The Red Sox were so intent on hiring John Farrell to succeed Bobby Valentine that they acquired him from the Blue Jays last Oct. 21 as part of a trade that also brought righthander David Carpenter for shortstop Mike Aviles.
It was only the seventh time in major-league history that a manager was obtained while under contract to another club. So far, it has been the transaction that turned the AL East upside down.
After finishing in the cellar at 69-93 last year in their lone season under the enigmatic Bobby Valentine, the Red Sox led the division with a 33-23 mark, one game ahead of the Yankees, entering Saturday night's game at Yankee Stadium. Many players point to Farrell as a difference-maker.
"He knows the game. He demands respect," said righthander Clay Buchholz, who will take a 7-0 record and a 1.73 ERA into Sunday night's start. "Whenever you get to the yard, he expects you to give 100 percent. Players expect that from each other, also."
Farrell's message to his new team after its first losing effort since 1997, and worst 162-game season since 1965, was as basic as it gets.
"One main focus we tried to get back to was the game was the most important thing that night, and not anything else that surrounds it or might emanate from the clubhouse," he said.
Granted, Valentine was placed in a brutal position after an eight-year run under Terry Francona that produced World Series crowns in 2004 and 2007 and finally silenced those chants of "1918! 1918!" But the game was never the only thing under the mercurial Bobby V.
He spent much of the season fussing and feuding with a number of the team's veterans as he struggled to operate with coaches not all of his choosing. Beyond that, the team was besieged by injuries. Twenty-seven players went on the disabled list for a total of 1,495 games and 1,729 days.
But Buchholz's comment was telling when he said of the change overseen by Farrell: "The whole staff he brought in is awesome. Everybody is pretty close-knit, everybody talks to each other, and that's how it should run."
A much-needed overhaul began last Aug. 25. Josh Beckett, infamous for in-game consumption of fried chicken and beer in the clubhouse when he was not pitching for Francona, went to the Dodgers as a key figure in a nine-player blockbuster trade. General manager Ben Cherington eventually brought 10 newcomers to this year's Opening Day roster.
Farrell, 154-170 in two seasons as Blue Jays manager, said players were added to fill obvious needs but also according to "the teammates they are."
Now the Red Sox are back in their usual position as a contender for first place. "That's the beauty of a new season," said outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, who set a team record with five stolen bases to pace Thursday's 9-2 rout in Philadelphia. "No matter if you won the World Series or didn't have the season you wanted to, every team comes into spring training with a new bunch of guys and a new mentality."
The Red Sox viewed Farrell as a great fit because he had done well as their pitching coach from 2007-10. Pitching woes contributed greatly to their downfall in a season so bad that it made the 100th anniversary of Fenway Park nearly impossible to celebrate. Pitchers finished with a 4.70 ERA compared with 3.81 through 56 games this season.
Farrell and his pitching coach, Juan Nieves, constantly urge pitchers to quicken their pace in order to keep a defense that got sloppy late last season on its toes. Farrell said of Nieves: "They believe in him. He has tremendous rapport with each guy."
Yes, it still is early -- but not too early to take the Red Sox seriously.
"Everybody has one goal, and that is to get into the playoffs and the hunt for October," Buchholz said. "We're not going to take anything less."