed by a retreat—by six, 21 and 26 fewer wins—the next season. The Red Sox won 93 games last year. To remain in the same neighborhood this year, and to do it without Ortiz, they know where to begin: their culture.