Feeding the Monster: How Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Topby Seth Mnookin
When the Boston Red Sox won the World Series on October 27, 2004, they made history. Their stunning comeback against the New York Yankees and their four-game annihilation of the St. Louis Cardinals capped one of the most thrilling postseason runs ever. The World Series victory-Boston's first in 86 years-came less than three years after John Henry and Tom Werner bought… See more details below
When the Boston Red Sox won the World Series on October 27, 2004, they made history. Their stunning comeback against the New York Yankees and their four-game annihilation of the St. Louis Cardinals capped one of the most thrilling postseason runs ever. The World Series victory-Boston's first in 86 years-came less than three years after John Henry and Tom Werner bought the team from the Yawkey Trust and forever changed the way the Red Sox operated on and off the field.
Seth Mnookin was given access never before granted to a reporter in the history of organized sports. He had a key to Fenway Park and a desk in the team's front office. He spent weekends talking business with John Henry and afternoons in the clubhouse with Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. He learned never-before-told details of the team's Thanksgiving Day wooing of Curt Schilling, the jealousy Nomar Garciaparra felt toward better-paid teammates, and the anxiety that impelled Pedro Martinez to insist that the Red Sox guarantee his future. He was there when general manager Theo Epstein's frustration over the organization's ceaseless drive for more media coverage and new revenue streams collided with his fracturing relationship with CEO Larry Lucchino. The resulting narrative -- juicy, gripping, and overflowing with thrilling detail -- reveals how a savvy sports organization tries to stay on top while under the relentless scrutiny of the country's most voracious sportswriters and baseball's most demanding fans.
Drawn from hundreds of hours of exclusive interviews and a year with the team, Feeding the Monster shows as no book ever has before what it means to buy, sell, run, and be part of a major league sports team in America.
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Feeding the MonsterHow Money, Smarts, and Nerve Took a Team to the Top
By Seth Mnookin
Simon & SchusterCopyright © 2007 Seth Mnookin
All right reserved.
It was just after seven thirty on the evening of October 7, 2005, when Boston shortstop Edgar Renteria grounded out to second base to end the game, and although telephone operators at Fenway Park would continue to greet callers to the "home of the World Champion Boston Red Sox" for another couple of weeks, the Red Sox's magical run -- the one that began in February 2002, when John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino took control of one of the most iconic sports teams in America -- was over. The Red Sox, after winning the 2004 World Series to cap what will go down as the most famous postseason run in history, had been swept in the first round of the playoffs by the Chicago White Sox.
The immediate postmortems would center on that bases-loaded, no-outs jam the White Sox had wriggled out of in the sixth inning, but the air had been let out of the Red Sox's game, and their season, an inning earlier. In the bottom of the fifth, designated hitter David Ortiz came up with two men on and two men out. As he lumbered toward the plate at Fenway, Ortiz was busy mulling over his previous at-bat, when he had finally put the Red Sox on the board with a towering home run to straightaway center field. Now, withthe score tied 2-2, the Fenway crowd began to scream in unison as Ortiz made his deliberate, heaving journey to the batter's box: "M-V-P! M-V-P!" It was as if the crowd felt it could will the country's sportswriters into granting Ortiz the award if its cheers were loud enough.
Ortiz, who bears a passing resemblance to the cartoon movie monster Shrek, contorts his face into a menacing snarl when he's hitting; it makes him look as if he's preparing to eat the opposing pitcher for dinner. With Johnny Damon, the team's matinee idol of a center fielder, dancing off second base, his wild mane of hair flapping below his batting helmet, and Renteria edging off first, Ortiz uncoiled his mammoth arms and chased after Chicago starter Freddy Garcia's first offering. The bat hit the ball sharply -- thwack! -- and, at first, it seemed to mirror perfectly the trajectory of Ortiz's fourth inning shot. The crowd leapt to its feet with a roar. But as strong and powerful as Ortiz is, not even he can push a ball out of the deepest part of the park when he doesn't connect dead on, and his bat had gotten just under this ball. As he dashed for first, and Damon rounded third, the ball arced through the crisp Boston air and fell, finally, into Aaron Rowand's glove in center field. Inning over.
