Padres mourn passing of former club president Lucchino

April 3rd, 2024

SAN DIEGO -- Few figures in baseball history have helped transform three franchises without spending a day in uniform.

Larry Lucchino is one of the few.

Lucchino died on Tuesday at age 78, his family announced. He is well remembered in Baltimore, San Diego and Boston for a lasting legacy.

“Personally, and I think a lot of people in Larry’s orbit would say this: He’s one of the four or five most impactful people in my life,” said Padres assistant GM Fred Uhlman Jr., who worked under Lucchino in Baltimore and San Diego.

Lucchino served as Orioles president from 1988-93 and spearheaded the development of Oriole Park at Camden Yards, the structure that began the retro ballpark movement. He was president and CEO of the Padres from late 1994 to 2001 and directed the planning of Petco Park. As president of the Red Sox from 2002-15, he oversaw three World Series championship clubs and helped ensure iconic Fenway Park would remain the team’s home through a series of refurbishments.

He quite simply left a solid foundation for all three franchises.

“People talk about Larry as being a visionary, which he was,” Uhlman said. “But to me, he was more of a force. He accomplished some of the more impressive things in modern baseball. From building Camden Yards to reviving the Padres and galvanizing San Diego to vote in favor of [the Petco Park proposal]. … He basically saved baseball in San Diego.”

Lucchino arrived in San Diego in December 1994 as new owner John Moores’ minority partner and public voice. It was an audacious purchase, given that it came amid an extended labor stoppage and in the aftermath of previous owner Tom Werner’s “fire sale” that saw the team trade stars Fred McGriff and Gary Sheffield, as well as just about every veteran player not named Tony Gwynn.

“The stone was at the bottom of the hill,” Lucchino said in 2022, when he was inducted into the Padres Hall of Fame.

Lucchino, with his Baltimore experience under his belt, came to San Diego with intent. He had a good start thanks to incumbent GM Randy Smith, who had recently hired Bruce Bochy as manager and was in the final stages of pulling off a blockbuster trade to bring third baseman Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley from Houston. Smith also provided a spark in the midst of the “fire sale” trades by finding closer Trevor Hoffman and pitcher Andy Ashby, among others.

Lucchino, a demanding boss who questioned every detail of the Padres’ operation before plotting a course, did not mesh with Smith. So Smith resigned within a year, and Lucchino faced one of his biggest decisions in San Diego: Whom to hire as GM.

He shocked the baseball world by picking Kevin Towers, who hadn’t even been a candidate. Towers was Smith’s scouting director and sat on the interview panel as the Padres considered outside candidates. Lucchino was impressed by Towers’ questions and knowledge, as well as his way of dealing with people. And one other quality …

“I saw in K.T. the essential element of general managers -- the ability to evaluate others,” Lucchino recalled in 2022. “It’s not about taking good notes. It’s not about public speaking. It’s about being able to evaluate people.”

Towers surrounded Smith’s young core -- and Gwynn, of course -- with veterans such as Wally Joyner, Chris Gomez and Greg Vaughn. The Padres ascended to the playoffs by 1996 and the World Series by ’98.

That World Series season was particularly important. While Towers was building a ballclub, Lucchino was planning to build a ballpark. He brought in Erik Judson as a special assistant with the specific task of learning the lay of the land in San Diego, literally. Before any blueprints, the Padres had to find a ballpark site and secure financing.

The Petco Park in San Diego’s East Village neighborhood was selected, with Lucchino strongly advocating for a downtown ballpark that would spur redevelopment around it. And the November 1998 ballot included an advisory proposition in San Diego about public bonds toward the $474 million tab for Petco Park. With the Padres riding the goodwill of the World Series visit, the proposition got nearly 60% approval.

Lucchino leaned on his Baltimore experience, sure. The Western Metal Supply Co. building echoes the Camden Yards warehouse. But he wanted Petco Park to have a San Diego vibe. Twenty years later, it still does.

“He had the ability for people to buy into a vision,” Uhlman said. “That was a strength of his. ‘No’ really wasn’t an option for Larry. It really wasn’t. He was just able to get things done. He had compassion, but he had high expectations.”