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Opportunity to right the ship

Special to

Dec. 28
John Harrington spent the night before Sale Day at the Pops. It was Corporate Night, when major Boston companies make Symphony Hall Children's Night -- complete with Elmo -- and no matter how exhausting and frenetic the final hours had become, this is an important annual event for Harrington and his wife, Maureen, and the Yawkey Foundation's commitment to the children of the city.

Much of Harrington's legacy as the representative of the Yawkeys all these years is his devotion to the city in which he was raised. Harrington and Jean Yawkey, through their evangelical support of urban programs from RBI to ABCD to literacy programs, helped right the unfortunate and often-disgraceful racial history of the first 25 years of the Yawkey ownership. Harrington tried to do the right thing for loyal employees, from Sherm Feller to Joe Stephenson.

Less than 22 hours after the end of the Pops concert, Harrington tried to make his final act the right thing, when he awarded the team that had remained in one name since the beginning of FDR's first term to a group of outsiders led by John Henry. Time and the record will show whether Harrington and his two loyal Bingham, Dana and Gould attorneys, Justin Morreale and Dan Goldberg, did the right thing, although we already know their efforts to get NESN on basic cable dramatically changed the eventual sale price.

The entire outsiders notion, of course, is silly, beyond the fact that anyone and everyone who knows Joe O'Donnell and Steve Karp rooted for them. It doesn't mean that Henry, Tom Werner, and Larry Lucchino are corporate raiders; Charles Dolan made it well-known that he cared for nothing but the television property, and if Miles Prentice had been at the Sheraton during the winter meetings, he could have heard the hours of stories Royals employees told of the days when it looked as if he was getting that team, from telling general manager Allard Baird that they would use tryout camps rather than participating in the draft to going into manager Tony Muser's office after games to discuss strategy.

If a guy from Cleveland who lives in Tampa hadn't bought the Yankees in 1973 from the CBS New Yorkers, the Yankees would not be sports' premier franchise. Look around at ownership through baseball, and if one were to fairly ask for the two best owners, vis a vis their fans, in the game, they likely would be Peter Magowan in San Francisco and Bill DeWitt in St. Louis; Magowan is a lifelong Giants fan who moved to the Bay Area the same year Horace Stoneham moved the Giants, while DeWitt is from Cincinnati. Absolutes, there are not.

And while Harrington rebuilt the Red Sox franchise into a $700 million commodity and, with Dan Duquette, set franchise attendance records, he would be the first to acknowledge that from the time Tom Yawkey died, the Red Sox ownership had a rocky road. If you are Nomar Garciaparra's age, you don't appreciate the embarrassment of the 1977 sale, how the Buddy LeRoux-Haywood Sullivan group chosen by Jean Yawkey -- a selection process that led to suits from the losing bidders -- was originally turned down by Major League Baseball until Mrs. Yawkey joined the group. There was the attempted fire sale of Fred Lynn, Carlton Fisk, and Rick Burleson, and the infamous Dec. 22 postmark that eventually freed Fisk; the news broke at a hot-stove luncheon, prompting Sullivan to say, "Open up the damn bar," caught and replayed over and over and over again by Bob Lobel. There was the Tommy Harper/Elks Club scandal, which ended up in court when the Red Sox later fired Harper.

That ownership was a house divided until Harrington finally bought Sullivan out for $34 million. But remember the low point in 1983? It was Tony Conigliaro Night at Fenway and the '67 team was there, the evening after friends of the Conigliaro family, organized by Ed Kleven, had put together a benefit night at Symphony Hall. As the '67 players watched in astonishment, LeRoux walked in at 4:30 and announced his Coup LeRoux, claiming that he and the limited partners had overturned Yawkey and Sullivan and not only controlled the team, but had installed Mrs. Yawkey's archrival, Dick O'Connell, as GM. Less than a half-hour later, Sullivan and Harrington entered the room and announced that LeRoux's coup was invalid, that they were still in charge, and what ensued was a bitter court fight that eventually led to the buying out of LeRoux. That didn't end the polarization, as Sullivan and Harrington eventually ended up in a cold war of their own until Sullivan cashed out.

There were great moments in this ownership. The 1977-78 teams that had been developed under O'Connell were fun, and very good. Calvinists tend to remember the 1986 season only for The Sixth Game, but it was a wonderful season with myriad highlights, from Roger Clemens's first 20-strikeout game to David Henderson's Game 5 homer in Anaheim to Bruce Hurst's two masterpieces against the Mets. They finished first in both 1988 and 1990, only to play a vastly superior Oakland team in the playoffs. After the fall and debacle, from the bizarre dismissal of Joe Morgan (because they thought Whitey Herzog was coming, a familiar refrain in these parts) to Butch Hobson, 1995 had its magical moments, and few fans in few cities have experienced the passion of Game 3 against the Indians in 1999 or, a week later, Pedro and Game 3 against Roger and the Yankees.

What Harrington was able to achieve after he took control of the franchise included record attendances, and record local television revenues. He staked his future on Duquette, and on Christmas 2001 there is a great deal to be said for what Duquette has to show for his tenure, including a franchise pitcher, a franchise shortstop, one of the game's greatest hitters, an All-Star-caliber catcher, an All-Star free agent center fielder (Johnny Damon), and a franchise leader in Trot Nixon, all of whom are 30 or younger.