Ortiz stopped about 20 feet from first base and froze, staring blankly at the spot where his blast had died. He stayed there as the White Sox jogged off the field. He stayed there as his teammates began taking their defensive positions around him. It was as if he couldn't believe that this time, in this at-bat, he hadn't been able to come through. The Red Sox had to win this game . . . didn't they? They had all the trappings of a championship team, including a $127 million payroll, the second highest in baseball. (The Yankees, the perennial bullies down the block, led the field at $208 million.) They had a roster full of All-Stars: Manny Ramirez, the slugging left fielder who was often described as the best right-handed hitter in the American League; Jason Varitek, the unassuming catcher who was known as one of the premier pitch-callers in baseball; and, of course, Damon and Ortiz. They had what was commonly described as the smartest front office in the business and an ownership group that seemed as devoted to fielding a winning team and giving back to the community as it was to making money. It was a recipe that was supposed to all but ensure success.
Indeed, since Henry, Werner, and Lucchino had taken over, being a Boston Red Sox fan, once a pastime best suited to masochists and depressives, had become fun, exciting, even trendy. Henry, the shy commodities trader, brought the same faith in statistical analysis to his baseball team that he did to his work in the markets. Werner, the television executive responsible for hits like The Cosby Show and Roseanne, helped ensure that the Red Sox's regional sports network, the New England Sports Network (NESN), raked in revenue. And Lucchino, the hard-charging former litigator, was an uncommonly creative chief executive known for never resting on his laurels and having a keen eye for emerging front-office talent. He delighted in fostering and developing smart, young leaders, most notably Theo Epstein, the 31-year-old Bostonian who became a folk hero when he was named the team's general manager before the 2003 season.
Together, Henry, Werner, and Lucchino had taken an organization known primarily for its heartbreaking losses and perennial runner-up status and transformed it into a world champion. Gone were the days when the team failed to sign Jackie Robinson or Willie Mays because its owner and its general manager were racists. Gone were the days when Carlton Fisk, a New England native and one of the best catchers ever to play the game, was lost to free agency because the Red Sox front office neglected to mail him his contract on time. Gone were the days of owners not speaking to management, of management not speaking to the coaching staff, of the coaching staff not speaking to the players. Gone was the Curse of the Bambino, the specter of Bucky F-ing Dent and Billy Buckner. Even the notoriously combative Boston media seemed to have been pacified by the team's press-friendly policies and winning ways. The Red Sox of old might have fielded a team of whining, overpaid misfits who got swept in the first round, and in the old days, that sort of failure would be followed by a course of inevitable finger-pointing and recriminations, whether deserved or not. But that wouldn't happen now. These days, things were different.
It had been just five years earlier, on October 6, 2000, that John Harrington, then chief executive officer of the Red Sox, announced that, for the first time in a generation, the team was up for sale. Harrington was the last direct link to Tom Yawkey, the millionaire playboy who bought the Red Sox in 1933, and whose name now graced Yawkey Way, the street on which the entrance to Fenway Park's offices were located. Yawkey died in 1976; his wife, Jean, helped run the team until her death in 1992, at which point Harrington, one of Jean Yawkey's closest confidants, took control of the Jean R. Yawkey Trust, which by 1994 owned a majority stake in the team.
At first, the timing of Harrington's announcement seemed odd. The Red Sox had just emerged victorious from a grueling legislative battle that all but guaranteed the construction of a new, modern ballpark to replace Fenway, the oldest, smallest, and least comfortable place to watch a ball game in the whole country. But Jean Yawkey's will had compelled the trust to put the team up for sale eventually (the profits would be used to endow the charitable Yawkey Foundations), and the Red Sox's value was at an all-time high. Attendance was up, baseball had recovered from the labor dispute that had led to the strike that canceled the 1994 World Series, and the Red Sox were stocked with exciting, top-tier talent, including pitching great Pedro Martinez and homegrown superstar shortstop Nomar Garciaparra. In the press conference announcing the sale, Harrington said that, above all else, he hoped the team would go to a local bidder. "God willing," Harrington said, "my last act will be to turn this incredible team over to a die-hard Red Sox fan from New England who knows how important the team is to this town and the fabric of this community." In an article the next day, The Boston Globe noted that Harrington would, of course, be willing to listen to bids from outsiders.
