Cherington steps up to take reins of Red Sox
Epstein successor has risen up ranks since joining Boston in '99
BOSTON -- There's a reason the Red Sox didn't conduct any interviews for a new general manager when they knew for sure that Theo Epstein would be leaving for the Chicago Cubs.
Ben Cherington had been working tirelessly for the club for the last 13 years -- 10 under the current ownership -- and that was a far bigger proving ground than any other candidate could have had in a job interview.
Cherington received the ultimate reward for all his hard work on Tuesday, when he officially became the team's next general manager.
"He is the ultimate team player and his hunger for the future success of the Boston Red Sox is second to none," said Red Sox president/CEO Larry Lucchino. "In his quiet way, eschewing the spotlight and the accolades, Ben and the Red Sox organization are inextricably intertwined. I could not at this point in Red Sox history imagine Ben with any other organization and I have trouble imagining the Red Sox without Ben Cherington."
Just like the last general manager, and the one before that (Dan Duquette) and the one before that (the late Lou Gorman), Cherington grew up in New England and rooted passionately for the Red Sox.
The boy who used to drive from Meriden, N.H., with his grandmother to take in games from the bleachers at Fenway will now be the point man for the team's roster makeup going forward.
"Through that, I developed a passion for baseball, and specifically for the Red Sox," Cherington said. "It's that passion that's led me down an incredibly fortunate path to this day."
While Epstein led the Red Sox to six postseason appearances and the club's first two World Series championships since 1918 during his nine-year run, the Red Sox collapsed at the end of 2011, finishing 7-20.
That puts Cherington in charge at a critical time. He sounded like a man who is up for the challenge.
"We've let our fans down in some important ways recently," Cherington said. "The last few weeks have been painful, difficult. But what I'm left with is the conviction that the Red Sox will be the most successful organization in baseball moving forward."
His new position is a spot that Cherington, 37, worked toward since 1999, when Boston hired him as an area scout but swiftly elevated him to a position in baseball operations.
"His longevity with the Red Sox exceeds that of [owner] John [Henry], [chairman] Tom [Werner] and many of the people in our front office," Lucchino said. "Amateur scout, advance scout, pro scout, international scout. Farm director. VP of player personnel. Assistant general manager. Those are among the duties he's performed with great skill for three different and excellent general managers over his 14 years in Major League Baseball."
Cherington's power rose steadily after Epstein became general manager in November 2002.
"Most of us knew that Theo was the right person to be GM even before he did," Cherington said. "He left values with me that we will carry forward with."
Epstein endorsed Cherington strongly as his successor before committing to leave for the Cubs.
"He's very organized," Epstein said of Cherington. "I prefer more of a free form of ideas -- more of a boiler room, think-tank-type atmosphere. There are small differences. We spent 10 years together; he's a great friend and colleague, and I'd like to think he's ready."
After serving as director of player development for three years, Cherington became co-general manager of the Red Sox -- along with Jed Hoyer -- for six weeks (Dec. 7, 2005-Jan. 24, 2006) when Epstein had temporarily vacated his post.
After Epstein decided to return, Cherington became vice president of player personnel. He was promoted to assistant GM three years later.
Now, he'll become the point man for Boston's baseball operations, succeeding Epstein, who filled the role for nine years.
"He's rolled up his sleeves, he's done the work, he has the respect ... his background in scouting is immensely impressive to me," Lucchino said. "I've always believed in hybrid baseball executives, [and] Ben is a hybrid baseball executive."
Under Epstein, the Red Sox won two World Series and made the postseason six times.
While Cherington was often seen as an extension of Epstein during their decade together, they are different people.
"I can't play guitar -- I thought maybe someday I'd learn, but I can't yet," Cherington said, referring to Epstein. "I don't have a gorilla suit, although I don't think Theo did, either. Our general philosophy of putting our team together ... we both believe in having many well-rounded position players on the team. We both believe in the importance of a core group of young players and investing in scouting and development.
"The basic principles are largely the same. I'm a different person, my managing style's different. I know that I need to collaborate ... and I'm new at this job."
Cherington will not only be asked to put together a winning roster, but also to find a new manager and try to fix issues that led to some deterioration in the clubhouse culture, that was evident during Boston's late-season slide.
In the weeks since the season ended, Jon Lester confirmed various reports that starting pitchers were drinking beer and eating take-out fried chicken in the clubhouse during games in which they weren't pitching.
"I think that we have work to do this offseason to restore the culture that we expect in the clubhouse, to restore a level of accountability," Cherington said. "I don't believe there's a silver bullet that will be the answer to that. It's multi-factorial. Certainly we have an important hire in the next manager and he will be a big part of it. But we're all going to be a part of it.
"Most importantly, the players are going to be a big part of it and I know from talking to players and even from talking to some of them publicly, I believe there's a great motivation to clean up whatever does need to be cleaned up in the clubhouse and move forward to 2012."
Cherington won't be afraid to implement changes where necessary.
"What's going to work moving forward isn't exactly what's worked in the past," Cherington said. "Move forward and identify the things that we need to do differently to have the kind of success Red Sox fans and Red Sox management deserve."
Finding the right manager will be a key first step in Cherington's regime. Terry Francona and the Red Sox had a mutual parting of ways three weeks ago following a September collapse that was the worst in baseball history. Cherington said he will seek a manager who has a "strong voice," communicates well with players and management and embraces philosophies similar to the baseball operations staff.
From a pure baseball standpoint, Cherington has a crucial offseason in front of him.
David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon, cornerstones of the Red Sox during Epstein's and Francona's tenure, are both expected to become free agents. There will also be a vacancy in right field, as free-agent-to-be J.D. Drew either will retire or move to another organization.
"We'd like to have both of them back," Cherington said of Ortiz and Papelbon. "We're going to have to see if there's a contract that makes sense for them and for us, but we'd be a really good team if we could have both of them back. We've had initial dialogue with both."
Shortstop Marco Scutaro and the Red Sox hold a mutual option, but he could be moving on as well.
And with pitching failing Boston down the stretch -- both in the rotation and the bullpen -- there will be significant acquisitions in that area. John Lackey won't throw a pitch in 2012 as he will undergo Tommy John surgery in the near future. Daisuke Matsuzaka probably won't return until after the All-Star break.
"We need to build some pitching depth," Cherington said. "We have talent in the bullpen. Obviously with Papelbon, not knowing the outcome of that, we could potentially have an opening at closer. We have a couple of players in house we think are capable of filling that role if needed. But we need to add some pitching depth.
"I think most likely we'll do that through some good creative, perhaps buy-low acquisition. We're going to do our diligence on every available player. I think we need to hit on some pitchers this offseason in much the same way we did with Alfredo Aceves last offseason. We need to continue to do that."
Cherington is also known for being a sound evaluator of talent while also having strong organization skills and an even temper.
Why were the Red Sox so confident Cherington could thrive as the team's next general manager?
"Well, I have seen Ben and the effect he has on the people he works with," Lucchino said. "I think he's developed a sense of admiration and respect from his co-workers that is always important when you're in a leadership role. Theo made clear that he thought Ben was a worthy successor for him and we had had plenty of experience with Ben. We certainly knew his history and on-field performance. It was a rather quick consensus that was formed."
Sure, the job of Red Sox general manager is a true pressure cooker. But Cherington has no trepidation about taking it.
"I've thought a lot about all the challenges that come with it," said Cherington. "My eyes are wide open that there are going to be tough days that come with this job. But there's so much enormous upside and look, at the end of the day, this is what we love to do. This is the job that I want and the reason I want it so badly is because of the people I'm going to work with every day. That's why I don't have any reservation about taking this job."