Fri. Mar 22nd, 2019

Turning Tragedies into Championships: Spring Training and this Season’s Red Sox Similarity to the 2013 Championship Team

The Boston Red Sox had few questions entering the 2019 season. Coming off of the most successful year in franchise history, they only lost two players – elite closer Craig Kimbrel, and playoff hero Joe Kelly – to free agency. With the bullpen and closer spots becoming the only needs that had to be addressed this offseason, the Red Sox made the trip down to Fort Myers, Florida, home of JetBlue Park, in high spirits. It was Spring training, and it was time to prepare for the long road to winning back-to-back championships. The mood wouldn’t last long.

On February 21, just four days after position players reported to Fort Myers, tragedy struck. Nick Cafardo, a sportswriter for the Boston Globe who had covered the Red Sox and Patriots for a long time (he was celebrating his 30th anniversary covering sports), passed away. He was struck by an embolism while the team was running drills in JetBlue Park. Mr. Cafardo was rushed to Gulf Coast Medical Center, also in Fort Myers, where he was pronounced dead. He was 62.

As the news broke, journalists and sports media members from across the nation began expressing condolences and tributes. Nick Cafardo was beloved and respected by all who knew him. The next day, manager Alex Cora held an emotional seven minute presser, entirely devoted to Cafardo. Cora, who lost his father many years ago, understood entirely what the family was going through. The New York Yankees, at one of their spring training home games, held a moment of silence for Cafardo. The Red Sox said their goodbyes, expressed condolences to the family, and hoped to move on and look to the future. It wasn’t meant to be.

On February 27, less than a week after the passing of Nick Cafardo, David Price sent out a cryptic tweet:

As fans on Twitter began discerning what he was talking about, reports started circulating that a member of the team had left Fort Myers to deal with a family emergency. The Red Sox didn’t reveal anything official for several hours, out of respect to the affected family. Nonetheless, fans on Twitter began speculating that catcher Blake Swihart was involved. Tweets sent out by Blake’s family indicated that his adopted brother, a young man named Romell Jordan, had passed away. The Red Sox confirmed it several hours later. Jordan had attended the University of New Mexico, and played as a running back for the UNM Lobos. He was only 23.

Again, tragedy had struck JetBlue Park. If Nick Cafardo’s death hadn’t cast a somber mood over spring training, Romell Jordan’s passing all but cemented it. Blake chose to stay with the team for the rest of the week. Being with his baseball brothers gave him comfort in his time of grief. Of course, if he had wished to leave, he would’ve had the full support of the organization. Tom Goodwin, the Red Sox first base coach, has been instrumental in helping Blake deal with his grief. Goodwin lost his son a good number of years ago, as Alex Cora lost his father, and empathized heavily with the young catcher.

These tragedies, occurring less than a week between each other, are terrible. But what if some small good could come out of them? I think back to the 2013 Red Sox. The team had a regular season record of 97-65, and they won the World Series that year, driven by David Ortiz, Mike Napoli, Shane Victorino, and first-year manager John Farrell. But what about the 2012 season? It must’ve been a good season too, given that the team won it all the next year, right? Not so. The team finished dead-last in the division, actually. The win-loss record was a pathetic 69-93. First-year manager Bobby Valentine was immediately fired once the season came to an end. Okay, so the team was terrible in 2012, and won it all in 2013. But what about 2014? Again, a dead-last finish. The record that year was 71-91, only marginally better than 2012.

So, a last-place finish in 2012, a first-place finish cemented with a World Series victory in 2013, and another last placer in 2014. So what happened in 2013? I’ll tell you what happened: The Boston Marathon. On April 19, 2013, two nail bombs went off at the finish line of the annual Marathon, killing three and injuring 22. The city went on lockdown, and the two men responsible, brothers from Chechnya, were identified. One was killed, the other arrested and sentenced to life in supermax. And what about Boston? The city resolved to come out of the tragedy stronger than ever. #BostonStrong became a unifying mantra for the city. When the Red Sox returned to Boston from a road trip, David Ortiz gave an emotional speech to a packed Fenway, capped off by the infamous line, “This is our f!@#ing city!” The team found its resolve on April 19. Six months later, they brought a championship to the city, winning the World Series in Fenway Park for the first time in 95 years. Were they the most talented team in the league? No. The Detroit Tigers probably should’ve won that ALCS. But the team was driven, galvanized by tragedy. They were a team of destiny in 2013. The trophy was meant to be theirs, and it was up to the rest of the league to take it from them.

This squad, the 2019 team, is dripping with talent. They wouldn’t have won a franchise-record 108 regular season games without talent behind it. Even though the bookmakers have pegged the Yankees as early division winners and World Series victors, I’m not so convinced. Yes, the Yankees will be a tough team this year. I think the division race is going to be much closer than it was in 2018. But if the team can galvanize behind the two tragic deaths that have permeated spring training, it could very well propel them to another championship. The deaths of two individuals, of course, isn’t as shocking as the bombing of a city event, but it’s no less heartbreaking to the families of the lost. As David Price said, the Red Sox are a family. Blake Swihart might go on to have a career year, driven by the loss of his brother. All I can offer the Red Sox, Nick Cafardo’s family, and Blake Swihart and his family, are my condolences. I can’t begin to imagine what any of them are going through right now. But I know how this city, and this team, responds to tragedy. And I think the league better be ready for the coming storm.

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