What a difference a year makes for both the perception and the reality of the Red Sox ownership trio.
Here are subjects that didn’t come up during Saturday’s World Series-celebrating duck boat parade when team owner John Henry (obligatory mention that he is also the owner of the Globe), chairman Tom Werner, and president and CEO Larry Lucchino were being interviewed: the Liverpool Football Club, commemorative bricks, sellout streak, and television ratings.
People often ask what kind of sports town Boston is. Is it a baseball town, a hockey town, a football town, a basketball town? It’s a town that embraces winners, which the Red Sox are again. All the dissatisfaction and anger the Red Sox generated last season has been recycled into adoration and exultation.
That includes the oft-assailed Sox ownership.
They did what they said they were going to do — fix what was broken. As much blame as they fielded for the rudderless 2012 campaign, they deserve equal credit for making the course corrections that resulted in the World Series trophy taking a duck boat joy ride around town.
“We do know it comes with the job. It’s part and parcel of the job description, you’re going to receive your share of public criticism when the team doesn’t perform as well as it should,” said Lucchino.
“We had 11 full seasons coming into this year, and it’s human nature to focus on the last piece of data or experience. We weren’t getting the results. We said at our very first press conference, Dec. 21, 2001, that there were certain fundamental obligations of ownership. The first was to field a team worthy of the fans’ support. It was an obligation we failed to fulfill in ’11 and ’12. We were determined to fulfill that commitment as we had done in the previous nine years.”
The plan to retool the Red Sox was born, fittingly, in a basement last offseason.
The team had just bottomed out, finishing last in the American League East with a 93-loss season, when the Red Sox braintrust met in the basement of owner John Henry’s Brookline home.
They asked some difficult questions and faced up to a franchise that had become derailed and derided.
Lucchino still has the notes he took from that cellar summit. The night before Saturday’s parade to celebrate the third championship of the Henry/Werner/Lucchino ownership tenure, he rattled off a few of the tenets that guided the rebirth.
The manager and general manager have to have an excellent working relationship. A winning team needs “deep depth,” in the words of legendary Orioles manager Earl Weaver. Limit long-term commitments by being willing to pay more on short-term deals with the $261 million saved by the transformative deal with the Los Angeles Dodgers that shipped Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, and Josh Beckett out of town.
Lucchino can be a bit of a lightning rod for fans and media. He is, as Henry famously said, the man who runs the Red Sox. He is smart, driven, demanding, and, on occasion, captious.
But he is a crucial part of an ownership that turned Fenway Park from a dilapidated relic with specious charm into a functional shrine with real charm, and made the playoffs seven times in 12 seasons.
Lucchino stated that being a human shield for the franchise is part of his job description. He absorbed plenty of shots last year.
“I think one of the keys to staying sane as a baseball executive is to develop a thick skin and ration the amount of talk radio you listen to,” Lucchino said. “I do listen to a lot of country music. From my house in Brookline to Fenway, it’s about a 12-minute drive. I have a chance to catch up on country.”
Many saw Lucchino as the man most responsible for 2012 because he was the biggest proponent of the ill-fated decision to foist Bobby Valentine on GM Ben Cherington. Valentine was an utter disaster, the captain of the Exxon Valdez and Captain Queeg rolled into one.
If you want your pound of flesh from Lucchino on Valentine, here it is.
“We hoped he would be the experienced hand and deal with what was a difficult situation after the collapse in 2011,” said Lucchino. “We were wrong.”
However, Lucchino scoffed at the notion that he had stepped back this year to allow Cherington to make unfettered baseball decisions he couldn’t in year one on the job.
“You guys tend to interpret it however you like,” Lucchino said. “Ben and I have a great working relationship. My reaction to that is we knew we had a very talented GM this year. We all worked well and collaboratively.”
Lucchino said the harmony and unity in the Red Sox clubhouse was mirrored in the front office operations, calling it one of the best experiences he’s had in his 34 years in baseball.
Harmony and continuity are short-lived in pro sports, though.
The Sox have key decisions to make on free agents Jacoby Ellsbury, Mike Napoli, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and Stephen Drew. They already have picked up the $13 million option on ace Jon Lester
Lucchino said the probability of having the same roster in 2014 is zero.
He’s right. There is a better chance of a snowless winter than Ellsbury returning to the Red Sox.
“We’ll see,” said Lucchino. “We’ll see, because it’s a question of the exception where it isn’t just the quality of the player, but the nature of the demands. We would love to have Jacoby back, no question about it. We will work hard to make that happen. But we know about [agent] Scott Boras’s predilections with respect to free agency. We know it won’t be an easy contract to negotiate.”
Lucchino, Henry, and Werner owned up to their mistakes from 2011 and 2012. Now, they get to own their share of the credit for restoring the Joy of Sox.