David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
BOSTON - Did the baseball gods really have to hammer Bobby Valentine this hard?
It was bad enough that Valentine had to wear last year's 93-loss debacle like a scarlet letter on his way out the door at Fenway Park. But for the Red Sox to win the World Series the very next season, to pull off the greatest turnaround in history?
We'll give Bobby a break, though, and instead praise the man who followed him, John Farrell.
It's not that Farrell dazzled us with his in-game maneuvering during the past month. He definitely had his share of strategic head-scratchers.
Letting John Lackey talk him into staying in to face Matt Holliday during the Cardinals' seventh-inning rally in Game 6? Somewhere, a comfortable distance from Fenway, Grady Little probably was yelling at the TV screen, "No, John, no!"
But the stars aligned for the Red Sox this season, from February through the end of October, and Farrell -- according to the people closest to him -- was more than just a lucky guy who wound up in the right place at the right time.
"Like I said since Day One, a body can't function without having a good head," World Series MVP David Ortiz said. "And our manager is outstanding. He showed all of us since Day One that he was the masterpiece that we needed to get to this level. And our focus was coming in and do nothing but play baseball, which is different than last year."
The Red Sox had their eye on Farrell, the team's former pitching coach, once it was clear that Terry Francona would be let go after the 2011 chicken-and-beer collapse. But ownership decided to roll the dice with Valentine first, and after losing their shirts on that gamble, it nudged the front office to swing a deal with the Blue Jays to get Toronto manager Farrell back ASAP -- only the fifth time in major league history that a team provided compensation to another for the services of a manager.
From an analytical viewpoint, we could debate the statistical impact of one manager over another. The consensus is that the difference, in terms of wins and losses, is marginal. But as Ortiz mentioned, the Red Sox craved a stabilizing presence to smooth over the turbulence created by Valentine, and Farrell brought a baseball-first mindset that's very similar to what Joe Girardi employs in the Bronx.
Farrell, like Girardi, understands that the job of the front office is to supply the players and that the manager's responsibility is to maximize the performance of the roster. It's not complicated. But once that process is sabotaged by infighting or ego clashes or the erosion of trust in the clubhouse, the ship sinks.
Sure, the Red Sox had their share of malcontents on the 2012 club, and two of the biggest -- Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett -- were shipped to L.A. in the megadeal that netted GM Ben Cherington roughly $260 million in payroll savings. But Valentine also had a few regrettable squabbles, notably with Kevin Youkilis, and even questioned Ortiz's desire to play through an injury when the season was basically over. After the Valentine drama, Farrell put his faith in the players and kept any disagreements private.
"Phenomenal," Red Sox president Larry Lucchino said of Farrell's work. "A-plus. He did it in a very active, productive collaboration with Ben Cherington and the baseball ops world. There was a connectivity that was really great. That was another important lesson."
Farrell already knew many of the personalities involved and was acutely aware of the expectations surrounding the Red Sox. It was an advantage he had in returning to Boston, a place that can be a minefield for outsiders trying to find their way for the first time.
"When the fireworks went off at the presentation of the trophy out there, when the ballpark was filled with smoke, it was completely surreal," Farrell said. "To come in and see the energy and the commitment that [the players] had, the buying into a team concept every single day, and the one thing that really stands out more than anything is just their overall will to win."
The Red Sox became the first team to go from a winning percentage as low as .426 one year (69-93) to winning the World Series the next.
If not for Craig Breslow's ill-fated throw in Game 2 or the unprecedented walk-off obstruction call to end Game 3, maybe the Red Sox would have swept the Cardinals.
But they didn't need to make any more of a statement this season. With Farrell at the helm, we all got the message.