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Lucchino has 'enormous' pride for turnaround

Red Sox CEO/president talks about club's leadership, 2012 trade

In an extensive conversation with columnist Richard Justice, Red Sox CEO/president Larry Lucchino discusses among other things the club's remarkable turnaround this season, last year's blockbuster trade and his thoughts about baseball parks. What's the pride you feel in this team and its accomplishments?

Larry Lucchino: It's enormous. I was talking to John Henry recently, and he offered that as extraordinary as '04 was in winning after 86 years, there was in some ways in his mind almost as much satisfaction in rebooting and building this team in 13 months after the aberration -- if that's what you want to call it. I really, obviously, feel good about it, because the season is a gigantic accomplishment even though we all focus on the postseason. They're both gigantic accomplishments.

There was a kind of internal harmony after being with a couple of different franchises, a couple of different ownership settings. There's a wonderful internal working relationship throughout the organization. It's nice to see that all coming together. Sometimes it's a chicken-and-egg issue. People will say, `Well, winning brings that out.' But it doesn't always.

I prefer to think that was the foundation on which this success is built, a wonderful collaboration between Ben Cherington and the baseball ops people, John Farrell, the clubhouse people, John Henry, Tom Werner, the ownership, the business side, the finance side. People worked together. There's not the silos that used to be here. When you got to Spring Training, what struck you about this club, this leadership on the club? Did you start to get inklings that something good was going to happen?

Lucchino: We ran lots of different scenarios that the club would be better. I always thought we had a pretty good core of players that was misunderstood. I felt like they had something to prove. But early on, I got a great feeling from John Farrell in the offseason and a terrific feeling from the coaches. We had a dinner early on in Spring Training with all the coaches and several of us in the front office. It was clear to me that this was a group of people that liked each other, that brought different things to the table and there was something special about the people that were involved. But I would like to say I was smart enough to anticipate the worst-to-first. I hoped for it. We knew we'd be better. We just didn't know how much better. A year ago, the Cardinals privately said their definition of success in 2012 might be different after losing Tony La Russa, Albert Pujols, Chris Carpenter? Did your definition of success change after 93 losses? Did you think you could have a good year and not make the postseason?

Lucchino: Our goal was still the postseason. That's year in and year out. We want to play October baseball. That's a phrase we use around here. That was the goal. I learned a lot from old-time baseball people. Gabe Paul once said to me, 'Son, it's not the size of your first step. It's the direction.' We wanted to take a step in the right direction. We looked at it like a 13-month thing, because you've gotta include September of '11. That was critical to the whole story. We had to go through that September and the tumult of the offseason and then the disappointment of '12. We had 13 months of pain, discomfort. We wanted to get it back to where the Red Sox are supposed to be. We wanted to win more than we lost.

We had a couple of different marketing themes that seem almost prophetic now. We had billboards all over town and on the back of our pocket schedules. Another was, "That which is broken can be fixed." Another was, "162 chances to restore the faith." In fact, The New Yorker did an article about the slogan, the first one I mentioned. It was called, 'Marketing by apology." We acknowledged that we'd gone off the tracks. We wanted to do enough that people understood we got it and that we knew we had to do something different and better. Who are the guys that lead the clubhouse?

Lucchino: It's funny. Most clubs I've been connected to normally had one guy who was critical to the clubhouse. The guy that media go to. The guy the players look to. It was Tony Gwynn in San Diego. Most clubs have one guy who sets the tone. This club has several guys who set the tone. One of the things that's true about this team, and it took us awhile to realize it, was how mature it was.

People focus on the brotherhood, the band of brothers, the bonds that develop between them, the playfulness, the intensity, the sort of old-school baseball style and personality. They have all of that, too, but there's a maturity about the team. Enough guys have been around that several of them are leaders.

