RED SOX: Life After Lucchino

On Saturday night, Boston’s media outlets reported the impending departure of Red Sox president and CEO Larry Lucchino from those organizational roles. A transition for longtime COO Sam Kennedy to take over as team president appears set for October, but there’s no immediate clarity on who becomes CEO.

I have a lot of thoughts swirling around in my head about what this all means, so I’ll present them as bullet points starting…now.

  • Lucchino’s departure doesn’t come as a surprise. Going as far back as spring training, reports surfaced that his role in the organization was getting diminished and that more of his energies would be focused on the PawSox. He became part-owner of the PawSox this year and took on a bigger role in new stadium efforts there when his partner, Jim Skeffington, died suddenly in the spring. The writing was on the wall here, but I do find the timing, right after a quiet Red Sox trade deadline during the third disappointing season in four years, to be interesting. I’m still not sure what to make of it. It was also the rarely-seen Saturday news dump, which Roger Goodell is probably angry he didn’t think of first.
  • I’m thrilled Kennedy will be team president. A Brookline High School classmate of Theo Epstein, Kennedy is super-sharp, super-bright and learned at the feet of Lucchino for over two decades. Numerous franchises in several sports have tried to lure Kennedy away from Boston (including the Toronto Maple Leafs last year) but he always stayed. I’d have to think this part of Lucchino’s succession had been in the works for a long time. Kennedy won’t have any say in baseball operations matters, unlike what Lucchino’s role had been since arriving in 2002. The Red Sox business interests will be in good hands with Kennedy for hopefully many years to come.
  • So, who then becomes the next Red Sox CEO, or will there even be one? Will the Red Sox go outside the organization to bring in a “head of baseball ops” or “chief baseball officer” type to run the show? Could Ben Cherington be elevated to that role and a new GM gets hired? If owner John Henry and chairman Tom Werner decide to go outside for a new CEO/head of baseball ops, where would that leave Cherington? These are all extremely important questions to be ironed out over the next few months.
  • A lot of interesting names will be thrown out there for a new CEO-type for the Red Sox, and I suspect current Tigers CEO/president/GM Dave Dombrowski will be atop many of those lists. His contract is up after this season and it’s unclear if he’ll return to Detroit. He’d be an outstanding choice, as the architect of the 1997 Marlins and the successful run of Tigers teams dating back to 2006. You may hear A’s VP and GM Billy Beane’s name mentioned (after all, he nearly took a Godfather offer from Henry to be Red Sox GM before Epstein was ultimately promoted), but according to Cot’s, he holds a four percent ownership stake in the A’s, so I doubt he leaves that behind to go run a different team.
  • Lucchino’s departure, and the possibility of someone else having a major, final say on baseball decisions, may present an opportunity for the Red Sox to reset some of their baseball ops structure. The results of these last two seasons in particular lend credence to the idea that something just isn’t working there, that while many moves looked solid at the time they were made (including the John Lackey trade to St. Louis, trading Yoenis Cespedes for Rick Porcello, signing Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to market-value deals), the immediate return on most of them has been subpar at best. A new voice may change things a bit.
  • The remainder of my thoughts here will be about Lucchino and the complicated legacy he leaves behind. While it seems he’ll continue to have some role within the Red Sox, running the day-to-day operations of the club won’t be part of that. As he’d already started to scale back his duties, I wonder if it’s been for the best. I’ve criticized Lucchino as much as anyone over these 14 seasons, and he was always better at business than baseball operations, but some things about his tenure are inarguable: the change in Red Sox culture that started when Henry bought the team came about because of Lucchino. He spearheaded improvements to Fenway Park, making it a destination after years of neglect. There is no chance the Red Sox win three World Series, come within one game of getting to two other World Series and appear in the playoffs seven times total without his guidance, direction, ambition, drive and gravitas. Period. End of discussion. The Red Sox are losing that and, depending on who comes in, they could be worse off for it.
  • Conversely, Lucchino is at least partly responsible for many things that went wrong with the Red Sox over the last decade or so. He briefly won a power struggle with Epstein that resulted in the latter’s winter “sabbatical” after the 2005 season. It was an embarrassing episode for the organization but Henry’s affection for Epstein eventually won out and he returned with relative autonomy over baseball ops from 2006 until he left after 2011. During that time Lucchino’s influence seemed fleeting, but his status as president/CEO meant Epstein could only get so far, leading to Epstein’s move to Chicago. That influence crept back in when Cherington was promoted and it was mostly because of Lucchino that Bobby Valentine was hired as manager in 2012, leading to the biggest joke of a season in recent memory (much bigger than the last two years). Likely because of his domineering and sometimes off-putting personality, I think people around here tended to blame Lucchino every time things went wrong and assigned very little of the credit to him when things went right. That comes with the territory in Boston, but again, that’s why his legacy is complicated. While the Red Sox don’t win those three World Series without him, they are also about to come in last place for the third time in recent years. He deserves both blame and credit for it all.
  • I want to get back to Lucchino’s sense of gravitas for a second. When the Red Sox failed to sign Cuban defector Jose Contreras before the 2003 season, despite offering just as much and possibly more than the New York Yankees, Lucchino dropped an all-time quote on the New York Times: ”The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.” That quote sent shock waves around the baseball world and reverberated especially in New England. This was the indication the Red Sox were not willing to take things lying down, that they wanted to beat their rival and bring a World Series title to Boston for the first time since World War I. It was not a quote that typified previous Red Sox regimes and made fans around here realize things would be different. That’s what Lucchino brought to Boston, and in turn, that’s what they’ll be missing when he’s gone.
  • In 2013, in the days between the end of the regular season and the AL Division Series, the Red Sox held an open workout/scrimmage at Fenway Park that fans could attend for free and sit anywhere they chose. It was on a weekday afternoon and I was between jobs, so I went and got myself a great seat in the grandstands directly behind home plate. It’s easy to forget now how awesome 2013 was, especially after the 2011-2012 debacles, because that team was so much fun to watch and they’d essentially been wire-to-wire division champions. So getting to see them do their thing for free that day was quite a treat. Anyway, later in the proceedings, I noticed Lucchino strolling through the walkway between the grandstands and the box seats behind home plate. He was wearing a plaid button-down shirt and jeans and blended in with the crowd so well that I doubt many people realized it was him. After saying hello to a few people, he took a seat by himself in the box seats a few rows in front of me. For the next half-hour or so, he conversed with fans sitting nearby and several came over to sit down near him and ask him questions about the team and the ballpark. I didn’t go up to say anything myself, but if I had I would have told him how much I appreciated the club’s turnaround that season. I just thought it was neat thing for the team’s CEO and president to do that.

No matter what you think of him, things won’t be the same without Larry Lucchino running the Red Sox. What that means for the long-term success of the franchise remains to be seen.