The journey that began that day would continue for another 14 months. The sale of Major League Baseball teams is a notoriously Byzantine and time-consuming process; after the seller finds a buyer and the two agree on a price, the new owner still must be approved by three-fourths of MLB's 30 owners. Baseball commissioner Allan H. "Bud" Selig is perpetually rumored to fix this or that deal to help his cronies or allies end up with the winning bid. In Boston's case, the sale was even weirder than usual: The intense emotional hold the Red Sox have over the New England populace meant the entire region, from sportswriters to politicians, was strongly predisposed to a local group buying the team, whether or not it was willing to put up the money to do so. For much of 2001, the Boston Herald (and to a lesser extent, the Globe), unabashedly promoted the bid of Joe O'Donnell and Steve Karp, a pair of local businessmen who seemed to be friends or business associates with virtually every power broker in the city. Tom Werner, who had teamed up with Les Otten, a controversial New England ski entrepreneur, was seen as a long shot. And John Henry, who spent much of 2001 trying to get a new stadium built for the Florida Marlins, the Miami-based team he had bought in 1998, didn't even enter the fray until November, just weeks before final bids for the Red Sox were due.
Yet, on December 20, 2001, Henry, Werner, and Lucchino were awarded the team. Within days, word had it that the sale had been a fix, a bag job, orchestrated by Selig and perpetrated by Harrington and Red Sox lawyers. Advanced by Massachusetts attorney general Tom Reilly and rabidly propagated by the Herald (as well as Globe sports columnists Dan Shaughnessy and Will McDonough), the notion spread. For years, any discussion of the Henry ownership group would include some sort of caveat about the rigged sale of the team. Over time, this notion began to calcify -- the transformation of myth into accepted reality is an essential motif in the Red Sox's history -- and eventually the new owners more or less stopped trying to correct the record.
The unconcealed bitterness and acrimony that greeted Henry and Werner when they arrived in Boston was only part of the problem the new owners faced. In the years leading up to the sale, the internal workings of the Red Sox organization had almost totally broken down. General manager Dan Duquette's pathological distrust of the media had fostered a paranoid culture in which team employees had to request explicit permission before answering the most basic of questions. (At one point, a team spokesman refused to give ESPN's Rob Neyer a list of people who had sung the national anthem at Fenway during the 2000 season, despite the fact that the information was broadcast on the park's JumboTron before every game.) Duquette's open feuding with his managers and the infighting among the players had only heightened the natural claustrophobia of Fenway Park, which had a tiny clubhouse to begin with.
Still, after the sale of the team became official, Henry and his partners were ecstatic. The Red Sox, they believed, were not only one of baseball's marquee franchises, they were also one of its most neglected. Fan outreach was nonexistent, creative revenue enhancement unheard of, marketing diffident to the point of being almost immaterial. With Boston's fan base, and the Red Sox's rich history, the new owners felt they were in a position not only to field consistently winning teams but also to explore previously untapped ways to bring in more money to what was already, in spite of everything, one of baseball's more successful organizations.
Upon taking over the team, Henry was, at first, greeted enthusiastically by many of its stars. He was known for being close to some of his former Marlins players, and word of his collegial, even paternal, relationship with players traveled quickly through Major League Baseball, with its close and chatty fraternity of multimillionaire athletes. Even Garciaparra, who had recently spoken out about how frustrating it was to play in Boston, told Henry he was excited about the future. But for all the hope and optimism he generated, Henry soon discovered just how odd a team he'd bought. On the first day of spring training in 2002, Manny Ramirez, who'd signed an eight-year, $160 million contract with the Sox before the 2001 season, approached the new owner. "Look, man, you gotta get me out of here," Ramirez told Henry. "I hate the pressure, I hate the manager. Please. I've heard you're a good guy. Please -- you need to trade me." Henry was stunned. Just weeks earlier, he was giggling in amazement over the fact that he now owned a team that could afford stars like Ramirez, who hit the first pitch he saw at Fenway as a member of the Red Sox into the netting above the Green Monster, the park's fabled left field wall, and finished his first year with the team with 41 home runs. We can, Henry told Ramirez, do something about the manager -- the Red Sox were already planning on firing Joe Kerrigan, who had taken over after Dan Duquette had axed Jimy Williams the previous August. And, per his request, the Red Sox did briefly explore trading Ramirez, but ultimately, Henry decided there was no way the team was going to part with one of the most potent offensive forces in all of baseball.
