Red Sox Confidential
Along with the daily media meeting, I also attended a weekly gathering related to the renovation of the ballpark, as well as to real estate and neighborhood issues. You don’t tend to hear as much about these kinds of things as you do about where the Sox are in the standings, or who’s drinking beer in the clubhouse, but believe me, the team is sensitive to how its business dealings are portrayed in the press.
By early 2005, the new owners were ready to commit to staying in Fenway rather than building a new stadium. But the issue was complicated because the team felt the infrastructure around the park needed substantial — and expensive — improvements. It was a delicate topic, one that still reverberates, because the Sox ownership badly wanted to appear accommodating, wanted to showcase the hundreds of millions of its own money it would be putting into the renovations, while at the same time downplaying its desire for public contributions. They were well aware of the beating Robert Kraft had taken in the press when he tried to obtain taxpayer dollars for a new stadium for the Patriots. Just broaching the topic in the city, we knew, could set off a flurry of negative press and publicity for the Sox, even though the team had finally broken the curse and won the World Series. So how to proceed?
In 2000 — before the Henry/Werner group bought the team — the state legislature had approved spending more than $300 million on improvements around the park as part of the then-owner’s plan to build a new stadium. That plan fizzled, and with it the public funding, but now Henry, Werner, and Lucchino wanted to either revive the state’s financial incentives package or quietly win a new round of funding. The finesse with which this had to be accomplished could not be overstated. There were some around the table at these meetings who argued vociferously to simply tie the Fenway Park commitment to public funds. In other words: “We’ll only stay and renovate Fenway if we receive taxpayer assistance for infrastructure improvements.” Lucchino overruled them. The Red Sox would make the commitment to Fenway Park regardless of the infrastructure issue. Gradually, a media plan emerged: The team would guarantee that baseball would be played in Fenway on its 100th anniversary in 2012; highlight all of the money the new owners had already spent — and were going to spend — on improving the park; and extend an offer to help the state with infrastructure improvements. Implicit in that offer, of course, was that the state would kick in money, too.
The whole thing was going to be laid out at a press conference at Fenway on March 23, less than a month before the start of the 2005 season. It was a solid plan and might have gone off without a hitch, but it was nearly sunk when an overeager associate decided to give an exclusive advance to Globe columnist Joan Vennochi in a wrong-headed attempt to win some positive press. Joan is a friend of mine and a true baseball fan, but she is a fierce opponent of public financing for professional sports teams. In fact, she’d been one of Kraft’s most dogged critics during his quest for taxpayer money to build a stadium in Boston. When the paper hit the door that morning, you didn’t even need to read the column to know what it said. The headline told it all: “No Public Money for Red Sox.” It would take months to recover from that blunder, which seriously set back the club’s plans for taxpayer support. In the end, the team got less than $100 million.
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