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So far, Red Sox are a character study

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  November 26, 2012 02:04 AM

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What was that goofy TBS slogan a few years ago that we were bludgeoned with seemingly every other pitch during the divisional baseball playoffs? "Characters welcome,'' right?

Must have been the year they were pushing Frank Caliendo as the next comedic genius. Or maybe it was reruns from when "The Office'' was watchable.

Anyway, I don't mean to digress right off the bat -- usually save that for later around here. It's just that that particular slogan, permanently seared into the back of my skull, has made its way back to the front of my mind recently. Naturally, it is again because of baseball.

It struck me last week as the Red Sox wrapped up their two-year deal with outfielder Jonny Gomes that "characters welcome'' applies to some meaningful degree to general manager Ben Cherington's approach to free agency this offseason.

That surprising but sensible signing followed reports, revealed by the player himself, that they were kicking the tires on Lance Berkman, the easy-going, accomplished 36-year-old outfielder/first baseman who was injured last year but is regarded as a terrific clubhouse presence.

But as we search for clues as to how Cherington will seek to repair the mess that this franchise has been for a season and a month, it's a grammatical variation on that slogan that seems to be an priority in team-restoration:

Character is welcome.

In fact, it's being emphasized.

rossdavidfinn1126.jpgMaybe David Ross, who signed a two-year, $6.2 million deal two weeks ago, didn't make much of an impression here during his eight at-bat cameo in 2008, but he certainly did during his four seasons with the Atlanta Braves. Here's what Braves beat writer David O'Brien of the Atlanta Journal Constitution wrote when the news broke that Ross was headed to Boston:

Ross was as strong a presence in the clubhouse as the Braves have had during the past several years, and his intangibles – working with young pitchers, accepting and thriving in a secondary role to a perennial All-Star like [Brian] McCann, always projecting optimism and good nature in the clubhouse – made him far more valuable than your typical backup catcher or bench player at any position.

Gomes also owns a reputation as a good teammate -- while he's been vilified here in the past for his free-swinging role in the Coco Crisp brawl in 2008, the perspective tends to change when someone is brawling for the players you're rooting for rather than the opponent. Susan Slusser, who covers the A's for the San Francisco Chronicle, tweeted this after Gomes joined the Red Sox:

No one can change a clubhouse culture like Jonny Gomes, as #Rays and #Athletics can attest.

What's happening is somewhat similar to Dan Duquette's approach following the pathetic 2001 season that was underminded by a toxic clubhouse that included an insufferable cross-section of gracelessly aging veterans (Dante Bichette, Mike Lansing) and awful personalities (Carl Everett, Jose Offerman, Shea Hillenbrand).

Duquette brought in character players such as Johnny Damon, Tony Clark (well, the intention was good), and Carlos Baerga, a bit player whose sunny disposition was essential in changing the culture. I trust you need no reminder how much of a factor it was in 2003 (when Kevin Millar arrived talking and never stopped) and with the recovery and redemption in 2004.

Given the melodrama that has engulfed this team since approximately September 1, 2011, the emphasis on character has to be deliberate, and it's one reason the possible return of cheerful Cody Ross can't be disregarded. Regarding players they're reportedly pursuing, I'm not sure how Mike Napoli, who has had his issues with Mike Scioscia and Ron Washington, would fit into this dialogue, and I suspect Nick Swisher's on-base percentage is similar to his usual percentage level of sincerity, but they're not bad guys, and they'd fulfill another requirement of this offseason: Bringing in quality ballplayers.

I've heard from a few fans who are antsy that there hasn't been a major move yet, particularly after the Jays' blockbuster. But if you step back and think about it -- consider the flawed players available in free agency, look at the terms of Joe Mauer's contract, remind yourself that giving out enormous long-term contracts to the likes of Carl Crawford is a big reason they're in this state in the first place -- you'll recognize that Cherington is playing this right.

This is what the Red Sox should be doing -- paying in the short term for players they want, even if it takes a few extra bucks. No, Gomes is not a $5 million a year player, but he has a discernible, valuable skill (he mashes lefties), it's a short deal, and the Sox have all that money to spend. There's nothing wrong with a slight overpay as long as the contract expires in a year or two.

There are other clues to Cherington's priorities, too. The Ross acquisition indicates a desire to improve the defensive performance behind the plate. The pursuit of Napoli and Swisher suggests there is value being put on positional and roster versatility, not to mention a renewed regard for taking pitches and working the more-than-occasional walk. Amen to all of that.

If these secondary moves are setting up something else bigger, well, that wouldn't surprise me either. If Josh Hamilton realizes that seven-year deal isn't happening, or Giancarlo Stanton demands a trade from the Marlin Remainders, at the least the Red Sox will be in position to be players. In the meantime, welcome the new characters, who should make this team better and are certain to make it more likable.

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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