“Baseball is won between the lines.”
“It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”
“It’s all about chemistry.”
Nowhere are clichés more pervasive than in the world of sports. When I worked as a sportswriter, my colleagues and I had a system where we had to put a dollar in a jar every time we leaned on one of the phrases or sayings that are so painfully overused by athletes, coaches, and fans. It was like the writer’s version of a swear jar.
But no matter how hard we tried, when deadlines were looming and editors were breathing down your neck for copy, sometimes it was just too hard to resist the lure of the cliché. Sometimes turning to an old stand-by was the best way to convey a point. There were nights when I threw five bucks into the jar before I even started writing, because I knew it was a hopeless cause.
While watching the baseball playoffs over the past few weeks, I’ve been exposed to more clichés than in all my years covering high school sports. The bounty from Tim McCarver’s jar alone could’ve paid for a ticket to last night’s game in Boston. But as much as I’d like to get on my soapbox and scold the announcers when they talk about a player carrying the team on his back or overplay the underdog angle, there’s one cliché I simple can’t disparage, and that’s the power of buy-in and team chemistry.
Last night, the Red Sox defeated the Cardinals to win their eighth World Series overall and third in the past decade. What made the title even more impressive is the fact that Boston achieved the extremely rare feat of going from worst in their division to winning it all. And although much of that can be attributed to talent and leadership, it seems the key ingredient was chemistry. After following up a disappointing 2011 season (during which the team suffered an epic collapse) with a disastrous 2012 (during which the team never climbed out of the basement, the team’s owners wisely decided to shake things up. They unloaded a bunch of disgruntled, overpaid players during a fire sale, and replaced them with — cliché alert — a bunch of “pure baseball guys.” They also replaced the controversial, spotlight-loving manager with an even-keeled skipper who could provide the long leash his players required to thrive.
They signed guys like Jonny Gomes, Mike Napoli, and Shane Victorino — proven players who could bring much-needed character to a tension-filled locker room. And in doing so, the Red Sox front office practiced what Jim Collins is always preaching. They got the right people on the bus, got the wrong people off the bus, and placed the right people in the right seats.
And it paid huge dividends.
The Sox completed a historic turnaround and won the World Series, demonstrating that buy-in does count, and chemistry does matter. Of course, they also had quality pitching and clutch hitting, and received key contributions from players up and down the roster. But it all started with getting the right people onboard.
“Each one of our players has the ability to express themselves and their individuality and we do that inside of a team concept,” said manager John Farrell. “I know that’s kind of a delicate balance, but I think everyone is well aware of what our expectations are, and that includes our behavior — what’s accepted behavior; what’s not.”
Since the beginning of the season, the team has been able to walk the fine line between being too loose and too tight. Somewhere along the line, playing baseball became fun again, and it showed in the demeanor and performance of the team.
We hear all the time that having the right people in place is what makes the difference — not the most advanced technologies or the best policies. The Red Sox put people first, and in doing so, they righted the ship and developed a new blueprint for dysfunctional organizations — or all organizations, for that matter.
And maybe this example is a little extreme, but it shows the difference it can make when you have the right chemistry.