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MLB Notebook: Red Sox play together, stay together more than most

SEATTLE -- In 1978, veteran shortstop Frank Duffy joined the Red Sox and was immediately struck by the lack of camaraderie he witnessed among his new teammates.

"Twenty-five guys, twenty-five cabs,'' was how Duffy famously summarized the lack of togetherness away from the ballpark.

The quote dogged the franchise for decades, as it suggested a selfish, me-first sensibility had infected the organization.

Not long after, outfielder Jim Rice took issue with the very use of the word "teammates," preferring to refer to the man with whom he shared the Sox clubhouse as "associates."

But times -- and the Red Sox -- have changed. No longer do they go their own way.

In the last week, two incidents demonstrate how much has changed.

While the Red Sox enjoyed an off-day in the Phoenix area prior to their two exhibition games with the Cubs, the Red Sox gathered at the home of Dustin Pedroia in Chandler, Az. The catered event was a fun evening.

Then, two nights later, the Sox gathered for what has become, under Alex Cora, an on-the-eve of the season opener tradition: a team dinner. This was held in downtown Seattle, and not only did it involve the players on the 25-man roster, but the coaching staff, trainers, support staff and anyone in the team's traveling party.

What began in the early evening after the team's charter arrived from Arizona, according to one player, lasted past 11:30 p.m.

Not only is this sort of closeness unique for the Red Sox as a franchise, it's unique for any team.

"It is unique,'' confirmed bench coach Ron Roenicke, who played eight years in the big leagues, managed for five and has been in the game for the better part of 40 years in some capacity or another. "We had a couple of teams when I was with the Angels that were similar to that. But it's hard to have that, because of all the different personalities and different backgrounds. But these guys are tight.''

Sometimes, that's obvious on the field. It's evident when four starting pitchers gather on a back field to watch the fifth throw a live BP or side session. It's shown in the clubhouse when most of the team watches a ping pong match, with the playful trash talk flowing.

But mostly it's obvious when the players choose to spend some rare off-time with one another.

"It's definitely something that's rare,'' said Rick Porcello, who spent his first handful of seasons with the Detroit Tigers. "First and foremost, you don't build a relationship and then stop building. We have to continue to build and maintain that connection among all of us. And I think that pays off during the ups and downs of the season. It can help you weather a storm.

"If we have one guy --  or us collectively, as a whole -- struggling, we have to lean on each other for whatever it is to get back on track emotionally or mentally. We've got be able to police ourselves as far as keeping that even-keel focus and doing the things that make a good ballclub.''

David Price made stops in Tampa Bay, Detroit and Toronto and acknowledges the atmosphere that exists in and around the Red Sox clubhouse is different. It helps, too, as Price noted, that the core of the current roster has been around for a number of seasons.

In fact, this spring, Colten Brewer was the only addition from outside the organization to be part of the 25-man Opening Day roster.

So that familiarity breeds more togetherness.

"This is rare,'' said Price. "I think this is the first time I've spent time at a teammate's house in-season. And then at our dinner (in Seattle), it was coaches, staff, everybody. That creates comfort. If you're comfortable, you're going to do more for everybody else and I think that's kind of the definition of our team -- everybody will do anything for anybody. We care for one another.''

That dynamic can largely be attributed to Cora, who has preached the virtues of togetherness while encouraging the players to enjoy themselves.

"Alex likes the laughter and the relaxed atmosphere,'' said Roenicke. "I know some people don't think that's the way to go about it. But I know from experience, when you're more relaxed, you're going to play better. You're going to be more confident in what you do versus when you're uptight and worried about doing something wrong, you're not going to play as well.''

It's difficult, if not impossible, to quantify how this translates -- if at all -- to on-field performance. But even if he can't provide empirical evidence to support his point, Roenicke has no doubt whatsoever that there's a positive impact from the closeness the players enjoy.

"There's no doubt you win more games. There's no question,'' said Roenicke. "The guys here aren't selfish about stuff. They love it when somebody new comes up with a big hit. That's what great about it. Who knows how many wins it means? It could be ten wins a year. I don't know. I think every year that number would change every year, so it's hard to say what it actually is.

"But it means something (on the field). That I know.''

