BOSTON -- Ben Cherington, the frequently overlooked general manager of the Boston Red Sox, has no interest in growing a beard. He's leaving that to the players. The decision is less about maintaining an air of decorum and giving players their space than avoiding the unsightly aesthetic consequences.
"Don't do something you're not capable of doing," Cherington said, laughing. "It would not be pretty. It would be an embarrassment to the team."
Boston fans could pick Cherington out of a lineup even if he were wearing a trench coat and fake nose-and-glasses combination, because they're rabid that way. But his low-key persona makes him easy to miss on a national scale. His close friend and predecessor, Theo Epstein, became a rock star in Boston after guiding the team to championships in 2004 and 2007. Cherington hails more from the background vocalist/tambourine shaker school of front-office executives.
Nevertheless, he is quietly and persistently putting his imprint on the product in Boston. Even though Pittsburgh's Neal Huntington might have the Executive of the Year award locked up for leading the Pirates franchise to its first winning season in 21 years, Cherington deserves to be in the conversation for a series of transactions that helped propel the Red Sox from a 69-93 civic disaster to a team that is four wins away from its third World Series appearance since 2004.
Some moves were bigger on the attention scale than others. Cherington found the leader he had been looking for when he hired John Farrell to replace Bobby Valentine as Boston's manager last October. And the monster trade that sent Adrian Gonzalez, Carl Crawford and Josh Beckett to Los Angeles in August 2012 helped create the payroll flexibility that allowed Cherington to find abundant wing men for David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and Jon Lester.
Shane Victorino, Mike Napoli, Koji Uehara, Jonny Gomes, Ryan Dempster, Stephen Drew and David Ross -- who signed free-agent deals worth about $100 million in total (or $25 million less than the Los Angeles Angels paid Josh Hamilton) -- have all contributed to varying degrees. In addition to that haul, Cherington snagged ace pinch hitter Mike Carp off waivers from Seattle in February and fortified the rotation by acquiring Jake Peavy from the Chicago White Sox at the July trade deadline.
Although Dempster's 8-9 record and 4.57 ERA were disappointing, Ross missed two months with a concussion, and the Red Sox would like a do-over on that Joel Hanrahan-for-Mark Melancon trade with Pittsburgh, Cherington's other additions have met or wildly exceeded expectations. Uehara gave the Red Sox some otherworldly relief pitching while making $4.25 million this year. Napoli hit 23 homers and slugged .482 at first base, and Victorino rediscovered the form that made him a staple on five straight postseason teams in Philadelphia.
The end result is a team that's formidable on paper and between the lines. The Red Sox led the majors with 853 runs scored and a .795 OPS, yet scouts still gush over their fundamental soundness, two-strike approach and willingness to hit the ball to the right side and do all the other selfless things necessary to win games.
Except for the beards and the outward exuberance, it's a team built in Cherington's image. Ask him which attributes of the 2013 Red Sox impress him the most and Cherington focuses on the small, utilitarian things that make a difference.
"We've been very well-prepared, and that shows up in a lot of ways," he said. "We'll make a play because a guy is in the right spot, or make a pitch because the catcher did his homework, or steal a base because we've found a situation that works. And I'm not sure I can remember a game when we didn't play for all 27 outs. Every team kind of says that, but I think we've actually done it. I'm proud of that."
Red Sox die-hard
Epstein, who endorsed Cherington as his successor upon leaving Boston to run the Chicago Cubs two years ago, remains a Cherington fan.
"He has tremendous insights about the game and about people and applies them in myriad ways to make the organization and those around him better," Epstein said in an email. "He is a steady, dependable and understated person who is systematic in his work and his communication but ultimately empowers those around him. Ben was instrumental in building the foundation for the Red Sox's success through his work in player development and obviously has been outstanding in shaping this year's team out of the adversity the organization faced in 2012."
Like Epstein before him, Cherington is rooted in the tradition that resonates so deeply with fans throughout New England. He grew up in Meriden, N.H., a village in the western portion of the state near Dartmouth College in Hanover. He was 5 years old when he made his first trip to Fenway Park and 12 when a certain ground ball rolled through Bill Buckner's legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. Young Ben watched the game at his grandmother's house, and the pain was etched across his face.
