There’s Something About Larry

After an off-season full of shockers, hard-charging Red Sox boss Larry Lucchino has been quietly engineering the biggest surprise of all: He’s making some changes to his own battle-tested game.

The shelves in Larry Lucchino’s woodpaneled home office in Brookline reach the ceiling. They overflow with sports books and memorabilia, with brightly colored caps, bats, and autographed baseballs. It’s Sox stuff, mostly, but there’s plenty from other teams, too. A large television is mounted in the corner, facing a comfortable gray couch, perfect for watching a ballgame. Business gets done in here, but the room has an air of fun, sort of like an adult playground. That’s appropriate in a way. The Red Sox CEO likes to say that he makes his living in the toy store of life, and, even though he’s 60 now and his hair has thinned and his face shows signs of age and worry, a lot about him remains stubbornly youthful. Sitting on his couch wearing dark corduroys, a gray turtleneck, and an enormous World Series ring, he crackles with excitement. He works himself into swirls of passion while he speaks, poking at the air, pawing at his forehead, squeezing his empty water bottle, twisting and weaving his body so that he finds himself, occasionally, forced to stop, extricate his feet from the cushions, and return them to the floor.

It’s in baseball that Lucchino makes his living, of course, and that’s appropriate, too. The game reflects his character. Success depends upon the ceaseless, flawless repetition of the fundamentals. You apply discipline to raw energy. You swing only at good pitches, look the ball into your glove, and hit the cutoff man. In Lucchino’s front office, you put in the hours and, most important, get the facts straight. “Too many mistakes are made because of a misperception of the underlying facts,” he tells me when I visit one afternoon. “It’s a joke around the office, ‘Larry’s seven favorite words: I don’t know but I’ll find out.’ Instead of saying, ‘Well, I think it’s 7 or 8 or 9 percent.’”

Lucchino’s relentless pursuit of the underlying facts has helped make him one of the handful of truly revolutionary executives in baseball history. But he’s also pissed off a lot of people in his quarter-century in the game, bowling over opposition with the blunt force of his brilliance and his desire. He’s sometimes accused of being petty and insensitive. At each stop in his career, he’s feuded with players, agents, politicians, even other executives. For all his spectacular accomplishments, Red Sox fans tend to think of him as a bully, a control freak, a heartless bean counter. And that was before Theo Epstein quit last fall, not quite saying the CEO was to blame, but not really needing to. After that, Larry Lucchino woke up one morning to discover he had become the most fist-shakingly despised man in all New England.

He believes, not without some justification, that he’s been unfairly attacked.

“The truth is, I am fairly hard-charging, aggressive,” he says, tugging on his collar. “I have had visions or dreams or hopes or standards that were fairly high. But I don’t see it as a character flaw. The suggestion of nastiness or meanness, I don’t think that’s an accurate characterization.” He appears genuinely pained as he says this, perplexed that he’s somehow come to be known this way, and as tentative as the slumping power hitter who, having taken some shots in the papers, has lost his way at the plate. That would explain this most startling of developments: Lucchino, the warrior CEO, the baddest of the bad-ass competitors, is suddenly questioning his own approach. We’re not talking about a complete overhaul here—this is Larry Lucchino after all—more what he calls an “evolution.” The analytical part has always come so easily, and no one has ever out-hustled him, but maybe there’s room for a little bit more finesse, a gentler touch, a spot of intuition. “I’m a literal guy, and there are some basic, simple things, and if you do those things right, the rest of the stuff comes to you,” he tells me. “Where you get screwed up is in the nuances, in the details, in the complications.”

LARRY LUCCHINO and Sox co-owners John Henry and Tom Werner were on their way to a sit-down with Herald publisher Pat Purcell in January of 2002. The tabloid had been hammering the new owners, implying they were a bunch of penny-pinching carpetbaggers. Lucchino, Henry, and Werner were after a fresh start, and they hoped the meeting would help soften the coverage. Driving along Boylston Street, they passed Restoration Hardware, and Lucchino got an idea. “John, we gotta go in there,” he said. “Let’s go in and get a hatchet.” The three executives purchased a hand ax and presented it to Purcell. “Let’s bury this somewhere,” they told him. “Let’s bury it right now and go forward.”

Right now is Lucchino’s default speed. Get the facts. Create a plan. Put it in motion. No delays. When you hit an obstacle, attack. Bad relations with the media? Bury the hatchet. A crumbling ballpark beyond salvation? Expand capacity and fill every seat for two and a half straight seasons. A curse? Win the first World Series in 86 years.