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Credit to the Toronto Blue Jays -- and former Red Sox GM Ben Cherington in particular -- for their efforts in boosting pay for minor leaguers.

The Jays have given raises of better than 50 percent to their minor league prospects. Major League Baseball has established minimum salaries for minor leaguers based on level and experience. Some players in Single-A are paid as little as $1,100 per month, which works out to well below minimum wage.

(Thanks to the help of Congress, MLB has been able to classify minor leaguers as "seasonal employees,'' for whom federal labor laws don't apply).

But the pay is so minimal that young players often band together with a half-dozen or more in small apartments, often subsisting on fast food.

For big-time prospects who get large signing bonuses, it's easier to make ends meet. But for the majority of players who are drafted after the first few rounds, signing bonuses aren't significant enough to help supplement meager in-season pay.

A number of other teams, the Red Sox included, also go above the established guidelines set by MLB.

Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy said the Sox increased the salaries of minor leaguers "two or three years ago,'' and continually examine the issue.

"We look at it each and every year,'' said Kennedy. "We've given an increase in the last couple of years, but we haven't discussed going to that level (that the Blue Jays are at), but we're going to continue to look at it. I know we're in the top quartile of clubs in terms of salaries. We look at Baseball Operations as sort of one big expenditure -- major league payroll, minor league payroll, player development, international -- and we set the budget accordingly. We'll see. We're going to evaluate it as we go into 2020.''

Kennedy sees the issue as something of a moral obligation.

"Everyone deserves fair wage for their work,'' he said, "so it's our responsibility to make sure we're paying a fair and legal wage. We're certainly doing that. I think you can make the argument that other people should be paid higher wages -- employees in the front office, for example. We have to look at it in the totality.

"We have roughly 350 different men and women who work for the Red Sox, all different areas of the company and we try to do our best to make sure that everyone is fairly compensated.''

One industry source indicated that "most'' organizations pay ''at least somewhat above'' the required minimum established, with some more generous than others. Still others -- often small market teams -- pay what they're obligated to but no more.

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Over the final few weeks of March, a plethora of contract extensions got handed out -- some to players facing free agency, and others issued to young players who had yet to have a major league at-bat or throw a pitch.

For a while there, the deals were difficult to keep track of. It was starting to resemble a holiday taping of "Oprah." You get a contract extension!  And YOU get a contract extension...

The Mets handed NL Cy Young award winner Jacob deGrom a new five-year, $137.5 million deal (just below the Red Sox' extension of Chris Sale, which was also five years in length for $145 million).

It's easy to understand the Mets' motivation here. deGrom is both the Mets' most popular and important player and locking him well into the next decade. That sent a strong message to a beleaguered fan base -- one still reeling from the Wilpon family's ties to the Bernie Madoff and the accompanying belt-tightening that took part as a result -- that the Mets would do what was necessary to retain their most valuable stars.

Fine.

But here's where it could get tricky. Until last fall, Brodie van Wagenen served as deGrom's agent. Now, of course, van Wagenen is the Mets general manager.

"So what happens,'' wondered one National League talent evaluator, "if guys who weren't repped by Brodie want contract extensions but don't get them? Does that create an issue in the clubhouse? Does that become a divisive thing where some players feel that Brodie's guys get taken care of, but other guys don't?

"It's one of those things that might not surface if they have a good start. But if they start to lose and guys begin to bitch that there's favoritism at work, might bear watching.''

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TOP 3/THE LIST

Top spring baseball books.

Now that the season's underway, there's an avalanche of baseball books piling up at local bookstores. Here are three of the most interesting.

1. Inside the Empire: The True Power Behind the New York Yankees by Bob Klapisch and Paul Solotaroff. Klapisch spent a season with unique access to the Yankees, observing how the organization makes its biggest decisions -- baseball and otherwise.

2. K - A History of Baseball in 10 Pitches by Tyler Kepner. Kepner, the New York Times national baseball writer, takes a look at 10 different pitches and their evolution -- from fastball to spitter and elsewhere -- and tells great stories to highlight them.

3. They Said it Couldn't Be Done: The '69 Mets, New York City and the Most Astounding Season in Baseball History by Wayne Coffey. There are underdog stories in sports -- and then there are the Amazin' Mets, who 50 years ago this season, turned baseball upside down with their improbable World Series run.