There are a few things in the world that I can't resist. A slow-cooked pork shoulder, Lagavulin neat, an old map, and anything involving Pedro Martinez. Earlier today, we linked to a terrific interview by the ever-great Chad Finn with the former Sox ace. It covered a wide range of topics, from Pedro's imminent television gig with TBS to whether he'd be willing to take on some high-leverage relief work for Boston in the playoffs (no, unfortunately). I wanted to pick one quote out of the piece to discuss, because I've been thinking about it all morning. When asked about the effect of chemistry, specifically good chemistry, on a clubhouse, Pedro replied:
Good relationships never affect anything. Bad relationships do. To handle the amount of attention that you get in Boston, you need to be in it together. To handle the pressure situations that they go through, and the behind-the-scenes stuff fans don't see, it's so much easier and fulfilling if there is community and unity, if everyone has fun together and had each others' backs.
With the Red Sox headed into postseason play, an onslaught of "changed chemistry saved the Red Sox" stories is about to hit sports pages around the country. As is now traditional, there will quickly follow a salvo of "no, it's the better pitching and hitting, chemistry is crap" columns. It'll be loads of fun. Regardless, Pedro's quote really stands out. It manages to strike a nuanced balance, acknowledging that the way players interact can have an impact, without making it the foundation of all team building. And certainly in an environment like Boston, where the already high pressure of a major-league career is turned up to borderline inquisition-level, it's important to have that strong support system in place.
To acknowledge that chemistry matters doesn't mean going entirely over to the "heart is more important than talent" side. Last year's Red Sox didn't suck because their clubhouse environment was miserable. They sucked because their pitchers were hurt or ineffective all season and Pedro Ciriaco got almost as many plate appearances as Jacoby Ellsbury. And this year's team isn't great because Jonny Gomes punts helmets and beers. It's got a healthy, strong starting rotation and the deepest offense in the league. They'd be in the playoffs, most likely, with or without the team unity, the beards, and the punting. Chemistry alone can't save a team or destroy it.
To borrow an analogy from my day job, think about a beer glass. A good glass is designed to enhance whatever's already in the beer. It can't turn lousy beer into a perfectly balanced saison, and an already-great IPA will taste good in anything. Team chemistry, I think, works the same way. It can make a good team a bit better, more able to deal with slumps, more willing to pick each other up, and arguably even harder-working. It could also make a bad team worse, more fractured, more depressed, less able to break a losing streak. But it won't turn a team with no talent into a playoff squad, or a playoff-bound team into a loser.
Along the same lines, especially in a place like Boston, where media and fan criticism is omnipresent, the simple underlying fact of team chemistry (hard-working, amicable players) is helpful. Players who want to play hard and support each other are fun to watch even when they're not winning. When teams look like they're playing their asses off for each other, and having fun on the field, the fanbase grumbles less, and when the fanbase grumbles less, there's less demand for negative media input. That, in turn, puts less pressure on the players, and reduces the "Boston is a terrible place to play" mindset.
Clearly it's not breaking news that people who like each other work better together, but it's occasionally nice to be reminded that such things can be acknowledged without resort to the old storylines. That Pedro's starting out his secondary career in analysis with that sort of nuance is nice to see. Here's hoping we get a lot more of it during the playoffs.
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- Clay Buchholz vs. Rob Gronkowski: A character study