But because Harrington became so involved in building the franchise to sell in the best interests of the trust and became so entangled in Major League Baseball issues, he allowed Duquette's shortcomings to get in the way of the metabolism of the ball club. Harrington is the type of man who could stun Stephenson's family with a staggering contribution following the great scout's death this summer, but it was during his stewardship that Mike Stanley was informed he was being released with a message on his answering machine.

When Harrington hired Duquette, he said the only way to build a successful franchise is through a strong development system, yet in the last few years scouting and development have become a joke; millions have been poured into foreign players of minimal ability like Julio Guerrero, Robinson Checo, and Sang Lee, while ignoring the US draft, cutting back on area scouts, and creating a martinet minor league system that has been ridiculed by other organizations from coast to coast. The upstairs/downstairs relationship at Fenway is frigid and nonverbal.

Donald Rumsfeld is freer with information about the war than these Red Sox are about the game of baseball. They treat NESN and Fox 25, which has poured money and effort into their coverage, as if they are enemy correspondents. They treat all media with suspicion.

The fans' natural response is, "Are these owners going to win this year?" That, of course, is a narrow view. Understand, the current administration has spent like a college kid with dad's credit card. O'Donnell and Karp figured that this franchise in the current Fenway Park makes sense with a $75 million-$85 million payroll, which, with competent management, judgment, and a handful of young players coming out of the system to contribute like Alfonso Soriano or Nick Johnson at the minimum, is enough to compete.

Last season, the Red Sox actually outspent the Yankees in real salaries, including buyouts, and as of this morning the PRC, figuring in the estimated arbitration salaries (Ugueth Urbina $6 million, Rolando Arrojo $1.625 million, Nixon $2.6 million, et al.), states that the Red Sox are already at $94.3 million, which doesn't include the $2 million buyout of Jose Offerman after he gets his $6.5 million for 2002. Only the Yankees, at $108 million, and the Dodgers, at $97.5 million, are higher. So there isn't a lot of room for more payroll. If Duquette can't win with $95 million ... and that doesn't even begin to touch the cost of rebuilding a farm system that Baseball America suggests doesn't have one prospect who would make the top 10 of several other clubs, including the Padres (who include Dennis Tankersley).

Henry, Werner, and Lucchino take over a franchise that should be one of the two best in the game, with the natural foundation of the people of New England and many of the underpinnings established by Harrington. They come in with an opportunity to make a huge impact, both in the short and long terms, and with Henry's record of passion and human relations with the Marlins and Lucchino's record as one of the most successful organizational builders in the last quarter-century, there is reason to believe they will not only be successful, but enjoy a honeymoon period when they become known.

Bunkered up on Yawkey Way, the Red Sox have lost the human touch with their audience. There is no interaction or relationship. Season ticket-holders are made to feel as if they are privileged to have the right to purchase the most expensive tickets in the sport. Look back on the history of the Lucchino administrations and one sees that he always has understood markets, and people. George Will correctly says that after Jackie Robinson's arrival in 1947, the most significant act in baseball since Pearl Harbor was the opening of Camden Yards, entirely Lucchino's creation. With the people who surround him, like Charles Steinberg, Lucchino's organizations have been able to interact with their audiences and build creative revenue streams.

The Padres for years have had monthly think tanks involving people from every department - players, coaches, management, marketing, sales. They have built levels of respect, and anyone who knows the good scouts in the Red Sox organization or what some of the minor league people have been through knows that respect is something that has corroded throughout this organization.

Henry, Werner, and Lucchino have the opportunity to rekindle the passion and excitement that should pervade being part of the Red Sox. They have one of the most competent and fairest local newspaper corps covering them as well as the most competitive, intense local news television market, as opposed to talking hair spray, and all of them want one thing they are never afforded - respect. Garciaparra, Nixon, and several players believe that what tensions existed the last couple of years between media and players were not rooted in a couple of negative players or writers, but in the paranoia that leaks down through the Yawkey Way cracks.

The Red Sox should be the greatest team in baseball to cover, because per capita, the people of New England and St. Louis are the best fans in the country. The Red Sox should be the best team in baseball for which to work, which will be said about the Yankees as long as Steinbrenner barks his commands.

Henry appreciates that the scrutiny and firestorm surrounding this sale is what makes his opportunity so unique, because people care about baseball and the Red Sox the way no one in south Florida ever cared. The last few years, the Red Sox have been like relatives who try to buy affection; Uncle Forbes courts his niece with a $95 million Maserati, the Red Sox buy Manny Ramirez for $160 million. Relationships are far more complex and yet more basic than that, and there is no price tag on sincerity and care.

Henry, like O'Donnell and Karp, seems to understand this, and Lucchino always has. As outsiders, they face a nation of skeptics scouring for faults, but overcoming skepticism is a small hurdle to jump for the rewards of making the Red Sox fun again.

This column first appeared in the Boston Globe on Dec. 23.

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