Sports

DAN SHAUGHNESSY

Yankees president calls Larry Lucchino ‘a very formidable adversary’

Larry Lucchino famously referred to the Yankees franchise as “the Evil Empire.”
Jim Davis/Globe staff file
Larry Lucchino famously referred to the Yankees franchise as “the Evil Empire.”

NEW YORK — Yankees president Randy Levine says he’s going to miss his counterpart, Larry Lucchino.

“It’s going to be different without him, that’s for sure,’’ Levine said Wednesday from his office at Yankee Stadium. “He was a very formidable adversary. A great competitor. We went back and forth for many, many years. He never backed down. I never backed down.’’

Levine took over as president of the Yankees in 2000 and Lucchino assumed the same post with the Red Sox late in 2001. Their rivalry rhetoric was fun and lively.

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Christmastime 2002 was a seminal moment in the war of words. The Sox thought they were a lock to sign Cuban free agent pitcher Jose Contreras, who was holed up in a hotel in Nicaragua with Lucchino’s protégé, Theo Epstein.

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Epstein had rented out the entire hotel for negotiations but somehow got trumped by the Yankees. Epstein reportedly trashed his room when Contreras was lost. When Lucchino learned the news, he said, “The Evil Empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.’’

“We laughed like hell that night,’’ recalled Levine. “We were all sitting in a restaurant, myself and George [Steinbrenner]. I remember Theo had rented out the hotel, but we still felt we kind of had the inside track.

“I got a call that we got him as we were leaving the restaurant and I went back inside and told George. The interesting thing was Larry’s reaction. Then it became pretty ugly.’’

Levine’s boss had strong feelings about Lucchino. Steinbrenner jousted with Lucchino in the years Lucchino worked for the Orioles and Padres. According to Bill Madden of the New York Daily News, when John Henry bought the Red Sox with Tom Werner and Lucchino, Steinbrenner warned Henry about his new partners, saying, “Those are two treacherous, phony backstabbers, you’ve got there . . . I’ve got no use for those two bastards.’’

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“George respected Larry,’’ Levine said. “He thought there were some shots during the years, but George was a tough guy. George was loyal to the Yankees and he knew Larry was loyal to the club he represented. I think George respected that.’’

The 2003 and 2004 Yankees-Red Sox playoff series took the ancient rivalry to new levels. In 2003, the “Aaron Boone series,’’ Levine and Lucchino jousted after a beanball episode produced a near-riot and featured Pedro Martinez shucking Don Zimmer to the Fenway lawn.

“We got into it that night,’’ said Levine. “After the fight, I made some comments about the lawlessness there and said it would never happen in Yankee Stadium. Larry went crazy when he heard that.

“He’s not afraid to throw a haymaker and I’m not afraid to throw a haymaker. It’s all part of the game. It’s part of the rivalry.’’

When the Yankees won that series in the Bronx on Boone’s walkoff homer, Levine allegedly was overheard shouting, “Take that, you 1918 pieces of [expletive]!’’

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“I don’t think I ever said that,’’ Levine said Wednesday.

The Red Sox got their revenge a year later, recovering from a 3-0 deficit to win perhaps the most dramatic seven-game series in baseball history.

“It was one of the low points of my tenure,’’ said Levine. “We were heartsick. You never forget that. But even being up, 3-0, we just had an uneasy feeling that whole playoff.

“When Tony Clark’s ball didn’t stay in’’ — a pivotal ground-rule double in the ninth inning of Game 5 — “I had a bad feeling about it. That would have won the series.

“But you’ve got to give the Red Sox credit. That was a great thing for them.’’

The Red Sox and Yankees have not met in the playoffs since 2004. Steinbrenner died in 2010. But Lucchino and Levine were still going mano-a-mano in the spring of 2014 when Lucchino — riding high after the World Series title of 2013 — again claimed the Red Sox were nothing like the big, bad Yankees.

“We’re very different animals,’’ Lucchino said. “I’m proud of that difference.’’

Levine fired back with, “I feel badly for Larry because he constantly sees ghosts and is spooked by the Yankees.’’

“Larry is very smart, he’s a fierce competitor, and he knows his stuff,’’ Levine said Wednesday. “When he would talk about the difference between the Red Sox and us, we never took that seriously.

“George used to call Larry ‘the chameleon.’ When Larry was with the Orioles, he took the issues one way, and then when he went to San Diego, it was another way. Then he came back to Boston and had a transformation.

“At the end of the day, the Red Sox and the Yankees have a lot more in common than they are apart. Sometimes they have Yankee-phobia. They’re too conscious of trying to separate themselves from us. I think they’re more like us.’’

Now the Yankees are in first place and the Red Sox are in last place and Lucchino is gently stepping down as Red Sox president.

“I will miss him,’’ said Levine. “I respect him and we had a lot of fun. Larry’s a character. It’s going to be different without him.’’

Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at dshaughnessy@globe.com