Remembering Larry Lucchino, who changed everything for the Red Sox

April 2nd, 2024

Larry Lucchino has died now, at the age of 78. He was one of the great baseball men of this time or any time, and when you add up everything that has happened to the Red Sox since he became a part of their management team over two decades ago, he is without question the best and most important baseball man the club has ever had. Sadly, he dies without being in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, where he belongs.

John Henry and Tom Werner became the owners of the team back in 2002. But it was Lucchino, as president of the Red Sox the way he had been president of the Orioles and the Padres before that, who set the tone for everything that happened after he got to Boston. It was Lucchino who did the most to create a culture that changed everything for a team that hadn’t won a World Series since 1918.

We were sitting in his suite at Fenway Park one afternoon in 2005 talking about how much had changed in just a few years. This was the year after the Sox had come back from three games down to win the American League Championship Series from the Yankees, and had gone on from there to sweep the Cardinals in the World Series and end what had always been known in Boston as the Curse of the Bambino.

“I knew you couldn’t win the past from the Yankees,” Lucchino said. “Nobody could ever win the past from them. But what you could do was start a brand new fight and try to win that.”

It was Lucchino, of course, who uttered the most famous single phrase in the history of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry, when he described the Yanks as the “Evil Empire” after they’d signed a Cuban pitcher named José Contreras away from the Sox and everybody else. And maybe that was another way of Lucchino announcing to the baseball world that he was going right after the most famous and successful baseball franchise in history.

The Red Sox nearly took out the Yankees in the 2003 ALCS, ultimately blowing a late Game 7 lead before Aaron Boone hit one of the most famous October home runs of them all to win that game and that series in the bottom of the 11th. But then the Red Sox came back the next year, came all the way back from being down 0-3, making history and changing history in Boston and New York and everywhere else by finally winning it all.

The Sox would win two more World Series on Lucchino’s watch and another after he was gone from Fenway, but the infrastructure that he had done the most to create very much remained.

Mike Barnicle, the former Boston Globe columnist who is now a regular on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” was one of Lucchino’s closest friends. Barnicle is a lifelong Red Sox fan and baseball fan.

“His legacy is the management teams that he assembled in [Baltimore] and San Diego and in Boston,” Barnicle said on Tuesday. “His legacy is being a driving force behind the building of Camden Yards and Petco Park and bringing Fenway into the 21st century. His legacy is hiring young men like Theo Epstein and Sam Kennedy [the current Red Sox president].

“But more than anything else, it was Larry’s vision that finally put the Red Sox into the ‘yes’ business. ‘Yes, we can win the World Series again. Yes, we can put together a winning team not just on the field but in the front office, as well.’ Greatest yes man we ever had in Boston, in all the best ways.”

It really was Lucchino who had the courage and vision and trust to make Epstein, who had worked for him in San Diego and Baltimore, the general manager of the Red Sox when Epstein was just 28 years old. In the process, in that moment, baseball front offices started getting younger. You see what has happened in all the years since, how many young GMs have been given the keys to the car (and succeeded).

Again: Lucchino certainly did not do it alone in Boston. He had the full backing of Henry and Werner. But it was Lucchino, the former Princeton basketball player and Williams & Connolly lawyer, who let the rest of baseball know -- and quickly -- that the Red Sox not only couldn’t win the past from the Yankees, they couldn’t change their own, so why waste time talking about it? Lucchino never had any interest in looking back, just ahead. Now the Red Sox, despite some hard times lately, have won more World Series than anybody this century.

More than anybody, it started with Lucchino in Boston. Epstein made history of his own with the Red Sox, and then he made even more when he ended more World Series waiting with the Chicago Cubs in 2016. But he was the protégé of Lucchino, who had been ill for a while and has now passed away.

This is a baseball life that ought to be remembered, and it will be remembered, in Boston most of all. A Hall of Fame baseball life.