Over the next four seasons, these dramas cropped up again and again. Ramirez's annual trade demands would have been farcical if they weren't so distracting. (Despite his professed unhappiness, Ramirez averaged 40 home runs and 122 runs batted in from 2001 through 2005.) Before the 2004 season, Garciaparra was felled by a mysterious Achilles injury, and that July, the most popular Red Sox player since Carl Yastrzemski was traded to the Chicago Cubs. Pedro Martinez, even when he was earning $17.5 million a year, was obsessed with the perceived amount of respect he received from team executives. After becoming a free agent before the 2005 season, he signed a four-year deal with the New York Mets.
If the never-ending clubhouse turmoil -- and the ensuing, usually overwrought coverage by the Boston media -- seemed reminiscent of the Red Sox of old, the on-field results and front-office approach were starkly different. In 2003, Epstein's first year as general manager, the Red Sox led all of baseball in virtually every offensive category. After trailing the Oakland Athletics two games to none in their first round, best-of-five playoff series, they came back in thrilling fashion to advance to the American League Championship Series against the Yankees. That seven-game set featured on-field fights, off-field sniping, and a heartbreaking, extra-innings loss in the deciding Game 7. The next year, the Sox kept most of their offense intact while adding perennial All-Star starter Curt Schilling and bulldog closer Keith Foulke. After playing .500 ball for much of the year, the team ripped off a dominating stretch of victories late in the season and then clawed back from a three-game deficit to embarrass the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS, becoming the first team in baseball history to fall behind 3-0 and go on to win a seven-game series. The World Series sweep of the St. Louis Cardinals, which secured Boston's first championship since 1918, almost seemed anticlimactic in comparison, like the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's gold-medal-winning victory over Finland after it had upset the Soviet Union in the semifinals. Lucchino, meanwhile, helped craft an aggressively creative business approach that led to everything from the formation of a group that outsourced the team's marketing expertise to a string of consecutive sellouts that threatens to break baseball's all-time record.
When the Red Sox won baseball's ultimate prize that chilly night in St. Louis, Henry, Werner, and Lucchino embraced in the stands. They could not have helped being optimistic about the future of the organization. During the offseason, they planned to refurbish the team's clubhouse, adding a new upper level that would be off-limits to the prying eyes of the press; that way, they hoped, they could continue the Red Sox's transformation into the type of organization that would attract the game's biggest -- and pickiest -- stars. Epstein and his baseball operations crew, it seemed, would only grow stronger. Within days, the team embarked on a World Series trophy tour that eventually reached every single city in the state of Massachusetts, creating good will while simultaneously helping to attract new fans. The Red Sox's victory even quieted talk of the supposed Selig-orchestrated bag job. For a few months, it seemed as if all their dreams were coming true.
Five days after the end of the Red Sox's 2005 season, on the morning of Wednesday, October 12, the team's senior staff gathered for one of its regular strategy sessions. One of the quirks of Fenway is its lack of readily available conference spaces. Often, these management meetings were held in one of the luxury suites that ring the upper level of the stands. On this day, it was held in Fenway's Crown Royal Club, a street-level room decorated with wall-mounted flat-screen televisions and framed black-and-white photographs of Red Sox heroes from years past. The club, directly accessible from Brookline Avenue and available for rental for private functions and parties, is just one of the many money-raising additions the new owners had made to Fenway since they had bought the team four seasons earlier.
Larry Lucchino was the first to speak. Although Werner first pursued the Red Sox and Henry actually put up most of the money to buy the team, the 60-year-old Lucchino was usually the public voice of the organization, as well as the man responsible for day-to-day operations. Lucchino had been a standout high-school athlete -- he was an all-city basketball player in Pittsburgh as well as a varsity second baseman. He went to Princeton, then Yale Law School, and in the early 1970s, found a mentor in Edward Bennett Williams, who had started the Washington, D.C.-based law firm Williams & Connolly. Williams steered Lucchino toward the sports world, and Lucchino served as general counsel of the Washington Redskins in the late 1970s before becoming general counsel of the Baltimore Orioles when Williams purchased the team in 1979. In the 1980s and 1990s, Lucchino gained a reputation as a swaggering, fierce competitor and a brilliant executive: As the CEO of the Orioles and the San Diego Padres, he oversaw vast improvements in each team's record (the Padres even went to the World Series in 1998), and was often credited as the driving force behind the successful new stadiums that were built in both cities.