His boyhood memories include listening to Ken Coleman and Joe Castiglione call Red Sox games on the radio, reading Peter Gammons' notes column in the Sunday Boston Globe and standing in front of a mirror and emulating the stances of Wade Boggs, Dwight Evans, Jim Rice and the rest of the Boston batting order from 1 through 9.
Cherington was a pitcher at Amherst College until his shoulder blew out. He caught his first break when then-Red Sox GM Dan Duquette hired him as an intern in 1997 and made a pit stop in Cleveland before returning to Boston as an advance scout. During his tenure with the Red Sox, he has been involved with international scouting, amateur scouting and player development. He oversaw drafts that brought Justin Masterson, Will Middlebrooks, Josh Reddick and Anthony Rizzo into the Boston system. As Boston's farm director, Cherington watched Pedroia, Lester, Jacoby Ellsbury and Clay Buchholz grow up in the minors.
That diverse blend of experiences broadened Cherington's perspective and gave him empathy for people in less glamorous roles. Cherington worked as a Mid-Atlantic area scout, so he can relate to guys who spend long hours driving down dark country roads for relatively little money in search of the "good face." He realizes the importance of cultivating an inclusive environment where everyone's opinion has value. A lot of good things can happen when the boss lets people do their jobs and isn't hung up on who gets the credit.
"For me, Ben is the epitome of organization above oneself," said Allard Baird, Boston's vice president of player personnel. "It comes out with everything he does. He has tremendous respect for that part-time scout working in Latin America, just as much as the guy who's hitting in our lineup Saturday night. The other thing that really stands out to me is his consistent character. When things weren't going so well for all of us last year, he maintained the same leadership expectations through the everyday grind and had a vision.
"I don't think he gets the credit he deserves, but to a large degree that's by design. That's him."
It's been a memorable season for the Red Sox and a banner year for graduates of the Mark McCormack sports management program at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In November, Cherington, Huntington and Cleveland's Chris Antonetti all returned to campus for a seminar on the life of a big league general manager. Little did they know that Cleveland would improve from 68 to 92 victories with former Boston manager Terry Francona at the helm, Pittsburgh would enjoy a fun-filled summer of Jolly Roger-raising, and the Red Sox would so quickly make baseball exhilarating and razors obsolete.
Most objective observers were willing to give Cherington a pass last year amid reports that team president Larry Lucchino meddled in baseball operations and foisted Valentine upon him as manager. But that doesn't erase the sting of a 2012 season that was notable for bad play, clubhouse infighting and all-around discord in Boston. As a New Englander born and bred, Cherington was disappointed by the team's comportment as well as its .426 winning percentage.
"It's a large part of why last year was so difficult and painful," he said. "We understood that people care about the team -- not just wins and losses, but how the team represents itself on and off the field. We fell short in all sorts of ways, and that was on me more than anyone, so I took it very personally. We really were committed to try and make things better.
"Starting late last year through the offseason, we never thought of a win total. We just wanted to put some things in place to make the organization stronger again. We're competitive people and you want to win, but we also know how much the team means to people."
In contrast to his reputation, Cherington isn't quite so low-key when game time rolls around. He churns inside while watching home games from his Fenway Park booth and spends his time during playoff road games in search of what he calls a "quiet place" where he won't be perceived as a raving lunatic. He has a touch of Billy Beane in him that way.
"This game is about the players. I really believe that," Cherington said. "When the spikes hit the field every day at 2 o'clock or whenever they come out for early work, part of my job is not getting in the way of that and letting the players do their job.
"If you ask the players, they'll tell you they have the most fun when the game starts and they're in control. It's different when you're just watching the game and hoping for an outcome. Unless things are really going well, I think most general managers would say those nine innings are not the most fun."
As it so happens, things are going quite well for the Red Sox at the moment. They won 97 games during the regular season, dispatched a tough Tampa Bay team in the division series and now prepare to face the Detroit Tigers with an American League pennant at stake.
Cherington has done a wonderful job putting it together and staying out of the way. Two more champagne celebrations and he's going to have a hard time remaining inconspicuous.