BOSTON -- There were good vibes around these Boston Red Sox from the earliest days of Spring Training. At the time, general manager Ben Cherington wasn't sure what to make of the things he was seeing and hearing.
"I remember going down into the lunchroom, which is where I would more often run into players," Cherington said Thursday afternoon as the Red Sox prepared for Game 1 of the American League Championship Series on Saturday at 8 p.m. ET vs. the Tigers. "And I just remember being down there after workouts, and all you heard was talk about baseball.
"Sometimes it was about what they'd done that day. Sometimes it was about who they were going to be facing in April. Sometimes it was funny, sometimes it was serious. But it was always about baseball. And you got the feeling that this was a group that just loved to play and were excited to work together and prepare as well as they could."
Right there at the beginning, Cherington had seen what these 2013 Red Sox were going to be about. They were going to take care of the details and they were going to play hard and they were going to care for one another.
No GM in baseball has done a better job than Cherington in the last 12 months. It's difficult to imagine anyone changing his team so much in one offseason, not just changing the talent, but changing the attitude and the environment as well. Cherington did it all while picking through the free-agent marketplace, shunning the long-term deals the club had given in other years.
When he was done, Cherington had created a club that seems to have no real weakness, a club that isn't just good. It's fun to watch and easy to root for. As outfielder Jonny Gomes said, "It really and truly is like a family in our clubhouse."
Whatever internal problems the 2012 Red Sox had were quickly washed away in those first days of the new season. Still, that feel-good stuff can only take a team so far. Baseball's six-month regular season eventually exposes every crack in the foundation.
But the Red Sox sprinted out of the gate with a 20-8 record and spent 164 days atop the AL East. Everything else Cherington would learn about this team would unfold over weeks and months as it evolved from a team that was better than almost anyone expected to one that today might be the best in the game.
"There are talented players on this team," Cherington said. "There were talented players on the team last year that were part of the core and still here. So there's certainly a bunch of talent on the team, but there's also a really unified goal, and that emanates from [manager John Farrell] and the staff and the guys themselves."
I reminded Cherington of the laundry list of needs he'd laid out at the General Managers Meetings after last season. He hoped to add a couple of outfielders, a first baseman, a shortstop, a catcher and a couple of pitchers. In doing this, he wanted to avoid the kind of long-term contracts the Red Sox had given in the past. His to-do list was so long that it seemed silly to think of them contending in 2013.
"We knew we'd reshape the club," he said. "I just didn't know what the outcome would be. So far, the outcome has been good. That's really mostly because of the way John and his staff and the players have come together since Spring Training to be committed to a certain goal."
In adding outfielders Shane Victorino and Gomes, first baseman Mike Napoli, shortstop Stephen Drew, catcher David Ross and pitchers Ryan Dempster and Koji Uehara, Cherington collected a bunch of guys known around the game for being good teammates.
"We had a number of things we had to do," he said. "We weren't one or two players away. So we started as we always had by identifying what we thought was the right talent, the right fits from an ability standpoint out on the field. Then once we got underneath that, we asked the question. It wasn't a question of character or makeup. It was, 'Does he want to be here? Is he attracted to the idea of being in Boston? Is he attracted to the opportunity?'
"We felt it was an opportunity, but perhaps not everyone felt that way. So we asked that question. The guys who ended up signing and getting here all seemed attracted to the opportunity to come and be part of this."
The Red Sox eliminated the Rays in Game 4 of an AL Division Series on Tuesday and are back in the ALCS for the fifth time in 11 seasons. To the players, it's about focusing on the next step.
"Every sort of marker we've gotten to, the reaction from the players has been one of accomplishment and being proud and happy," Cherington said. "But almost immediately, the focus is on the next thing. And so I think that's where they are now. We celebrated Tuesday night. It's a great accomplishment beating a really good team in Tampa, a team that's so hard to play against. They celebrated and had a good time that night, but the very next day it was about getting ready, because there's still things to accomplish."
Has Cherington been able to enjoy the ride? It doesn't always work out exactly the way it's drawn up back during the offseason. Cherington was able to construct an ALCS team without giving out long-term deals or touching the core of Minor League talent.
"Most people in this position -- and the people I've talked to -- are so competitive that when the games are actually going on, I don't know if that's the time to enjoy it," he said. "After the fact, sure, there are moments when you can appreciate what the team's done. The biggest thing for me is that it is a really fun group to watch and be around. You just want it to keep going."
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U.