Lucchino, who sat at the head of the rectangular table, is not a fan of small talk or fussing around. As soon as everyone was seated, he quieted the banter and asked people to identify the pros and cons of the previous season. "The fact that we won 95 games obviously goes on the positive side of the ledger," Lucchino said, starting things off. Indeed, the 2003, 2004, and 2005 seasons marked the first time in the team's history that the Red Sox had made the playoffs three years in a row; since 2002, only the Yankees had won more games in the American League. Still, Lucchino's opening statement seemed more like a carefully planned reminder than an acknowledgment of an actual accomplishment, for after the heady roller-coaster rides of the previous two years, many of the team's employees -- to say nothing of its fans -- seemed to feel that the 2005 campaign had been, in the end, a disappointment. Just a week earlier, the entire organization had been preparing for what it expected would be another long postseason run.
Mike Dee, a Lucchino disciple and, as the team's chief operating officer, the man in charge of wringing every last dollar of revenue out of the Red Sox experience, nodded to the improved atmosphere at the ballpark. Dee, who looks a little bit like Mr. Clean -- tall and bald with a round face -- noted that an increased security presence and stricter rules governing in-stand behavior meant many fewer drunken, cursing fans. Fenway, Dee said, was more hospitable to children and families than ever before, and this was accomplished during a season in which the team was publicly criticized for the addition of new beer stands and a huge increase in the amount of alcohol sold at the park. Meg Vaillancourt, the eccentric former Boston Globe reporter now in charge of the team's charitable operations, talked about how successful the paid tours of Fenway Park had become. They were, Vaillancourt said, a way to keep fans emotionally connected to the team even if they couldn't always afford to come to actual games. (At $44.56, the Red Sox, for the eighth straight season, had baseball's highest average ticket price; the Chicago Cubs, at $32, were second. At $12 a pop, these hour-long tours of Fenway cost as much as bleacher seats in many of the country's other ballparks.)
Finally, it was Theo Epstein's turn. Epstein looked much older than he had on the day in 2002 when he had become, at 28, the youngest general manager in baseball history. His hair had begun to thin, and his face had been shorn of its soft edges. Epstein is a workaholic -- he had been in his basement office working early on Saturday, about fifteen hours after the Red Sox had been eliminated -- and John Henry, worried about Epstein's stress level and his workload, had recently begun urging him to take some time off.
Two-thousand five had been an arduous and trying year for Epstein. After the Red Sox won the World Series in 2004, he'd become a local celebrity on par with, and perhaps even above, the team's players. He'd stopped watching games from his seat about a dozen rows behind home plate because he found it impossible to walk through the stands without being poked at and mobbed. He'd started having his hair cut in the basement of Fenway; not only would he save time but he could also avoid the endless gawking he endured whenever he was spotted on the street. Eating out had become a chore, as had running errands or trying to catch a movie with his girlfriend. While many thirtysomethings would have enjoyed the endless adulation and attention -- the gifts of women's underwear, the marriage proposals -- Epstein found it stifling. Over the course of the year, several of his closest colleagues said that he'd seemed sluggish or hesitant for the first time since he began working for the Red Sox. His interactions with the media, once friendly and frequent, became rare and combative. He seemed increasingly affected by fans' expectations for the team and the harsh glare of the Boston media.
There was also the fact that, although he'd been the architect of the team that had won Boston its first World Series in 86 years, Epstein still had to contend with grumbling from both inside and outside the organization that he had made a series of missteps in the past year. Several of the team's 15 minority partners had complained about everything from Epstein's signing of Renteria to a four-year, $40 million contract to the precipitous decline of left-handed reliever Alan Embree, who, after an ineffective half-season, was cut by the Red Sox only to sign with the Yankees. (At one point, one of the team's partners mistakenly hit "reply all" to send an email in which he groused about Epstein's personnel decisions and said he didn't think the Red Sox deserved even to make the playoffs.) Toward the end of the year, as the Sox's thin pitching staff struggled to stay afloat, even Lucchino had taken to humming Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson" in Fenway's corridors, replacing the song's famous refrain with the words, "Where have you gone, Pedro Martinez? / A nation turns its lonely eyes to you." Everyone from the team's executives to its most casual fans now seemed to expect the Sox to win 100 games and play deep into the playoffs every year.
