Feeding the (Blue) Monster, Part One
This was my original thinking, the only reason I'd read any book about the Red Sox would be to gain insight into Theo Epstein's approach to roster construction and player acquisition. Still, I'm a sucker for a good baseball story and I have to admit that learning about the Cubs sister AL team that suffered from the 'Curse of the Bambino' had it's appeal, if for no other reason than this old Billy Goat's misery loves company.
Seth Mnookin's 2006 book, 'Feeding the Monster' is an in-depth look at the Red Sox, focusing on team management and the eventual 2002 ownership change as the reason their drought ended. The Red Sox truly overcame urban legends created by the Boston press with their constant harping on eight decades of Epic failures and generations of fan misery.
Something I understand (except for the "overcame" part).
Now with the Theo "Compensation-gate" mostly completed, this book is filled with insights into the personalities behind what should have been a simple and quick front office only transaction (with no compensation as you will soon read). Why it became a bollixed, vitriol filled, press inflated, word-slinging mess that only Boston is known for makes more sense to me after this read.
There is a lot of story to set up before Theo Epstein jumps in, so prepare for the first part of the world's longest book summary. Most of Theo's story will be in part deux. Part one, after the jump...
The Red Sox history dates back to the 1870's when they were mostly known as the Bean-eaters. Jump forward to the more important history of the sale of Babe Ruth's contract to the Yankees by Boston owner Harry Frazee, in December 1919. The real story wasn't about Frazee having financial difficulties or needing cash to produce a Broadway Play (No, No, Nanette...as the press would subsequently create the urban legend in the 1980's). Mnookin relates it had more to do with Frazee wanting to build up a substantial war chest to do legal battle in his longstanding feud with AL President Ban Johnson fueled by media hatred for the owner once Frazee halted perks like free food and liquor for the writers. Even back then, the Boston sportswriters were a noisy, whiny, manipulative lot.
The Red Sox owner of longest duration was Tom Yawkey, who at age 33, bought the team and Fenway Park in 1933 for $1.2 Million. His ownership spanned five decades of major baseball history. Ted Williams was awesome but pennant-less. Considering Jackie Robinson became a Dodger in 1947, the Red Sox were to last to let that barrier go, until Pumpsie Green was brought up in 1959. The 1960's teams were lead by manager Dick Williams and Yaz and included a World Series appearance. In 1974, Yawkee died of Leukemia and his estimated $57 million net worth was left to his wife Jean who would with one of the team executives, Hayward Sullivan (who also acted as GM) and John Harrington (who started as team treasurer but ultimately ran the team for 8 years after Jean Yawkee's death in 1992) would steward the team up until the John Henry era began in 2002.
Once again the Boston press came into the spotlight, creating the Yawkee mythology that he was a rich benefactor:
"a gentlemanly, sporting owner who was more interested in winning than turning a profit"
The author points out that Yawkee was also prone to alcohol fueled rants, unwillingness to break down the racial barrier and hot and cold interest in the team over his years, but it was tough to tarnish a legend when the press wanted to be protective of the long standing illusion.
The Red Sox on the field heartache gets painted along the way. The 'Impossible Dream' team of 1967. The Carlton Fisk HR in the 1975 World Series. The crushing Bucky Dent HR in 1978. The 80's were defined by Roger Clemens and playoff runs in 1984 and the Bill Buckner World Series gaffe in 1986. I had to smile when Calvin Schiraldi was written about as a surprising factor in the '86 Series. Manager John McNamara wanted Buckner on the field to celebrate the final out even knowing that he couldn't bend over because of his arthritic knees and didn't go to a defensive backup (Dave Stapleton) on the bench when Mookie Wilson hit his squibber down the line leading to more crying over spilt milk.
It was this loss that lead to the New York Times columnist George Vecsey writing about the "Babe Ruth Curse Strikes Back". In 1990, Boston Globe writer Dan Shaughnessy wrote a book, "Curse of the Bambino" which masochistically focused on Red Sox misery "as he repeated many of the inaccuracies that had hardened into perceived fact."
I loved this quote about Shaughnessy's book:
"it (Curse of the Bambino) served as the unintentional primer on the the ways in which the Boston press was able to inflict itself on players and fans alike. Forever after, every Red Sox fumble, misstep, or mistake would be attributed to a curse that had been popularized, if not largely invented, by a cantankerous sports columnist."
The sale to John Henry's group was incredibly complicated. Remember that Henry bought the decimated Marlins after Wayne Huizenga sold off the 1988 World Series team with the intention of getting a new stadium (they might get one someday soon). Obviously, that effort failed to get past the politicians in Florida. There was talk of contraction of a team (possibly the Marlins) and with the help of Commish Selig, Henry was promised a "put" for the Marlins. MLB would guarantee Henry $158 Million for the team (his original purchase price) if he bought another team and couldn't find a buyer for the Marlins. Ultimately MLB used the put on the Expos and the Expo owner Jeffrey Loria bought the Marlins. The Angels were available and Henry was negotiating with them but Disney Corp was too difficult for him to nail down a deal with. So when the Red Sox went for sale, several of the moving part owner-wannabee's that were swirling around started to take shape and looked to the crown jewel and large market ownership that the Red Sox represented.
The original group formation involved players Les Otten (a ski resort mogul), Tom Werner (a TV producer with mega-hits like The Cosby Show, Roseanne, 3rd Rock from the Sun and That 70's Show and in the early 90's the Padres owner) and Larry Lucchino (who gets a chapter called, 'The Baseball Visionary').
