- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 26, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Larry Lucchino recently announced he was stepping down as president and chief operating officer of the Boston Red Sox. He will remain as president CEO emeritus and continue to be one of the owners of the franchise. Lucchino is one of the most influential sports executives of his time, with a Hall of Fame career with three baseball organizations — the Baltimore Orioles, the San Diego Padres and the Red Sox.

Lucchino was the driving force behind the design and construction of Camden Yards — perhaps the most significant development in baseball in the last 40 years. He got the new ballpark built in San Diego and, under leadership, the Padres reached the World Series in 1998. In Boston, he, along with fellow owners John Henry and Tom Werner, won three World Series titles and developed a plan to protect and refurbish Fenway Park.

He got his start in Washington, working with legendary attorney Edward Bennett Williams, who once owned the Washington Redskins and, later, the Orioles. Lucchino was a secretary and vice president with the Redskins and would later become president of the Orioles. He may be the only sports executive with a World Series ring, a Super Bowl ring and a Final Four watch, as he played basketball at Princeton with Bill Bradley in 1964-65.

Lucchino was in town recently for a meeting of the board of directors of the Special Olympics, one of the many charitable organizations he serves, and sat down for an interview about his career and his time in Baltimore and Washington.

Q: This is where you got your start — Washington. Do you still feel connected to this area?
A: I still feel a strong sense of identification with both Baltimore and Washington, back to the days when we used to call it Balto-Wash — when it was looked at as one market for baseball purposes. Now, it is obviously two. I have very good feelings about what a good baseball town Baltimore is. I don’t know first-hand how successful the Washington experiment is. It seems like it has been pretty successful from afar. I do follow it.

Q: You are stepping out of the day-to-day business of the Red Sox, right?
A: [For] 14 years I’ve been in Boston, and it’s been sensational, as president and CEO of the Red Sox until recently at the end of the season. My new title is president and CEO emeritus. I still have my ownership stake in the team and I still have an office at Fenway. I will still be involved in league issues and strategic issues, but the old days of 24/7 that are an absolute requirement for a senior baseball executive are behind me.

Q: When you went to Boston, the Red Sox were already an elite franchise. What was the challenge for you?
A: I had a sense that it was a different kind of challenge in Boston than it was in Baltimore and San Diego, because of unresolved issues — like a World Series championship, like whether to preserve and protect Fenway or to replace it entirely. How could we become more of a winner and less of an also ran? My cell phone number in Boston ends with 2222. It was one of the choices they gave me. I thought it would serve as a daily reminder of how the Red Sox always finished second to the Yankees. I wanted to be reminded every day. There were challenges for myself, John Henry and Tom Werner when we got there. We’ve had 14 wonderful years, seven postseason runs, three World Series championships, record revenue every year.

The very first day, Dec. 21, 2001, we had a press conference and we did a smart thing before that. We stopped by the mayor’s office first, recognizing they have a strong mayor system in the city, and it proved to be the right thing to do. He was pleased that we had the respect for the office to talk to him before we talked to the media. At that first press conference, I laid out four obligations for ownership and one wild prediction. One, I said we would field a team worthy of the fans’ support. Two, we would preserve, protect and expand Fenway Park. Three, we would be aggressive marketers of this franchise and make it a national and international brand, and four, we would be active in the community with charities and organizations. Then we said we would eradicate the “Curse of the Bambino.” In retrospect, it seemed kind of bold and presumptuous, but we did it in three years. The business plan called for five.

Q: You said you followed what has happened with baseball in Washington. When you were with the Orioles, what were the discussions about baseball in the District?
A: When Edward Bennett Williams bought the team, it came close to moving [closer to Washington]. There was the assumption that Baltimore had not supported the team very well. The implication when Ed bought it, it would move to Washington, D.C. But as a result of Ed buying it, the support grew dramatically in Baltimore, and it became a different fan base than it had before. Ed said he would keep it in Baltimore as long as it was supported there. He was well off enough to own a baseball team, but not so well off enough to subsidize a baseball team. There was an assumption that maybe there would be a ballpark halfway between Baltimore and Washington.

I believed sooner or later this market would become big enough to support two teams, but it wasn’t quite there in the 1970s and 1980s. We made it Washington’s team, Maryland’s team, as well as Baltimore’s team, a Mid-Atlantic team, until Washington got a team of its own.

One of the best decisions Ed Williams ever made was not to build a ballpark in the suburbs, halfway between Baltimore and Washington. I urged him not to build a ballpark in the suburbs, but to build it someplace more accessible to both markets but still an urban ballpark.

Q: That ballpark was Camden Yards — which former commissioner Bud Selig has called one of the most important decisions in the modern history of the game. Did you think your vision would have the impact it did?
A: I’m very proud of Camden Yards. It has been replicated all over the country. I knew we had a good idea for a great traditional, old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities. I didn’t know it would become so popular and grow to 23 other major-league cities and many more at the minor-league level, trying to create a well-placed urban ballpark with old-fashioned baseball characteristics and traditions. We certainly changed the paradigm — the combination of a football-baseball stadium.

I said to Ed Williams in the early 1980s, “We should push for a baseball-only facility.” All the talk to that point had been a multi-purpose facility. I argued that if you look at the best franchises in baseball, they played in baseball-only facilities — the Yankees at Yankee Stadium, the Red Sox at Fenway Park, the [Los Angeles] Dodgers at Dodger Stadium. Why wouldn’t we strive for that? Then there was the factor of the Colts leaving town in 1983. Why would we make compromises for a football team that wasn’t even there? I remember his line to this day, “If you think that is such a good idea, why don’t you go public with that idea, but do me a favor — don’t mention my name, because you’re going to be crucified. You don’t want to build one ballpark. You want a ballpark and a stadium side by side.” He was pleasantly surprised at how well-received it was.

Q: You got your start with Williams in sports with the Redskins as secretary and vice president in the mid-1970s. Any Redskins memories, in particular?
A: My whole career is directly attributable to Edward Bennett Williams and the faith he had in me and the opportunities he created for me. The Redskins dominated this town then. I learned a lot in those days with the Redskins. I remember debates with [general manager] Bobby Beathard about the importance of chemistry versus biology. I was a big biology guy, he was a big chemistry guy, the chemistry of the locker room. I would say, ‘Bobby, don’t tell me what a good guy he is. Tell me how fast he is, how much does he weigh?’ I subsequently learned a lesson from him that chemistry does indeed matter — particularly in baseball, which goes for seven months and you play it every day with your teammates.

George Allen was leaving just as I was coming into the Redskins. We did have to depose him once. He had very little tolerance for the distraction of a deposition in the middle of a football season. We asked him for his name and address. He said, ‘George Allen, Washington Redskins.’ At one point, he said, ‘If I have to sit here all day answering questions, we’re never going to beat Dallas.’ I saw his passion up close.

⦁ Thom Loverro is co-host of “The Sports Fix,” noon to 2 p.m. daily on ESPN 980 and espn980.com.

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