Larry Lucchino, Savior of Fenway Park, R.I.P.

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Not many people in public life in Massachusetts can claim a single accomplishment that has made life better around here.

Larry Lucchino can.

Lucchino, who died Tuesday at age 78, saved Fenway Park. He also improved it.

That would be an accomplishment if everyone was for it at the time. But considering the atmosphere in 2001 when Lucchino took over as president of the Boston Red Sox, it’s astonishing.

Back then, just about every time you read or heard something about the future of Fenway, it called for tearing it down.

Here’s a snippet from an editorial in The Boston Globe (at the time owned by The New York Times) on October 1, 1999:

“To provide better services for fans and insure the financial viability of the ball club, the Red Sox need to replace Fenway Park with a new and better stadium.”

The claim was often presented not as an argument that needed evidence to support it, but as a conclusion all right-thinking people would accept as obviously true.

New and better.

If you read the words fast together, you might think they were synonyms.

But can anyone call to mind a stadium better than Fenway Park?

As Edmund Burke wrote in 1796:  “To innovate is not to reform.”

Below is a paragraph from a news story in The Boston Globe on November 20, 2001, when the team was up for sale. (It mentions John Harrington, who was then president of the club, representing the trust that owned it at the time.)

“Although the Red Sox sale process does not require bidders to specify their plans for a new ballpark, Harrington and Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig insist the team needs to replace Fenway Park to remain competitive.”

To remain competitive.

No new stadium, no competitive team. Get with the program, people. Time to tear this thing down.

Enter Larry Lucchino, who became president of the Red Sox in February 2002 after a new ownership team (which included Lucchino) acquired it.

Lucchino was known at the time for building beautiful ballparks that incorporated existing older elements in Baltimore and San Diego.

His right-hand man, Charles Steinberg, asked Lucchino if he was going to build a new ballpark in Boston.

“He said, ‘Have you learned nothing? You preserve the Mona Lisa!’ ” Steinberg told The Athletic.

Lucchino oversaw renovations and additions to Fenway Park over the course of several years that shored up the structure while removing obstructions and adding seats and yet more charm to the 1912 stadium. He took away nothing essential, but made it more profitable and more enjoyable.

Were the Red Sox “competitive” during that period?

Two years after the new owners took over, the Red Sox won the World Series for the first time in 86 years. They have won four times this century.

Did Fenway needed to be torn down “to insure the financial viability of the ball club”?

The current ownership group bought the Boston Red Sox in February 2022 for $700 million. That’s about $1.23 billion in 2024 dollars, accounting for inflation.

A recent valuation put the club’s worth at $4.5 billion.

That means it’s about three and two thirds times as valuable now as it was then.

The tear-it-down crowd wanted to take something unique and valuable that needed attention and replace it with something unknown and likely to be undistinguishable if not worse. Would anybody be visiting Boston to see the local ballpark if it were something other than Fenway?

Critics of Lucchino make this point or that about how he treated various people and situations. That’s beyond my ken. What I do know is that Fenway is still here, and it’s better than ever.

I also learned a few things from the man.

In May 2017, Lucchino spoke at the graduation ceremony of Boston University School of Law.

Graduation speeches may be the most tiresome set pieces in all of literature. But he managed to leave his listeners with a few things worth hearing.

Referring to his mentor, the lawyer and sports team owner Edward Bennett Williams, Lucchino said:  “EBW preached the following:  ‘Nothing is often a good thing to do, and always a brilliant thing to say.’ ”

On service, Lucchino said:  “Help some people along the way. … Life is not about warming yourself by the fire … It’s about building the fire. And generosity is the match.”

And here he is on making your own decisions:

“Be a light unto yourself. Seek advice, sure. Wise counsel is irreplaceable. But trust yourself. At least then when you make mistakes – and believe me, you will make mistakes along the way – they will be your own mistakes. And you’ll have no one else to blame. In short, you’ll be accountable, which itself is a useful addition to anyone’s portfolio of virtues.”


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