In large part, Lucchino has been able to accomplish all that in just four years here because of a small tribe of true believers who have followed him across the country and back. Charles Steinberg, in charge of “fan experience,” has been with Lucchino for 26 years. For Janet Marie Smith, who does ballpark design and real estate, it’s 17 years; for Theo Epstein, 14. Ron Bumgarner, ticketing, 15 years. Glenn Geffner, public relations, 10. Mike Dee, chief operating officer, 11. Only the city changes. The drill remains the same: Attack.

Many of Lucchino’s people were with him in Baltimore when he built Camden Yards, the ballpark that changed baseball, taking yearly attendance from a pedestrian 2 million to 3.5 million and leaving a waiting list for season tickets 13,000 names deep. And they were with him when he blew into laidback San Diego in 1995 and “lit a fire under the city,” as writer Chris Jenkins of the San Diego Union-Tribune put it.

Only a masochist would have wanted the San Diego job. The Padres were irrelevant in their home city. The club had put together a performance in 1994 that approached the poetic in its futility, amassing baseball’s worst record, worst revenues, worst attendance, and worst season-ticket sales.

Undaunted, Lucchino decided that the residents of one of the country’s most fiscally conservative cities were not just going to care about their team again, they were going to contribute $300 million to help pay for a new ballpark that he promised would revitalize 26 square blocks of the neglected downtown. (The team put up $174 million.) Lucchino tore into selling the project to voters. He attended community meetings. He wooed some skeptical politicians and business leaders—and twisted the arms of others. (“On a scale of one to 10, with 10 being the perfect ass-kisser,” says San Diego developer Lin Martin, “I’d say he was a three.”) He took on the activists, preservationists, and anti-taxers who filed 17 lawsuits to stop him. He just kept battling. “This guy was not a gentle soul,” says Jenkins. “He was a warrior. I think Larry loved the combat.” And when election day finally arrived in 1998, it was Lucchino who won, with nearly 60 percent of the vote.

“Larry is fast,” says George Stevens, who was a city councilman at the time. “Mentally, he’s sharp—am I making that clear? It’s hard for Larry not to let you know how much he knows, and people don’t always like that. But if I was going to build a project in a place there was going to be a fight, he’s the guy I would hire.”

The first game at Petco Park was played in 2004, two years behind schedule thanks to all the lawsuits. As Lucchino predicted, the park has done wonders for the city, spurring $2 billion in private investment and increasing property values by 500 percent. Lucchino was already in Boston by the time the Padres opened the stadium. They invited him back to throw out the first pitch anyway.

BOSTON DEVELOPER John Rosenthal owns the parking garage across Lansdowne Street from Fenway’s left-field wall. (That’s his gun-control billboard that hangs over the MassPike where it passes by Fenway.) After years of work, Rosenthal had secured air rights over the Pike and planned to build two large towers over the highway. He figured his plan was moving along nicely. Then, in 2004, he found out otherwise. Air rights or no, the Red Sox let Rosenthal know, those towers were not going up. They’d spoil views from inside Fenway. “Should any business be able to tell another business what they can or can’t do with their real estate?” Rosenthal asks. “They pulled rank by their relationship with City Hall.” Rosenthal tried to resolve the problem with Lucchino but could never get a meeting. “It wasn’t a priority for him,” he says. Eventually, he says, Mayor Tom Menino helped broker a deal that, if approved by the Turnpike Authority, will give Rosenthal the rights to develop property a couple of blocks away in exchange for his rights above the highway. He will get his towers and the team will keep its views. These days, Rosenthal says, Lucchino and the Sox are his biggest supporters. “They were a formidable opponent and have turned into a terrific advocate and partner.”

It’s a wonderful thing to have Lucchino on your side, as Brian Monaghan discovered when he was diagnosed with cancer in 1998 and told he had just months to live. Lucchino made trip after trip to visit his friend in the hospital. “He’d bring wine; he’d bring food. He met with my wife. He was unbelievable in his ability to empathize,” Monaghan recalls. Lucchino is himself a two-time cancer survivor, but Monaghan insists his friend would have been there regardless. “People really care about him, and they follow him,” he says. “He’s a leader; he’s honest and straightforward.” Mark Ehrman attended high school with Lucchino in Pittsburgh and, later, Princeton. He hasn’t really talked to him in years, but he’s certain of this: “I’d be surprised if you can find a single person out there who legitimately has a bad thing to say about Larry Lucchino.”

Of course, Ehrman doesn’t call Lucchino boss.

“He is so hard on his own people,” says Jenkins, the Union-Tribune writer. “He’s an impossibly hard man if you’re working for him.”

