BOSTON — The signs are there, signs for everyone to see and for all New England to embrace. From the runaway beard heading for Mike Napoli's belly button to the "Boston Strong" logo mowed into the center field grass for the postseason, the rallying points run from the ridiculous to the sublime.
Yeah, it's easy to see them. If you're daring enough to reach into the facial foliage of Napoli, Jonny Gomes and some of the other Red Sox, you can touch them, too.
Still, there is something less tangible — yet every bit as compelling — behind one of the more remarkable worst-to-first stories in recent baseball history.
"There was a strong desire to rewrite what took place," manager John Farrell said Thursday on the eve of ALDS Game 1 against the Tampa Bay Rays. "There was embarrassment that was shared by those who remained or that had been here."
One with the strongest desire was Jon Lester. His reputation took a battering even worse than the battering he took on the field in September 2011. This was a young guy who beat cancer at 22. This is a guy who pitched 5 2/3 scoreless innings in the 2007 World Series clincher in Colorado, who threw a no-hitter in 2008. This is a guy who figured to be an ace for a decade.
He also is the lefthander who gave up 18 runs in his final 19 2/3 innings in 2011. He's the guy who finished a career-worst 9-14 in 2012. In the autumn of 2011, Lester found himself in the miserable chicken and beer clubhouse controversy. Last year he found himself in the misery of Bobby Valentine. The Red Sox hadn't made the playoffs since 2009, and at Fenway, three seasons without a postseason is like 40 in the desert.
"Every year was a little different," said Lester, who finished this season at 15-8 with a 3.75 ERA. "In 2010 we got beat up so much with injuries and bad luck. But we played good baseball. Obviously 2011 speaks for itself. That one left a lot of bitter taste in guys' mouths. Last year was just horrendous all the way around.
"I went home [last fall]. Usually I watch the playoffs. I didn't watch a game. I turned it off, tried to get my brain back on track."
Maybe it's a guilty conscience. Maybe it's a burning desire to prove critics wrong. Maybe it's Ben Cherington bringing in new guys, chemistry guys. Maybe it's bringing in a faith healer named John Farrell. Maybe it's all of those things. This much is sure. These Red Sox are having more fun than they've had since 2004.
The 2004 Sox won the hearts of New England forever. They also were goofier than Jerry Lewis. If you gave Soupy Sales a bat, he'd be introduced as Kevin Millar. David Ortiz is the only one remaining from '04; Papi, Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and Lester also are the only ones left from 2007.
"I didn't get to spend from start to finish with the '07 team," Lester said. "When I was here, I got the impression it was buttoned down, like this is our job.
"There was some fun along the way. But I feel like the teams in the past were kind of like that same approach. This team, it's a complete opposite of anything I've been around. From the moment you walk in, guys were laughing, cutting up."
A word comes to mind to describe Josh Beckett, John Lackey and Lester for the longest time. It's taciturn. Two words come to mind now to describe Lester and the rest of the Red Sox, shaved and bearded. Freakin' happy. Lester grinning? It's like the Mona Lisa smiling.
"Nobody is safe in the clubhouse as far as getting yelled at," Lester said. "It doesn't matter if you're 16 years in or if you've got one day. Everybody is having fun. And then when the time comes for 7 o'clock to roll around, guys are prepared and they play hard.
"It's been a joy to be around. I never thought, being around this market for a couple of years, I never thought you could actually do that here. And it's a pleasant surprise."
If you didn't already know who said this stuff, you would have thought it was Millar or Johnny Damon talking a decade ago. It's fine to see the Red Sox win again in 2013. But, man, it's great to see them win with a smile. From the moment Ortiz dropped that "f-bomb" at Fenway after the Marathon bombings, it was clear that Boston and its Red Sox had found a deep and profound bond. It's abundantly clear that the guys who were around in 2007 savor the opportunity at another shot to win it all.
"Absolutely," said Lester, whose wife, Farrah, gave birth earlier in the week. "To not only be back, but to have the season that we did was very gratifying for all of us. Going through what we went through the past couple of years, obviously makes getting to the playoffs, makes you appreciate that. You don't take it for granted."
Lester said Farrell set the tone at the first meeting at spring training. He meant business. He had authority. He had a plan, but he also said, "OK, now guys, go do it." He didn't meddle. Lester said Farrell, the pitching coach under Terry Francona, helped with the transition with Juan Nieves early on, but "stayed out of the way. I think that helped Juan feel comfortable in his job and what he needed to do," Lester said.
"Jon's body of work compares pretty consistently to 2008, 2009, 2010," Farrell said. "One of the top starting pitchers in the league. He has done a great job of righting his own ship, so to speak, after a late May, early June stretch of starts that didn't work out well. He finished the year extremely strong. We're looking for him to lead the way in October."
So now it starts for real Friday afternoon at Fenway and the ball feels comfortable in Lester's hand. His fastball is popping this year again. He's hitting spots. It's almost surreal, given the dire predictions for this year, that the Red Sox are now listed in Vegas as favorites to win the World Series.
Francona would have made a delicious ALDS storyline, but the truth is the Rays — not the Yankees — have been the real rivals in recent seasons. The Sox are rested, with four days off, maybe too rested. We'll see. Their rotation is set. The Rays, on the hand, enter as a hot, delightful, traveling mess. They've survived the stress of three must-win games in a row — in Toronto, in Texas, in Cleveland. They've been living out of a suitcase since Sept. 23. They're also having the time of their lives.
What the Rays don't have is the offense of the Red Sox. They do have outstanding left-handed pitching. David Price will be scared of nothing going against Lackey in Game 2. We'll see if young Matt Moore rattles in Game 1. Moore (17-4) threw a two-hit shutout against the Red Sox in July, but as the Springfield Republican pointed out, there's no Ryan Lavarnway, Brandon Snyder or Jose Iglesias in the lineup to go 0-for-9 this time around.
"I like the fact that since July in here where Moore and Price were dominant against us, toward the middle of the second half and beyond, we fared very well against left-handed starters." Farrell said. The stats support his assertion.
"This will be my first start at home in a Game 1, so that will be exciting, obviously electric," Lester said. "It's an honor for me. There's nothing like playoff atmosphere. You can't duplicate it. You can't describe it. It's just a different beast."
It's a smiling, bearded beast. And it's going to be mighty hard to beat.