I'm talking about [Jonny] Gomes and [David] Ross, people like who brought a certain maturity and perspective. Gomes brought a fierceness. [Ryan] Dempster brought a comedic style and lightheartedness. Ross is the consummate professional who everyone likes and makes it fun. I'd say [Dustin] Pedroia and [David] Ortiz have to be listed first just because they've been here the longest and have the seniority issue going for them. But they share that leadership mantle with several of the new guys.

And the drink was mixed beautifully by John Farrell and the coaches. Coaches, by the way, get too little credit and too little blame in baseball in general. I hope the coaches get the recognition they deserve. Are you able to enjoy it?

Lucchino: I've been determined to enjoy it more this year. I've always been wrapped a little tight and been a little intense. I've been trying to enjoy it. For example, recently, I started looking forward to the ALDS when I stopped worrying who was the better opponent and why.

We could play Cleveland, bringing the weaker pitching staff, but all of the baggage regarding past years here [when Indians manager Terry Francona led the Red Sox]. Then I thought about Tampa.

Finally, I said, 'To hell with it. I'm just going to enjoy it. We'll be here Friday ready to play. If they come to play us, they come to play us.' I suspect once the game starts today, I'll revert to old bad habits. Your mentor, Edward Bennett Williams, once said you don't really own a team. You're a custodian, that the team is really a trust. That seems more true with the Red Sox than maybe any other club.

Lucchino: That's absolutely true. The whole phrase "owners" doesn't seem right. We sort of hold it for our time period. One of my goals -- and I think it applies to John Henry and Tom Werner as well -- is that when we leave here, for whatever reason, whether they carry us out or otherwise, you want the body of your work to be such that you've made a contribution to the wellbeing of the Red Sox.

There's something about the Red Sox. The Orioles were a great team and a great baseball town. The Padres kind of redefined themselves and became part of a very good baseball town. But Boston was always what John Farrell called the epicenter, the sort of gold standard for me as I was looking at franchises and ballparks. Making some kind of enduring contribution to the Red Sox is enormously satisfying.

That's true in '13. It's been a really sweet ride through the season. I'm trying to remind myself that no matter what happens in the roulette wheel that is the postseason, I'll still take some high degree of satisfaction from it. We all will. It would seem from the outside looking in that your legacy will be that you instilled a winning culture. People have a different expectation of the Red Sox. That you engaged the fans like no ownership here has ever done. Maybe no ownership in baseball has ever done. And you took this cathedral and made it better without touching its magic.

Lucchino: This is interesting. We found out at about 8:30 on Dec. 20, 2001, that we were being selected [as Red Sox owners]. We didn't expect that we were going to win. Actually, we'd changed clothes and put on jeans and casual stuff to find a pizza place to go out and drown our misery while we were awaiting the word from [CEO] John Harrington. It was a few minutes after 8 when we were selected. We went from crying in our beer to being really ecstatic.

But the point I want to make is that the next morning, there was our first press conference. We did two things that I think in retrospect were intelligent. One is, on the way to the press conference, we stopped to see Mayor [Tom] Menino in his office at 8:30 on Saturday morning. We would not be able to do all that we did with Fenway Park if we had not enlisted his support and got him behind the preservation and improvement efforts.

But the second thing is that we said at the press conference we had four or five basic commitments. I've said 'em over and over. One was to field a team worthy of the fan support. Two, we were going to preserve, protect and improve and keep Fenway Park if that could possibly be done. Third, we were going to market aggressively, not just in Boston, but throughout the region and the nation, and if we had the opportunity, internationally. And the fourth was that we were going to be active participants in the community.

The fifth, I'm not sure it's a commitment. It's kind of a promise, a goal. That's that we would eradicate the Curse of the Bambino. It sounds Namath-like in retrospect. I guess anybody who bought the team would have said the fifth one.

But as I look back, we take pride in doing everything we said we would. We've given away over $66 million. We created something called the Red Sox Foundation. We put one in Baltimore. We created the Orioles Foundation. We created the San Diego Padres Foundation.