“Larry can’t turn it off,” Bruce Hoffman, who oversaw the construction of Camden Yards in Baltimore, told Peter Richmond for Richmond’s book Ballpark. “He’ll get so angry he’ll start shaking. You never know which Larry it’ll be. He was a yo-yo. I think it’s a shame—I don’t think he slows down to enjoy life enough.” Herald baseball writer Tony Massarotti recalls the time in spring training in 2004 when Lucchino stormed into the Red Sox clubhouse to confront pitcher Derek Lowe. “My understanding was that Lucchino approached Lowe before this game and aired him out in the middle of the clubhouse about the stance he was taking in contract negotiations,” Massarotti says. “That really turned off some people.” Lucchino says it didn’t happen that way. The locker room was nearly empty, he counters, and he merely recommended that Lowe call Red Sox co-owner Tom Werner, who has a good relationship with the pitcher, to discuss the contract. “To me, it was hardly a criticism,” he says.

Josh Byrnes, who was Theo Epstein’s top assistant until taking a job as general manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks, has a reputation as a bright, creative young mind. Lucchino was prepared to offer Byrnes the general manager job had Theo left for good. Yet during an exit interview, Byrnes said he never felt valued by the Red Sox. “Josh did say that he didn’t feel as though he and the role he played were sufficiently appreciated,” Lucchino admits, “that he would have appreciated more positive feedback along the way.”

Lucchino acknowledges he can be a demanding boss, but says criticisms of his management style are misguided. “I’m a little troubled, or offended, by the suggestion that I’m tough on people I work with,” he says. “There must be 10 or 15 people or more that have moved from city to city working with me. If life were so difficult, unpleasant, humorless, whatever, people wouldn’t have displayed that kind of commitment to me.”

Lucchino may raise his voice, Charles Steinberg tells me, he may flash his temper, but it’s always in the service of the team, and the message is never demeaning. Steinberg walks me through a hypothetical scenario in which Lucchino is upset. “Let me give it to you in what I’ll call ‘e-mail words’ first,” he says. “‘Think. You’re smarter than that. You know better than that.’ Now, did I just get yelled at? Let’s look at what he didn’t say: ‘You idiot. You dumb-ass. I’m disappointed in you.’ All of those are negatives. Take a look at those first words again—they are all positives. He challenges you to take your game higher, and that challenge is very appealing to some people and not necessarily the cup of tea of others.”

Still, didn’t it concern Lucchino that someone he rated as highly as Josh Byrnes could walk away feeling unappreciated? “It never entered my mind that he would not feel as though, given the success we’d had, that he was well regarded,” Lucchino says. “But the truth is, I didn’t know him as well as I might have known him, and it obviously troubled him.”

RESTING ON LUCCHINO'S desk is a large framed photo of the single most important figure in his professional life, the late brilliant trial attorney Edward Bennett Williams. To say that Williams was a lawyer is to say that David Ortiz is a hitter. He counseled presidents. He argued landmark cases before the Supreme Court. He defended senators and mobsters. He drank with movie stars, and dated them, too. He also happened to own the Washington Redskins.

Though Lucchino starred in both baseball and basketball in high school and was a reserve point guard on the Princeton basketball team that made the 1965 Final Four—Bill Bradley was a teammate—his career as a sports executive began as something of a fluke. After graduating from Yale Law in 1972, he was hired by Williams’s law firm in Washington, DC. Williams quickly took a liking to the sharp young man, who, like himself, had a passion for both work and sports. When Lucchino was just 32, Williams installed him as the Redskins’ general counsel. And when Williams bought the Orioles in 1979, Lucchino had his first job in baseball.

There was one way to do things for Williams: his way. He was controlling, obsessed with the possibility that something could go wrong. Though loyal and generous in the extreme, “Williams sometimes showed a sulky, vengeful side,” wrote Evan Thomas in his Williams biography, The Man to See. Often, it was Lucchino who felt his wrath. “Larry would come back from making the best deal he could make on some contract—television, say—the best he could do,” a friend of Williams recalled in Ballpark, “and he’d sit there with Ed, and Ed would say, ‘WHAT ARE YOU? THE LITTLE WHIPPING BOY? YOU GAVE AWAY THE FUCKING STORE! YOU LAID DOWN FOR THEM, DIDN’T YOU, LUCCHINO?’ Larry could never win.”

Though Lucchino dismisses Ballpark as slapped-together tripe, he concedes that Williams had some rough edges. But he never took anything personally. “I knew what Ed’s feelings were about me, how much he trusted me, liked me, respected me,” he says, nodding from the couch to the photograph on his desk. “I remember being left out of meetings, and it troubled me. Then I realized, he’s not doing this out of some malevolence. I like people whose skins are thick enough to realize that sometimes the pace of the day may cause an abrasion that isn’t intended.”

