As the former chief executive of the Boston Red Sox, Larry Lucchino knows a thing or two about nail-biters.
Now, the chairman of the Pawtucket Red Sox is ready to go down to the wire again.
On Tuesday, he and his PawSox partners unveiled a plan for a new 10,000-seat ballpark that would cost as much as $73 million but require funds from the State of Rhode Island. They’re racing to assemble public support.
At this point in his long career, the 71-year-old Lucchino could retire and leave a lasting legacy: the modern, urban ballpark that brought the fans closer to the action. His baseball accomplishments include the building of Camden Yards in Baltimore, bringing a new downtown park to San Diego, and then joining the ownership team with John Henry that bought the Boston Red Sox and ended its long World Series drought.
But Lucchino isn’t ready to hang up his glove. The PawSox have all the ingredients for a Lucchino makeover: steep declines in attendance and an aging McCoy Stadium badly in need of replacement. Moreover, the PawSox are asking for $23 million in public funds from a once-troubled state stung by a failed investment in another high-profile private business, Curt Schilling’s 38 Studios video game company.
And there’s not much time: The Rhode Island General Assembly is set to adjourn at the end of June.
“Nothing is easy about Rhode Island politics,” Lucchino said, from his office overlooking McCoy’s field. But “the fact I can stay very busy and take on some meaningful challenges helps one’s aging process.”
His workdays are shorter than when he ran day-to-day operations at the Red Sox, but he’s still busy. In addition to being PawSox chairman, Lucchino remains a Red Sox investor and chairman of the Jimmy Fund.
Friends and business associates say that if anyone can pull off this Pawtucket deal, it’s Lucchino. He’s an executive known for persistence, intellect, and aggressive decision-making.
“He’ll put the same zeal into building a new stadium in Rhode Island as he put into Camden Yards,” said former John Hancock chief executive David D’Alessandro, a friend who was previously part of the Red Sox ownership team.
“He only has two speeds, 100 miles an hour and 98. He’s down to 98.”
Lucchino’s path to Pawtucket dates to 1979, when his law partner and mentor, Edward Bennett Williams, bought the Baltimore Orioles and brought him in as general counsel. He had also been general counsel for the Washington Redskins, which Williams co-owned.
After becoming president of the Orioles in 1988, Lucchino broke with the prevailing wisdom of picking suburban spots for new sports stadiums. He had a different vision: an urban ballpark that would succeed by drawing office workers who could walk to games, revitalizing part of a city in the process.
Charles Steinberg, Lucchino’s longtime lieutenant and PawSox president, counts at least 20 Major League ballparks that have been built since “that are considered sons of Camden Yards” and countless more in the minors. Among those: Petco Park in San Diego, which Lucchino and Steinberg helped build when they worked for the Padres.
If Lucchino has his way, the PawSox project will join that roster in 2021, when the team’s lease for McCoy expires.
“If you had to ask anybody in Major League Baseball or football if there’s a person who is considered a stadium genius, there’s only one man they come up with,” D’Alessandro said.
He tried a different approach after the team of Henry, Lucchino, and Tom Werner acquired the Red Sox in 2002. (Henry also owns The Boston Globe.) Boston already had its urban ballpark. Henry, Lucchino, and the partners instead renovated Fenway, keeping its history intact.
Just over a decade later, the Sox partners had the opportunity to buy the team’s Triple-A affiliate in Pawtucket. But the $20 million-plus deal that was put together in 2015 by Jim Skeffington, a Providence power broker and longtime legal advisor for the Red Sox, pulled together prominent business leaders, including Lucchino, to buy the PawSox. The Red Sox ownership holds only a piece of the Pawtucket team.
“A lot of it was done as a civic gesture . . . to keep baseball in Rhode Island,” Lucchino said.
The big hitch: Skeffington’s vision involved a new ballpark on state-owned land in Providence and needed millions of dollars in subsidies every year. That vision was abruptly upended when Skeffington died a few months after the PawSox deal closed.
Lucchino initially soldiered on with the Providence plan, but pulled the plug several months later. Many critics didn’t like the idea of moving the PawSox out of the team’s namesake city, or the millions in state subsidies.
“The first time around, Larry and his ownership team did not do a good job of rolling out their ideas and getting to know Rhode Island,” Governor Gina Raimondo said in an interview. “I think he has learned his lesson, and he has spent the last year and change down here getting to know people, and getting to know Pawtucket.”
Lucchino now wants to keep the team in Pawtucket, but he doesn’t want to stay put.
Lucchino said that major renovations would be required at McCoy — at 75 years, it’s the oldest ballpark in the Triple-A leagues. And McCoy’s location is less than ideal. Lucchino said the team could have a bigger economic impact if its park is within walking distance of Pawtucket’s downtown.
The current focus is on what’s known as the Apex site, once home to a major department store overlooking the Blackstone River. The city and team funded a consultant’s report that showed a ballpark there would generate nearly $130 million in city and state taxes over 30 years.
Under the plan unveiled Tuesday, team officials said the City of Pawtucket would take control of the property.
Mayor Don Grebien views the ballpark as instrumental in his city’s downtown revitalization — alongside the new Isle Brewers Guild complex and a future commuter rail station.
The proposal would require Pawtucket to kick in as much as $15 million for land and infrastructure costs; the PawSox have pledged $45 million and are seeking $23 million from the state. Together the owners estimate the ballpark and land package would total around $83 million.
Team officials say their proposal would easily generate enough new tax revenue to cover the financial assistance from the state. The new concept differs significantly from the Providence plan of 2015: less state money, and the PawSox would remain in Pawtucket.
Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College economics professor and a frequent critic of stadium subsidies, said the latest PawSox proposal looks “like a pretty good deal,” though he wants more details before deciding whether to endorse it.
“To have that level of private participation is certainly above the norm in Triple-A baseball,” Zimbalist said.
Zimbalist sat across the table from Lucchino as he negotiated on behalf of House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello during the 2015 talks with the PawSox, and he thinks highly of the PawSox chairman. He said he expects Mattiello and Raimondo to scrutinize Lucchino’s latest proposal to ensure it results in a net gain to Rhode Island’s taxpayers.
Sam Kennedy, a Lucchino protege who took over as Boston Red Sox president, said a new PawSox stadium would help train the next generation of Red Sox greats. Lucchino wants to replicate the field dimensions of Fenway, in part to simulate the hitting and fielding experience there. Kennedy said he believes the challenge has been energizing for his mentor.
But this could be the last time Lucchino steps up to the plate for a big ballpark project. Time catches up with everyone, even those with seemingly boundless ambition. Lucchino bats back any talk about retirement, but concedes that he thinks about slowing down, eventually.
“I just want to be sure I know when to say when,” Lucchino said. “Right now I’m still running pretty hard.”