This one is the biggest and most active of them all. In 12 years, we've given away over $66 million to charity. So if we were politicians, someone would go back to what did we campaign on and what have we done after 12 years. Getting back this year was important to fulfilling the first obligation. I'm not sure people would think we fielded a team worthy of the fan support the last couple of years. The big trade of 2012 looks remarkable now.

Lucchino: The trade seems to have worked for both sides. The Dodgers have a juggernaut going for them. It all starts with that trade. That's a perfect illustration. I get the first call from Stan [Kasten, Dodgers executive] about making a deal for some of our higher-priced players. He said, "I've never phoned anybody with this kind of question. But would you be willing to move some of your well-established, higher-priced players?" Then John Henry got involved and Tom Werner and Ben Cherington, of course. It was a grand collaboration between their ownership and their baseball operations and ours. We're talking about a quarter of a billion dollars, a seismic shift. What was your goal in making the trade?

Lucchino: My goal in every trade is to get some pitching arms. In that one, we wanted the kind of financial flexibility that would last for sometime so we could reboot. We were in the doldrums, and there was no easy way out the way the team was structured with long-term commitments at big bucks. When you did the deal, was it painful or were you excited to do it, because it leads you into an unknown area?

Lucchino: Both. Their insistence on Adrian Gonzalez kept us from getting it done on the 31st of July. When we finally bit that bullet, we were able to make the deal a couple of weeks later. We were all nervous about it. But we knew objectively speaking we were saving $262.7 million, or whatever it was. We now had a way to find our way out of the darkness. It's a long time from now, but I guess your emotions would be swirling at a Red Sox-Dodgers World Series.

Lucchino: It would be a special kind of World Series, but I'm too superstitious to think about it. If we can get there, I don't care who we play. We'll take anyone that comes up. Embracing the past while moving forward is a tricky business. It seems you've done it splendidly.

Lucchino: You have to do that here. You can get trapped by it.

Lucchino: Yeah, you can get trapped by it. You can get stodgy and stuffed and not want to make any change. But that's not in our DNA. We come with a more activist, ambitious approach to things. Janet Marie [Smith, architect, now working for the Dodgers], Charles [Steinberg, club executive]. No one has a more sincere love of the game and its traditions than Charles. He's certainly willing to do and urge new things. Janet Marie is a classic preservationist with an eye toward the future.

John Henry is as pure a baseball fan as any owner in baseball. I'd put him in the Bud Selig camp in terms of intensity and love for the game. But he was willing to do new things, take advantage of the opportunity we had here. There'd been one-family ownership for 68 years, so there was a special opportunity to do something here when that transformation took place. When you look at ballparks now, all of them, Coors Field, [AT&T Park], all of 'em, what do you think? This generation of ballparks came from your original idea to build Camden Yards with an old park feel with modern amenities. It was yours.

Lucchino: I say this without a false sense of humility. I've had one really good creative idea. I've had a lot of good ideas, but one really creative idea in all the years I've been in baseball. That was to build a traditional old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities. If I said that phrase one time, I've said it 10,000 times. I remember the books of old ballparks on your desk. Ebbets Field.

Lucchino: We looked at Forbes Field where I grew up and what happened there. That's part of what motivated me. Forbes Field was the bucolic little place in a park in a city to Three Rivers, a concrete donut that had no real distinguishing characteristic. Cincinnati, Atlanta, Philadelphia, all the same. We wanted a ballpark that felt like Baltimore. I remember Bowie Kuhn said he never understood why people didn't build something like that earlier. He never understood why all the dimensions had to be the same in new ballparks. So what's the pride you take when you look at this entire generation of parks? This idea changed the game.

Lucchino: It's a lot of pride. George Will said something in his book in the mid-'90s. He said the three big changes in baseball in the second half of the 20th century were Jackie Robinson, free agency and Camden Yards. That's pretty damn good company.

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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