Williams prepared exhaustively for any endeavor, but always believed in the power of his intuition. “He wanted to disband our hiring committee,” Lucchino recalls, laughing at the memory. “‘Why do we have a hiring committee? I’ll spend 20 minutes and I’ll tell you who we should hire!’” It is here that Lucchino most differs from his mentor. “I’m more lawyerly than that, although I’m evolving,” he tells me. “In fact,” he says, suddenly springing up on the couch, kneeling as he reaches behind him, “look what’s on the top of my desk here—the evolution of thinking!” He produces a CD version of Malcolm Gladwell’s influential book Blink. Gladwell argues that the best decisions are sometimes the ones made in the blink of an eye, without the burden of stuffy analysis. “I believe in it!” Lucchino exclaims. “I believe a lot of it. But it’s not a substitute for preparation, it’s just another modality that there’s some reason to rely on.”

ONE AFTERNOON in November, David D’Alessandro, the former chief executive of John Hancock Financial Services and a limited Red Sox partner, was anxiously pacing the dining area of Eastern Standard, the trendy Kenmore Square restaurant. Two weeks earlier, Theo Epstein had announced his departure from the Red Sox, and, amid the citywide furor, Lucchino had essentially vanished from public view. D’Alessandro approached a table where he recognized three middle-aged businessmen. After some back-slapping, he told them he had a meeting with Lucchino. “He wants to talk about improving his image,” he said. “Scraping the shit off his shoe.” Ten minutes later, Lucchino walked into the restaurant, trailed by John Henry. A hostess led the trio to a secluded booth in the rear, across from a seafood cooler where fresh lobsters chilled on ice.

“It was a stressful time for a lot of people,” Lucchino recalls. “I think a few people unloaded on us, and on me.” Friends tell him it was only a matter of time until the blows fell. “It’s almost as though there’s an institutional mechanism out there that says if someone is flying too high or enjoying too much success, we’ve got to remind them that this is Boston and we can be critical and tough. That’s been suggested to me by a number of people.” In the face of this deluge, the Red Sox decided it was best to keep quiet. “Let’s gather some perspective,” Lucchino says. “Every organization needs to make some corrections along the way, but we shouldn’t forget that for almost four years, the perceptions [of the club] were extremely positive. There’s a real danger that you take a relatively isolated episode that had some Shakespearean qualities to it and you overgeneralize from it.”

That’s all in the past now, of course. Theo came back less than three months after he left, and these days everyone’s talking about improved communication and shared vision. But before the reconciliation, it was only John Henry’s interference that kept Lucchino from bringing in Jim Beattie, a former pitcher who’d already washed out as a general manager in both Montreal and Baltimore, to replace Theo. Henry keeps insisting that nothing’s changed, that Lucchino’s still in charge. But Theo’s return has been widely interpreted as a challenge to Lucchino’s power, perhaps the first he’s faced in his career.

Lucchino’s contract runs through 2011. Any suggestion of lingering tensions in the organization, he insists, is simply misinformed speculation. But you have to wonder whether, deep down, he still has the taste for Boston, for the peculiar way it supports its teams. “He’s very sensitive,” John Rosenthal points out. “He cares a lot about what people think about him. I think he’s concerned about his legacy.” With his record of success, Lucchino could have his pick of jobs in baseball, and there happens to be a franchise in Washington again. The talk around the game is that Major League Baseball wouldn’t mind sending Lucchino down there to work his magic. It’d almost be like going home, back to where Edward Bennett Williams first taught him how it’s done. He’d be the unquestioned boss again. The man to see.
Lucchino just laughs when I ask him about leaving. “This is a place where I’ve sunk my roots, and I’d like to sink them here more deeply,” he says. “This is the pinnacle of the baseball world. And I’ve got a working relationship with my partners here that’s strong and enjoyable, harmonious and light-hearted, and comfortable.”

Every Red Sox fan should hope that’s so. The loyalty around here used to run just one way, but Larry Lucchino’s Red Sox are the Sox that love you back. They make Fenway fun for you. They work for you. They win for you.

Sooner or later, Lucchino is going to say the wrong thing again. He’s going to piss somebody off; evolution, after all, is a process. But he is tinkering with his approach. “I think there’s balance that’s needed,” he says. “There are certain types of problems that require analysis, preparation. But there are certain people issues that can better be analyzed by some reliance on your instincts, your intuition, your judgment. You’ve got to operate in both gears.” It’s all in the nuance. And he’s working on it.