Outside a shopping mall in Warwick, Rhode Island, the Red Sox bus is ready to roll. It's a gray Tuesday in January, Day 2 of the team's annual Winter Caravan, a promotional event in which players meet and greet children around New England. Infielders Kevin Millar and Bill Mueller and catcher Jason Varitek are on the bus, waiting along with members of the team's front office. PR chief Charles Steinberg hurries onboard with a distraught nine-year-old who missed the autograph session. The child lights up. Steinberg has delayed the Caravan — again — but made the child's day and, just as important, may have made a fan for life.
Back at Fenway Park a short time later, more than two dozen fans who wrote to the team last season with complaints or suggestions are gathered for a reception with owner John Henry. Steinberg invites the fans to try out a prototype for the 220 proposed new seats for the top of Fenway's right-field roof and to talk about anything, positive or not, in their experiences with Fenway and the Red Sox. The responses are heartfelt: Do you think that new safety rail is high enough? How about putting bike racks outside the park? Could there be more nights where families get a break on ticket prices?
It's an extraordinary gathering. The fans can't believe this is the same Boston Red Sox they've known over the decades. On top of everything else, Steinberg actually thanks them for coming.
When Charles Steinberg joined the new Red Sox management team in the winter of 2002, he discovered bags of unopened mail in the community relations offices. “What's this?” he asked. He was told that letters of complaint were answered only if the writer followed up by phone.
As Steinberg was learning, he had joined an organization that, though never warm, had turned downright icy under Dan Duquette, the general manager from 1994 through 2001. Duquette's corporate style of secrecy and mistrust set a tone that rippled all the way down through the staffs of the six minor league subsidiaries. But so what? The previous season the Sox had drawn 2,625,333 fans to the smallest stadium in the majors, a club record — and 97 percent of capacity — despite charging the highest ticket prices in the game.
“There's such a thing as institutional arrogance,” says Steinberg, 45. “We had a lot of work to do.”
A dentist by training, Steinberg had cut his public-relations teeth in smaller markets. The aloofness he found in Boston would have crippled attendance in San Diego, where he'd worked the previous seven years, or in Baltimore, where he'd begun his career with the Orioles as an intern at age 17. He learned early on that the time to build loyalty is when a team is doing well and attendance is strong. He'd been part of a big push like that following the Orioles' World Series victory in 1983. Baltimore's president, Larry Lucchino, urged against complacency, saying the groundwork would pay off in leaner times. Five years later, when the Orioles returned home from a road trip with a record of 1-23, more than 50,000 fans turned out to greet them.
After 19 years in Baltimore, Steinberg followed Lucchino to San Diego, where, he says, “the stone was at the bottom of the hill.” They followed the same approach with the struggling Padres. When Tom Werner, the team's part owner, paired up with Florida Marlins owner John Henry to buy the Red Sox at the end of 2001, Lucchino and Steinberg were tapped for Boston. “There was no sell needed,” Steinberg recalls. “Larry Lucchino had always said that Boston was the 'big' in 'big leagues.' I didn't feel as if I were leaving San Diego but, rather, graduating from it. For all of us — Tom, Larry, John Henry — coming to Boston was like coming to the Promised Land.”
Steinberg is a stocky, animated man with crow's feet around his eyes and irrepressible optimism. “I believe that on a good day I am still a 10-year-old kid who gets to go to a baseball game,” he says, “and who believes that the players out on the field know that the kid is there and that the kid matters.” He has come to believe, passionately, that baseball is inherently personal.
Over the years he has identified dozens of individual moments when fans are affected, for better or for worse, by experiences at a ballpark. He lists these moments on a chart he calls the Path of the Fan's Experience, and one of the first things he did in his new office on Yawkey Way was to spread the chart across the largest wall. After ranking the club's success in different categories and subcategories using color-coded tabs, Steinberg stared into a desert: huge swaths of yellow, indicating the poorest grade.
He got to work, persuading people to buy into a new way of thinking. He brought a handful of devoted staffers with him from San Diego to help spread the fan-friendly gospel. From now on, he said, the Red Sox would be in the “yes” business.
Never married, Steinberg typically leaves his Cambridge apartment at 9 in the morning and doesn't return some nights until well after midnight. He works seven days a week. Some of his best ideas bubble up with coworkers over dinner, often at the Cheesecake Factory in the Pru, which stays open late. That's when the daily pace slows down and people can wonder out loud, What more can we do for families with toddlers? What about 90-year-olds?
In two years, the greens and blues on Steinberg's chart have made serious inroads. A lot of the changes have been subtle, some known only to insiders. Media contact Kevin Shea, once disparaged for the tight rein he held on access to players, has loosened his grip. The owners wander through the stands at games. Meetings are held regularly with neighborhood groups such as the Fenway Alliance and Back Bay Association. The team has quietly reached out to members of black churches and neighborhoods, trying to turn around a decades-long history of perceived and real bigotry.
Some of the improvements have been as simple as demanding that the ushers smile. Other have been more dramatic: the carefully designed “monster seats” above the left-field wall; the makeover below the center-field bleachers; the transformation of Yawkey Way into a gated, outdoor concourse on game days. More personal connections have been created, too, from players welcoming fans at the gate to Red Sox alumni signing autographs each day in Autograph Alley near Gate A.
Many of the ideas Steinberg brought to Boston he tried out first in Baltimore and San Diego. “The human emotions of a nine-year-old are the same everywhere,” he says. “But in Boston — which has such reverence for tradition — the applications had to be different.”
In San Diego, to pick just one example, Steinberg created the Pad Squad, a group of young people in shorts who ran onto the field between innings and threw balls into the stands. In Boston the group became the Fenway Ambassadors, neatly dressed in khakis, white button-down shirts, and red sweaters. They ride on the T and give directions, welcome fans at the gates, help answer the mail, and generally serve as friendly public faces of the Red Sox.
“We probably needed all those years in Baltimore and San Diego to have the confidence to execute our ideas,” says Steinberg. “Some of them are considered radical here. We'd better be sure we can do them well.”
Last season, the Red Sox drew 2,724,165 fans, the ninth-highest total in the majors. Of course, that's largely due to what happened on the field. But there's something deeper going on in Red Sox Nation, and nowhere is it more evident than on a cold January night inside a dark Fenway Park.
Barbara Savage, a second-generation fan who has driven to the team's feedback session from Milford with a gripe to share, sits at a table not 10 feet from the principal owner of the Boston Red Sox. In front of her rests a placard with her name on it; in back of her, a basket of souvenirs. “I never would have even written a letter 10 years ago, because I know it would have ended up in the trash,” she says.
Steinberg responds, “When is it too late to start a new tradition?”