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Epstein, Cherington talk chemistry at charity event

BOSTON -- As Theo Epstein returned home for his annual winter charity event, he did so at a time when he's trying to build the Chicago Cubs into a perennial contender and his former employers -- the Boston Red Sox -- are trying to regain their prominence.

The difference between success and failure in baseball can seem as fine as a piece of dirt that gets stuck under a players' spike.

It doesn't always come down to stats or ability. On many occasions, it comes down to atmosphere and culture.

In other words, the topic of Epstein's Hot Stove/Cool Music roundtable on Friday night was certainly timely. This forum was about changing the culture of a baseball team, particularly in the clubhouse.

This was a night Epstein could reflect on why that worked so well for the Red Sox from 2003-07, and how it was perhaps the undoing of the team in his final year in Boston (2011).

It was a chance for current Red Sox general manager Ben Cherington to talk about why repairing the clubhouse was a major part of his reconstruction this winter.

The other panel members included Boston manager John Farrell, Orioles skipper Buck Showalter and Red Sox assistant general manager Mike Hazen. They all had telling anecdotes about how personalities can sometimes impact a team as much as a game-winning home run or a key strikeout with the bases loaded and two outs.

It might not be as tangible -- but it's there.

"When you're trying to define what clubhouse culture is, it's really difficult to do, but it's really how 25 men come together for a common cause and hopefully if it's done right, the whole exceeds the sum of the parts and I think we saw that here for a long time," Epstein said. "There are different ingredients that are important. I think the manager sets an important tone. The character of the players you select to be in the clubhouse is an important tone. The veteran leadership is fundamental to it.

"We saw the other side of it -- towards the end. Where, just as when things come together in just the right mix, the whole can be greater than the sum of the parts, you can have the opposite effect when some of those ingredients aren't in play.

"There probably wasn't a month in baseball history that underscored the importance of it more than that [September 2011], unfortunately on the negative side. We probably had a month in October of 2004 which underscored how great it can be when things come together with the right mix."

When Epstein took over Boston's front office prior to the 2003 season, he had a team burdened by recent failures, and the inability to win a World Series for more than eight decades. Boston, with its media and ravenous fan base, can be a tough place to play. The Red Sox at that time needed to lighten the mood.

"Back in Boston, in 2002, heading into 2003, we realized we had to change the mood, the atmosphere, the culture, and we brought in guys like David Ortiz and Kevin Millar to have a very specific set of characteristics that might impact the way a clubhouse dynamic worked," Epstein said. "Ultimately we hired Terry Francona to do the same."

Cherington, in his former capacity as assistant general manager under Epstein, watched some of that camaraderie erode slowly over time. Sometimes you don't realize until it's too late.

"I don't think it happens overnight," Cherington said of chemistry. "It can also go the other way, and it doesn't go the other way overnight. You start maybe taking some things for granted, you start taking shortcuts in certain areas and all of a sudden you aren't doing the things you were doing when you were really good. The key is recognizing it, and hopefully recognizing it before it gets to that point so it isn't an issue. I think you have to have talent and culture together; then you have something pretty special."

For Cherington and the Red Sox, there was nothing special about 2012. Coming off the epic collapse of '11, Boston finished 69-93. Manager Bobby Valentine lasted all of one season.

It pained Epstein to watch what his successor and friend went through.

"It was a tough year," Epstein said. "It was a long year. I remember at this event last year, Bobby V was up here and part of the panel and everybody was smiling and then it turned out to be a real long year."

Now an outsider, Epstein sees good things ahead for the Red Sox.

"The organization is in much better footing than it looks, just based on last year's results," Epstein said. "They have a top five farm system. They have a lot of good young players, some of whom came up last year and really established themselves and they still have players in their prime on good contracts. That division is kind of wide open now. I think the Sox are in great shape for the long haul and if things break their way, it could be a really exciting year."

And much like Epstein realized a decade ago, Cherington knew that a big part of this winter's reconstruction had to do with personalities.

Enter Shane Victorino, Ryan Dempster, Joel Hanrahan and Jonny Gomes, all of whom are known to liven and loosen a clubhouse.

"I think the thing this winter that we realized is that we kind of hit bottom last year," Cherington said. "And when you hit bottom in a place like Boston and you're trying to rebuild something on the field, off the field, you're going to do it and have a lot of attention on it.

"At the same time, we're going to face scrutiny as we build this thing back up. If you're building something back up where you know there's going to be scrutiny and attention on it, we'd like to have people involved who we feel confident can get through those tough days and battle through it and pick each other up. Even in the best seasons, there's bad days and bad stretches."

Showalter has clearly spent enough time in baseball to know what a winning clubhouse looks like.

"You want people that hold each other accountable," said Showalter, who helped steer the Orioles to stunning postseason berth in 2012. "It's a beautiful thing. If you walk through the clubhouse, you know when you've got it going on. You can't put your finger on it. You also know when you walk through there and something's just not right."

The Orioles' manager is a big fan of the moves Cherington has made this winter.

"Looking at the offseason, I don't look at the players acquired too much statistically because that's pretty easy to come by," Showalter said. "The Red Sox have gone about acquiring good people and it started with John Farrell. You have a great third-base coach in Brian Butterfield. Unfortunately, I'm depressed about what the Red Sox have done this offseason because they brought in not only good players but good people."