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Friday, August 7, 2015

The greatest Larry Lucchino Fenway Park story of them all

Lucchino at Fenway, before the trophies.

Outgoing Red Sox President Larry Lucchino has long been credited as the man who saved Fenway Park from the wrecking ball, but he never even visited Yawkey Way until 1986 -- and that first trip has a compelling backstory.

The Red Sox were on their way to an American League pennant behind the ascending Roger Clemens, and Lucchino was vice president and general counsel of the Baltimore Orioles. The Orioles had won a World Series just three years before, but in '86 were a struggling club heading to a last-place finish behind Boston in the AL East.

Not good medicine. 

Lucchino had other things on his mind than the standings that spring. He had been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a cancer of the white blood cells that required him to undergo a bone marrow transplant and other painful procedures. Since his mentor Edward Bennett Williams, the acclaimed trial attorney and Orioles owner, had been treated at Boston's Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, that's where Lucchino went as well.

A member of the Orioles board of directors had donated a satellite dish and had it installed on the Dana-Farber roof so that Lucchino could watch Orioles games during the weeks he was in the hospital. Still, he longed for a true hardball fix only attainable by a pass through the turnstiles.

After 37 days under hospital quarantine Lucchino was finally cleared to spend some time outside. His care team at Dana-Farber, led by Drs. Tom Frei and Lee Nadler, warned him that he should stay away from crowds. His cancer treatments had severely weakened the young baseball executive's body, and left it dangerously susceptible to infection.

On this Saturday afternoon, however, the only place in Boston Lucchino really wanted to go was less than a mile away -- where 30,000 people and their germs would be tightly packed together amidst cigar smoke and beer.

Fenway Park.
Fenway bleachers: germs galore.

Despite his years with the Orioles, Lucchino had never been to the oldest ballpark in the major leagues. A hard-nosed lawyer used to doing whatever it took to succeed in court and life, he now had the necessary connections to make such an outing medically feasible. He approached Red Sox president John Harrington for help, and Harrington secured a private box at the ballpark where Lucchino could watch that day's game while safely separated from the multitudes. 

Although he can't quite remember Boston's opponent, Lucchino knows the visit took place in June of 1986. A quick look on reveals that Boston's only Saturday home games that month were against Milwaukee (a 2-0 loss on June 14) and the Orioles (a 7-2 win by Clemens on June 21). Since it's hard to believe Lucchino would forget if his own team was the opponent, and that Clemens went to 13-0 by beating them, my money is on the Brewers.
Fenway as Lucchino first saw it.

Whatever the case, the ballpark made an immediate impact on Lucchino -- even if the game did not. Growing up a working-class kid in Pittsburgh, he had spent many afternoons in the early 1960s watching his favorite player (shortstop Dick Groat) and his beloved Pirates at Forbes Field -- like Fenway, one of the classic ballparks built in the second decade of the 20th century. 
Forbes Field, Lucchino's childhood haunt.

A middle-infielder with his own big-league aspirations (he was All-City at second base), Lucchino loved how close fans at Forbes were to the field. He felt the same intimacy at Fenway, where the venue, with all its quirky angles and the great Green Monster wall in left field, was as much a part of the experience as the game itself.

"I was impressed -- very impressed," Lucchino would tell me of that first visit. "Little did I know that I would be back there in a couple of different ways."

His first major reconnection to Fenway would come just a few years later. After the death of his boss and longtime friend Williams to cancer in August 1988, Lucchino was part of a group that purchased the Orioles prior to the 1989 season. The team had shared cavernous, all-purpose Memorial Stadium with the Baltimore Colts football team since the 1950s, but the new ownership group was committed to constructing a baseball only ballpark.

Memorial Stadium, past its prime.

By this point president and CEO of the Orioles, Lucchino headed up the project. He bought in an expert in urban planning and architecture, Janet Marie Smith, and made her vice president for design and development of the new park. 

During the next four years, Lucchino worked alongside Smith to create and bring to life a blueprint that would transform the way modern baseball venues were constructed -- taking them away from the cookie-cutter, multiplex, stark behemoths of recent vintage and back to the days when each team's identity was formed largely by an instantly recognizable home. 

"We proposed it in the documents as a 'traditional old-fashioned ballpark with modern amenities,'" Lucchino says. "It was to be irregular, quirky, asymetrical for sure, with intimate seats as close to the action as possible."
Janet Marie Smith, a great Lucchino signing.

They used as their models three classic locales: Forbes Field, Lucchino's childhood haunt; Ebbets Field, the cozy, double-decked home of the Brooklyn Dodgers; and Fenway Park. Only Fenway was still standing.

The result, Oriole Park at Camden Yards, was a revelation from the moment it opened in 1992. It had charm, accessibility, an asymmetrical playing field, and even its modern necessities like luxury suites and a high-tech scoreboard were given an antique feel.
Camden Yards, death knell to cookie-cutters.

Camden Yards was a game-changer, delighting three generations of fans and starting a new ballpark boom across the major leagues. The cookie-cutters have been replaced with beautiful jewels like Jacobs Field in Cleveland, Coors Field in Denver, At&T Park in San Francisco, and Petco Park in San Diego -- the last of which Lucchino also oversaw while president and CEO of the Padres.

Fenway, despite its history and influence on the retro ballparks, was slated for the scrap heap as well, with then-Red Sox president John Harrington leading the charge for a bigger venue that could command higher revnue. When fans suggested Fenway be renovated instead, Harrington found architects who claimed it would literally fall down if such work was attempted. 
Harrington (left) never got "New Fenway" built.

Fenway never fell. Harrington and the Yawkey Trust sold the team to a group led by John Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino in December 2001, and Lucchino and Janet Marie Smith began working their magic. While the team was winning three World Series in 10 years, Fenway was improved in almost every way imaginable -- including seats on the Green Monster, wider concourses, unobtrusive upper-decks, and even removal of the dreaded men's room troughs. 

Today, while Lucchino's days at the top of the Red Sox masthead may be numbered, Fenway Park is on the National Register of Historic Places -- assuring that the oldest ballpark in the major leagues will be standing for decades to come. Along with the three gleaming trophies in the lobby of the front offices on Yawkey , that's a nice legacy for the kid from Pittsburgh.