That, Epstein knew, was not going to be possible. And he was dismayed -- offended, even -- by the fact that the organization, instead of tempering the unrealistic expectations for the team, had been adding more fuel to the fire, always agitating for more coverage in the local media, always promising that the team could and would get bigger, better, stronger. His pride in his accomplishments was being overwhelmed by the resentment he felt at the direction of the club. Part of the perfectionism that led him to study obsessively anything that could affect the team's on-field performance had also caused him to grow frustrated when other parts of the organization were not functioning in a way that he thought was most effective. His agitation had only increased as the season progressed. Finally, at the October 12 meeting, he spoke up.
"In general, we've had a lot of success in player development," Epstein said, starting off with an unqualified positive. After years of being known as an organization that traded away its best up-and-coming players in dubious -- or just plain stupid -- deals, the Red Sox, under Epstein's leadership, had hoarded draft picks and jealously guarded the team's minor league prospects. One of the brightest spots of the second half of the 2005 season was the emergence of Jonathan Papelbon, a flame-throwing right-hander whom Epstein envisioned as the type of hard-working, no-nonsense player the Red Sox would be defined by in the years to come. In 2005, Epstein told everyone at the table, the Red Sox had been able to integrate some of the team's most promising young pitchers into the bullpen. Still, he felt compelled to warn his colleagues of what the future would likely bring: "We're going to need a lot of patience, because there's going to be a lot of failure." He reminded the group that most young hitters will look lost at the plate for their first half-season or so, and most young pitchers will struggle with their confidence and command before settling into a groove.
"It could get rough," he said. "Right now, there's a lot of hope [about the team's young talent]. But remember, the most popular player on the football team is always the backup quarterback. When [second base prospect Dustin] Pedroia gets up here and he hits a buck-fifty, discovers he can't reach the wall and can't find his stroke because it's freezing out -- well, that will happen. The rest of the organization really needs to realize this."
Epstein, who can appear reserved in public, began to speak more quickly. "We sat here in April and talked about building an über-team. That's dangerous. That's very dangerous. We need to be aware of the potential that the bubble could burst. Yes, it's a pro that, on the business side, we continued to grow. But on the con side is the amount of hype as we move toward superpower status. Yes, we won 95 games this year, but this approach isn't really sustainable over the long run. Sooner or later we might need to take half a step backward in return for a step forward. . . . I warned about this in April. What if we win 85 games [in 2006]? We're bringing up some young players that are going to be better in '07 than they will be next year. And they'll probably be even better than that in '08."
Lucchino, who'd been running the Orioles when Epstein was hired as a summer intern 13 years earlier, jumped in. Epstein and Lucchino had a complicated relationship, one that was undergoing a tense transition from mentor-protégé to peer-peer. After having broached with Lucchino the subject of his contract, which was set to expire at midnight on October 31, back before the season began, Epstein, who made around $350,000 a year -- roughly what the lowest-paid players in baseball earned -- still didn't have a deal in place for next season. Unbeknownst to almost everyone in the organization, the two men had each, over the previous year, become convinced the other was trying to undermine him. "Theo is talking about a slightly different approach that would need to be reflected in the PR of the organization as a whole," Lucchino said. "But frankly, I'm not sure how you would project that."
Epstein had some ideas. Though he'd never say it publicly, Epstein wished Lucchino would cool some of his public pronouncements: labeling the Yankees the Evil Empire, for instance, or, as he did two years ago, taking swipes at the players union just as the Red Sox were on the verge of completing a trade for Alex Rodriguez, who was at the time the Texas Rangers shortstop and the American League's reigning MVP. And he wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry at the efforts of Charles Steinberg, the team's executive vice president of public affairs and Lucchino's right-hand man. (Steinberg had actually hired Epstein while with the Orioles and had followed Lucchino to San Diego and then to Boston.) Steinberg frequently bragged about the fact that the Red Sox had been prominently featured in the Boston media every single day of 2004. He was especially proud of the fact that the team had waited until Christmas Eve to announce that catcher Jason Varitek had been signed to a four-year, $40 million contract and was being named the team's third captain since 1923, a move that guaranteed plenty of coverage on Christmas, normally a slow news day in the baseball world. That kind of continuous press was, Steinberg often said, a great accomplishment. Epstein disagreed. It was just this approach, he thought, that increased the pressure on a team already operating under intense scrutiny. After all, every seat in Fenway Park had been sold out for several years running. What was one more front-page story going to accomplish?