Lucchino's baseball career started with the Orioles when his mentor and Redskin's owner, Edward Bennett Williams bought the O's in 1979. When Williams died in 1988, Lucchino was named team president and CEO (NY investor, Eli Jacobs bought the team) and during his time in Baltimore, Camden Yards was created with much credit given to Lucchino's vision. Eventually Jacobs had financial problems and the team was sold to current owner Peter Angelos in 1993 but Lucchino made $10 million from his 9% ownership stake. Lucchino soon went to the Padres when Werner sold them to John Moores. His Padres stay was definitely successful and included 2 division titles and an NL pennant (1998). He learned how to run a club in a small market but profitability was still difficult and his relationship with the owner became strained as Mnookin's reports, "possibly because of Lucchino's combative and abrasive management style". With Lucchino out, Bud Selig tasked him to help see if Henry had exhausted all options to get a new stadium in Florida...and the connection between those two was made.
Finally, the Red Sox were put on the market in October 2000. As ugly as the Tribune purchase and bankruptcy by Sam Zell was leading to his unloading the Cubs, the story of the Red Sox transaction had my head spinning. Once again the Boston press ruled court. The 'hometown' bid came from home grown Joe O'Donnell (owner of Boston Concessions) and Steve Karp (a real estate developer) plus the feverish and a powerful local entourage that was pushing for this group (ranging form Boston's mayor Menino and the Globe columnists Will McDonough and Dan Shaughnessy). Conversely, they were pushing hard against what would become the Henry led group.
McDonough blasted away in his column:
If Harrington (the last of the Yawkee Trust, selling the Red Sox) wanted to do the "right thing," he would "chose the O'Donnell group, because their local roots and financial stability combine the best of what (the Yawkee) tradition wanted to champion. Maybe I'm old school, but the O'Donnell group has been positioning itself in a way I'm much more comfortable with: staying low-profile but still putting together a substantive financial and business package for the Red Sox"
Musical chairs ensued. Near the finishing line, Henry and O'Donnell had joined forces then fell apart over a dispute on controlling interest. Other competing groups were in the $700-plus million range but had financial contingencies and could not prove they had full financing in place. Ultimately John Henry's fairly liquid net worth of $1 Billion and Bud Selig's input that Henry was likely to get speedy approval of ownership sealed the deal.
Of course, this didn't sit well with the whiny press. Boston Herald headlines:
"Visitors 1 Boston 0"
because the hometown press favorites didn't get the team, articles included:
"The fix was really in."
"Selig can be forgiven. It's OK with him if we become the Royals of the East."
GM Dan Duquette wanted to stay but Lucchino was made President and CEO. The Duquette front office was known to be combative including a rough 2001 season having a September swoon and major communication issues between players, staff and the press including a public dispute between manager Jimy Williams, volatile OF Carl Everett and Duquette. Duquette publically sided with Everett and Williams was fired in August. Star hitter, Manny Ramirez was unhappy with interim manager Joe Kerrigan, plus he complained of a poisonous clubhouse and a press corp that wouldn't leave him alone. In his first meeting with Henry in spring training 2002, Ramirez said, "I hate the pressure...I gotta get out of here."
On Feb 27th, 2002 the Red Sox sale was finalized. 24 hours later, Duquette was fired and replaced by assistant GM Mike Port who was given the interim GM title. Five days later Kerrigan was fired. Eventually Lucchino picked Grady Little to manage because he was expected be a calming influence in the volatile clubhouse.
Several more hirings came shortly after, as Lucchino was getting his team in place and both were Boston natives. Sam Kennedy (with expertise in Corporate sponsorship development) and his Brookline High School baseball teammate Theo Epstein (they became known as "the Brookline Two"). Lucchino knew Epstein dating back to his Oriole days in 1992. Theo had landed a summer internship in Baltimore with Lucchino. After Lucchino had moved over to the Padres and Theo had graduated from Yale, Epstein applied to work in the San Diego front office. In fact while with the Padres, Lucchino encouraged Epstein to get his law degree from the University of San Diego. In 2000, Theo was named the Padres Director of Baseball Operations.
Epstein coming to Boston needed approval from Padres owner John Moores but as previously mentioned the relationship between Lucchino and Moores was strained.
Here is the ironic part. Mnookin writes,
"In baseball, there is an unspoken rule that clubs will allow their employees who are under contract to interview for positions with other teams if the new job would be a promotion."
"I was pretty determined to press John (Moores) to request permission to talk to them. These were not just promotions, but opportunities for them to return home to a sort of dream job they had always hoped for. I couldn't imagine someone standing in their way."
Moores relented and on March 24th, 2002. Theo Epstein joined the Red Sox front office as assistant GM. Clearly Lucchino's plan was to gradually groom Theo for the GM job. No compensation was required. That precedent of no compensation for management personnel movement by Boston was never mentioned since Theo was hired in Chicago.
Two more events took place before we get to the good stuff. Godfather of Sabermetrics, Bill James was hired and he even gets his own chapter. It was a beautiful fit philosophically with owner John Henry's road to riches as a futures trader. John Henry is quoted:
"Usually when making investments, it is implicit that investors believe they have some degree of knowledge about the future. I've had an advantage over the years because I am clear about a couple of things: 1) it is a part of the nature of life itself...to trend, and 2) I will never have a complete or full understanding of anything. Therefore, all investment decisions should be based on what can be measured rather than what might be predicted or felt. People in both baseball and the financial markets operate with beliefs and biases. To the extent you can eliminate both and replace them with data, you gain a clear advantage...Many people think they are smarter than others in Baseball, and that the game on the field is simply what they think it is, filtered through their set of images and beliefs. But actual data from the market means more than individual perception/belief. And the same is true in baseball."
Finally, the stage is set for part two. Larry Lucchino and Theo Epstein battle (the Yankees and themselves) all the way to the top. To be continued...