It has become the trademark way the Red Sox celebrate franchise history: rock music, fanboy celebrities, pomp and circumstance, bygone heroes - Yaz, Dewey, Petey, Looie - parading across the Fenway Park lawn, stirring the collective memories of Red Sox Nation.
Did you see that? Yaz waved!
The team official most responsible for staging these extravaganzas is Dr. Charles Steinberg, a boyish, ebullient, 53-year-old licensed dentist and Baltimore native who serves as senior adviser to Larry Lucchino, Sox president and chief executive.
Wooed back to the Sox after a four-year hiatus, Steinberg returned in the midst of a public relations nightmare: A historic collapse, a fired manager, a team in turmoil, an ownership under fire. The team’s sluggish start didn’t help.
He quickly put his stamp on the season with April’s 100th anniversary party at Fenway, where his handiwork was instantly recognizable. Pile on the nostalgia, bring on the goosebumps.
Steinberg, who is not married and has no children, says he loves giving younger fans a magical baseball moment: getting a major leaguer’s autograph, say, or witnessing a reunion of hall of famers they won’t soon forget. “To me, the human element is the sweetest part,’’ said Steinberg. “Kids need the opportunity to fall deeply in love with baseball.’’
Yet when asked what moved him most about April’s festivities, he pulls out a cellphone photo taken of a private moment fans never saw. Sox teammates Johnny Pesky, 92, and Bobby Doerr, 94, sit side by side, watching the game. Two old friends, forever bonded in baseball brotherhood.
“That’s my favorite moment, totally unscripted,’’ Steinberg said, eager as always to share a memory linking baseball’s flanneled past to its SportsCenter present.
For Steinberg and the Sox this season, the anniversary hits just keep coming. One day it is the release of a Fenway “Greatest Hits’’ compact disc, with Sox players Daniel Bard, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Darnell McDonald on hand to sign copies. The next it is a ballpark tribute to retired pitcher Tim Wakefield, or a Sox-themed concert at Symphony Hall, or one of many “Calling All Kids’’ family events scheduled for June at Fenway.
Last month’s Wakefield event, organized by Sarah McKenna, Steinberg’s front-office colleague, included scores of patients from Brighton’s Franciscan Hospital for Children and their families, a group known as Wakefield’s Warriors.
“It’s among my biggest thrills in 15 years here,’’ said Ginny Sennott, the hospital’s family liaison coordinator. “Walking onto that field with the kids and parents, having people cheering them, was an incredible experience.’’
Next up for Steinberg is a pregame ceremony on Sunday when the team will induct a new class of Red Sox scholars. These Boston-area students receive $10,000 in college tuition money through the Red Sox Foundation. Steinberg helped launch the scholars program years ago. Small in scale, the ceremony will still bear his unmistakable imprint.
When it comes to enhancing the Sox brand, few details escape Steinberg’s scrutiny. To an even greater degree than his first stay in Boston, the team has come to rely upon his fan-centric approach, one that promotes Sox baseball as a hybrid of sporting event, museum, and theme park.
“I’ve never stopped being fascinated by the imprint baseball can make on people’s souls,’’ he said during an interview at his ballpark office, not far from the small apartment where he lives.
Lucchino calls bringing Steinberg back a “no-brainer’’ and says that on matters like ballpark presentation and community relations, he’s the best in the business. “Charles works on a bigger stage now as the game has grown, and so have we,’’ Lucchino said. “He’s got a broad portfolio of responsibilities with us. It started on the theatrical side, but Charles has evolved into a much more complete baseball executive.’’
In 2008, Steinberg left Boston for the Los Angeles Dodgers, lured by the prospect of rebranding another marquee franchise - and by a reported $850,000 annual contract offered by owners Frank and Jamie McCourt, whom he knew slightly from their Boston years. The Sox brass promised to leave the light on for Steinberg.
As chief marketing executive, Steinberg lit up Dodgerland with his signature touches, from pregame autograph sessions to a Dodgers Scholars youth program to a ballpark hotline for reporting abusive fan behavior.
When the McCourts’ marriage began publicly unraveling in 2009, so did Steinberg’s service contract. During their divorce proceedings, a 2008 e-mail Steinberg wrote to Jamie McCourt surfaced. Containing the line “Goal: Be Elected President of the United States,’’ it appeared to map a path to political office for McCourt. Most of the memo focused on charitable and political initiatives and the creation of a so-called Dodgers University and not on McCourt’s own political ambitions, if any. Still, its release proved mildly embarrassing to Steinberg.
Steinberg declines to comment on the e-mail, or on any issue involving the Dodgers, citing a pending bankruptcy court action in which he stands to be awarded roughly $1 million in unpaid compensation.
From Los Angeles, Steinberg went to Milwaukee, serving under baseball commissioner Bud Selig. Working with Selig, whom he has known for 25 years, was “inspirational,’’ says Steinberg, and gave him a broader perspective on baseball’s operations league-wide. Much of his job entailed finding and publicizing positive, uplifting baseball stories, a task that naturally suited him. When the Red Sox came calling last winter, Steinberg hesitated. It was the commissioner who urged him to go back to the Red Sox.
“It wasn’t really a choice,’’ recalled Steinberg, laughing. “I got traded for a broken bat.’’
Title aside - he has held similar front-office positions with the Baltimore Orioles and San Diego Padres - Steinberg’s job description is deliberately loose. “It’s to see through the fans’ eyes and help preserve and enhance the ballclub’s bonds with the community,’’ he offers when asked.
In reality, almost any issue outside of baseball operations or field management crosses Steinberg’s inbox. Working closely with a group that includes Lucchino, McKenna, and team executive Sam Kennedy, he is basically an ideas guy.
“All of us want and need to keep baseball’s connection with children going, at the highest level,’’ Steinberg said in his office, where he keeps a framed copy of the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s’’ album on one wall. “They’re the energy force for the game’s future, playing it and watching it.’’
Everywhere he has worked in baseball, Steinberg has aimed to connect franchise to fan base. In Baltimore, where he joined Lucchino as a 17-year old summer intern, Steinberg helped orchestrate closing ceremonies at Memorial Stadium. Fans got to see the Robinson boys, Frank and Brooks, walk out to their positions one final time.
In San Diego again with Lucchino, Steinberg brought together Tony Gwynn and native son Ted Williams for a Padres salute. To celebrate the Dodgers’ 50th anniversary in Los Angeles, he recruited Duke Snider (wearing a Brooklyn jersey) and Sandy Koufax.
His own passion for baseball and music, his other great love, came early. Steinberg’s father, an orthodontist, was a concert master violinist. His mother took Steinberg to Orioles games. In 1976, Steinberg began interning with the Orioles in their public relations department. Lucchino joined the franchise in 1980, beginning a working relationship that has prospered ever since.
After graduating from the University of Maryland, Steinberg enrolled in dental school, then soon reached a professional crossroads. In 1984, Steinberg got his degree and planned to open a practice. That summer, though, his commitment to baseball deepened. Fixing teeth became his part-time profession. By 1995, when he moved in San Diego to join the Padres, he had given up dentistry altogether.
“I always joke that I’m in the 37th year of that internship,’’ said Steinberg.