Saturday, December 25, 2004

Sweet embraceable you

During the long Red Sox season, it's easy to get so bogged down with the familiarities - the comebacks, heartbreakers and Todd Walker bobbles - that the quirks and subtleties can be elusive. Maybe it is true: The more we watch, the less we see.

My wife doesn't watch the Sox so much these days - one lost cause is enough for her, I suppose - but she is uncannily aware of the little things I don't pick up on. Which often brings us to exchanges such as this recent one:

Wife, straight out of left field: "Do the Red Sox hug each other a lot?"

Me: "Yes, and they like to cuddle and talk about their feelings, too."

The Red Sox? Hugging? C'mon, this is baseball. These guys don't hug. They high-five, give a pound, and pat each other on the butt.

Tradition, you know.

It was only after her words hit my eardrums that my eyes saw the truth. These Red Sox do hug each other. A lot. It's not the typical macho "Attaboy," half-hearted slap on the back, either. They hug. Like "come-here-ya-big-lug." Like long-lost friends. Like newlyweds.

Manny bashes one into the Monster Seats. Hug. Nomar wheels around from first to score on a double. Hug. Grady Little actually has a reliever warming up before seven runs have crossed the plate. Hugs all around.

How did this happen? Was there a transaction we missed? Was Dr. Phil named the bench coach? Is the bullpen on a quest to lead the league in holds? Did Bill James crunch some numbers and conclude that the most successful teams squeeze often, only to have the manager misinterpret the suggestion?

All this hugging might seem to be an unusual phenomenon for a male sports team; you probably won't see, say, the New York Giants snuggling each other after every Jeremy Shockey touchdown this season. But maybe it isn't such a revelation with these Sox. We don't have to search too far for clues that they may not meet baseball's stereotypically macho standards.

Their ace pitcher, Pedro Martinez, is intimidating on the mound to be sure. But away from his office he nurtures flowers, and he has been known to wear jeans with a picture of Linus from "Peanuts." I can't quite see Roger Clemens doing the same, although I'm sure he laughs hysterically at the comics.

And according to Dan LeBatard of ESPN The Magazine, Manny was breast fed until he was 7. Something tells me he's probably okay with hugging. Yikes.

Conversely, Trot Nixon is more of tough-love kind of guy, which was evident when he practically shook poor Bill Mueller into a coma during Mueller's three-home-run game a few weeks back. It comes as no surprise that Trot's dad used to make him run home from the ball-field after a bad game. Poor, repressed Trot still keeps his true feelings inside. They'll teach him to love yet.

The roots of the Brotherly Love Red Sox can be traced to the arrival of Carlos Baerga before the 2002 season. Baerga, the inventor of the Awkward Man Hug, was enthusiastic, supportive and darned happy to have a big-league job. In other words, a great teammate.

Baerga signed with the Diamondbacks in the offseason, but his legacy remains at Fenway. The current chief hugamaniacs are Manny, Kevin Millar and David Ortiz, all of whom, perhaps not coincidentally, would join Baerga on the 40-man roster of the Red Sox's all-time All-Goofball team.

Goofy or not, there is a truth at the root of this, and it's one that takes some getting used to: The Red Sox actually like each other. Imagine that. From the "25 players, 25 cabs" clubs of the 1970s to the "Margo and Wade vs. the world" egofests in the '80s, the Red Sox are not renowned for their close-knit clubhouses. During the recent miserable Everett-Lansing-Offerman years, one was just as likely to receive a head-butt as a hug.

Those sour hours have passed, and maybe the manager deserves some credit for this. I consider Little to be a baseball version of Pete Carroll - good guy, lousy leader - but his team is remarkably resilient, and perhaps that is a byproduct of its superb clubhouse chemistry.

There is no sniping and griping when things go wrong. These Sox play as team and are quick to celebrate each other's successes. It's a big part of this immensely likable ballclub's good vibe.

Yes, you might say they're a pretty embraceable group of guys.

(Originally published in the Concord Monitor, 2003)