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Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion from the Ground Up

Review

Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion from the Ground Up

God bless Michael Lewis. Where would we be without his seminal MONEYBALL: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, first published in 2003? And, more specifically, where would a number of authors be? Thanks to Lewis, there’s a new subgenre for them to focus on. By my informal count, there are close to a dozen titles that examine how successful teams are constructed, not via the gut feelings of grizzled, paunchy, tobacco-chewing veteran scouts, but through numbers. These can be hit or miss, to borrow the expression from the game the writers cover.

The latest in this category is Alex Speier’s HOMEGROWN: How the Red Sox Built a Champion from the Ground Up. The title is most apt on a few counts. The Red Sox, who went almost 90 years between World Series wins, had fallen on hard times with several seasons out of the running. Time for one of those “five-year” plans.

"One might think that a behind-the-scenes narrative like this one would be a bit dry.... But Speier...turns it into a tight, tense and quite enjoyable story, almost like an adventure novel."

It’s also suitable since the core of the team was scouted by, signed and brought up through Boston’s minor league system. A fair part of the story deals with a handful of prospects, including Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., Andrew Benintendi, Xander Bogaerts --- major stars for the team, if not baseball as a whole --- and a handful of others (another subtitle choice might have been “The Care and Nurturing of the Killer B’s”). Speier follows their progress, along with their setbacks, as they struggle to deal with the increasing pressure as they move up through the system towards the ultimate goal of becoming a major leaguer. There are varying degrees of success; a few of these young men (almost a euphemism since most of them were still in their teens when the scouting process began) have to contend not only with the game on the field, but, in the case of those coming from Latin American countries, cultural and language issues as well.

There are a lot of expectations for these boys and therefore a great deal of pressure for them to succeed. And it’s not just the ballplayers under the microscope in HOMEGROWN. There’s an unbelievable --- some might say stupid --- amount of money being tossed around. Yoan Moncada, a Cuban teenager, signed for $31.5 million. Add to that another $31.5 mil in “luxury tax” penalties. That’s how sure Boston’s management was that they had found the equivalent of a baseball unicorn.

But wait. Moncada was part of a four-for-one trade to the Chicago White Sox for pitching ace Chris Sale following the 2015 season. To this point, Moncada has not lived up to the hype, while Sale went 17-8 with 308 strikeouts in his first season with Boston. This is also a major consideration as a team decides on its path: Do you hold your cards for the future, or take a chance on giving up one of these gems for immediate results? Jobs of front office personnel hang in the balance of such decisions, a stressful proposition.

It’s a trickle-down stress as well. Speier writes about the field managers, including John Farrell and Alex Cora, who have to deal with the hands they are given. And since people are people, not everyone is going to get along and agree with the assessments from higher up.

Things obviously clicked for the 2018 squad: the Red Sox won the World Series last year with their best win-loss record in franchise history. It was their third crown since ending the long drought in 2004.

One might think that a behind-the-scenes narrative like this one would be a bit dry. In fact, that’s what I thought when I first picked up HOMEGROWN. But Speier, who has covered the franchise for 15 years for the Boston Globe as well as Baseball America --- a publication that concentrates mostly on what’s going on in the minor leagues --- turns it into a tight, tense and quite enjoyable story, almost like an adventure novel. Will our heroes overcome the challenges and roadblocks tossed their way? Since this isn’t fiction, the answer is obvious, but it’s still well worth the read.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on August 23, 2019

Homegrown: How the Red Sox Built a Champion from the Ground Up
by Alex Speier

  • Publication Date: August 13, 2019
  • Genres: Nonfiction, Sports
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow
  • ISBN-10: 0062943553
  • ISBN-13: 9780062943552