"It's a subtle thing," Epstein said that day. "We can't always make ourselves out to be a superpower. For our part, on the baseball operations side, we know that's not an effective strategy in the long haul." Epstein only had to look a couple of hundred miles to the south to realize this: The Yankees, after building a dynasty in the 1990s by developing their own stars, had spent the first years of the new millennium trading away their farm system and signing high-priced free agents whose peak performances were likely in the past. "That has to be reinforced on the public level," he said. "We may be reaching a saturation point. We keep asking for more, more, more. But there will be a point where we don't do more [one year] because we need to do things for the long run."
Epstein took pleasure in talking about, and planning for, the days when the team's emerging talent took center stage, but he worried that the transition to the team's up-and-coming stars would be hindered by the too-bright glare of unrealistic expectations. The previous year had been a good reminder of how an overabundance of media could become suffocating.
"Somehow, we still get involved in these weekly soap operas," Epstein told the table. "A lot of it's because the veteran players who have a forum because they always have a mic in their face become blowhards. Certain people have too much influence -- the older, louder veteran players. They need to get a little more professional about presenting themselves. . . . That's one element of becoming an über-organization. We build the brand so big that it becomes hard to manage." Epstein was trying to remain calm, but he was clearly distressed by much of what he was describing.
Soon, as happens with many conversations involving the Red Sox, this one evolved into a discussion of money. The Red Sox had been very successful, but were constrained by baseball's revenue-sharing system and had to compete in their division with the Yankees, the richest team in the sport. One of the team's financial advisors warned that a single 85-win season could cost the organization as much as $20 to $30 million in lost ticket and advertising revenue. Lucchino raised the haunting legacies of teams like Baltimore, Colorado, Cleveland, and Toronto, all clubs that had enviable runs of high attendance followed by years of mediocre on-field performances and prolonged periods of fan apathy.
"We have the long-term solution to that problem," Epstein repeated. "We can be both a large revenue club [that can afford to sign high-priced free agents] and have a strong farm system. But it's probably not going to be a seamless transition. This year we had a great year. We will probably be worse next year."
An old Red Sox hand who worked in Fenway Park operations spoke up. "We'll just tell [the fans] different, we'll just tell them we'll be better."
Finally, Epstein lost his cool. "No!" he barked. "No!" Struggling to control himself, he said, "We can't just tell them we'll be better. That's the whole point! That's what I'm trying to say!" Epstein, already flustered, let the topic drop, and Lucchino steered the conversation toward other issues before breaking for lunch.
Later that afternoon, Epstein paced among the cubicles outside of his basement office. "What a joke: 'Just tell them we'll be better,' " he said to no one in particular. "Two more weeks. Two more weeks and I might be a free man."
And so he was. Epstein's season-long frustration, coupled with some last-minute leaks regarding his contract negotiations, resulted in the biggest bombshell to hit Red Sox Nation since Henry and Werner had bought the team four years earlier. On October 31, the same day the Globe reported Epstein would be signing a three-year deal worth $4.5 million, Epstein announced his resignation. An apparently irreparable break in his relationship with Lucchino, compounded by his frustration over what he felt was not-so-subtle backstabbing by his old boss Charles Steinberg, convinced him to walk away from one of the most lucrative general manager contracts in all of baseball.
Over the next several months, the Red Sox were roiled by the kind of drama and controversy fans had associated with the Yawkey era. John Henry, in an emotional press conference, said Epstein's departure had forced him to question whether he was fit to be the principal owner of the Red Sox. Larry Lucchino was accused of being everything from an egomaniacal cowboy to an insecure bully. The normally loquacious Steinberg all but disappeared from view. Suddenly there was, Boston reporters agreed, a level of dysfunction not seen since the waning days of the Dan Duquette-John Harrington era.
The John Henry era was supposed to be about finally realizing the squandered potential of a team that had been so miserably mismanaged for so much of its existence. Within three years, the Sox seemed to have accomplished everything they could have ever hoped to achieve. One year later, it looked like it was all falling apart.
Copyright © 2006 by Seth Mnookin
Excerpted from Feeding the Monster by Seth Mnookin Copyright © 2007 by Seth Mnookin. Excerpted by permission.
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