GM Ben ready to 'sit back and watch'

DETROIT -- There was no time, Ben Cherington said, for butterflies.

Maybe another English major from Amherst College might have waxed poetic about the occasion, standing on the cusp of a lifelong dream first hatched in a young boy's baseball-smitten heart in a small town in New Hampshire.

Ben Cherington had to get his Opening Day roster set before an afternoon deadline. That meant meetings, e-mails, phone calls, text messages, filing forms with the commissioner's office.

Pondering what it meant, being this close to his first real game as general manager of the Red Sox, well, that would have to wait.

"To me, the job we have is off the field," Cherington said Wednesday afternoon in a clubhouse hallway here, after the Boston Red Sox had just held their final dress rehearsal prior to Opening Day, when they will meet the Detroit Tigers on Thursday afternoon in Comerica Park.

"When it gets on the field, the players are out there doing their thing," Cherington said. "I can't control that. I don't really get nervous before games. I get nervous in other parts of the job, things I have more control over.

"When it comes to the game, that's their domain. You sit back and watch."

If Cherington has done his job, the Red Sox who take the field on Thursday will approximate the judgment rendered Wednesday by manager Bobby Valentine.

"I have a really good team," Valentine said. "I think the individuals in that clubhouse, I think they are all champions and champions in the making. It's just my job to put them together. I think they're a quality team. A championship-quality group of individuals that can come together as a championship-quality team."

A year ago, such words about the Sox would have inspired a bobblehead convention, people nodding so fast in agreement their noggins would have come unhinged. But that was before the mud, the blood, the beer and the fried chicken, the epic flop, the forced exit of Terry Francona, the exodus of Theo Epstein, the smackdown of a team left to choke on its own embarrassment.

It was Cherington's job to pick up the pieces, a process that began first and foremost with the hiring of Valentine as manager. There was some tricky terrain to be navigated even there, as the wooing of Valentine began not with Cherington but with CEO Larry Lucchino, leading to the perception, if not the reality, that the new general manager's first major decision had been usurped from him.

But Cherington sprung a surprise on those anticipating backroom brawling. He not only endorsed Valentine's candidacy, he embraced it as his own, and while there may yet come a time where they will be at each other's throats, Valentine and Cherington have been in lockstep this spring, presenting a united front on even the most difficult decisions the club has faced.

"People who don't know Ben are the ones who thought there'd be all these problems," one member of the Sox inner circle said. "That's just not the way he operates. He encourages discussion, he's not afraid of people who disagree, he wants people to speak up. He doesn't make it all about egos."

Cherington has already made some unpopular moves, like trading away shortstop Marco Scutaro, and opting not to sign a free-agent pitcher, choosing instead to roll the dice on the team's own young pitchers, like Daniel Bard and Felix Doubront. And now his biggest move of the winter, trading for closer Andrew Bailey, blew up on him this week when Bailey underwent thumb surgery that is expected to sideline him for a minimum of three months.

"During spring training we had a lot of work to do," he said. "We had positions we had to figure out. We thought we'd start the season feeling good about ourselves but not perfect, and that's about where we are. A lot of work was done. We made decisions on the rotation, and the position player mix figured itself out for the most part.

"We had a tough break a couple days ago with Andrew but that's now an opportunity for others to step up and take on a little more responsibility. So we go into the season feeling good about ourselves but not feeling perfect. As with every team, there are problems."

Cherington backs Valentine's decision to make Alfredo Aceves the team's closer, noting that Aceves' name had come up in the offseason as a possible candidate to close. "Even when [Daniel] Bard and Aceves were being stretched out as starters," he said, "we didn't make any decisions because we didn't know how the whole pitching staff would look.

"We got to the end, Bobby and his staff made the decision to go with Bard in the rotation, and that put Aceves back in the 'pen. Then Bailey's news came and Aceves got pushed up into a more meaningful role."

Cherington already has accomplished something not seen while Epstein was here, not seen here in a quarter of a century. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the last time the Sox started four Sox-only pitchers in their first five games of a season was in 1988, when they ran out Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst, Oil Can Boyd and Steve Ellsworth. Ellsworth, the son of former big league pitcher Dick Ellsworth, was a former No. 1 draft pick who went 1-6 with a 6.75 ERA in eight starts for the Sox, and never pitched in the big leagues again.

Cherington explained why that homegrown factor matters, from both an economic and competitive standpoint.

"A big-market team like we are we can afford to have some significant contracts but you can't have 25 guys with them and you can't have 12 pitchers with them," he said. "In order to have established players, well-paid players on the team, you've got to have guys who are younger and that includes the starting rotation.

"But it's not just the money [established] starters earn, it's just the scarcity generally of starting pitching. Even if you have money to sign them, you can't always get them, and it's really hard to get them in a trade. So signing and developing them is by far the best way to do."

And that's a beautiful thing.

"If those guys do what we expect them to do, then it's a beautiful thing," Cherington replied. "Ultimately, homegrown or not, these guys have to perform. But I think it does illustrate something I said early in the offseason, that a priority for us is to find the next generation of starters. [Jon] Lester and [Clay] Buchholz represent a certain generation that got to the big leagues and are a huge part of the team. We traded one away in [Justin] Masterson [and another in Casey Kelly]. Doubront and Bard now have a chance to do this, so where is that next generation coming from.

"We still need to find that next generation because it's just so valuable to a team to integrate its own starting pitching into a rotation and have it work. It helps you now competitively, and helps you for years to come to do other things."

And those are the kinds of issues that keep away the butterflies. You can't fret too much about Opening Day 2012 when Opening Day 2017 is already on your radar.